A letter from a daughter to her parents!
Dear Mother and Dad:
It has now been three months since I left for college. I have been remiss in writing and am very sorry for my thoughtlessness in not having written before. I will bring you up to date now, but before you read on, please sit down. You are not to read any further unless you are sitting down…
Well, then, I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and the concussion I got when I jumped out of the window of my dormitory when it caught fire shortly after my arrival, are pretty well healed now. I only spent two weeks in the hospital and now I can see almost normally and only get three headaches a day.
Fortunately the fire in the dormitory and my jump were witnessed by an attendant at the gas station near the dorm and he was the one who called the Fire Department and the ambulance. He also visited me at the hospital, and since I had nowhere to live because of the burnt-out dorm, he was kind enough to invite me to share his apartment with him. It’s really a basement room, but it is kind of cute.
He is a very fine boy and we have fallen deeply in love and are planning to get married. We haven’t set the exact date yet, but it will be before my pregnancy begins to show.
Yes, Mother and Dad, I am pregnant. I know how much you are looking forward to being grandparents and I know you will welcome the baby and give it the same love and devotion and tender care you gave me when I was a child. The reason for the delay in our marriage is that my boyfriend has some minor infection which prevents us from passing our premarital blood tests and I carelessly caught it from him. This will soon clear up with the penicillin injections we are taking daily.
I know you will welcome him into our family with open arms. He is kind and although not well educated, he is ambitious. Although he is of a different religion than ours, I know your expressed tolerance will not permit you to be bothered by this fact. I am sure you will love him as I do. His family background is good too, for I am told that his father has been out of jail for seven years and not had any serious encounters with the police since.
Now that I have brought you up to date, I want to tell you that there was no dormitory fire, I did not have a concussion or skull fracture, I was not in the hospital, I am not pregnant, I am not engaged, and I do not have syphilis…
However, I am getting a “D” in History and an “F” in Science, and I wanted you to see these marks in the proper perspective.
Your loving daughter,
An empty mailbox is not as good as one that has mail in it. But if all you received is advertising junk mail, maybe the empty mailbox might have been better after all. Mail with your name on it is good but not if they are all bills. It is personal letters that we like to receive. This is especially wonderful when you live overseas and receive a letter from your family or friends. It is a way of being connected with people you love.
But not all letters have that same warm feeling. If you are in a romantic relationship with someone and receive a letter from the love of your life telling you he or she has met someone else and wants to end their relationship with you, that letter hits you like a punch in the stomach. Or if someone who has hurt you deeply in the past sends you a letter, you open it with fear and trepidation because of what they might say to hurt you this time.
The letter Paul sent to the Galatians was not a pleasant one to receive. I imagine that the Galatians were at first eager to hear news from Paul when the letter came to their church community to be read, but right at the beginning, they knew this was not going to be a letter full of pleasantries.
Galatians is not the only letter Paul wrote that contained some hard news to hear. But this letter of Paul to the Galatians stands out among all his letters. There is something different about this letter.
All of Paul’s letters start out with the equivalent of “Dear Corinthians or Thessalonians.” It took longer to say this in those days so this can amount to as much as five verses. But then, in all of Paul’s letters except Galatians comes some pleasant comment.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you
I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you.
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,
We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so,
But there are no pleasantries in this letter to the Galatians. Paul starts out with the ancient equivalent of Dear Galatians (verses 1-5). And then he explodes with the sentiment that has caused him to write to them.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all.
Which is to say, “How could you! After all I did for you?” It is like receiving a letter: “Dear Joe, Are you out of your cotton picking mind?” It just is not very polite and violated the form of letters that were sent in that time.
Some have suggested that since this is the first of Paul’s letters, he does not yet know how to write a polite letter. That does not seem very likely. What seems more obvious is that Paul was so worked up, so agitated by the news he had received, he jumped past the pleasantries and got right to the point.
It is as if Paul received the news of the Judaizers attacking the gospel of Christ he preached and five minutes later was writing this letter to be sent with the fastest traveler in Antioch so the churches would hear his response as soon as possible.
Why was Paul so agitated?
Remember that Paul went out and started these churches in a hostile environment. The churches were like tiny shoots just coming out of the ground that are easily destroyed. A baby playing on the ground can pick up the shoot of an oak tree and pull it out of the ground. A turtle might come along and chew on it and destroy it. A new shoot needs to be protected. A fence needs to be put around it. It needs water during a dry spell since it does not yet have roots that go deep enough into the ground to survive on its own. A new shoot is very fragile.
