by Jason Micheli
Galatians 2.1-10 (click to see Scripture text)
It happens every Christmas and Easter. Sometimes it happens on other Sundays, but it always happens every Christmas and Easter. And it’s nothing particular about me. Every pastor I know can tell the same stories of the sorts of people who linger around after “Silent Night” has been sung or the resurrection alleluia has been acclaimed and then, as though they want to show the burn mark where the lightening struck, they approach the preacher to share how the Good News that day hit them in the brokenness of their lives.
He approached me at the end of the seven o’clock Christmas Eve service, just before the pandemic. I was standing here along the altar rail. Smoke was still rising from the wick of my candle. I felt the warm, soft wax on his fingers as I shook his hand and said, “Merry Christmas!”
He blushed and mumbled the season’s greeting back to me clearly second-guessing his impulse to come forward. He had salt-and-pepper hair and razor burn on cheeks that were deeply creased and made him look older than I guessed him to be. The hood of his red Patagonia parka was pulled up over his head— probably, I supposed— to hide the tears running down his face like water on a shower wall.
“I’m Jason,” I said, “I’m one of the preachers here.”
“I know,” he said, “That would be quite the outfit if you weren’t the preacher.”
I laughed and then let the silence that followed fester, waiting for him to show me whatever glad wound God had left behind on him.
“Your message…,” he said, the words catching in his throat, “your message tonight made me want to become a Christian.”
I’ve learned to expect people like him on Christmas and Easter, but I hadn’t expected him to say that.
“The message made you want to become a Christian? Well, what’s stopping you? We can seal the deal right here and now.”
He shook his head.
As much as he wanted to become a Christian, he did NOT want to become a Christian.
“What’s stopping me? I’ve got a dresser drawer full of thirty day sobriety coins but not a single other one. I’ve got a wife who doesn’t know I lost my job— I just drive all day and drink in my car. I’ve got a son who won’t talk to me— for good reasons— and I’ve got a father whom I’ve never forgiven for walking out.”
I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to flesh out the problem.
“Don’t you see? Preacher, it’s all I can do to get out of bed everyday. It felt like walking on broken glass just to be here tonight. If I become a Christian, then I’ll have to commit myself won’t I? I’ll have to commit to getting sober and telling the truth to to my wife and patching things up with my son and my father. To be a Christian, I’ll have to commit to doing those things and— I’ve already lived too many lies— the truth is, I know I can’t do it all.”
“Like I said, your message tonight…it made me want to be a Christian, but to be a Christian, I’ll have to promise to do those others things too, won’t I?”
And I looked at him and I opened my mouth and I flubbed it.
Like a gymnast who can’t stick the landing, what I said to him completely undid whatever I’d said earlier that made him want to be a Christian.
I said, “Well, maybe so, but you don’t have to do it all tonight.”
That wasn’t a yes, exactly. Yes, in order to be a Christian you’re compelled to get clean, confess to your missus, reconcile with your son, and forgive your father.
I didn’t say yes, exactly. I didn’t fail that badly. But I did not give him the single-syllabled, solitary word he desperately needed to hear and that just happens to be the God’s honest truth.
As I recall it, I said a great many thing to him. Pastoral things, perhaps. Compassionate things, probably. Empathetic things, I bet. And so I know, from sheer word count, that I did not clearly and emphatically, with an urgency that made plain this is a matter of life and death, on which the Gospel itself is at stake, say, “NO.”
No, you don’t have to clean up your act in order to be a Christian. No, you don’t have to confess and repent in order to be a Christian. No, you don’t have to reconcile and forgive in order to be a Christian.
You don’t need to have any of that to your credit to be a Christian. In fact, all you need to have is nothing.
I know it because the Bible tells me so— today.
It’s likely not your most beloved memory verse, and I doubt any of you have it cross-stitched and framed on your wall, but I could make a case that verse three in our text today is one of the most consequential, record-scratch, mic-drop verses in the entire Bible, “Titus was not compelled to be circumcised.”
You might not want Titus was not compelled to be circumcised stenciled on your throw pillows or tattooed on your granddaughter’s forearm but it’s dynamite all the same.
The same could be said for the loaded comment Paul makes three verses later, “The leaders in Jerusalem added nothing to my message.”
Just to review—
Everywhere the Apostle Paul journeyed preaching the good news of grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone, false teachers followed close behind him, claiming apostolic authority for themselves and teaching a different Gospel.
Rather than proclamation about what God has done for you free of charge in Jesus Christ, the false teachers issued exhortation about what you must do for God by following the obedient example of Jesus Christ.
The false teachers muddled the message of the Gospel with the Law into a kind of Glawspel, a Christ plus commandment-keeping Gospel that, as Paul says in chapter one, is not only no Gospel at all it’s anathema, God-damnable.
The false teachers compelled non-Jewish believers to undergo circumcision, therefore, because circumcision was the mark of a life lived under the Law.
Paul responds to the false teachers’s aspersions by asserting that his Gospel is the only Gospel for his Gospel was taught to him by the Risen Christ over a period of three years during a self-imposed exile in Arabia.
