By Paul Koch –
In a day where our communication is shaped and defined by electronic media more than anything else, the art and beauty of the hand-written letter is almost a forgotten joy. E-mails and texts and Facebook updates are quick and easy ways to stay connected to family and friends, but they always seem to lack something compared to an old fashioned letter. When our thoughts and well-wishes are translated through our computers and cell phones, the individual persona is often filtered out. By comparison when you receive a hand-written letter, it is like you are receiving a part of the person who wrote it. It is more intimate and more personal. And it is exciting to receive a letter; especially if it is from a dear friend, somebody you respect and trust.
Imagine, then, the joy of the saints gathered in their little church in Galatia when they received a letter from the apostle Paul. This was not only before e-mail; this was before the regular postal system we have all but forgotten about. To send and receive a letter was a definitive action without much guarantee it would actually reach its destination. So with great excitement they received this intimate and personal word from their father in the faith, St. Paul. It begins with a wonderful word. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
And you could imagine, I think, the smiles around the room as these words were read. They no doubt would recall the time Paul had spent in their midst. They would remember his wonderful proclamation of the free gifts of God’s grace and the beginning of this new fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ. And now this word comes to them declaring the peace of God in their midst. But those smiles and pats on the back disappear quickly. It doesn’t take long for them to regret the public reading of Paul’s letter, for right after he says “Amen” the whole tone changes drastically. “I am astonished,” says Paul, “that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
Paul publically calls them out, he highlights their shameful actions. It’s not just that they have tolerated and bought into false teachings. It is the speed at which they did it that is so upsetting. You can almost get the sense that Paul is not just upset about it but a little brokenhearted. These are the ones that he had worked alongside of; he loved them and knew them by name. He was proud of what the Spirit had done in their midst as they confessed the faith and trusted in the works of Christ alone for their salvation. But now, word has reached the apostle that they are beginning to turn from that faith. They are pulling away from a secure hope in Christ alone and it didn’t take them long before they begin to wander.
The reality is, the temptation to desert the true gospel is a constant and real danger in the church. It can trickle down from a pastor through the congregation, or the other way around where passions and desires of the flock begin to change the heart and direction of the congregation. I remember vividly when I first arrived at the seminary in St. Louis. We had our first orientation to the program and then a BBQ on the lawn of the seminary president’s home. I remember overhearing the conversation of another guy about how excited he was to be able to preach. And I thought, “I think I’m in the wrong place. That’s the last thing I want to do.” After all, what if I blow it? What if I lead the faithful away from the true faith? I remember my ordination day right here in this church. I remember the sermon preached by Pastor Yaspelkis where he said that at the end of the day my vocation was simple: I was to give them Jesus.
Give them Jesus. That sounds so simple. That’s what Paul did in Galatia and look at how fast they departed from such a gift.
I think in the end it is the fertile ground of doubt that allows false teaching to grow in the church. Like St. Paul himself, we are not the creators or crafters of Gospel but we are receivers of it. We received it from those who have gone before us, from our parents and pastors and Sunday School teachers. We’ve received it and together we seek to hand it on, to deliver to others the good gifts we’ve received. But as we do just that, we often are disappointed with the results. You don’t think I’ve ever left a voter’s meeting shaking my head wondering why the treasure of the Gospel doesn’t seem to be producing a community of giving and trust and love and forgiveness? You yourself may remember when the church was bigger, more people were in the pews, and the coffers were a bit richer. You thought that it was proof of your faithfulness to the true faith. But now that things are leaner, now that we lament the loss of what we once had, we begin to doubt if the Gospel is enough.
Perhaps, then, we turn to the wisdom of man, to the lessons of business and politics to add what we see as lacking. We could read the tea leaves of our culture and try and figure out how to meet the consumer driven ideals of today’s youth. Perhaps we need to make more demands on those gathered in the church. Perhaps we need to put forth real step by step plans on how to live in this world. We could try and recreate meaningful experiences so that those who entered through the doors would never forget their time in this place and tell all their friends about it. In our doubt that the Gospel is doing its work, we begin to search and reach for just about anything else that will help.
The danger of all these other things is not that they are inherently bad or evil, the danger is that we can (and often do) begin to place our trust in their use over the Gospel we’ve been given. And therein we begin to deviate from the faith we’ve received. To deviate from the gifts of Christ, to seek assurance in the creativity, reasoning, and work of mankind is to turn to a different gospel. For the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ allows nothing else to stand beside it. And to attempt to do that is to invite the divine curse upon yourself. As Paul says to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Let him be eternally condemned.
This curse is powerful, for it is a curse of our own making. To add anything to the cross of Christ, to say that you need to do this or that proper action, no matter how holy and pious they may seem, is to make your whole salvation depend upon that one little part. For whatever you add to his gift is dependent upon you to fulfill – and that is the curse. In a sense, you are the curse. Your inability to live at all times as a faithful and upright child of God, your desire to find strength in your wisdom and work rather than trust in the blood of the Lamb, that is what will lead you to despair. For as Paul says later in his letter, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse.”
We are called today to receive the true Gospel, to stand firm in the faith we’ve been given, to hand on this treasure without perverting it. And we do that not by our effort but by the one who became that curse to set us free. And it was Christ himself who become that curse. He became our sin, our failure, our doubts with regard to the Gospel. He became it all and carried it to the cursed tree upon which he died for it all. All of it, all your fears and doubts have been atoned for by his life, death and resurrection.
Go this day my friends and stand firm upon the Gospel you’ve received. Go this day with conviction and joy, for you are free in the blood of the Lamb – your sins are forgiven. There is no need to add anything to the gifts, no need to find strength in our efforts for Christ has done it all. Let us strengthen each other with such good news. Let us make our stand here in this place to deliver the freedom we have already received.