Like a new shoot, these new churches were vulnerable to so many dangers. There were the synagogues which had opposed Paul’s teachings. They would stand in opposition to these churches. Without Paul’s teaching, the enthusiasm with which the churches started might fade and the people would drift back to what they were doing before Paul came. Paul was an interesting preacher and teacher, but now the person doing the teaching and preaching was not as well educated, did not have the same charisma. Church was just not as interesting as it was when Paul was there and so people might drift away.
These are the fears that were perhaps in Paul’s mind.
In Paul’s letters, you can read how much he longs to be with these churches to protect them, instruct them, help them to grow. He seems to be continually torn between the desire to stay to help and protect the new churches and the sense of his calling to go to new areas to start new churches.
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And later in the same letter:
Therefore I am all the more eager to send [Epaphroditus], so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.
When Paul left a church he had started, he left his heart behind. He worried. He prayed. He strategized. The churches he had started were ever on his mind and he waited with great eagerness for any news he received from them. The receipt of news was either an occasion for celebration or time for a strong letter to set the church again on the right track.
So when Paul received word that these churches were being attacked he was furious. He was furious because he was so anxious about the health of these new churches and worried they were being destroyed.
How upset was Paul? Listen to his words:
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
In Paul’s other letters he begins with a blessing. In this letter he begins with a curse. Paul wrote that these people were trying to pervert the gospel of Christ and that they should be cursed, eternally condemned. ajnavqema e[stw Anathame esto! This is very strong language and just to make sure the Galatians didn’t think Paul had let it slip out without having time to think about what he said, he repeated himself. If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! ajnavqema e[stw Anathame esto!
What he writes is that anyone bringing in a perversion of the gospel of Christ should be damned by God for eternity.
This is very strong language and makes us uncomfortable. In times past heretics were burned at the stake but now we live in an age of tolerance. It is OK for anyone to believe what he or she wants to believe. Anyone who goes around asking God to damn someone for eternity is viewed by us as crazy, fanatical, sick, disturbed.
Yet Paul was none of these.
The question Paul raises for us in this first part of his letter is whether or not we are free to curse as he did.
The first thing to be pointed out about cursing is to notice that Paul did not advocate torturing, imprisoning, killing, or in any other way physically harming these Judaizers who came to the churches in Galatia. He left that judgement and punishment to God. When we disagree with the theology of someone, Christian or non-Christian, we do not have the right to pass final judgement on that person. That is God’s business and God will pass judgement in his own time.
Unfortunately, the church has not always adhered to this example Paul provided us. In the history of the church there has been a very unfortunate tendency to persecute those with whom people had theological differences. I remember being in a castle in Salzburg, Austria. This castle sits high on a hill from which there is a beautiful view of the surrounding area. It is a great place to visit, full of history. One of the more disturbing parts of that history is a tour of the dungeon where they tortured people. There was a chair with spikes along the back and spikes on the arm rests of the chair. A person was strapped to this chair with enough looseness in the straps that the victim could lean forward and raise his arms and not touch the spikes. But as soon as the victim relaxed, leaned back a bit or could no longer keep his arms raised, he was stabbed by these spikes.
The museum had instruments of torture, one after the other. Ingenious devices meant to inflict pain in as cruel a manner as possible. Far more simple and perhaps cruelest was a long deep shaft in the ground into which a person would be lowered. There was space enough to stand, but not to kneel, not to sit and a person would be left down in that damp dark hole for days and weeks and longer.
Who was tortured? Was it criminals who had robbed and murdered and raped? Was it invaders from another land? No, it was Catholics torturing Protestants or the other way around, I can’t remember now. But over and over again people have had to flee to escape the persecution of Christian against Christian because of theological differences.
There is no justification for this behavior. We are free to disagree and even free to curse when it is appropriate, but never to beat or physically harm the one with whom we disagree.
Secondly, I want to stress the seriousness of cursing. This is not something to be done easily or lightly. Neither Paul nor you or I have the power to eternally condemn any person. But there is, I suspect, some spiritual residue of our curses. This by itself makes it a serious matter.
But there is also the material side of cursing. When we curse someone, we are creating division in the church. Blessing bring unity and cursing brings division. This is a very serious matter because of the importance Jesus placed on unity. Just read his prayer in John 17 to see how important it was to Jesus that we live togther in unity.
To make the decision to curse cannot be taken easily.
When is it not right to curse? When is it wrong to create division in the church?
Can I curse someone who has a different eschatological view than I do? No! Because you and I disagree on when the rapture will come and when there will be tribulation and if there will even be a millennium, does that mean we can not fellowship together? Does that mean we cannot worship and work together? And yet it is sad to see that the church divides itself into denominations and organizations on the basis of whether or not a person believes the rapture will come before the millennium or not or whether Christians will be raptured before, during or after the tribulation.
