You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right to Fight

You’ve got to fight for your right to…fight?

 

Maybe.

 

This week we dip into the Book of Galatians and are invited to consider the virtues of a good church fight. (Plus: bonus Greek geekery, because I just can’t help myself!)

 

Galatians 1:13-17, 2:11-20

 

13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

 

11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

 

 15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

 

This week we get the Narrative Lectionary’s first foray into the Epistles. Two bits of background are crucial to grasping what is going on here:

 

First, let me say just a little about the ways that letters work in the 1st century Greco-Roman setting of Paul’s ministry. Letter writing and letter reading were cherished pursuits in the ancient world. Letter writers were expected to adhere to certain stylistic conventions –which Paul clearly knew, employed and exploited in his own writings. Paul was an itinerant. He would move into a new community, start a new church, stay just long enough to get the fledgling young community on its feet and then set out for the next town. But letters allowed him to keep in touch with his churches after he had moved on. Letters from Paul and other early church leaders form the last section of the New Testament –the epistles.

 

And that brings me to the second bit of background: the occasion for this letter. Paul founded a church in Galatia (in modern day Turkey) and then moved on (as was his wont). But after his departure, another group of teachers came to town and started to influence the Galatian church. Their message so thoroughly alarms Paul that he writes this letter—full of fierce urgency and sharp language—seeking to dissuade the Galatian Christians from following these new teachers.

 

What exactly was the new teaching? Why does Paul find it so alarming? As we saw last week, the early church roiled with controversy over the place of Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) Christians. As people who had never been Jews joined the church in increasing numbers, the church debated how to receive them. There were two sides to the controversy.

 

The more Jewish wing, centered in Jerusalem and led (perhaps) by James the brother of Jesus, argued that Gentiles needed to first become Jews and then become Christians. They had to be circumcised, keep kosher, keep the sabbath, etc.

 

The more Gentile wing, centered in the city of Antioch and led by the Apostle Paul, believed and taught that Gentiles should be allowed into the church just as they are, without any preconditions and without having to first convert to Judaism. Gentiles could become Christian and continue to be Gentiles.

 

Paul sees the “Jewish wing” as betraying the Gospel. If we are made right with God through Jesus, nothing we do should be used to mark status or keep people out. Either all of us are saved by grace and on the same level (Jew and Gentile alike) or the Gospel isn’t true.

 

For Paul, the stakes could not be higher. And that is why the letter to the Galatians sounds so ferocious. For Paul, nothing less than the truth of the Gospel is at stake.

 

Our text excerpts portions of the first two chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, and falls into three sections:

 

1:13-17 Paul argues from autobiography, making two claims to advance his argument. First, he reminds his readers that, before he became a Christian, he was an enthusiastic persecutor of the Christian church.  But when God reached down to claim Paul for his new mission of preaching to the Gentiles, he did not seek the blessing of the leaders of the Christian movement (Peter, James and John). He just…started preaching. God called him to do it, and who is he to say no?

 

2:11-14 Juicy apostolic gossip! Paul recounts an argument he had with Peter in front of a whole other group of Christians at Antioch.  Paul seems to relish telling the story of him slapping Peter around. The issue? Antioch was a mixed church, Gentiles and Jews sharing life and (most importantly) sharing meals together. When Peter was in Antioch by himself, he was happy to share in meals with the Gentile Christians. But then “Certain people came from James” –that is, Jerusalem Christians who would be opposed to eating with Gentiles. And when they showed up, Peter drew back –drawing others along with him.

 

Paul sees this as a betrayal of the Gospel and calls Peter out in front of everybody.

 

2:15-21 Scholars do not agree about whether Paul’s quotation ends at verse 14 or continues through v.21. (Ancient Greek does not have quotation marks). I incline to the view that the quotation ends at 14, and that v.15-21 is best read as Paul reflecting on the story. It gets kind of dense, but the basic claim seems to be something like this: either all of us are saved by God’s grace or none of us is saved by God’s grace. And if all of us are saved by God’s grace, then none of us has the right to see ourselves as superior to anyone else in the church. We all stand on the same ground. Christ loved us; Christ gave himself for us. Everything else…is gravy.

 

Two points to wrap up: a quick reflection as I prepare for Sunday and then the blog’s very first ever BONUS GEEK MATERIAL.

 

The reflection: this passage has me thinking about conflict in the church. Paul is one of those people, people who relish having a good fight.
I am not one of those people.

 

But surely some fights are worth having. For Paul, the very truth of the Gospel is at stake here. So he is willing to go the wall. And it occurs to me that so many of the moments we celebrate in the history of the United Church of Christ—the “still speaking moments”—were church fights.

 

Maybe some fights are worth having. Maybe we are called into the church to have the right fights, in the right way. Maybe a little more fighting might be good for us.

 

BONUS GEEK MATERIAL. One of the biggest debates in Pauline scholarship has to do with the proper translation of a phrase that is critical to this passage. The NRSV speaks of “faith in Jesus Christ.”

 

Just look how central this phrase is to Paul’s argument:  15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 

 

Clearly, “faith in Jesus Christ” is the opposite of “works of the law” and the basis for justification. But there are two levels of ambiguity in this phrase.

 

First, the word rendered faith (pistis) is not equivalent to the English word belief.  Faith as belief usually means construing belief as cognitive assent to certain propositions. I believe in Jesus more or less in the same way that I believe Mt. Rushmore is in South Dakota. But pisitis means a lot more than assent to propositions. Depending on the grammar, it may make more sense to translate it as faithfulness.

 

Second—and here comes the real tricky part!—the grammar IS ambiguous. Pistis christou is a genitive construction. But is it an objective genitive or a subjective genitive? The NRSV renders it as an objective genitive: “faith in Jesus” (Jesus is the object of faith). But it may make more sense to read it as a subjective genitive construction, i.e., Jesus is the subject of faith: “the faithfulness of Christ.”

 

What saves us? Our faith in Jesus or the faithfulness of Jesus? Our belief in Jesus or all that Jesus did out of faithfulness to God? For my money, the subjective genitive reading—faithfulness of Christ—is much more in line with Paul’s theology and makes a much better Gospel.

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