I was in fourth grade when I first started wearing glasses. I was in fourth grade when the girl I had a crush on said to me, “I don’t like your glasses.” I remember saying, my 10 year old heart hurting, “Well don’t look at them then!” It sounded like I was confident in that moment, but I wasn’t.
The fact is that we can remember people’s words and people’s opinions, especially when those opinions have something to do with us: what we look like, what we wear, what we do for a living, what we said. So my story of my 4th grade crush crushing my heart with a few words might be a silly example. But people’s words hurt, and people’s opinions hurt. (Otherwise I wouldn’t remember it nearly forty years later!)
But what would it look like to not be worried so much about others’ opinions of us. If there was a security in our identity—
The author Henri Nouwen says we have a tendency to believe three lies about our identity.
I am what I have,
I am what I do,
and I am what other people say or think about me.
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
There is a book we are studying at my church, a letter written to a group of churches in Galatia (modern day Turkey). This letter to the Galatians addresses these lies in different ways.
The man who wrote the letter was first known as Saul. We are introduced to him in the New Testament in the book of Acts, and discover that he once persecuted followers of Jesus. But in the 9th chapter of Acts, Saul becomes Paul, when he has an encounter with the risen-from-the dead Jesus.
Author and pastor Eugene Peterson puts who Paul was this way:
“Paul believed the lie that God was against everyone who deviated from a certain path. He believed the lie and so was against everyone who didn’t follow the path. As he lived out this lie, he became obsessed. Paul’s idea of God was that he was an angry bachelor uncle, impatient with the antics of romping and undisciplined children. Paul’s response, along with many others, was to shut up the children and make them sit in a corner until they learned to behave in such a way that they wouldn’t disturb the old man, and if they wouldn’t shut up, send them off to boarding school.” Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light
So, if this wasn’t what God was like—an angry bachelor uncle—what was God like? Peterson goes on…
“God was not against but for. This truth about God came to Paul in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ showed him that he had had it all wrong, that what he had followed was a ‘gospel contrary.’ He convinced him that God is on our side; he persuaded him that sin is not God’s excuse to get rid of us, but the occasion for entering our lives and setting us free.” Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light
Sure enough, this idea of being “set free” shows up in Paul’s first sermon in Acts, preached to one of the churches in the region of Galatia.
“Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”Acts 13:38-39 ESV
Paul preached to the churches in Galatia: we’ve been set free.
We have to understand that this is a radical claim. And Paul heard that others had come up to stir up division in the churches, and they did it by trying to disparage the character of Paul. Saying that Paul had just gotten this idea of being set free from some other teachers, and he was passing it off as his own.
That is why Paul begins the introduction to his letter to the Galatians by emphatically stating: I’m an apostle: One sent by God—but I’m sent not by men, but by God Himself.
Now when we hear someone say those kinds of things now—God sent me, God told me—we get skeptical. And rightly so. And the only way we can test to see if this is true is by seeing if what is being taught and said holds up. Does this gospel of freedom stand the test of time. Does it produce what it is meant to produce? Is the one delivering the message trustworthy? Does their life match up with what is being taught?
In another letter to a church, Paul talked about how he shared his life and message deeply with others, and when he heard that others were saying negative things about him, his only defense was this: “Remember how we were like a mother to you—gentle among you. Remember how we were like a father to you, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy…” [see I Thessalonians 2:7 and following) In other words, remember how I lived among you.
Paul is simply saying: look at what others are saying about me. Then remember how I lived among you.
We should probably do this with the people who lead us and teach us. Does the teaching stand the test of time? Is it proven somewhere? Can we test it somehow? And, does the person doing the teaching—do they live in such a way that seems trustworthy?
Paul knew there were critics, and seemed to expect them. He knew that what he was saying would not just “ruffle feathers,” but make people vehemently angry.
Back to the boy in the glasses. When I think back to those years, I see a young boy that desperately wanted to be liked. And that is still within me today. But over time, I’ve discovered that it’s a greater thing to be loved: by my wife of 21 years, by my children, and most of all, by the God who says “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” Not everyone will like me.. I will probably always be misunderstood, misinterpreted, accused of things, and more. People won’t like me for a variety of reasons. But I cling to the fact that I am loved. I share that with you because I believe someone else needs to hear that today. You’re working so hard to manage everyone’s expectations of you, trying to fit in, trying to be liked—you need to hear, as I do, that you’re loved.
I think that is what Paul is saying in Galatians. Over the next few weeks, we’ll hear him say it more and more. He knows people are saying that his message and teaching—he just stole it from other people, he’s just saying what other people told him to say. To all of that Paul insists that he is sent from God, and comes out of the love of God.
Now: on to why I wanted to study this book, this letter written centuries ago. Noticed how divided we are in our world today. By race, by class, by political affiliation. Even within the church—the followers of Jesus have divided themselves by how we think about baptism, the Lord’s supper, music, what we wear, how it is people come to know Christ. What happened in Genesis when God created the heavens and earth; what will happen when Jesus returns. With so much division and hatred everywhere, it is a dark time.
Underneath the book of Galatians is division. Between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians—different races, different ethnic groups. There was fighting, arguing, and division.
One group saying to another, “to really be a follower of Christ you have to be like us.” [Any of that sound familiar…anywhere?]
To all of that Paul says rubbish. Hogwash. Fill in your strong-word-of-choice.
And we’ll discover that he is well aware of the division, and what others are saying about him. He knows who called him, he knows who rescued him, and he knows who gave him this commission to preach good news. And he knows that the gospel: that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came to rescue us from our sins through his death on the cross, and was raised back to life as a promise of our new life here and in the life to come. We receive all of this as a gift—it is God’s grace. We don’t earn it, we don’t have to work or add to it.
That should unify us all. Nothing more, nothing less.
“According to Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that this God is now building a new family, a single family, a family with no divisions, no separate races, no one-table-for-Jews-and-another-for-Gentiles nonsense. Jews believed that when the Messiah came he would be Lord of all the world; so, Paul argues, he’d have to have just one family. ” NT Wright, Galatians For Everyone
We are a new family. One family. Gathered around one table. Unified by one true gospel.
God came to be with us, so that he could be for us.
Remember Eugene Peterson’s words again:
“Sin is not God’s excuse to get rid of us. It is the occasion of entering our lives and setting us free.”
Jesus gave himself for our sins. This is the gospel. We don’t earn anything. We are free.
Free first from what others say and think.
Free from others’ perception of us.
Free at last from the sin that used to hold us, and free to live a new life because of Jesus.
In the words of the honorable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are:
Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.