Sunday, June 2, 2013

2 June 2013 -- 2 Pentecost / Proper 4

2 Pentecost / Proper 4 — 2 June 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:00 am

[Track 2]  1 Kings 8:22-23,41-43  |  Psalm 96:1-9  |  Galatians 1:1-12  |  Luke 7:1-10

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel.  [Galatians 1:6]

There’s an old Latin saying, “Caveat emptor” – “Let the buyer beware.”  The point, of course, is that if what you bought turns out to be crummy merchandise, tough luck for you.  You paid for it, it’s now yours, it’s your problem.  Fortunately, increasingly, those days are passing away.  “Consumer protection” is now taken with at least some seriousness.  We can now insist that we be dealt with fairly and honestly by those who would take our money, and those who sell are discovering, if they didn’t know it already, that guaranteeing a good value for a fair price is good business.  As consumers, and that’s where most of us find ourselves most of the time, we’re glad that we have some recourse against shoddiness and misrepresentation.

In regard to the selling and buying of goods and services, this “consumerism” is a good thing.  But there’s a downside to the consumerist mentality, when it gets away from where it legitimately belongs.  For we come to assume that we ourselves, and our own pleasure and convenience, are the measure of everything – that the whole of life has to meet our specifications.  Including God.

This Sunday we  begin reading St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which we continue for the next several weeks.  Galatia was not a particular city, but an area in central Anatolia (what is now the country of Turkey), and the chief city is what is now called Ankara.  (Cappadocia was to the east, Phrygia to the west. Pontus to the north.  Pamphylia and Cilicia to the south.  Aren’t you glad you came today?)  Paul apparently founded several churches in Galatia as he was wandering around on his missionary journeys.  These folks were still very much first-generation Christians – this was written perhaps twenty years after the Resurrection of Jesus.  And I think unlike many of Paul’s initial churches, which began with his preaching in the local Jewish synagogue, the Galatians apparently were mostly Gentiles.  (Ethnically they seem to have been Celts, related to the Gauls in what is now France, and to the British – Brittany, Britain, Cornwall, Wales.  There were Celts all over the place!)

Paul’s missionary work in Galatia, and this follow-up letter, came in the midst of the dispute among the older Christian communities in Palestine and Syria over the question of whether you had to become a Jew first before you could be baptized as a Christian.  The Church eventually decided, No, you didn’t, although it took them a while to recognize that the Christian community is open to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.  Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles gives Luke’s tidied-up account of this controversy and its resolution.  The Letter to the Galatians recounts how Paul stood up to Peter at Jerusalem and Antioch.  But you’ll have to read it yourselves (the first part of Chapter 2), because for some unaccountable reason the Revised Common Lectionary gnomes left those verses out of the reading the Sunday after next.  Politically incorrect, I suppose.  Thththppp.  (The original Prayer Book Lectionary included some of this story.  Oh well.)

The situation is this:  Paul has proclaimed to the Galatians a Gospel of salvation, not by adherence to the prescriptions of the Old Testament Law, especially the ceremonial and cultic provisions, buy by the free grace of God through faith and trust in the Lord Jesus, God’s Messiah.  But after Paul moved on, apparently some other missionaries came through and told the Galatians that they had to be circumcised and adopt the other observances of the Jewish Law in order to be real Christians.  Maybe these other missionaries were Jewish Christians, or perhaps they were themselves Gentiles who had become proselyte converts to Judaism before, or in connection with, becoming Christians.  (Maybe they thought, “Well, we had to do it, so should everyone else!”)  But it’s also the case that a religion of rules and laws is a much more convenient thing to manage than a religion of grace.  With law, you know where you stand, and even if you are falling short, you at least have a specific and attainable goal.  You know when you’ve done enough.  You can tell when you’ve succeeded.  It may be difficult, but, as the saying goes, “it’s not complicated.”

Paul is determined not to let them get away with this.  The Gospel of Christ is not something that people can tailor to their own specifications.  (Not that we don’t continue to try!)  Paul had not come to the Galatians preaching what the Galatians wanted to hear.  Paul wasn’t interested in market research.  Paul didn’t care about what would “sell.”  Here’s the Gospel, Paul says; and I had it by direct revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ.  So if anyone preaches anything different, let that one be anathema (more than just “accursed,” but “thrown out!”)

The question of whether we are, as Paul puts it, seeking human approval or God’s approval always remains a live and important question for us.  Are we really interested in being servants of Christ, or in trying to please other people?

And this is specifically a live and important question for you here at St. Luke’s, as in this time of transition you review your own identity, vocation, and mission as you prepare to call a new rector.  “Hmf!  Easy for you to say, coming in from outside!”  But of course we down at Trinity in Iowa City are in just the same time of transition as we also review our identity, vocation, and mission as we prepare to call a new rector, and so it is also a live and important question for the congregation of which I am a member.

And further, this is a live and important question for the whole Episcopal Church, and indeed for all the churches.  As you know, statistics show (“lies, darned lies, and statistics…”) that church membership has been falling off in recent years, pretty much across the board.  (It isn’t just us!)  The reasons for this are I think many and complex, and we need to take them seriously, but we should also beware of panicking.  In our concern to reach out for new members – “How can we attract more people to our church?” – it’s very easy to start saying, “Oh, there must be something wrong with us!  We need to do something different!  We need to be something different!  Change the service, change the music, change the preaching, something to appeal to the young people!”  Well, of course, there is something wrong with us, we do need to do something different, we do need to be something different, but that’s because we are sinners who are not as faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel of God’s Kingdom as we should be.  But that’s a perennial issue for us, and was just as true when we were statistically flourishing as it is now.  (Maybe even more.)  Yes, we need to reach out in love and faith and service, but we must never slip into a mission strategy of “what will sell?”  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not consumer goods.

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