For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life
Let us pray:
Hide me behind your cross, Lord Jesus. Articulate the Father’s heart through my voice and let the Holy Spirit breathe new life to us, opening our ears to hear the message of God. Amen
This morning, I am going to speak to you from the letter Paul wrote to the Galatians. The letter was written after some of the elders Paul appointed in the churches established in Galatia wrote to tell him of a troubling issue – some had come through after Paul (Judaizers) and started to agitate the churches, by claiming that they weren’t really Christian converts, because they hadn’t been circumcised. They asserted that true religion required a code of conduct – the law of Moses, specifically. Without the boundaries of the law, no one could really be saved. In fact, they were teaching that Paul was an unreliable preacher, since he hadn’t told them the whole story. Paul learned everything second hand, but he didn’t really know what he was doing.
Paul writes an impassioned letter to refute that teaching. He is angry that the legalists have started to make the Galatian churches desert their faith – and worse, that they are doing it for a very human reason, one that isn’t consistent with the gospel at all.
Throughout this letter Paul has defended what he taught, and in the final verses, he takes the pen from the scribe and begins a final warning that summarizes all he has said before:
11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
12 Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. 14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. 16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.
17 Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.
I can just see this scene, Paul pacing back and forth, saying what needs to be said, pausing now and again, looking over the scribe’s shoulder to see what has been written, making sure that not only are his words accurate, but true in the larger sense. Finally, as the letter draws to a close, Paul is so excited about the whole thing that he asks the scribe to move aside, and he sits down and writes in his large handwriting, the last of the letter. Aside from the content then being clearly Paul’s throughout, verified by his own hand, there were some big ideas Paul wanted to really hit home in this last passage.
Up to this point, he’s been reminding the Galatians that their own experiences are not consistent with the message the Judaizers have brought – and that the burden the Judaizers are trying to put on them is a slavish one, one that they will never be able to live up to. He doesn’t give them carte blanche in the letter to live without moral balance, though, indeed the thrust of the message in the proceeding sections describe a morality that surpasses the law of Moses, because it is the work of the Holy Spirit embedded in the believer that creates the restraint on sin.
Now, as Paul charges forward, he lays out, very directly what the true purpose of the Judaizers is: to claim Christianity, but demonstrate complicity with the law, in order to be accepted by the local Jewish leaders, and thus escape persecution. They were likely Jewish Christians, who are trying to show local Jewish leaders that they are devoted to the law by demonstrating that the Gentile Christians are required to follow the law, too. Even worse than their insincerity about forcing Mosaic law on these Gentiles, is the fact that they were likely unsuccessful in these attempts to demonstrate complicity with the Jews.
Why does this specific conclusion come to us, 2000 years later? I don’t have to worry about someone asking me to live under the law, to be circumcised, as it were, once I become a Christian. Is this here only to point out why? Or is there another point we can take from this? Actually, I would submit to you that there are several cuts to this passage that are applicable to us today, that can help us be stronger Christians, can build our relationship with Christ.
So lets talk about two contrasting ways of addressing the Cross and how they impact our lives. Paul gives us very clear instruction about the two ways of living that the Galatians are faced with – one, avoiding the cross and two, boasting in the cross. Let’s take a look at how the problem confronted them, and then how it matters to us.
First, avoiding the cross, which Paul accuses the Judaizers of doing in a very direct way. They are doing everything in their power to live as though the cross was no big deal, as though it has had no direct impact on their own lives. They are trying to live two lives – one in the world, where they dodge persecution, and one in Christ, where they dodge sin. In both cases, they are missing the point – the cross wasn’t a marker that reflects some greater reason to legalize our lives – it was the game changer, the point at which the law became fulfilled. The Mosaic law was the pointer to Christ, it was the direction that led people to try righteousness only to see how they failed – Christ gave the way for righteousness to be actually possible, not by using the right dishes, but by living out the love and grace that were the underlying purpose of the law in the first place.
How do we avoid the cross? That’s a challenging question in our current age, because I think most of would say that the cross is even more offensive, more stigmatized, more blatantly divisive today than it was in Paul’s day – to the point that avoiding the cross is sometimes described as the best way to advance its message! The problem is that without the cross, we don’t have a resolution to the problem of sin. From the beginning, it was evident that humans were incapable of being righteous. In Romans, Paul outlines this very clearly: There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit [Romans 8:1-4]. And in Galatians 2:15-21: 15 “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
17 “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”[a]
When we avoid the cross, we are living in sin. Period. Without the cross we have nothing. We cannot live in Christ without the cross. The solution to sin is the cross, and when we ignore it’s power, when we pretend it is not important, we leave behind Christianity. Without the cross there is no resurrection, without the resurrection, there is no hope, and without our hope, what’s the point? If we aren’t willing to embrace the cross and all it stands for, we cannot be Christians. There is no other way. The Judaizers weren’t really interested in boasting in anything other than their own success. Even though their emphasis was “godly living” what they really wanted was to be safe. They wanted to turn the Gentiles into a prize that they could win, not followers of Jesus. They focused on the externals, the things that others could see, rather than the things that truly mattered. That is a real danger for us, too. What are the external things that we focus on, the things that distract us from being focused on Jesus? Do we care too much about how others perceive us? Do we want to keep our lives compartmentalized – our faith in this box, our family in this box, our work in this box – and in so doing, be “good” people, “nice” folks, who don’t rock the boat? Do we want to align ourselves with those in power who claim they are Christ followers but show no fruit in that? Do we want to condemn those in power and align ourselves with those who see nothing as sin? We can be Republicans or Democrats before we are Christians in this day and age, and if so, do we really have faith if it just makes us behave, or vote the “right” way and doesn’t boast in the cross of Christ? Paul says that just being good or having right ideas isn’t sufficient. It happens, because we are living in the Spirit, but it happens without our intentions or abilities. The Holy Spirit guides us to a life that is fruitful, because that’s what happens when we live out our faith. We don’t live good lives to earn salvation, we turn our hearts into repositories for God’s grace and holiness springs from that deposit.