Can I curse someone on the basis of their dispensational, Armenian or Reformed theology? Absolutely not! I can disagree but I need to bless the people I disagree with, not curse them and sow disunity in the body of Christ.
Can I curse someone because they think infants can be baptized by sprinkling? No!
But what we can learn from Paul is that when the core of our faith is attacked, then the gloves may be removed because this threatens the life and health of the church. And what is the core of our faith? It is not our view of baptism or communion or our view of end times theology or what spiritual gift we have received. The core of our faith is that we are saved by grace and grace alone.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast
wrote Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.
It was an attack on this core that caused Paul to become so exercised and to curse the Judaizers.
Let me suggest that there are modern day equivalents to the Judaizers and if Paul were here in the flesh, he would cry out anathema esto! and condemn them eternally.
There are a lot of questionable exports from the United States, but one of the worst is the health and wealth gospel that is popular in many parts of the US and has found fertile soil in Africa.
Eugene Peterson writes in his book on Galatians that whereas we used to burn heretics at the stake, today we dress them in three piece suits and give them six figure salaries. And, I might add, we put them on TBN. (Not all on TBN are slashed with this brush, but I think you know who I am talking about.) As ugly and repulsive as the makeup and hairdos are on some of these shows, the most repulsive part of what I see is the theology that is preached.
If you have enough faith, you will be healthy and wealthy. A man had $200 to buy some clothes and gave it to a preacher instead. And God blessed this man with person after person giving him clothes so now his closet is full of clothes with $3,000 suits and price tags on what he has never worn.
The preacher tells this story and is proud of it. The people sitting behind him smile and Amen what he says.
They take turns preaching and trying to get listeners to send in money to support their kingdom. “Give $2,000 and God will give you back much more.” One after the other they stand and deliver this putrid garbage.
This is disgusting!
From time to time here at RPF I receive an envelope with an offering of money and a note. I won’t read one of the notes but the message is basically this: This is seed money. I’m giving this money to God so God will give me the money I need to get where I’m going.
I’ve received a blouse with the same message, that this blouse is seed clothing, given so God will give other clothes the woman needs.
This is destructive American theology exported to Africa.
The people who preach this theology are at best deluded and at worst slick con artists out to make a living on the backs of the poor listeners who send in their money so the preachers can live a wealthy, extravagant lifestyle.
But the worst part of what they do is to teach that God’s good gifts to us come to us because of what we do. It takes us from the freedom Christ offers us and puts us back into slavery.
This theology says that when you are praying for healing, if anyone has doubts, leave the room, because healing will not take place unless we all believe. We find enough faith and then God acts.
If Paul were here, he would cry out anathema esto! Let them be eternally condemned. And the reason he would curse them is that they are stripping the gospel of Christ of the grace that is at the center. Our faith becomes our work that has to be done. Our giving becomes a work that gets me what I want.
This theology puts us back into the slavery from which Christ set us free.
How much faith do we need to see great miracles happen in our life and the lives of those around us? Jesus said you need only faith the size of a mustard seed which is to say hardly any faith because when God acts, it is his power, his grace, not our efforts that accomplishes anything.
When I put money in the offering plate so God will give me more money and even when I pray and read my Bible so God will give me what I want, a theology of works has come in to replace the grace that is at the core of our faith.
Our faith centers around the grace of God. We are saved not because of what we do, what we have done or what we will do. We are saved by the love of God in Christ Jesus. While we were still sinners Christ died for us.
When the Kingdom of God breaks through into this present age and a miracle happens, it is not because we had enough faith or prayed the right prayer. It is because in God’s mercy and grace he chose to do what he did.
God wants us to pray. God wants us to grow in faith. God wants us to read the Bible as a means to the end of knowing him more deeply. God wants us to care for others and pray for their healing. But when something happens, it is the work of God. Not the result of our work.
It is grace, grace, grace and grace! This will be the message we will hear over and over as we work our way through Galatians.
Our communion this morning is the best reminder of grace we have in the church. We come to the Lord’s Supper with nothing to offer. We have nothing with which we can repay God for the gift he has given us. We have not earned the salvation we have received. We will never be able to repay God for his gift to us. Our communion service is a celebration of grace.
Because of God’s grace received in our lives we do a lot of things. We read our Bibles and pray. We give our money to the work of the church. We give our time to the work of the church. But none of these things are done to repay. None of these things are done so we can receive anything more. We do these things out of gratitude for what God has done for us. We do these things because we have discovered that they lead to the way of life.
Come this morning in celebration of the grace we have received.