Yesterday’s message ….
- Joined with about 75 other Charlotte area churches in focusing on Galatians 2:11-21 as a way to become For The Gospel.
- Saw how St. Paul turned a personal confrontation into Gospel proclamation.
- Made a passing reference to Dr. Seuss that everyone seemed to get.
- Landed at this bottom line, one I revised, updated, and tinkered with most of the week: Heaven’s not a reward for those who are better. It’s a gift for those who’ve been bought.
Today is going to be so great. It’s going to be great because it starts with an mano a mano SMACKDOWN between two giants of the early church & that leads to the greatest truth of the Christians gospel. What could be better? And we get to do all this alongside 100 other churches in CLT who are also talking about For The Gospel as a way to start a series For Charlotte. Just. Cool.
But back to the bible. When you have two pillars of ANYTHING and they have a falling out … it’s like must see TV. It’s like Rogers & Hammerstein, Simon & Garfunkel, Lennon & McCartney, Captn & Tennille, Peaches & Herb, Tupac & Big E level FALLOUT. In this case it’s Peter and Paul. As in St. Peter and St. Paul. The first pope (Peter) and the author of a large chunk of the NT (Paul). Alpha Male and, well, Alpha Male. And sometimes when you have two egos of that size and two personalities that large it can such the rest of the air out of the room. Which is probably what happened when they ran into each other at a church covered dish supper in Antioch. Add on to all that the world’s most vexing religious question of that day and look what happens in Galatians 2:11:
11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
Whoa! Public rebuke! The kind I’d NEVER do (I think). I’d be all like, “can we talk about this in my office, please?” But Paul takes it public and that’s probably because of the nature of the thing Peter has done that has left him condemned. Look at 2:12-13:
12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Oh no! Not Barney! (Show AV of purple dinosaur & then dissolve in “no, not that one.”) So here’s what’s going on: two groups, separated by race, diet, religion, custom, Jew and Gentile. And now these two who previously kept more than their distance from one another, are in the church, together. And Peter, a Jew himself, had earlier been instrumental in breaking down Jew-Gentile walls because in Acts 10 he gets a word from God that all food is now clean (except Brussel sprouts), not just that which is kosher.
However! When “men from James” – that’s Jesus’ bro! – a group of influential Jews from down in Jerusalem, when they mosey on up to Antioch to check out the sound system in the happening church there, Peter reverts. Less emphasis here on WHAT he ate than on WHO he was comfortable eating with. Perhaps there was social pressure, ethnic guilt, or just do it for your homeboys, but Peter repealed what he had written and went back to the old ways. And I have to say I think I know why: he had been raised FROM BIRTH to think of himself & fellow Jews as slightly BETTER THAN the Gentiles. (Modern day Jews don’t think this way; but it was common in ancient times.) Chosen by God. Check. Don’t eat pork. Check. Don’t worship idols. Check. Better hygiene practices. Check. More self-control. Check. All these tokens of status and responsibility and identity are so hard to give up. It’s easy to hang on to where you were born, what you’ve done, and how it is that you are just a little better than others. Peter’s not really being wicked; just normal.
But he’s not really the last one to trust some “better than” is he? My gosh, I’m the worst. I look at people and AS AN EXPRESSION OF MY INSECURITY, I think, “Well, I’m better … dressed, educated, spoken, polished. A better tennis player.” Man it’s so bad I heard a fellow CLT pastor preaching on the radio and was I blessed by his sermon? NOOOO! Because I was obsessed with my “better” sermons! Life is comparison & competition and I want to be better. All over the religious world, believe it or not. I went to a UMC meeting a few years ago and our name tags were color coded. Coded according to your level of ordination! Like Good, Better, Best. It all made me think of StarBellied Sneeches (AV) is Dr. Seuss’ masterpiece of separation, division, jealousy, and better than. And there are few more dangerous things than when the world of better than invades the world of faith.
Which is what Peter has done. He fell into the “better thans” because of his lifelong religious position as a child of Israel. And look at how Paul describes the problem in 2:14:
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
Wow! He is not just acting badly, not just being socially awkward or insensitive or both, not just being a kosher jerk, he is perverting the faith. We are For The Gospel today – Gospel meaning GOOD NEWS of Jesus life, death, rez, reign, and return and how that promises us heaven – and Peter’s behavior turns treasure into poison. And then Paul goes on, either giving us the blow by blow of his further conversation with Peter or simply his riff on it, we don’t know. But look at 2:15-16:
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in[a] Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
We are made right with God way more than we get right with him. BTW, by “works of the law” there it DOESN’T mean good deeds. By all mean, do those! It does mean circumcision, kosher laws & anything else that made Jews … better than.
And look there at 2:17:
17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!
Now that’s funny. What it’s saying is this: if Jesus arranges, demands, creates a church where Jew & Gentile are gonna be hanging together and eating together, is that sinning! By no means! It may seem like an absurd question, but I remember those days in Monroe when the Monroe Full Gospel Evangelistic Tabernacle received no small amount of criticism in those days because its pastor … was in a bi-racial marriage and because the church itself was multi-ethnic. And that criticism always struck me as a combo of backward AND ungodly and little more than a relic … until I heard the same thing happening around here and about us. Never been more delighted to be criticized.