So how do we boast in the cross? Paul gives us some very clear direction in this area. First, we must be crucified to the world and the world must be crucified to us. Then, we must live according to the inward manifestation of our faith as a new creation, and finally, we must be willing to bear the persecution that comes from insisting on Christ as the only way to righteousness.
First, we must be crucified to the world and the world must be crucified to us. Many have taken that verse to the extreme – monks and nuns, for example, are living a very separatist existence. The Amish, too, live a very different looking life. I used to think it would be much easier to be a Christian in an Amish or cloistered community, after all, the things that we have to avoid living in the world must be much less available. I wonder though, how much those lifestyles are really boasting in the cross? If the externals are so important that they are so strictly proscribed, then perhaps, what looks like a devoted life isn’t just escapism. So then, how do we live so that we are crucified to the world and the world to us? Paul gives us this instruction earlier in Galatians, too. In 6:22-24, he tells us exactly what it means: 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. I always thought that when Paul says that there is no law prohibiting the fruit of the Spirit he was saying that we could be assured that men’s laws wouldn’t ever stop us from living them out. But in the greater context of the letter, what he’s really saying here is that the Law of Moses doesn’t prohibit these things – the Law of Christ expects them, and the means for getting to the Law of Christ is being crucified to the sinful nature that drives us to act in contradiction to the fruit of the spirit. Paul didn’t live segregated from the world around him – he lived in it, pointing to the cross at every opportunity, and the expectation he levels here is that every Christian should do the same – pointing to the gospel of Christ at every chance, even as we live among sinners and nonbelievers.
That brings us to the second point, which is that we must live as new creations. Paul expands on this in Ephesians, too. In 4:22-23 he says: You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Our new self is in the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul again says: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come. In Philippians 3:7-14 7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Here, Paul talks about how he is a work in progress, and how he continues to become more like Christ as he matures in his faith. How is this work contrasted with the points he makes about being justified by faith? In the Holy Spirit, we are being transformed at HIS effort, through HIS work – not because we are trying to be something other than what He has called us, remade us to be. We can’t be new creations without the Holy Spirit. His work is what changes our desires. We wouldn’t even want to be righteous if it weren’t for God’s work on our behalf.
That brings me to the last point about boasting in the cross: when the rubber meets the road, we will encounter resistance. Paul says he “bears on his body the marks of Jesus” which is to say that by continuing to preach the cross, he has been persecuted. He has been beaten and left for dead, stoned, chased, imprisoned, and narrowly escaped – and this was only one missionary journey! Paul knows what boasting about the cross costs, because he has borne some of that misery. The Galatians, too, have suffered – Paul mentions it in 3:4 – have you suffered so much for nothing? There is no point at which Paul assumes that Christianity comes without cost. Before Jesus was crucified, he himself indicated that the path behind him would be treacherous, in Luke 9:23-26: Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 26 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. When Paul talks about “bearing the mark of Jesus” it’s really a two-fold proclamation – he bears the scars from his persecution, but he also declares himself a slave of Christ. The Romans commonly branded their slaves, and sometimes their soldiers, as a means of keeping track of them – you could identify a slave or soldier and who they belonged to, by the distinctive brand they wore on their forehead. Paul is a known Christian. He wants to be known that way, and whether by bodily scars or other means, he intends to boast only in Christ.
Are we so different from Paul? Was he somehow better than us at this? I don’t think so. Christians all carry the requirement to be Christlike, to boast in the cross. As we move through our week, whether returning to school, or going to work, or whatever we do, our responsibilities are no different than Pauls. We are not called to be external Christians who avoid the cross. We are called to boast only in the cross, and to live as though that it is the only thing that matters.
As we have been doing every week in this series, I will remind you of what it looks like to say that the love of God is found in every page of Scripture. Follow along on your sheets and whenever I point at you say whatever is bolded on your page:
What does it mean to say God loves?
God loved us enough to create us, to form us from the dust.
God loved us enough to let us fail, to let us choose our own way over God’s – to let us chain ourselves to sin and defeat and heartbreak and sorrow and death.
God loved us enough to provide a rescue, a way back: through wanderers, murderers, adulterers, defaulters, promise-breakers, foreigners, strangers, and lovers.
God loved us enough to show us mothers, judges, kings, and prophets who loved and spoke for God and kept reminding us of the promise of redemption
God loved us enough to show us how evil and wrong continually mess things up and how obedience to God fosters holiness and bestows blessing
God loved us enough to send us Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, to preach and live peace, grace, hope, joy, and love.
God loved us enough to see Jesus rejected, to see him die, to see him buried.
God loved us enough to raise Jesus from the dead and send the Holy Spirit to remind us of all we have in him and empower us to live like Jesus.
God loves us enough to want us to live like Jesus – an abundant life infused with all the fruit of the Spirit, redeemed, free, loved.
God loves us enough to still let us choose our own destiny.
God loves us enough to promise the hope of forever, of resurrection from the dead, and final judgement.
God loved us enough, God loves us enough, God will always love us enough.
For God so loved the world…
God loves you.
God wants you to know it. God wants you to live in it.
God wants you to be able to love others because you know you are loved.
God’s love is expressed to us every week, most tangibly, as we gather at this table: The Son who died and yet lives, gave everything so we could know the depth of God’s love.
So, Come. Drink the wine. Eat the bread. Know you ARE loved.
God loves you. Go, love the world with him.