Study of Scripture: On the Epistle
It may well be that Saint Paul’s words in this Sunday’s portion of his Epistle to the churches of Galatia, sound a bit strange. All of this talk about circumcision contrasted against the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and people “glorying”- that is, in modern English, boasting- about the “flesh” of these Christians, may well confuse a new Bible reader. It can lead to mistaken ideas. The first mistaken idea is that whatever Saint Paul was talking about cannot be relevant to modern people. The second mistaken idea is that this provides a basis for an anti-Semitic interpretation of scripture. Another mistaken idea would be we have no need for the authority and teaching of the Church.
In fact, let me deal with this third mistake. In so doing, I will have already answered the others. Since we speak in the Creeds of the Catholic Church and of the Catholic Faith, which we believe, we are stuck with the Catholic Tradition- and thank God we are. The Nicene (/Constantinopolitan) Creed says, “I believe One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Yes, we do believe in the Church, because Christ Himself founded it and is its Head. But, in this great Creed you say I believe the Church; I believe what it teaches.
The scripture, without solid teaching of what it means, can be taken captive by any kook, fraud or con-man. So, when we speak of the Catholic Tradition we must go back to the ancient times, those early centuries when the Church was under persecution, or just emerging from persecution. We are saying that we believe what Christ promised, namely that the Spirit of Truth would guide the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13). And, as that promise of Christ applies to this passage from Galatians, the young Church first had to deal with a heresy that came about so early in its history that we see it addressed by St. Paul. When the apostles and elders gathered in Jerusalem, they also, with complete unanimity, addressed and refuted it (Acts chapter fifteen). This ancient heresy taught that, in order to be saved, a Gentile who converts to Christianity must be circumcised and live by all of the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses.
Trendy writers have sold the idea that some controversy raged over what to do with Gentiles converts. They sell the notion that this alleged controversy raged for years, even among the Apostles, pitting Paul against James, and maybe against Peter. They insist that we may infer, from this invented story of theirs, that important questions can go unresolved and debated within the Church for extended years before the Spirit leads us to a right conclusion. They use their false and contrived reading of the New Testament to justify new and outrageous ideas (including women's ordination and same sex blessings, etc.).
But, that tale of a raging and prolonged controversy is pure fiction; and so, like the future, it can teach us no lessons. What we really see in the New Testament is that the Proto-Council in Jerusalem was unanimous in its conclusion, without disagreement among the Apostles and the Elders. At the Council they unanimously affirmed the earlier decision recorded in the eleventh chapter of Acts, when they all agreed with Saint Peter that he had been right to baptize the new Gentile converts without circumcising them; because when the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles, gathered that day in the house of Cornelius, God made no distinction between Jew and Gentile. The immediate and unanimous Apostolic conclusion had been, at that time, “then hath God granted the Gentiles repentance unto life.” (Acts 11;18) So, when a new heresy arose, as Gentile Christians were troubled by unauthorized teachers who wanted them to be circumcised and to keep the Law, Saint Paul was in complete agreement with Saint James, and with Saint Peter, and with all the Apostles, that the Tradition of the Church (new as that Tradition was, but established nonetheless) had to be defended. What Saint Peter had learned years before when Gentiles first converted to Christ, and what his fellow Apostles affirmed without argument (if you simply read the record in the Book of Acts), was the very same teaching proclaimed by Saint Paul, and the same teaching that the Council in Jerusalem upheld for all of the churches everywhere. In short, the New Testament does not show a controversy among the Apostles, but rather that they were in complete unity, agreeing among themselves concerning what it was that the Holy Spirit had revealed. And so, in the New Testament we see the Church teaching the content of Apostolic witness.
What does this mean for you? It means that what the Church has always taught since its earliest days, as recorded in Scripture, is to be believed. In this case, believe and know that you cannot save yourself by your own power. That first heresy, that we are saved by circumcision (of the males) and by keeping the 613 commandments, suggests that we have the power to save ourselves without God’s help--that we can pull ourselves up to Heaven by our own bootstraps. A few centuries later, this same idea would reappear in another form from Britain’s very own heretic, a fellow named Pelagius. Pelagius taught that we can, without God’s grace, live holy lives simply by our own will power; that Christ came merely to be our example. The man who worked hardest to refute the heresy of Pelagianism was Saint Augustine. He picked up the teaching of the Apostles back in the first Century, that we cannot save ourselves by our own power; that we need the grace of God.
