“Once Again, It’s Not About You”
A Sermon on Galatians 2:15-21 for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
By The Rev. Matthew Emery, preached June 16, 2013
We here in Connecticut are no strangers to political disappointment, to that sense of being underwhelmed, let down, occasionally even betrayed by our political and legal and other public leaders. This month’s issue of Connecticut Magazine included a brief article reflecting on the ten years that have passed since the rumors of corruption surfaced that led to the fall of then-governor John G. Rowland. You may remember that those rumors started surfacing right at the same time as Waterbury mayor Philip Giordano and Bridgeport mayor Joe Ganim were themselves being convicted—the former as a sex offender and the later under corruption charges—and set off to jail. One of Connecticut’s state senators fell to a similar fate within a year or two. This Nutmeg State having been dubbed “Corrupticut”, a New York Times article was at least kind enough to let folks know that <quote> “For the record, not everyone in Connecticut is a crook.”
Now, regardless of fact that the commentator this month in Connecticut Magazine is questioning whether things have really gotten significantly better in these ten years, you know, I suppose we here in Connecticut shouldn’t feel all that bad… After all, just remember that we are by no means alone. As most of you know, prior to coming here to Storrs two-and-a-half years ago, I had spent most of my adult life in northern Illinois. I’m not really sure Illinoisans would know what to do with themselves if there wasn’t some scandal or disappointment going on. Not only was the state home to infamous governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, who tried to sell the US Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama became president, but at the time, Blagojevich’s immediate predecessor, George Ryan, a Republican, was already sitting in jail for bribery and corruption. Two other Illinois governors from recent memory—one from the ‘60s and one from the ‘70s—have also done time. And that’s all just at the state level… don’t even get me started on Cook County and the city of Chicago!
Now, to be fair, I don’t believe—for the most part—that politicians and other public leaders are categorically corrupt and crooked. That doesn’t mean that they don’t disappoint us from time to time, or even fairly frequently. Part of that is, of course, simply that they all, like us, are simply human, and none of us can live up to every other person’s expectations of us 100% of the time. But more than that, for people in political leadership positions, I can’t help but see how some of those disappointing moments come out of the crucible of debate and compromise, of trying to figure out the magic combinations of the principled and the possible, the ethical and the expedient, the supportable and sufficient. When one side wants zero change and the other 100% change, is it ever possible to find a happy 50%? Or does that just end up disappointing everyone?
There could, I think, be just this kind of situation in the backstory behind the words we’ve heard from the letter to the Galatians this morning. In the landscape behind the words of this letter, there might just be a public leader who was just trying to find a supportable and sufficient compromise. But that leader isn’t Paul, the author of this letter.
As we spoke of last week, the book called Galatians in our bibles is actually a letter from the apostle Paul to some of the earliest Christian churches, congregations that Paul himself founded in those first few decades after Jesus’s time on earth. Those Galatian Christians were being influenced by other Christian leaders who came in after Paul, trying to convince these non-Jewish converts to Christianity that they needed to adopt the practices of the Jewish covenant—food laws, ritual observances, and circumcision chief among them—in order to be fully a part of the Christian community. Paul is writing to the Galatians with both irritation and passion to reaffirm what he had taught them originally.
You and I both know, though, that when you’re in a debate or having a conflict, and you’re making your case to one party, sometimes your debate with another party enters in—you know, when you’re hashing something out with your spouse or partner and that conflict you’re having with your child—or maybe your parents—gets in mix.
In the midst of trying to redirect the Galatians back to the truths he originally taught them, Paul in this letter is also having it out with one of his contemporaries, a guy the letter names as Cephas, but who most of us know better as Peter. Yes, Peter, the leader among Jesus’s disciples, the one who first confessed Jesus as the messiah and yet who also denied him three times as he was being led away to be crucified; Peter who interpreted the coming of the Spirit at that first Pentecost; Peter who functioned as a first-among-equals leader of the budding Christian community in those earliest years.
But, you see, Peter had become one of those disappointing politicians—at least in Paul’s eyes. You know, the kind who says they’ll do one thing if they get elected, but then don’t follow through, or perhaps ends up doing exactly the opposite of what they say. The ultra-conservatives disappointed with George W. Bush for his continuance and contribution to big government, or the peace activist liberals disappointed with President Obama for continued military action and the fact that Guantanamo Bay is still open—we are familiar with this sort of disappointment.
In the case of Peter, Paul calls him out for what Paul sees as Peter’s hypocrisy right in the verses preceding today’s passage. “Until certain people came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles,” Paul writes. “But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” In other words, Paul is saying that Peter used to “get it”, he used to understand that the truth of the gospel meant that God did not distinguish between Jew and Gentile, that because of Christ it did not matter if the ritual codes and food laws were kept. But then the other side got to him, and he changed his story. Or, maybe not changed his story, but wouldn’t stick up for the truth he knew in the face of opposition. Hypocritical, perhaps, or maybe just cowardly. Either way, Paul was going to set the record straight to the Galatians about Peter and his flip-flopping.
The truth and integrity of the very gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake for Paul. When it comes to justification—to salvation, to being accounted as being right with God, acceptable and loved in God’s eyes—either Christ is sufficient or he’s not. There can be no “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…” You can’t say, ‘you’re saved by grace, and you have to be circumcised.’ You can’t say, ‘you’re saved by grace, but you have to do this act of penance or be set back right.’ You can’t say, ‘you’re saved by grace, and you have to stop drinking, dancing, and playing cards.’ You can’t make those sorts of arguments because, as Paul put it, “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”
Either God saves us by God’s grace, or not. The truth about how we are set right with God that is being driven home by Paul in this letter to the Galatians, this was hugely important for the Protestant Reformers as well. Back in the 1500s, when folk like Martin Luther and John Calvin and many others were objecting to the medieval Christian church’s straying from the gospel by attaching ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ to the grace of God, Paul’s words in Galatians played a central role. Relentless in their thinking and writing and preaching, the Reformers reminded us that the centerpiece of Christian faith is not about us, but about God. If there’s an and or a but attached, then it becomes about us. But Christianity isn’t first about us, it’s about God, what God has done, what God is doing, the promise of what God will do—all made known to us in Jesus Christ. We don’t have to be perfect, for that is God’s job. As Martin Luther put it in his second set of lectures on Galatians, “A Christian is not someone who has no sin or who feels sinless; he is someone whom God does not blame for his sin because he has put his trust in Christ.”
Indeed. It’s not about whether we are perfect, or even whether or not we feel holy enough. My friends, perhaps that cannot be said enough. Because if there is one thing that bears repeating again and again, it is the ultimate truth that, in the end, God’s grace is not something you can achieve. It’s there for you already. Because, after all, it’s not about you.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen
 Matt Derienzo, “Corrupticut Abides”, Connecticut Magazine 76.6 (June 2013), p. 10-11.
 New York Times article from March 2003, “The Nutmeg State Battles the Stigma of Corrupticut”, quoted without further citation details in Derienzo, “Corrupticut Abides”.
 Martin Luther, Second Lectures on Galatians, reprinted in Gerald L. Bray, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. 10 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), p. 72.