And then 2:19-21:
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”[
Look at 2:21 again: READ. Gulp. If you rely on your better thans – either consciously or subconsciously – Jesus wasted his time on the cross. If you are good enough in any way to merit your position among God’s saved, the Father played a trick on the Son, a painfully bloody trick, maybe the worst trick ever. Get this: if all religions are basically the same and everyone goes to heaven in the end, Jesus suffered for nothing. If there’s one way for Jews and another way for Gentiles and another way for the well-born and well-bred, and another way for the Brahmins and another way for the untouchables, then Jesus went through the worst travesty of all time. But none of that is true, not one bit of it, there’s no one who has made or will make it due to their birth or the behavior or their better thans. Paul takes a personal confrontation and turns it into Gospel proclamation. And in doing so he tells us something masterful: Heaven’s not a reward for those who are better. It’s a gift for those who’ve been bought. That’s the good news. That’s the Gospel that 100s of CLT churches are for today and every day. Heaven’s not a reward for those who are better. It’s a gift for those who’ve been bought.
Listen: what Paul was talking about that day – NO MORE DIVISIONS! – is not a result of the Gospel. It is the heart of the Gospel. I am FOR the good news that I need rescue as much as the pimp … the prostitute … the addict … the imprisoned. In fact, the first thing I need rescue from is sense that I am in any way better than the folks I just mentioned. See, you don’t GET RIGHT with God by being better than other people; you’re MADE RIGHT with God through your allegiance to Jesus who is rescuer and king. And the purchase price for all of us is exactly the same! Jesus’ blood. The same amount for each one.
Because it’s really so much like this. Three guys who set out in a swimming race. From Los Angeles to Honolulu. And there they go! Great swimmers, cut bodies, enormous lungs. But pretty soon, a few miles in, one of the swimmers just stops, drops off, and sinks into oblivion in the Pacific. Loser. So we’re left with two. A few more miles, a second guy, the same thing. Struggles and then gives up. Loser. The third guy realizes, “I win! I’m not only better than, I’m he best!” And 100 yards later – because he’s still got to get to Hawaii – his lungs give out, his arms give way, and he joins his friends at the bottom of the Pacific. One was better but all are dead. And that’s as pointless as it is AT ANY LEVEL to try to trust in your betterness. You might be better! It’s just that God’s not grading on a curve. He’s grading on the cross.
It is better to trust in your incompleteness and your ineptitude. Yes! Because every time that drives you to grace. I want your awareness of your own helplessness to be ever increasing so that your appreciation of his grace is ever deepening. Heaven’s not a reward for those who are better. It’s a gift for those who’ve been bought.
I do love 2:19; check it out again: READ. Live for God. Imagine: the best thing about your life is that it is not your life. It’s his. He absorbed all your issues – because you gots issues! And we’re all equal in the cross’ face? You’re neither more died for nor less died for than the person sitting next to you, the neighbor down the street, the immigrant at the border. This section of Galatians obliterates any sense that Xnty is about social conformity or making us into good citizens. I remember a Youth Pastor we had in Monroe in the 90s. And he had a funky hair cut (AV super mullet). It was the 90s. I was frankly jealous of just how much hair he had, regardless of how he cut it. But this guy in church comes up to me in a quiet rage and was like, “you don’t expect me to listen to him preach, do you?” “Why, cuz he’s not as good as me?” “NO! That haircut.” “Whaaaa?” “Yep, it’s just not right.” Oh bleh. Better than funky haircut guy.
Where is it with you? Is it the immigrant? The smelly? The rich? The entitled? The Dem? The Repub? The smokers? Heaven’s not a reward for those who are better. It’s a gift for those who’ve been bought.
Jesus rescues. He does not compare. When you acknowledge the depth of your need for rescue – from your sin, from yourself, from your arrogance – then you’ll see that being for the gospel can’t be separated from being for those who are different from you. Which is why the best indication that we are becoming a Gospel church was during the uprising / riots / meltdown in uptown CLT in 2016. Here’s a note I got from a mother who is African American:
On this day when my heart is so very full from sorrow, grief, confusion, and even helplessness as a mother of an African American son, I have to stop and pray and one of the tings I prayed for was my church family. I have been attending GS for the past five years and was embraced from day one. The moment that I showed up for First Serve for the first time and felt like part of a team that didn’t care who I was, where I came from, or if I was a member but was happy I was there and ready to work side by side with me I knew this would be my home church. When my faith starts to waiver, I get a random call from one of the pastors checking on me. When I’m overwhelmed with life I get a call or text out of the blue from a LifeGroup member asking how they can pray for me or how they can serve me that week. When I’m saddened by how my son may be affected by all this, the Nursery Volunteers send me kind notes on how he is a blessing and how much they enjoy having him there. The family of GS “get it” and the presence of the Lord is TRULY in this place. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for empowering leaders, inviting all people, and sharing God’s word in the midst of unrest and racial tensions in the country, I could easily give up and lose faith but instead my faith and trust in God is stronger than ever and I credit a huge part of that to walking side by side with the people of Good Shepherd.