Today we can speak of the heresies of the Judaizers and of the Pelagians with ease. But, think of what it meant for people back then to hear such teaching. What if Christ had come only to be the example of perfection? Would not we be without hope? We should all know about the problem of sin and death. What I know about sin I did not need to learn in Seminary. I had the subject pretty well mastered without reading a text book on it. Death is the flip side, a part of the problem of sin; sin and death are two sides of one coin. One thing I do not need is a perfect example to make the sting of my condemnation worse. I need a Savior, both to rescue me from the reality of guilt (whether I have the good sense to feel guilt, or not), and to heal my fallen soul of its waywardness. Jesus the Good Example cannot save me; Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the Lord and Savior Who is One with the Father, forever God even as He takes into His own Person our human nature and redeems it, and by grace perfects it, can and does save me. And, no one else can; certainly I cannot save myself. In Christ, however, no longer am I bound for destruction, for an eternity of death without God. Rather, forgiveness is extended, along with grace and power by the Holy Spirit to be transformed, right up until that day when we are made partakers of the Divine Nature (II Pet. 1:4) because the One Who as God was made man, gives us even this very grace.
So, I trust you see that Saint Paul’s words are very relevant to you.
GALATIANS 6:11-18 MATTHEW 6:24-34
Inexperienced clergymen, when preparing a sermon, need not fear that the plain meaning of Scripture is too strong for the likes of ordinary people, nor to assume that everyone is afraid of theology. On a couple of occasions, several years ago, back when I still sat in a pew with my wife, we were treated to exegesis and in-depth commentary on a text that appealed to some clergymen more than the passages of scripture that were read in church. It must have been some trend or fad, something recommended in some journal, because more than one of them proceeded to expound upon the meaning of a children’s story called The Velveteen Rabbit. Their sermons, the "gospel" they preached, could be summarized as follows: "Get real.” After being tortured by these homilies two or three times, I resolved that, were I ever to meet this velveteen rabbit chap I would kill it, and put myself out of its misery. With all of the writers of the Bible, Moses, David, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul- to name only a few- why is it that anyone would have trouble thinking of something to say?
The problem that some clergymen have with preaching is that they know they are handling dynamite, and it scares them. “The word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two edged sword,” says the writer to the Hebrews. When you and I are facing the real life traumas and struggles that threaten to shake either our lives or our faith, or that seem to challenge the very idea that God is good, merciful and kind, it is that objective thing called doctrine, that unchanging Creed, yes, our theology, that provides an anchor in the storm. When the world presents the illusion that our faith can be threatened by some sophisticated and trendy new “final blow to Christianity” (as opposed to last month’s “final blow to Christianity” which died away as soon as the clear light of reason shone upon it), it is theology that keeps us rooted and unshaken. What the teaching of the word of God does for you is by no means some irrelevant academic exercise divorced from the real world. No indeed. It is, rather, the armor and weaponry by which you advance in the knowledge of God and of His Son Jesus Christ, by which you overcome the world through your faith by the power of the Holy Spirit Who is in you. In times of sorrow, in times of joy, in times of suffering, and in times of merriment, the word of God is our daily bread for the mind and for the spirit; it is the lamp for our feet. It does not divorce us from reality because it keeps us rooted and grounded in the truth.
The scriptures today warn us of two kinds of deception, namely the deception of false religion and the deception of the cares of this world. And, what we see connecting these passages of scripture is summed up perfectly by our Lord when He tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. In that seeking we are not escaping reality, rather we are facing it in its fullest. We can face good news and bad, even the fact of our own mortality, with a brand of courage unknown except by faith.
Saint Paul, in this Epistle to the churches in Galatia, saw the need to correct the heresy of self-appointed teachers who proclaimed a new and different “gospel.” In the first chapter (vs. 6-9) he told them:
“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”
These words may sound harsh to people who imagine that all religion is good: But every genuine pastor, every sincere bishop, priest, or deacon, cannot help but agree fully and empathize with the burden that Saint Paul expressed. We cannot simply smile and accept what is taught in cults, or even in churches that are turning away from a clear and faithful adherence to “that which has been believed always, everywhere and by all” of the true teachers and saints in God’s Holy Catholic Church.
The heresy addressed in this Epistle was a new teaching that all of the Gentiles who had converted to Christ could not be saved unless they were circumcised and kept the Six Hundred and Thirteen Commandments of the Torah, and then only as interpreted by their approved Rabbis. Today we have false teaching of every sort all around us, and it has terrible consequences spiritually, and sometimes physically.
