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intro me
We’re still just getting started into this new year, 2022, and if you’re anything like me, it’s not been super-easy to get back into the swing of things this time round.
Feels like I’m grinding the gears trying to find first and get things going again!
So whether you’re new here or you just need a bit of a reminder of the part of the bible we’re looking at just now, let me give you a bit of background and some context.
We’re working our way through a short letter from one of Jesus’ earliest followers that’s a part of the collection of letters that’s included towards the back of our bibles - epistles is the fancy name for them.
These letters come from really early in the story of the very first churches, just tens of years after Jesus died and rose again, and mostly they are attempts by early leaders to sort out some of the problems and mess that’s shows up in church life.
So if you ever feel like church has problems or things are a bit of a mess, at least that’s nothing new!
The particular letter we’re looking at is called Galatians because it’s written to a group of churches in an area that used to be called Galatia - modern day Turkey.
It’s written by the guy who started those churches, written because after he moved on, some other wandering teachers showed up with a bit of a different story of what it means to follow Jesus.
Our writer - particularly in today’s section - has some pretty sharp things to say.
That’s because these other teachers are undermining a critical part of his message, a cornerstone, a foundation.
And if you take it out, you lose everything.
So let’s read together from the bible, and then I’ll take a bit of time to explore what we find here and to talk and think about what it means for us two thousand years later.
If you have one of these blue bibles we use at church, we’re on page 1171.
We’re in chapter 5 of Galatians - so look for a big 5 - and then we’re starting at verse 7 - so look for a tiny 7. Page 1171, Galatians chapter 5, verse 7.
And David’s going to be reading for us this morning.
Ok sharp words, right?
Telling his opponents, these other teachers, to go cut off their man-bits isn’t exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a key leader in the church!
You might think it’s not very Jesus - but actually Jesus sometimes has sharp things to say, too - sharp words for people a lot like these false teachers: people who are putting obstacles in the way of us connecting with God.
But before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning: Paul, our writer, says the churches he’s writing to were running a race, running well.
Running is a common description of the Christian life in the bible - and it’s a common way for our writer, Paul, to describe his own life too - earlier in this letter we read this: Gal 2:2
Galatians 2:2 (NIV)
...I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.
I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.
and right at the end of his life, in what we think is his last letter, he finally says 2 Tim 4:7
So these churches, they were “running a good race” - that is, they were living out their faith, living out what it means to follow Jesus.
Now, who’s never run in a race?
I bet all of you must have sometime - even if it was just sports day at school or with an egg on a spoon!
What does running well look like?
Hard work!
You’re pushing yourself, getting those feet up and down.
And that’s true even for athletes who practice running all the time - perhaps especially for athletes.
Running is never a walk in the park.
Running, seeking to achieve the best you can, always takes effort.
During the pandemic I worked through the BBC’s couch to 5k programme - yes, me, really - and you know what?
At the end of the programme it still took an absolute heap of effort to run that 5k even though I’d been building up to it, practising for it for ages.
That’s true no matter how long you’ve been running - it’s still work - and it’s true of the Christian life no matter how long you’ve been living it.
The Christian life is like a race.
Not like drifting round and round the lazy river in the sun, just taking the path of least resistance through life, going where it takes you.
Not like relaxing in your favourite comfy slippers in one of those big reclining chairs with your feet up in front of the TV.
It takes effort.
It’s active, not passive.
It is about doing things, about breaking a sweat sometimes.
But if you’ve been with us through this series, as we’ve worked our way through this letter, you’re going to be thinking “hang on..” See, we’ve spent weeks and weeks looking at this letter and a phrase we’ve used loads of times is this: “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” - that is, it all comes down to putting our faith and trust in Jesus and what he’s done.
We add nothing at all to that - we bring zero to the table.
Jesus plus nothing equals everything.
But if that’s true, where’s the running part?
We didn’t say Jesus + running = everything - just as well or all of us non-sporty types would be out of here!
This idea of the Christian life as a race, as something takes effort, it feels in serious tension with the freedom which Jesus has won for us that we were talking about last week, right?