My Gospel is authentic because Jesus Christ himself gave the Gospel to me, Paul declares at the end of chapter one.
Here at the top of chapter two Paul insists that the other apostles, James and Peter, affirmed the authenticity of Paul’s Gospel message when Paul went by revelation to Jerusalem fourteen years into his Gospel mission.
Affirmed by the apostles in Jerusalem but also endorsed by the Holy Spirit— that’s why Paul takes Barnabas with him to Jerusalem. Barnabas was a Jewish convert to faith in Christ.
Barnabas was also an eyewitness to the phenomenon of Gentile converts receiving the Holy Spirit when they heard Paul’s Gospel and placed their faith in Christ and his grace.
So you see the layers of Paul’s rebuttal.
My Gospel is the only authentic Gospel:
Titus is a Gentile.
Go ahead, check under the hood.
I took him with me to Jerusalem when I laid my Gospel before the other apostles and they did not compel him to be circumcised nor did they add anything to my Gospel.
The point Paul is trying to make is not that Jesus Christ is enough without circumcision but later on down the road we may have to add something else, say, Jesus plus a contrite, repentant heart or Jesus plus personal piety or Jesus plus social justice activism. Paul’s point is that Jesus Christ plus nothing else whatsoever, for all time and in every circumstance— Christ plus nothing— is the Good News for you. And therefore, to be a Christian requires only that you come to Christ with nothing.
In his Preface to his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, the theologian Karl Barth writes that a true understanding of Paul’s apostolic message will always verge on the precipice of heresy.
Because, Barth says, the Gospel announces a radical departure from and a seismic rupture with every form of religion.
Religion concerns our journey to God and what we do for God.
And the Gospel is something else entirely. It’s the announcement of God’s journey to us. It’s the promise of what God has done for us.
A right understanding of Paul’s Gospel will always verge on the precipice of heresy.
Barth could have had in mind these two verses today:
If you don’t find yourself teetering on the precipice of heresy, with your toes curled over the edge, then you still don’t understand Paul’s Gospel. Because if the message has landed, then your inevitable next questions will verge on the verboten.
The Gospel should provoke you to ask, “Does this mean there’s nothing we must do?”
Or the even better question, “Does this mean we can do whatever we want?”
If the Gospel’s brought you to the precipice of those two questions, then the true Gospel has gotten a hold of you.
Jerry Root is on the faculty at Wheaton College.
He’s a world renown evangelist and widely respected scholar of C.S. Lewis.
In 2017, Jerry Root was invited to deliver a series of lectures at Utah State. During the final lecture, in a crowded auditorium of Mormons and skeptical undergraduates, someone asked Jerry Root how a man as smart as him could be a Christian.
Without even pausing to consider the question, as though he knew the truth of it in his bones and carried it with him every day, Jerry Root replied, “I’m a Christian because I know enough of my deficiencies to be devastated. I’m a Christian because I know enough of my goodness to distrust it. I don’t think I could live without forgiveness and without the grace of God.”
In the audience that night was a young mother named Katie Langston who’d grown up in a conservative Mormon family but who was at the breaking point of religious exhaustion.
All the oughts and shoulds of the Mormon religion, all the righteousness-seeking and worthiness- accruing and commandment-keeping, had brought her to spiritual despair.
Langston describes hearing Jerry Root’s response as a conversion experience.
In her memoir Sealed, in which she shares her journey out of Mormonism and into the Gospel of grace, Langston writes,
“That was it. Dr. Root’s reply was a simple one, but I’d never known anyone to admit such a thing out loud. It was the cardinal rule of Mormon spirituality: Be ye therefore perfect, and if you couldn’t be perfect, you must do all you can to fix it. Try harder. Get absolution. Pray more. You didn’t name your brokenness. You battled it, sought to excise it with every ounce of energy you possessed. To admit powerlessness in the face of your deficiencies was to let your deficiencies win.
Yet here was a man, mature and accomplished, who knew the devastation of human brokenness but didn’t despair over it. He had a life-line, he said: forgiveness and the grace of God.
Could the Christian Gospel possibly be that simple? He admitted his deficiencies in the present tense— he still had them, he hadn’t eradicated them— but somehow he was whole anyway. You could see it in the way he spoke of his flaws: he neither relished them nor felt such shame about them that he sought to hide them.
It’s not this easy, it can’t be this easy, I thought, but even as I did, I knew it was. The last bulwarks of my resistance [to Christ] crumbled. I could not have anticipated the disruption this would cause to my life and my sense of place in the world, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I no longer needed to be other than who I was. My heart sang out, Yes, I’m deficient. I’m devastated. I’m human at least!— with each breath, turning myself over to the One who could make of me what I had never been able to make of myself.
I say I turned myself over to God. But that’s not entirely accurate. It’s more correct to say that I was turned; that is, for all those years I’d gotten it precisely backward. I had believed that I must choose God in order to be loved, but the reality what that God’s love chose me. In that instant, on the precipice, the world right-sided itself, and I trembled as the foundations of my life fell out from under me, only to discover that I was standing, for the first time, on solid ground.”
Nearly three centuries ago, in Middletown, Connecticut, a poor, semi-literate farmer named Nathan Cole experienced a similar Gospel epiphany as Katie Langston.
