Most human beings will do almost anything they can to gain acceptance and enhance their status. Nowadays, we call this “self-esteem” – feeling good about oneself and then, as one’s status is enhanced, feeling better about oneself. People like that. And, of course, there is the all-important matter of the acceptance and esteem others may have of you. As one’s status is enhanced, other people admire you, look up to you, even envy you. People like that even more. And so, again, as I said, most human beings will do almost anything they can to enhance their status.
This particular human frailty is part of the background of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, parts of which have been the Epistle for the past few weeks and which Father Wood has used as a focus for his preaching. I’d like to continue that this morning.
Galatia was an unusual place. It was not a specific city like Ephesus or Corinth, but rather a region in what is now central Turkey, Anatolia. The people there were overwhelmingly Gentile and, before they were converted, they were pagans. In fact, as strange as it may seem, they were probably Celts. Don’t imagine that Celts were only to be found in Ireland or Scotland or Brittany. They were all over in Europe, and it is known that in the third century BC a group of them migrated from southern France to the region called Galatia.
And so Paul is writing to people who were Gentiles, who had been pagan, but were converted by him to Christ. And the occasion of the letter, as we have heard in the past few weeks, was a “false gospel.” As he saw it, a false version or false interpretation of the gospel was being preached in Galatia, and it seems, some of the Galatians had swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.
But what was this? The answer is simple. After Paul, there appeared certain Jewish Christians who had come to Galatia, and their message to the Galatians, their claim, was that to be a real bona fide Christian one had to become a Jew as well. One had to take upon oneself the obligation to follow Jewish law. And . . . as a part of that obligation, males had to submit to the rite of circumcision: an experience hopefully forgotten when you are an infant, but horrible to imagine when you’re not.
That is what was taught by these Jewish Christians; it seems that some in Galatia were following their teaching. And so, Paul writes – and he writes with vehemence – to counter this.
But there is another question in the background here and the question is this. Why? Why on earth would anyone seek deliberately to take on the Jewish law? If you were not born into it, then why tie yourself to six hundred and thirteen commandments? And why? Why on earth would any adult male seek and submit to a procedure which was not only painful, and even dangerous, but also humiliating?
The answer, again, is simple. Status. The pagan cults and religions in the Mediterranean world were very concerned with status. To join up one was initiated, but then, following the first, successive initiations were possible. Each one conferring a higher status in the cult and in the eyes of its members. What was going on in Galatia was that the Gentile converts were interpreting their new faith in Christ on the pattern of the pagan cults – the passage from one spiritual level to another supposedly higher one, again and again. And the Jewish Christians with their insistence on the law and on circumcision unwittingly gave them the encouragement to do so.
Because, of course, higher status always involves greater obligation. Hence, the law. To obey it one moves up a level. As so there was a double error at work in Galatia, the confusion of the Gospel with Jewish practice and with paganism.
Also, remember, mutilation, as strange as it may seem, is often a sign of higher status. Roman soldiers were willingly branded to indicate their rank. A century ago, young German men had scars surgically created on their faces. This was to suggest that they had been in a duel and were, therefore, aristocrats. Mutilation – a sign of status. Hence circumcision. A sign that you had taken the next step up on the spiritual ladder.
As an aside, I think I should mention that what was going on was not new. The same thing or rather, one should say, the opposite thing had caused problems two hundred years before. Some young Jewish men in order to gain acceptance by their Greek and Roman neighbors in Jerusalem, who thought the practice abhorrent, sought “to remove the marks of circumcision,” as Paul puts it. ( I Cor. 7:18 ) I’m not sure what this means and I’m not sure I want to know, but as I said before, people will do almost anything to gain acceptance and enhance their status.
I often think that when we read or hear Paul talking about this – and it is an issue in many of his letters – the Law of Moses, circumcision and so on – his arguments and his conclusions may seem remote and strange, nothing that could possibly concern you and me, because they are centered on things we might find primitive or even brutal. But when we realize that status is one of the things involved here, the dispute begins to make more sense. For think of the odd, expensive, bizarre and even self-destructive things that people do in today’s world to enhance their status or their acceptance in the eyes of others. Nothing really has changed, for again, human beings, as I said, will do almost anything to enhance their status, and the Galatian converts were no exception.
Paul was against this. There is, as he sees it, no system of status in Christianity. There may be different offices and ministries in the Church, but these are functional, for all are one, all are equal in Christ. He writes:
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. ( 3:27- 29 )
You have put on Christ, he says to them. Christ lives within you. Christ is now your true identity. Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female – these distinctions are unimportant. Status is unimportant. You have put on Christ. Christ lives within you. Christ is now your true identity. And what higher status could there be than that ?
And this is the work of God, Paul tells them. It’s not something you deserve; you don’t. It’s not something you earn; you can’t. It’s grace. Grace freely bestowed upon those who are in Christ. Freely bestowed – that’s what Fr. Wood has been hammering home for the past few weeks. Freely bestowed – that is the essential truth of Christianity. It is not a truth which is human and admirable, but rather it is the result of an action which is divine and mystical.
Listen to Paul as he writes to Christians in another place, Ephesus. The people there, like the Galatians, had been Gentiles, outsiders, not offspring of Abraham, not part of God’s Promise and the Covenant, but by God’s act in a New Covenant they had been grafted into the one body of Christ. Paul tells them:
But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have now been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one – Jews and Gentiles – and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the blood of the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. ( 2:13 – 16 )