by Jason Micheli
Galatians 3.1-9 (click to see Scripture text)
“Oh, you idiot Galatians—What are you doing? How dumb can you be? Why in the world do you think this is the path to a new and improved you?”
William Lyttle was a British civil engineer from Ireland. By the time he died in 2010, William Lyttle had become infamous as the “Mole-Man of Hackney.” Sometime in the middle of the 1960’s, William Lyttle inherited a multimillion dollar estate in the East London borough of Hackney.
It was a treasure. And William Lyttle didn’t work for it or earn it. He didn’t buy it with his wages or purchase it on his credit. It didn’t cost him a single farthing.
He inherited it.
By another’s death, it was gifted to him.
And what did William Lyttle, do with his inheritance? How did William Lyttle respond to the free gift? “It’s not a proper estate without a wine cellar,” Lyttle said, “so no sooner had I moved into the house than I set upon digging myself a wine cellar.” But once William Lyttle had begun his work to improve upon his inheritance, he immediately became more interested in his “improvement” project than he was with simply enjoying the gift.
He left the gift behind entirely— took it for granted— and became consumed with his work. He didn’t stop with a modest wine cellar. A proper estate, he thought, needed connections— to the Tube, to the canal path, and to the local pub. Starting in the mid-60’s, with only a hand-shovel and a homemade pulley, William Lyttle dug a web of tunnels and caverns and burrows underneath and all around his estate. He dug several levels of tunnels, digging as far down as one hundred feet, all the way to the water table. He dug the length of football fields in all directions across the circumference of his house.
One of William Lyttle’s neighbors, Marc Beishon, told the Guardian newspaper, “We expected him to pop up through our kitchen floor some evening. We could hear him down there, underneath our house, digging and digging and digging.”
Marc Beishon’s wife, Joy, was less amused, telling a reporter, “We moved here six years ago, and we’ve been complaining to the town council ever since. The whole neighborhood lost power one day when the Mole-Man dug straight through a four hundred fifty volt cable.”
Get this—Joy Beishon gave that quote to a reporter in 2006; meaning, she moved into her house in the year 2000. Meaning, William Lyttle, the Mole-Man of Hackney dug and dug and dug, underneath the mansion that was his inheritance, for over forty years. Forty years! For four decades he worked and worked and worked— foolish, futile work— to improve upon the treasure he was freely given.
In 2006, the road that ran in front of William Lyttle’s estate cratered and became impassable and the city removed him from the estate and, on the public’s dime, they put him up in a hotel apartment.
On the top floor.
The city eventually removed forty tons of debris from William Lyttle’s garden. He had dumped still more tunneled earth into the bedrooms of his mansion.
It cost the town over one hundred thousand pounds to fill in the Mole-Man’s tunnels with cement just so the estate wouldn’t collapse into the Swiss-cheesed earth below. When a reporter asked the Mole-Man of Hackney if he’d ever kicked back and enjoyed a bottle of wine in the mansion he had inherited, William Lyttle rubbed his chin, as if trying to recall, and then he answered, “No, I don’t believe I did.”
“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
Shooting the breeze one Sunday morning in the narthex— this was shortly after I read about the Mole-Man’s death in the newspaper in 2010— I told the story to a parishioner named Lew.
Bless his heart.
Mostly, I figured any time I spent telling Lew a story— any story— would be time Lew was not telling me how I was an incompetent preacher and a terrible pastor and an embarrassment to the United Methodist Church, three of his favorite lines of conversation. Lew had given his heart to Jesus Christ at a Billy Graham crusade decades earlier, he once told me, and ever since he’d poured himself into serving on church committees, signing up for Disciple Bible studies, participating in prayer groups, organizing men’s golf trips, serving in soup kitchens, sleeping at hypothermia shelters, going on mission trips, taking spiritual gift surveys, learning contemplative practices, and all the rest.
You name it.
He had done it or read it or practiced it.
To no discernible effect.
Lew was an insufferable cuss about as short on patience and gentleness as he was bereft of self-awareness. And I’m not betraying any confidence because Lew was promiscuous in sharing his low estimation of me. Lew was about the most un-sanctified person I’ve ever met— and, keep in mind, I used to be a chaplain at a maximum security prison filled with murderers and molesters and gang-members.
To keep his attention off of me, one Sunday after worship in 2010, I told Lew about the Mole-Man of Hackney. When I finished relaying the story, as a sort of coda, I chuckled.
“What are you laughing about?” he asked, glaring at me with his red cheeks and unkempt eyebrows.
“It’s just sort of a sad but funny story,” I replied.
“I’ll tell you what’s sad about it,” he said in his nasally voice, “What’s sad is that I’ve lived most of my Christian life exactly like that fool.”
And I looked at him, surprised by this apparent glimmer of self-understanding.
“I was a fool for thinking that the way I got into the faith was somehow different from the way I was meant to grow in the faith. I left it behind and I exhausted myself, and now I’m not really any different for it.”