For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses not only teach the Arian and Pneumatimachian heresies by denying the Trinity, by denying the existence of the Holy Spirit, and denying the bodily resurrection of Christ (who appeared to witnesses). They also cause their people to die, and at times have caused the deaths of their own children, because they forbid something as good and practical as blood transfusions. It is tragic. For many years my father worked side by side with a good friend, a man we all liked very much, who died at the age of sixty from heart disease. A very simple medicine could have kept him alive to this day; but he was a member of Mary Baker Eddy’s so-called “Christian Science Church,” (wrong in all three words) and so he would not take medicine. As a result of his misguided religious beliefs he died before he could retire, before he could meet his grandchildren. The picture we are given of God, by these kinds of doctrines, is very much like the picture given by the teaching that we have to keep the rules of the early Talmudic Rabbis in order to be saved: that is, the picture of God is one of a very unreasonable and harsh taskmaster who demands the impossible without providing grace.
To avoid false gospels we need sound doctrine, and true theology.
In the Gospel Jesus lifts our eyes heavenward. The Book of Common Prayer (1928, American) does something unusual in this passage. It does not use the exact words of the King James Bible, “give no thought for the morrow.” Instead, this one passage uses the 1888 Revised Version: “Be not anxious for the morrow.” Anxiety can take your mind off of the Lord; it can disturb your peace and ruin your whole life. Anxiety is the opposite of faith. Isaiah the prophet tells us:
“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD, the LORD, is everlasting strength (Isa. 26:3,4).”
This strength is real and effective for us here and now in this life, and it is the only strength that lasts forever. No matter what evils come in this life, as people face the death of loved ones, as they face betrayal, economic hardship, illness, their own mortality and the hostility of an unbelieving world, in the Lord is everlasting strength.
“Ye have heard of the patience of Job,” we are told (James 5:11). Let us look as well to the suffering of the Apostles. One of the most moving passages in all of Saint Paul’s Epistles, at least for me, is a personal plea that he wrote near the end of his life to his son in the Faith, Timothy. It is not a deeply theological passage, at least not in an academic sense. It is not a passage that we can use to illuminate our minds with doctrine- and yet is a very useful passage for theology and doctrine if you reflect upon it. In the last chapter of Second Timothy we find two requests. First he wrote: “The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.” Then he wrote, “Do thy diligence to come before winter.”
Think about that. When the Romans locked up a prisoner they did not feed him, or tend to his needs. That had to be arranged by family and friends. At the end of his many years of service, which he once described as involving constant persecutions, and other troubles such as shipwrecks, hunger and cold, he had come to this. The Saint, the former Rabbi who was the father of the Gentile Christians, the man who wrote about charity in words more meaningful than any other passage ever written about love, the man who gave us most of the words of the New Testament, bearing in his body the marks of Christ, glorying only and ever in the cross of Christ, had instead of retirement and a nice pension, a cell in a dungeon and a sentence of death. He was going to face Nero's executioner. To get through his last Winter on this earth he asked Timothy to bring the cloak, and to hurry up and get it to him before the cold winds of Winter could blow through his cell.
Well, that may not seem like a very deep theological passage. But it is. We see the faith of this saint who looked above the things of this world, this last witness of Christ’s resurrection facing death without fear, suffering the loss of all things with joy. His needs were real. He needed the cloak. Also, he wanted his books, probably hand-written copies of the Old Testament scriptures. What good were “the books, especially the parchments,” to a man on death row? The answer is, he wanted to keep his mind fed with the word of God, because he knew, living in prison and facing death, that the truth of the word of God was his anchor.
“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Everything you need for this life will be added. You have no cause for anxiety as unbelievers do. But more than that, more than food and drink, clothing and a place to lay your head, in the Lord is everlasting strength, the gift of sharing immortality with the Risen Christ, and the hope of partaking of the Divine nature through grace. You need not fear that the one who died to take away your sins, and who has promised in His resurrection to be with us forever, will change His mind and break His promises. What you need in this life will be provided as you seek first His kingdom and righteousness. But, even more so, “in the Lord is everlasting strength.” The pledge is eternal life through the risen Christ who has overcome death.
This is the faith that takes you through a life of real struggles and temptations. To feed and strengthen this faith you need to know what to rest your hope upon. For that you need the teaching that God has given by the revelation of His word. Dare I say it? You need the stable anchor of true theology and sound doctrine, because His word revealed in Scripture and known to His Church is where you discover the truth of God’s love.