notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Galatians 1 - Grace against favour
Christ Church Norris Green Morning Communion 10/6/2007
How often have you heard someone say a sentence which begins, "You can't be a Christian and a ... so-and-so", or "You can't be a Christian and do ... such-and-such a thing"?
Quite often, I'd imagine. And if your head is anything like my head, you've probably heard those words inside your head from time to time.
The streets of our community are full of people who don't think they're worthy enough to come to church, or to be Christians, because somewhere someone has persuaded them that "You can't be a Christian and ... the sort of person they are".
They may have heard people saying,
- You can't be a Christian and work on Sundays ... even if you have no choice in the matter; or
- You can't be a Christian and be divorced ... as if Jesus only wants perfectionists in his kingdom, people who've never failed in love; or
- You can't be a Christian and be depressed ... as if Christianity means you have to be immune to mental health problems.
Our instinct, now, when we hear these words, is to realise how wrong they are - and maybe that's because we sense that Christianity isn't about imposing rules and regulations on people. It's about receiving God's free gift of grace. From which no-one is excluded.
But we have to be careful because soon the temptation will come back to us again, to start to impose conditions on other people. Again. And often we do this because we feel that we have to prove ourselves against them:
- They're not proper Christians because they don't believe the same things as me;
- They're not proper Christians because they don't worship the same way as me;
- They're not proper Christians because they don't live the same kind of life as me;
To the Christians in Galatia Paul wrote,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
He was talking to a group of genuine Christian belivers, in churches which he had founded during his first missionary journey. They were a mixture of people from different backgrounds - some of them Jewish, some of them Gentile. And it seemed that rather than embracing each other in the unconditional grace of God, they had started to feel that they had to prove themselves against each other. More exactly, the Jewish Christians in Galatia were saying about the Gentiles,
- They're not proper Christians because they don't submit to the Jewish laws.
Somehow their heads had been filled with something which was far from the gospel of the unconditional grace of God.
Paul, of course, knew all about about what was going through their heads. In case they hadn't heard his story, Paul told it again to the Galatians:
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But ... God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles...
Paul was telling the Galatians, and through his letter is telling us today, about the revelation he had, of Jesus, God's son, about the calling he had, by God's grace, to proclaim the good news of Jesus among the very people he had previously been trying to prove himself against.
Once the most zealous believer in the traditions of his ancestors, and so set against everyone else's traditions that he felt the need to destroy them; now having had this wonderful revelation of God, this opening of his heart to receiving God's free gift of grace, this opening of his head to the understanding that in Christ, there is no imposing rules and regulations on people, that in Christ no-one is excluded, everyone is embraced: the Christians who heard about Paul's conversion were amazed:
I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; [he wrote], they only heard it said, 'The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.' And they glorified God because of me.
We glorify God because of Paul, too. Because had it not been for his receiving that revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus, had it not been for his faithfully turning away from the sacred traditions of his faith, with all their violence and their victims, then Christianity would have remained a tiny sect of Judaism, and would possibly have been stamped out altogether - had it not been for all this, then we would have never have heard the good news of the gospel of God's grace:
-You are proper Christians because God unconditionally loves you;
-You are proper Christians because Jesus died so that you, believing, may never again be caught up in the cycle of violence, death, destruction;
-You are proper Christians and you don't have to prove that to anyone or against anyone else: you just accept it as a gift.
Thanks be to God for the revelation he made to Paul.
Now one wonderful insight from the story of Paul is that when you get a revelation from Jesus then you stop being a believer.
That is, when you get a revelation from Jesus then you stop being a believer in the human order of things, in the old traditions of faith, with all their violence and their victims, in the world's endless cycle of violence, death, destruction.
When you get a revelation from Jesus then you can stop believing that you have to prove yourself against anyone else. The theologian James Alison writes:
To each ... revelation of God ... there is a corresponding and simultaneous collapse of a whole series of elements which seemed to have been indispensable bulwarks of faith. For these turn out to be parts of an idolatrous order of things which had previously been confused with the worship of the true God.
... faith in the living God automatically introduces into the world a process of unbelieving. Someone who begins to believe in the living God automatically begins to lose faith in the inevitability of things, in fate, in the sacredness of the social order, in inevitable progress, in horoscopes and so on, because the moment the imagination and emotional and mental structures begin to absorb what is meant by the vivaciousness of the Creator God who brings into being and sustains all things, all those other elements start to be revealed as part of a dead sacred order. 
Now Paul realised that some of the believers in Galatia had embraced something of the love and truth of God in Jesus Christ, had had their lives changed by hearing the story of Jesus and receiving his gospel - but were still caught up in the dead sacred order.
They were still trying to prove themselves against other people; feeling the need to make enemies of others who were a bit different to them, whose Christianity showed itself in a different way. They had still, Paul realised, not received the revelation he had which would remove them from the dead sacred order, which would remove from them the urge to persecute others, which would invite them instead to be simply, wonderfully enfolded in the loving grace of God who accepts them as they are.
Though we live in a violent world with the dead sacred order still intact in many places, thankfully the revelation is also part of our story.
The revelation has come to the city of Liverpool in recent times, where once people of the Catholic faith and those of the Protestant faith used up all their religious energies trying to prove themselves against each other, in a conflict which was often violent. Some of you will have stories to tell about that, I'm sure, about being scared to walk down roads occupied by people of the other religion, about violence and exclusion in families caught up in sectarianism.
Just as Paul brought the revelation to the Galatians, so the revelation came here through Bishop Sheppard and Archbishop Warlock, who didn't just preach reconciliation, they lived it, and developed a close relationship, enfolded in the grace of God, which recognised the differences between their churches but refused to get into a destructive cycle of proving themselves against each other. Rather, their partnership offered a sign of hope to other communities riven by conflict: Northern Ireland, South Africa.
Our prayer must be that today the revelation will come to a church still divided in all sorts of ways. If you take notice of what is written in the newspapers then you will hear Christian voices condemning others:
- They're not proper Christians because their views on abortion are the opposite of mine;
- They're not proper Christians because their sexuality is different than mine;
- They're not proper Christians because their beliefs about women priests and bishops don't agree with mine.
Where is the word of revelation which recognises the differences between these opinions but removes from us the need to get into a destructive cycle of proving ourselves against those with whom we disagree?
Our prayer must be that today the revelation will come to local churches where the issues might be smaller but the spirit of condemnation is the same:
- They're not proper Christians because they don't read the bible every day;
- They're not proper Christians because they won't volunteer to do all the things I do in church;
- They're not proper Christians because they never stay for coffee after the service.
When will the revelation come to us that will release us from this violence? It will come when we begin to recognise that we carry this violence in us, that we somehow can't stop ourselves wanting to prove ourselves against others.
When will the revelation come to us that will release us into God's grace? It will come when we begin to understand that God has nothing to do with all that violence.
How will the revelation begin to show itself in us?
- That will be when we find ourselves learning new ways of speaking about God so as to take part in God's new creation.
- That will be when we find ourselves learning new ways of speaking about others so as to bless them, however different they may be to us.
- That will be when we find ourselves speaking to each other the way Paul spoke to those with whom he agreed, and disagreed, with these words at the very start of his letter to the Galatians:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
 James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, chapter 2. Quoted, as you might expect, in Girardian Lectionary notes for the day's readings.