Scripture: Galatians 5:2-14
I love when we read a Scripture passage like this, where Paul’s telling people to go castrate themselves, and then we all say with a straight face, “The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.” We’ll get to that in a minute though.
Right around the time I started here at Arlington Temple, a friend of mine started a PhD in history. She had been dreaming of this for a while, ever since she graduated college. Her advisor had specifically recruited her to be a part of this program. She had a passion and she had a gift, and she was ready to take it to the next level.
Only once she got there she began to suspect that she shouldn’t really be there at all. She realized quickly that all the other students were smarter than she was, and more accomplished than she was, and more articulate than she was, and of course showed much greater promise as historians than she did. She didn’t know how she had even gotten into the program. Clearly someone had made some sort of huge mistake. Clearly it was only a matter of time before someone was going to find her out.
But there she was, and what was there to do but try her best to convince everyone else that she really was supposed to be there?
Since it was right around the time I was starting here and also had no idea what I was doing, we talked on the phone a lot those days about the new things we were doing and how we lived with this nagging fear that someone was going to figure us out.
They call this Impostor Syndrome.
My friend is actually a really smart and gifted person who is going to make a great historian. After a few years in the program, I think she’s doing well. What’s more, I don’t think she’s the only one there who suffered from impostor syndrome in the beginning. I visited her once that first year and went to a study group with her, and as far as I could tell, everyone there was attempting to convince the others just how much they deserved to be there.
My guess is that most of us have experienced impostor syndrome at one time or another: in a new career (“Everyone’s going to find out that I have no business calling myself a diplomat”); or as parents (“Everyone’s going to find out I’m not really a good mom”) or maybe even at the gym (“maybe if I dress like I belong on a treadmill, no one will realize I’m not a real runner.”)
I wonder if that’s how some people feel in church.
Ever walked into a church and think, “Everyone here has it together except me?” Ever looked around during the sermon and think, “These people are all better Christians than me?” Ever scanned the room during prayer time and thought, “Surely all these people pray and read the Bible more than me?” Or, “All these people help others more than I do.”
Maybe if you’ve been involved in church for a long time you know the truth, you’ve known enough Christians to know that none of us really have it together, but I wonder especially for someone wandering into a church for the first time, if that’s what they’re thinking.
If so, they might not be the first ones.
And that brings us back to the mid-first-century CE to a place called Galatia, in modern-day Turkey.
And it brings us back to a pretty unique letter from the Apostle Paul.
This is one of those places where actually knowing a little bit about the structure of Paul’s letters helps us out, even if it sounds boring, because if we do, we know that Paul always starts out with a greeting, and then thanksgiving for the community, and then the body of the letter, and often ends up with an exhortation and conclusion. If we go back to the beginning of 1 Thessalonians, for example, we’ll read: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, remembering before God the Father your work of faith and labor in love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1-3).
But Galatians starts this way: “To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…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.’
No thanksgiving! What does that tell us?
Why is Paul mad? What delicious drama is going on in this early church? Well, let’s find out.
First, it’ll help to know a little bit about the context Paul was ministering in here. As you probably know, Christianity started out as a Jewish movement. The first Christians were Jews. That meant they were circumcised like they were supposed to be, as a sign of their covenant with God, and they observed Jewish holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur, and they didn’t eat shrimp, and altogether followed Jewish law. Now, there were some instances where Jesus encouraged them to be a little less rigid about it and follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter. But as Jesus himself said, he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17.)
But then the disciples went out to make disciples of all nations. And Paul, especially, found his calling as the apostle to the Gentiles, i.e. everyone else. And so you started to have Christians in the church who weren’t actually Jews at all.
You can imagine this was a recipe for some church drama, right?
It did start to raise some serious questions among church leadership. These Gentiles weren’t circumcised, and they didn’t follow Jewish dietary law or a lot of other parts of Jewish law, either. Now, no one seemed to be arguing that the Gentiles should be excluded altogether. People saw God doing a new thing. The question was, did they have to be circumcised and follow all the same laws and rituals as the Jews did? In other words, did you have to be Jewish to be Christian?
It kind of sounds like a strange question now, but it was a serious one back then. And some of the church leaders thought the answer should be yes. But Paul thought the answer should be no.
This was the question that led to the first church council meeting. We have one account of this meeting in Galatians 2 and one account in Acts 15, and they’re a little different, but the gist is that Paul sits down in Jerusalem with some church leaders like Peter and James and John and they set some minimum requirements and they all agree that Paul is free to tell people that they don’t have to be circumcised in order to be a Christian. In Galatians 2, Paul writes, “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”
So, OK! Crisis averted! The church can move on in mission and ministry!
Theoretically. But as it turns out, just because a decision is voted on somewhere in the church hierarchy, that doesn’t mean everyone is automatically on board. (Shocking, right?) In fact, in those days, a lot of people might not even have heard about this important church council meeting. So what happens in Galatia is that after Paul has left, some other missionaries come through, and what these other missionaries start telling people is you have to be circumcised after all.
So Paul is angry. All his hard work, down the drain. “You foolish Galatians!” he writes. “Who has bewitched you?”