In October 1741, Cole heard a sermon by the Methodist preacher, George Whitfield and he later recorded the effect of the Gospel on him in his diary.
“To me, this is what it means to be a Christian. My hearing Mr. Whitfield preach gave me a heart wound; and by God’s blessing, my old foundation was broken and turned upside down. I saw not only that my sins condemned me but that my righteousness could not save me, and I understood finally that if Christ is everything then I have nothing to bring him. Indeed to come to him with this nothing, that is, by faith only, is the essence of what it means to be a Christian.”
Notice, he didn’t say, “I’m gonna have to get my act together now.”
No, what he said was, “I stopped trusting myself.”
I ceased trusting in whatever good works of my own I’ve attempted to add to the Gospel.
That’s what it means to be standing right-side up.
It’s not just our sins that come between God and us.
It’s our “goodness.”
Christ has already taken our sins away— they’re not the problem.
It’s holding onto our goodness, thinking it does us any good at all, that keeps us living upside down in the world that Christ has right-sided.
On the precipice between Law and Grace, the world right-sided itself, Katie Langston writes.
According to the Apostle Paul, the problem with those who want to add some obligation other than faith to the Gospel, perverting the Gospel into a Christ plus commandment-keeping Gospel, mixing the Gospel and muddling it with the Law— the problem with those who want to add to the Gospel is that they’re insisting on living upside-down in world that Jesus Christ has already right-sided.
After all, the Bible says the entire purpose of the Law is to impress upon you your need for a savior.
Think about it.
You can’t possibly attempt to keep every one of the Old Testament’s six hundred and thirteen commandments without being confronted every day by the reality that you cannot do it all, that you are not righteous, that you need a savior. That’s why Jesus locks all the exits in his sermon on the mount and says that if you’ve even lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery. He wants to hit you with the truth that you have no hope other than a savior.
But that savior has come, taking from you, in his body upon the tree, all your sins and gifting to you, by the power of his resurrection, all of his righteousness.
Therefore, the purpose of the Law has been satisfied.
The reason for the overwhelming number of commandments has come and gone.
It’s not that the commandments been annulled. It’s that they’ve been fulfilled. The world’s been right-sided. And so, as the Book of Hebrews puts it, the way to honor the Law now is to refuse to treat it as religiously valuable. The way to truly keep the commandments now is to abstain from assigning them any saving significance. The way to honor all the oughts and shoulds of scripture— including, the Law Jesus lays down— is to require of believers faith alone apart from any ought or should.
In other words, to require nothing.
Christ has come.
To believe that your obedience to the Law is in any way necessary or even salutary, that it in any way makes you worthy or righteous, to think that your good deeds, even in the slightest, atone for your wicked deeds is to dishonor the Law.
It’s to refuse to stand upon the solid ground Christ and him crucified has laid beneath your feet.
It’s out of reverence for the commandments that Paul refuses to add them back to the Gospel. Christ has already come. The savior has arrived.
The way to honor the Law, the way to keep the commandments, the way to be holy is to do nothing but place your trust in Jesus Christ.
Of course, that brings us back to the precipice with our toes curled over the edge of heresy. Do we not have to do anything? There’s a difference, Paul wants us to see, between “Must we…?” and “Will we…?” Paul’s aside in verse ten today about remembering the poor is but an indication. As a Christian, you will do many, many things. You will find yourself confessing and repenting. You will forgive the very people you swore you never would forgive. You will give to the poor and befriend companions you’d never choose and engage in issues you once avoided. You’ll also sin and self-justify and daily demonstrate your need for a substitute savior.
As a Christian, you will do many things.
But to be a Christian, you must do only one thing.
Just trust in him and his grace for you.
The man with the razor-burned chin and the red parka—
He was here this Easter too for our outdoor service. I recognized him in the communion line.
When I had placed the elements in his outstretched hands, he’d started to cry and said, “Thank you.”
“This is the Body of Christ, broken for you,” I’d said, “The Blood of Christ, poured out for you.”
“Thank you,” he’d said.
Not Thanks be to God.
Not even Happy Easter or Christ is Risen indeed.
“Thank you,” he cried, like I’d just handed him an ice cold bottle of pilsner in the desert.
Once again, he lingered long after the benediction. His tears glistened in the Sunday morning sun.
“Say,” I said, “for someone supposedly teetering on the edge of becoming Christian, how come I don’t see you around much?”
He wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
“I’ve been coming and going from church nearly my whole life. I learned quick that if I come on any ordinary Sunday, then, chances are, I’m going to be given something I gotta do, told who I should be other than the me that’s me. But if I only come on Christmas and Easter, I’ve got a very strong chance of hearing nothing. Nothing but good news.”
He shook my hand, still holding the empty plastic receptacle for the bread and the wine. And as he walked away, I look down at the ground around me, searching for the keys and coins that surely had spilt from my pockets. Because he had just right-sided my world and set me back again on solid ground.
2Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. 3But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4But because of false believers* secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us— 5we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. 6And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders added nothing to my message. 7On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised 8(for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), 9and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was* eager to do.
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