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.
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
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.
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?
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
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
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! Sweaty! 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
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
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.
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
So, these Galatians, they were running a good race. Their faith was expressing itself through love. And then things went wrong:
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?
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
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—
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.
But it’s worse than that, it’s a burden no human has ever carried or will ever carry through the race - except Jesus. A burden which will only crush you, which will never let you cross the finish line, only collapse exhausted and defeated. That’s the lie: you have to carry this impossible burden.
Last week we talked a lot about freedom - Gal 5:1
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
The freedom we’re talking about isn’t freedom to just sit out the race, or to go do your own thing, you know like skateboarding or some other fake olympic sport! The freedom we’re talking about is this: taking off that rucksack. Picture finally being free to run. That lightness and liberty as you feel your legs starting to open up, stretch out, swallow up the track in front of you. The christian life is running - yes - but running in your lane, in the truth, in the grace of Jesus. And running free of this impossible burden of measuring up. That’s how we should run this race: unburdened and light on our feet, running free instead in the grace of Christ.
The false teachers in Galatia were trying to burden people with the Jewish law - a huge list of rules and regulations for how to do everything from ploughing your field to dressing - a burden that Jews had failed to measure up to generation after generation. That’s why there’s all this talk about circumcision in Galatians that we’re studying - it’s the entry-marker to a way of life built on the Jewish Law.
All good - but so what? That’s the question we like to ask every week. So what? Nobody is trying to push the Jewish Law on you or me. Is this just two thousand years out of date, as irrelevant as some dusty relic? What’s this got to do with us?
Three things here for us, I think:
First, running is still a good picture of the Christian life because running is still consistent hard work. So if your Christian life looks more like laying on a beach in the sun while the waves lap at your toes, maybe you haven’t understood what you have been saved for. Maybe you haven’t understood that just as your salvation flows out of Jesus’ finished work on the cross, good works have been prepared in advance for you, good works which should naturally flow out of that free salvation.
Maybe you haven’t found the freedom that comes from discovering you are being renewed in love, in patience, in kindness, in gentleness, in goodness, in self control, and working these new fruits out in your life. So are you laying on the beach? or running?
Second, the world around us is trying just as hard as these false teachers were two thousand years ago to load us down with the impossible burdens of different kinds of “religion”: telling us we must this, and we must that; we have to this, we can’t that. Telling us if we measure up according to their rules and standards then we’re valid, accepted - but if not, it’s curtains. I doubt you’re under pressure to be circumcised like these Galatians but I’m willing to bet you’ve felt pressured to behave in particular ways, and you probably know what its like to feel excluded, or at least on the edge of things, when you don’t.
One of Jesus’ biggest beefs with the pharisees, his frequent opponents, was them making endless rules upon rules about how to live. Jesus calls them hypocrites - play actors, putting on a show - because they’d do all the right stuff in public but inside their hearts, when no-one’s watching it’s another story: chasing people’s applause, not God’s. Far too often when people try to load us down with rules you see the same thing - we struggle, and fail to keep those rules - but the truth is they do too. It’s a bit like banning Christmas parties and then having a “business meeting” with your chums and cheese and wine.
Church can be a particularly bad place for this. Do you have to be happy and cheery to make the grade? Or all deep and spiritual? Or super-knowledgeable? Or have your life all clean and tidy and sorted? None of these things are fundamental to running the race, or automatic consequences of following Jesus - and they can be really dangerous - here’s why: “a little yeast works through the whole batch” Paul says in today’s reading. Gal 5:9
“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”
You know how yeast makes bread dough rise? But you only need to put in a bit and then it sort of infects the rest? It’s contagious. It multiplies. Well, religion is like that. And by religion here, I mean any list of things you have to do to be in, to be approved of, to get on the right side of God. That burden we’re talking about that holds us back from running our own race. Like knowing your stuff, or having your life in order.
Here’s why: Even if people are just putting it on as a show, seeing others act in a particular way can make us feel like we could, too; like we should, too. You know, if everyone else laughs at a joke you didn’t think is funny you still feel that pull to laugh along to fit in? If everyone else seems to understand something, you nod too? Or if everyone else acts like they spend half an hour praying every day, you feel like you ought to as well?
And when you see others pat each other on the back for acting the part then it’s hard not to want that for ourselves. Worse still, sometimes, you actually manage to deliver for a bit, to pull it off. Well, then you have this sort of self-congratulatory pride begin to grow in yourself. “see, I can do it. I really am one of them. I, actually, am pretty good at this” - and that draws you in a little bit more.
So you can see how once one person begins to buy into this burden-carrying box ticking religious way of living, it can start to multiply, start to spread. That’s why Paul, our writer, is so fierce here, so anxious to call that church back from the edge. Because once this way of thinking has a foothold, it’s going to spread and spread like mould.
So watch out for those impossible burdens, and that contagious religion: here’s your lateral flow test, your quick diagnostic:
do I see someone else performing, and think I can and must too?
Do I feel the pull of the crowd? this is how I can fit in and be accepted?
Do I feel my pride swell when I deliver? Am I becoming self-sufficient rather than depending on Jesus’ work?
Am I starting to put on an act? Do I want others’ approval whether I deserve it or not?
A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.
Finally, it’s just as true today as it was then that this sort of religion is toxic because it abolishes the offence of the cross. Gal 5:11
Galatians 5:11 (NIV)
...the offense of the cross has been abolished.
What does Paul mean when he talks about the offence of the cross? Well, he’s talking about Jesus dying for our sins, in our place. How could that be offensive? The offence here is Jesus’ cross declaring we didn’t measure up - and we couldn’t measure up.
We didn’t measure up to God’s perfect standard and the just penalty for that is death. We didn’t even come close despite our best efforts at “being a good bloke” or “doing more good than bad”. The offence of the cross is that we have failed so completely that someone must die for it. We need to accept that we are failures not successes, that we got it wrong, not right.
And the offence of the cross is we couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t turn my life far enough around to make any difference - I’d dug myself a hole and even if I totally stopped digging, I’d still be in a hole. You and I, we have so offended the God of the universe and his right and good design for life that it is impossible for us to make amends or to make things right - we are powerless, helpless, insufficient, incapable.
We’ve talked a lot about religion, about performance. Well here’s the offence: our performance, the very best performance we could ever give, our absolute maximum is never going to make the grade. That’s what the cross says.
How do I know that? If anything else could have fixed this, God’s own son would never have died. He didn’t do it for the laugh, or as an example, or as a softener to make things a little easier. Jesus only needs to die if without that, salvation is absolutely impossible. The death of God’s own son tells us nothing less than it was absolutely essential.
That’s the true offence of the cross: we failed; we cannot do it; we do not measure up even in our best moment, despite our best efforts - that’s offensive. And yet it’s liberating: through the cross, we are set free! We cannot do it - and we do not have to since Jesus already did; our best efforts do not measure up - and we do not have to since Jesus does; we are humbled by the cross - but we are freed.
A moment to reflect, and then we’ll pray