Rev. George Miller
June 2, 2013
Thomas W. Gillespie, a professor at Princeton, wrote “The gospel is ultimately authenticated by what it does.”
Near the turn of the century, a series of books came out using the word “gospel” and tying the Bible into pop culture.
One such book was The Gospel According to the Simpsons followed by The Gospel According to Disney and The Gospel According to Harry Potter.
This week I thought of other pop-culture gems and what their Gospel message is.
Bonanza would be that nothing is more important than family and land. The Mary Tyler Moore Show would say “You’re gonna make it after all.”
Golden Girls and Sex and the City tell us there’s nothing you can’t face as long as you have good friends and a good cheesecake or a good cocktail.
Modern Family’s message is that our kin are no longer made up of just those who look, love or talk like us.
Then there is the recent HBO movie based on the life of Liberace which uses his quote “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!”
I don’t think Paul, the author of today’s scripture, would approve of my attaching the word “gospel” to any of the above pop cultural touchstones, especially the last one.
For Paul, there is one gospel, and one gospel only: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Today we start a three-week series on the book of Galatians, a letter Paul wrote some time between 49-56 C.E.
This is a letter to a church he helped form, a church made up of Gentiles (non-Jewish folk) who had come to believe in Jesus Christ.
When reading the entire letter, we discover that when Paul met them, he was suffering from some kind of physical ailment. This did not stop the people from greeting and accepting him warmly.
Paul preached the gospel, they responded with great enthusiasm, and the Holy Spirit was present in them and many miracles occurred. (Charles Cousar, Interpretation commentary on Galatians, pg 4)
But then something happened. While Paul was away other people came in, religious leaders with different beliefs. Yes, they preached about Christ, but they also taught that one had to first become a Jew before they could fully become a Christian.
The men of the Galatian church were told they had to be circumsized if they wanted to be guaranteed a place among God’s people.
News of this angers and astonishes Paul who sends them this letter in which he “makes his case for the gospel of grace”. (Cousar, 4)
Though a Jew himself, Paul is of the belief that the members of the Galatian church have already found their freedom in Christ; to force them to follow circumcision regulations would only lead them backwards.
In this letter Paul writes with a righteous anger and a zealousness similar to what Phinehas possessed in last week’s message.
It is this anger which fuels Paul’s rich, artistic take on grace and the proclamation that there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favor: grace is a gift that is given.
We will explore that theme later this month. Today, we focus on just the first 12 verses of today’s letter.
In these words we hear Paul’s greeting to the church. Note how quickly he gets to the manner. There is not dancing around the subject.
People are deserting the gospel he taught them and turning to another gospel. But as far as Paul is concerned, there is no other gospel. Not even if an angel from heaven were to say it was so!
Paul, trying to prove he’s not trying to people please, says his gospel is the right one, because it didn’t come from him, but directly from Jesus Christ.
(A side note here: Paul is a great debater, but I can’t help but to sense a narcissistic streak in him: “Only I am teaching the right Gospel; all others are wrong, and by the way I’m not trying to get you to like me.”
As Shakespeare wrote “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much”…)
Paul is zealous and clear: there is one Gospel and one Gospel only. In reading the first 12 lines, I’d surmise that the Gospel is this:
“The Lord Jesus Christ died and was resurrected by God, giving himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and father.”
Paul spends the next 2 chapters going over his history of ministry, then 2 chapters summarizing his theology, then the last 2 chapters explaining how this leads to leading an ethical, Christian life.
The zealousness he has for the Gospel, the anger Paul feels over what’s happening in the congregation never dims, creating a passionate letter that still has had profound impact on our faith 2,000 years later.
Today, let’s explore this notion of the Gospel and whose Gospel are we talking about.
Paul claims that others have a mistaken sense of the Gospel. According to him, even an angelic messenger can have it wrong.
It reminds me of when clergy and other religious personalities gather. Most everyone claims to have a grasp on what the gospel is about, and assumes everyone else believes the same as they do.
Yet most of us do not believe the same, which can make ecumenical, community worship services unpredictable and frustrating.
After all, we are all human. Regardless if we admit it or not, each of us carry our own agendas; our own life views. Everyone likes to believe that God has talked directly to them and them alone, and the others have it wrong!
Whose gospel are we talking about?
It drives me crazy when I meet someone and they say something like “We can all agree…” because the truth is we can’t all agree. Put 5 religious leaders in a room and you’ll get at least 5-10 gospels.
One person will tell you that the Gospel message is that Christ came into our world so we can be saved. Another will tell you that we are to save others.
One person will tell you the Gospel message is about getting into heaven; another will tell you the gospel is about living in the “now.”
One person will tell you the Gospel message is about prosperity; another will tell you it’s about caring for the poor.
Each person, each preacher, each church, each denomination has their own gospel message. It may be similar; it may be on the completely opposite end of the spectrum.
We’ll say “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey” whereas another will say “Change or leave.”
So what do we do?
We can say our understanding of the Gospel, and only ours, is right. We can say that only Paul has the clearest grasp of what the Gospel is about.
Like we mentioned last week, we could just throw the entire notion of the Gospel away and live any way we dang well please.
Or we can continue that wrestling match with God and with our faith. That delicate and yet durable, dangerous dance in which we discern, we ask, we wonder, we argue over what it all means.
What Gospel is it that we have discovered in our experience of Jesus Christ who was crucified, resurrected and ascended up to heaven?
What does it mean to say that God came to us as Emmanuel, to sit with us at table, to rejoice in our joys, to share in our sufferings and to die at the hands of those he loved?
Why does it matter that it was God who raised Jesus from the dead and that on the day of Pentecost we experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit?
What is the Gospel and whose gospel are we going to follow?
Thomas W. Gillespie stated that “The gospel is ultimately authenticated by what it does.”
Could we say the gospel is that which calls us to do justice, love kindness/mercy and walk humbly with the Lord?
Or do we want to take a page of sheet music from Liberace and say that “Too much of a good thing is wonderful”?
Too much of a good thing, when it truly is good can be wonderful…but there is more, so much more.
So for the next three weeks let’s spend some time with Paul and the Galatian church to find out what that more is.
To give thanks to God that because of the Gospel there is a bonanza of joy, boundless joy.
To realize that in Christ there is peace, light and grace, which the world can not give.
To discover that there are gifts of the Holy Spirit still waiting to be unwrapped.
Amen and amen.