I was about to minimize what he’d said, “Oh no, you’re being too hard on yourself,” but he cut off, jabbing his finger at me.
“I’ll tell you what’s even sadder,” he said, “you’ve got a whole church full of mole-men. Hell, you’ve got an entire denomination of mole-men. That’s why I keep telling you you’re such a terrible preacher. You just tell us to dig more.”
And he pointed towards the pulpit, “You just tell us to dig more, when you should be standing up there, dragging us out of our holes by the feet, and handing over the goods, demanding we stop digging and we take up our inheritance.”
Thus far in his epistle to the churches in Galatia, Paul has been defending his Gospel of grace and his authority to be delivering it as the only true Gospel.
Now, in chapter three, Paul pivots back to the Galatians whom he has caught red-handed in heresy.
O, you idiot Galatians!
When the Gospel of Christ and him crucified was proclaimed to you— and the word Paul uses there in Greek is graphically displayed— it became so real to you that it was as if you were there nailing him to his cross.
The Gospel convicted you, and you put your trust not in your moral performance.
You put your trust in him, in his faithfulness, and, when you did, when you placed your faith in Christ alone, the Holy Spirit came into your life and, even, began working miracles in your life. But now, having begun with Christ, these false teachers have conned you into going back to Moses.
How can you be so stupid?
The Gospel not the Law, faith not commandment-keeping, has always been how God has worked righteousness. And Paul, in verse six, goes all the way back to the beginning, back to Abraham, to prove the pattern. By nothing more than faith, a treasure fell into your lap: a slate forever wiped clean, Christ’s own permanent, perfect record, the Holy Spirit of God at work in your life— wealth beyond measure.
How could you be so stupid as to leave such a Gift behind and go back to digging out a life with the Law?
Now, in order to appreciate why the Apostle Paul is ripping out his hair and hollering here, you have understand the false teachers’s side of the debate. The false teachers’s concern was a legitimate one. The false teachers’s were concerned about the character of Christians. They were concerned about morality, holiness, and improvement.
Just last Sunday, one of you came up to me after worship and you said to me, “Look, I get it. I know I’m accepted and forgiven. I know that Christ is my enough-ness, but how do I get beyond that? How do I actually grow as a Christian?”
Not only is it a good question, it’s a question that cuts to the heart of today’s text. Because it’s one thing that, on Christ’s account, God credits your faith as righteousness, but how do you actually grow into living a more righteous life?
Or to put it theologically, once you’ve crossed over the line into faith, how do you progress from being justified (counted as righteous) to being sanctified (holy)?
The false teachers’s answered that question by saying that you grow in righteousness by doing the Law, by keeping the commandments of God in the Old Testament and the Law of Christ in the New. The false teachers’s said that you become a more generous person, for example, by giving to the poor.
You become a more forgiving person by working hard to forgive the people in your life. You become a more patient person, say, by sheltering the homeless.
Believing the Gospel is what makes you a Christian, but doing the Law is how you grow as a Christian, the false teachers taught.
And today Paul responds to the false teacher’s answer by saying that they may as well be handing you a shovel and telling you to dig.
Until it all comes down.
When I worked as a chaplain at the prison in Trenton, New Jersey, I had a colleague named Mohammad who served as the Muslim Imam. Mohammad was from India. Mohammad was stern and humorless. He loved soccer and, inexplicably, the music of George Michael. Inconveniently, Mohammad also had a PhD in Christian Theology. Know thy enemy.
On day one of my chaplaincy, Mohammad disabused me of my liberal notions that he and I were engaged in essentially the same work. Mohammad made clear that he and I were not pace-setters on paths that led to the same destination.
He shook my hand and said, “As a Muslim, I regard you, a Christian, as a heretic. And as a Christian, if you really are a Christian, you should regard me as such too. I know the prison administration says we are supposed to be colleagues but my goal is to convert as many prisoners as I can, including the Christians.”
“Game on,” I said, which I should not have said because it was out of my hands.
Almost all of the Sunday services at the prison were led not by me or one other chaplains but by volunteer preachers, pastors and laity from churches in the area. A couple of months into my chaplaincy, at a staff meeting, I vented my frustration that Mohammad’s Islamic prayer services were attracting more and more prisoners— even pulling inmates from our Christian services.
And Mohammad laughed, which he never did.
“You want to know why more men come to the Islamic services?”
“Yeah, I do.”
And he leaned across the conference table and said, “All the Christian preachers— they all exhort. They preach about behavior and practice. Obey this; do that, abstain from those things. They preach only the Law, but Islam is the religion par excellence of the Law. If the choice is between two religions of Law, why would they choose the lesser option? Why would they not choose Islam?”
“Huh, You might be on to something,” I begrudgingly admitted.