What’s the big deal, Paul? we might ask. Why on earth does something like this get raised to the level of early church drama? Who cares if someone wants to be circumcised? Plenty of non-Jewish men are today. It sounds unpleasant, maybe, if you’re a grown man, but let’s just agree to disagree here.
Yeah, Paul’s not the best at agreeing to disagree. Instead he says, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” The word of God for the people of God.
So what’s actually at stake here, Paul?
Well, everything, actually. Because for Paul, what’s at stake is whether you really believe that God’s grace is enough.
“You who want to be justified by the law,” he writes to the Galatians (5:4), “have cut yourselves off from Christ.” (See what he did there?)
Do you believe grace is enough? Is grace enough to save you? Is grace enough to include you in this new community called the church, whether by birth you’re supposed to be there or not? Is grace enough to make you belong?
Or do you think you have to become something you’re not?
I’m not just talking about the Galatians anymore.
Do you come to church believing that God wants you just as you are, or do you come feeling like an impostor?
I suspect there might be a lot of people who come feeling like an impostor.
I’m too poor. Too weird. Too loud. Too dumb. Too smart, even. Too wild. Too broken. I have too much of a past. Either I have to become something I’m not to belong to this community, or at least I have to pretend.
One of the main criticisms leveled against the church today is that Christians are hypocritical, and maybe that’s because we’re all trying so hard to convince others we’re something we’re not.
The wonderful thing about Galatians is that Paul doesn’t just soothingly reassure us that we’re OK just the way we are. He is angry about it! Paul is angry that you would think you have to be someone you’re not! Because if that’s what you think, you have absolutely missed the whole point.
Once for a seminary application I wrote an essay about how God was like the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is one of my all-time favorites. I wrote about this scene where Bridget, who is this thirtysomething woman who definitely does not have it all together, embarrasses herself during a toast at an anniversary party in front of Mark Darcy, who’s this successful lawyer who always acts like he’s better than everyone else. He comes down the stairs after her as she’s leaving, and she thinks it’s to make her feel like even more of an idiot, when he “really needn’t bother.” But instead he tells her, “I don’t think you’re an idiot at all. There are elements of the ridiculous about you. Your mother’s pretty interesting. And you really are an appallingly bad public speaker. But the thing is, what I’m trying to say is that, perhaps despite appearances, I like you very much.”
“Ah,” she says, “Apart from all those things…”
“No,” he says, “I like you very much. Just as you are.”
I’m not saying God is like Mark Darcy. OK, maybe I’m saying that God is a little bit like Mark Darcy. I like you very much, just as you are.
Of course the tricky part is that it’s not actually enough to say we’re fine just as we are, it’s not enough to say that none of us is ever supposed to change. You may have heard the saying, “God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way.” Grace, after all, is supposed to change us—that’s John Wesley’s key point right there! God’s grace is supposed to make us less selfish, more loving, less prideful, more willing to serve, less vengeful, more forgiving, less bitter, more thankful, less anxious, more prayerful, less judgmental, more merciful.
But there’s a difference in being the best version of the person God made and called me to be, and being someone God never intended me to be at all.
Someone once pointed out to me that Paul himself never really changed, despite that whole Damascus Road conversion experience. Who was Paul before he encountered the risen Jesus on that road, while he was going along persecuting Christians? He was this zealous, passionate, fierce kind of guy. Who was he after, as he traveled to distant lands to spread the Gospel? He was this zealous, passionate, fierce kind of guy. He just used his powers for good instead of evil. God’s grace was enough to change him, but God’s grace was also enough to call him to be just the person he was—for God’s glory.
I’m going to take this into what may be dangerous territory, now. I told you before that many of the resolutions we voted on at Annual Conference last weekend had to do with the church’s stance on homosexuality. I know this is a controversial issue and it brings all sorts of questions with it like how we interpret the Bible, and I know not all of us here agree on it. There are different Scripture passages which inform our various points of view. And I know the stakes are even higher with Friday’s Supreme Court decision. So I want to tell you this knowing that you won’t all agree. For me, as much as we can quote Leviticus or Romans or 1 Timothy, passages that mention something like homosexuality, Galatians has just as much to do with the whole thing, and I believe Galatians shows us a God who invites all of us in without distinction, and who doesn’t ask us to be something or someone we’re not.
Now, could you argue with me on that and tell me that’s not the only way to interpret Galatians? Yes, you could. Of course you could. But in the midst of our own modern-day church drama, I’m going to leave it there as something to think about.
Are you a Gentile? Paul asks. Is that your origin, your history, your experience? Is that the story God gave you? Then be a Gentile for the glory of God. God wants you, just as you are. God’s grace is enough for you.
Are you a Jew? Paul asks. Then be a Jew for the glory of God. God wants you, just as you are. God’s grace is enough for you.
This is God’s church and from day one it has been filled with people with different gifts, different perspectives, different stories, Jews and Gentiles, rich people and poor people, artists and engineers, dreamers and doers, weird people and other kinds of weird people, rule followers and rule breakers, and God wants all of who we are. God wants all of who you are.
Not someone else, not something else, but you, for God’s glory.
That’s what God needs, that’s what the church needs, that’s what the Kingdom needs.
And God’s grace is enough. God’s grace is always enough.