With the idea that everything comes down to the grace God shows to us - the way he gives us what we don’t deserve because Jesus took the death we did deserve.
This is one of the bits about Christianity that it’s really easy to get wrong - which is why we’re spending so many weeks studying exactly what the bible really does say about it.
Jesus + nothing = everything is the bottom line : the one and only reason we could ever be right with God is Jesus.
We bring nothing to the table.
We could never clean up the mess we’ve made of life.
But through faith in Jesus, we are given everything so we don’t need to bring anything to the table, and all of our mess is dealt with.
The big theological statement about this is “salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone” This is a message people have even died for - particularly during the Reformation in the 1500s.
However just because salvation flows out of Jesus plus nothing, doesn’t mean nothing flows out of salvation.
Does that make sense?
So there’s nothing except Jesus upstream of our salvation, our rescue, putting us right with God and restoring us - but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing downstream of it.
Calvin, famous Reformation dude puts it this way
It is not our doctrine that the faith which justifies is alone; we maintain that it is invariably accompanied by good works; only we contend that faith alone is sufficient for justification
So when we talk about the Christian life as running, that’s what we’re talking about: not actions which put us into God’s good books or keep us there, making the grade, but actions that necessarily flow out of the true reality of saving faith, of our redemption in Jesus, of God himself coming to live inside of us by His Spirit.
Last week we talked about the phrase which comes right before today’s section, “faith expressing itself through love.”
We saw it was true freedom beginning to break in, where we start to live out the reality that is being formed in us by God’s Spirit: we’re becoming what we were always meant to be.
True, noble, loving, righteous, patient, kind, good.
Our faith begins to express itself through love.
That’s what it looks like for us to run, flowing out of our salvation: Gal 5:6
Paul writes in another of his letters that we are “created - or recreated - in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us”: Eph 2:10 - our recreation in Jesus is the upstream, and these good works flow out, downstream.
So, these Galatians, they were running a good race.
Their faith was expressing itself through love.
And then things went wrong:
Someone is getting in the way of “obeying” (or following) “the truth”.
As we run, just like in the Olympic stadium, there’s a lane we need to run in, a track which is set out for us: the track where we’re obeying, or following - the truth.
But someone’s thrown an obstacle in these Galatians’ path - to trip them up, to force them out of their lane.
When we read about “obeying the truth”, you might be wondering what truth in particular it is that’s in view?
Don’t wonder long!
Just a little earlier in the letter, our writer’s told us: Galatians 2:5 - it’s the truth of the gospel, the good news that Paul shared at the foundation of these churches.
The true Gospel is that God calls us “to live in the grace of Christ” Gal 1:6
Let me unpack that a bit: living in the grace of Christ means living recognising that the only path to being right with God is through Jesus Christ, through accepting what Jesus did on the cross for us, where he got what we deserve so we don’t have to - that’s mercy, not getting what we deserve - and rather than getting what we deserve, we can get what he deserves - that’s grace, getting what we don’t deserve.
So living in the grace of Christ, living in the truth of the gospel, means trusting our salvation doesn’t flow out of anything we do, or can do - only out of what Jesus has done.
But someone’s thrown a spanner in the works.
Someone’s tripped the runner, pushed them out of their lane.
Someone’s put a lie in the place of this truth.
And it’s making Paul mad mad mad!
The lie isn’t that we’re in a race, that we’re made to run.
That’s true.
Let me show you where the lie it is - but to do that I’ll need a runner.
Who’s the sporty type?
Who’s got running legs on them this morning?
Who’s pacy, fast?
Come on up here - need a wee run out of you.
Here you are, at the starting line of an epic 100m.
Oh, but I have a little something for you first.
Here you go, runner, how about a nice little run carrying this rucksack for me?
Can you take that for a wee spin down the corridor and back?
See, the lie is there’s a burden you have to carry as you run, a burden you have to carry to make it across the line.
And it’s a pointless burden.
Like the world’s strongest man pulling a truck 20m when it could perfectly well drive.
Like this backpack - it’s just full of rocks: it’s not provisions or emergency aid - these are rocks which didn’t need to go anywhere - probably didn’t even want to if you asked them.
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