“It’s unfortunate for you,” Mohammad said, like a pool hustler who suddenly feels sorry for his mark, “These preachers do not understand that focusing on sanctification is not how your New Testament teaches that people actually become sanctified. Muslims believe that we grow and progress by working on our growth and progress, but Christians don’t believe that. Christians believe growth comes in an altogether different manner.”
And then Mohammad flashed a fiendish, schoolyard grin and said, “Of course, I have a PhD in Christian Theology so maybe it’s difficult for you to follow me.”
“Oh, I understand you just fine,” I lied.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Mohammad had in mind passages like our text today.
How do you grow as a Christian, once you’ve crossed the line into faith?
It’s one thing to be counted as righteous.
But how do you actually become more righteous?
Today Paul gives us an answer to that question, and it’s both radical and radically misunderstood.
In the first four verses today, the Apostle Paul reminds the Galatians that when Christ and him crucified was proclaimed to them and when they placed their faith in his work for them, the Holy Spirit came into their lives and began to work miracles in their lives.
In verse five, Paul makes the same exact point but this time he puts it in the present-tense: “Does he supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the Law or by the word of cross that elicits faith?”
He puts it in the present-tense.
In other words, faith in the Gospel is how the Holy Spirit continues to work in your life, which incidentally is exactly what Jesus says in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John.
The reason Paul calls them idiots is because they’ve been fooled into thinking that the way they advance in the Kingdom is somehow different from the way they entered the Kingdom. Paul is beside himself in this letter not because he’s thought-policing their beliefs but because he’s worried they’ve started down a path that will prove self-destructive. Paul’s point here is that the way you get into the faith is the same exact way you grow a faithful life.
There is absolutely no difference between how you become a Christian and how you progress as a Christian. This is a mistake that many, many, many Christians make, including— especially— preachers; that is, we think we’re justified by faith in Jesus but we’re sanctified by trying really, really, really hard to live like Jesus. We think we’re reckoned righteous by faith, but that we really become righteous by our works— by our doings and disciplines, by our practices and piety.
Today, Paul says, “You idiots! Fools!”
The way you enter the faith is the way you advance in the faith.
What makes you a Christian is what matures you as a Christian.
You become a Christian by putting your trust in Jesus Christ and resting in the sufficiency of his work.
You grow as a Christian by receiving the word of faith and resting deeper and deeper in his all-sufficient work for you.
Our sanctification comes by continually revisiting our justification.
This is the frame through which Paul would have you understand the fruit of the Spirit in chapter five of this this letter. If you’re struggling with self-control, for example, if you’re not a kind person, if you’re cynical and joyless, if you’re impatient or harsh, if you’re not very loving or trustworthy, the way you will overcome those struggles, the way you will heal those deficiencies, the way you will grow is exactly the same way you got into the faith.
You don’t enter the faith by eschewing all your works and trusting Christ’s work alone but then, once you’re in, eschew Christ’s work and you try really, really hard to be a person who is joyful, peaceable, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.
No— put the shovels down.
The Holy Spirit works in your life exactly to the degree that you continue to have the crucified Christ graphically displayed to you, Paul says today. The Holy Spirit works in your life to the extent that you bring the Gospel to bear on more and more aspects of and relationship in your life. The path to a newer and newer you; therefore, is not back to the works of the Law but to the word of the Cross, the word that continually kills to make alive.
This story makes it plain:
At the end of 2017, in Charlottesville, at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd. Around the same time the Mole-Man of Hackney began digging his tunnels, Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South.
In March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy. When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales. He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd in Charlottesville just a couple of months after the Unite the Right march.
And then Ruby Sales said, listen to how she put it:
“Jonathan walked away from the king’s table. He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.”
Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.
Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.
When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.
“Justice,” she insisted, “should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.”
When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of the redemption of white nationalists— how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this— listen, it’s Paul’s whole point today about how you grow as a Christian: “Whatever hope and patience I have, whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’s redemption, it comes from having heard about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.”
The way you enter is the way you advance.
The you get into the faith is the way you grow in the faith.
William Lyttle was found dead of natural causes in 2010 while still a resident at the hotel in which the city had generously housed him.
In attempting to locate next of kin, police were shocked to learn that William Lyttle was actually a rich man. “What a fool,” a policeman told the press, “he didn’t have to live the way he had. He could’ve had his improvements a clear other way. He had wealth he never touched.”
As much as it pains me to admit, Lew was right all those years ago.
Our Lord did not call me nor did his bride, the Church, commission me to tell you to dig.
So hear the good news:
You can crawl out from whatever anxious tunnels you are busy burrowing.
You can let go of your shovels.
You can lay your deadly doings down.
And you can simply enjoy your inheritance, for the Gospel of Christ Jesus crucified for you is not only a gift it is God’s self-selected means for your growth.
All you’ve got to do, again and again and again, is believe. If Almighty God can make the ground around the burning bush holy, God can use the Gospel to do likewise to you.
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. 5Well then, does God* supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?
6 Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, 7so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’ 9For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
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