God Unbound: Wisdom From Galatians for the Anxious Church
Week 1: Human Approval or God’s Approval
Reveille United Methodist Church
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 2, 2018
Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Who remembers Taboo? In 1989, the Hasbro company released a parlor game called Taboo. The way Taboo is played is that each player has a partner. You draw a card and attempt to get your partner to say the word on the card by giving a series of hints. The challenge is that there are five other words on the card that you are not allowed to say, words that happen to be the five best hints. Say one of them, and you lose a point, and your opponent sounds a buzzer. Remember this, because I am going to come back to it.
My wife Tracy is a third grade teacher in the Henrico County Public Schools, teaching at a school in Short Pump. A couple of years ago, they decided to have a career day where they would ask professionals in the community to come and talk to groups of students about their work. “You should offer to be a speaker,” she said.
“I am a pastor, Tracy. This is a public school. They will never invite me to come.”
“I still think you should try,” she said. “They would like you.”
I thought about it for awhile and decided to apply, to call their bluff, as it were. They way I saw it, they would tell me “no” and something would come out it that I could someday use in a sermon.
I was half right. They called my bluff. “We’d love to have you come, Rev. Forrester! You will have four groups come over the course of about an hour. Let us know if you need anything!”
And this is how my life turned into a game of Taboo. Given the constraints of what I could and could not say, I had no earthly idea what to talk about.
The day came, the students filed into a music room and sat on the floor. I introduced myself and I showed them a slide featuring a picture of our church. This caused one girl to rise to her knees and say loudly, “I don’t go to church!”
I looked at my mental Taboo card and thought of all of the words I was not allowed to say. “We are on Cary Street, across from Windsor Farms and near Carytown. You are always welcome here.”
It was spring, so I was able to show them photos of the azaleas in the garden and the Garth. I showed them how tall the pulpit is in the sanctuary, showed them Reveille House and explained how it is the second-oldest house in the city. I talked a little about weddings and funerals, trying to find some point of intersection between their lives and mine. I was able to work in our ministries at Swansboro Elementary and Honduras, along with vacation Bible school and Kidz Camp. I think I talked about the weekday school.
When it was over, I could only think of what a disaster it had been, how the only success had been my ability to not say the five forbidden words on my Taboo card. Then I remembered I still had three more groups to go.
When Tracy came home that night, she was positively ebullient. “They loved you!” she said. They definitely want you back next year!”
I spent the rest of the week trying to discern what on earth went right, what they liked about it, when I could not use words like Christ, redemption, rebirth, resurrection, and eternal life.” It reminded me of T.S. Elliot’s words from his verse drama Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
And it made me think of this morning’s text, about pleasing God and pleasing people, and when you get right down to it, at what end of that continuum do I find myself most comfortably located?
Fast forward about fifteen years after the resurrection of Christ and the conversion of Paul from a devout Pharisee and persecutor of the church to an apostle of Jesus, a founder of congregations around the ancient Near East. Paul is deeply concerned about the churches in the Roman province of Galatia (in modern Turkey), concerned enough to write them what appears, especially in the original language, to be a very angry letter. This is not the “love is patient, love is kind” Paul from 1 Corinthians 13. In many ways, Paul is seeing his ministry and message unraveling before him, as a group known as the Judaizers keeps going behind him and teaching the opposite of what Paul just taught, “un-preaching his sermons,” as it were.
The question at hand was just how Jewish did Christian converts have to be? Did they have to follow the Jewish dietary laws? Keep the teachings in the Torah? Did the men need to be circumcised? It is questions like these that are woven through the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul believed the old ways were no longer binding. The Judaizers did.
Reading this morning’s text, one can sense Paul’s frustration. There is no genteel introduction full of flowery greetings like one finds at the outset of, say, 1 Corinthians. In today’s epistle, Paul does not even say “hello” before giving his own credentials. After some perfunctory greetings, by verse six, Paul is launching into his disappointment with these Galatian Christians. How could they turn from his teaching? How could they ignore the authority with which he spoke? He did not think this stuff up on his own! His calling, his message, his mission came from no one less than the risen Jesus Christ himself! What are you people thinking?
“I am astonished,” Paul writes, “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” His dismay is palpable. In many ways in his opening to this letter, Paul violates an unspoken rule of homiletics: Never preach when you are angry.” By the end of verse eight, he is cursing people, essentially telling them to go to Hell.
At the Wednesday noon Bible study and communion group, we noticed that it seems like today’s text reads like one consistent argument if you skip verses ten an eleven that those two verses do not really fit, as if Paul inserted them sometime later. It is as if as Paul wrote, he needed to reassure himself as he composed what he knew was going to be an unpopular, countercultural argument.
In verses ten and eleven, he writes, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Ouch. Paul really lays it on the line here. The Epistle to the Galatians has little to do with how we feel and everything to do with telling the truth and doing the right thing at all costs. “The issue,” Paul seems to say, “is not what you think about me. The issue is that you hear the truth, whether you like it or not.” Paul casts himself in the role of the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” crying into the congregations that everyone has been duped and there is no magic garment.
Is he right? “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Is that what you signed for when you were confirmed and joined the church? Is that what I signed up for when I was confirmed thirty-five years ago and later ordained and appointed to be your lead pastor? Welcome to our church! Good luck, because people are going to really dislike you!
He writes, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” I have wrestled with these verses for many years. When I was a seminarian and learning about the martyrs of our faith for the first time, the people who were bloodied, bludgeoned, burned, or eaten alive by wild beasts, I wondered if I would have had the fortitude to stand the test as they did. I wondered, and I still wonder, how I would respond if my life, or the life of a member of my family was in jeopardy, and I was given that choice to please God or to please the people around me.
I even wonder about the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Say what you will about their theology, and there are some serious issues with their theology, but they are devoted to learning their faith so that they can fearlessly share their faith with the world, door to door to door, rejection after rejection. I wonder if I would have it in me.
I remember the young person in my rural three-point circuit of churches, Dusty Young, a direct descendent of Brigham Young who would spend his summers in Utah with one side of his family, year after year forced to justify his decision to leave the faith of his family to become a United Methodist. Dusty Young, the teenager who went through Confirmation a second time just so that he could support a friend of his who was nervous to go it alone.
And I wonder, if it were me…
As Henri Nouwen points out in a lovely little book called In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Jesus was tempted with this too. He was tempted with relevance, popularity, and power, and yet he somehow managed to spread the gospel while eschewing all three.
I will admit to you that after four years of college, three years of seminary, and a long and challenging ordination process, it feels very good to get to preach, to tell your own stories and the stories of others and have person after person greet you at the door and say how much they enjoyed the sermon, whether they should have or not.
And yet, most clergy I know will tell you that all Sunday afternoon, they will fixate on that one person who seemed displeased on the way out of the church that day.
Yet I will tell you that it is all a mirage. The equation goes like this: if the people like me, then they will trust me, and if they trust me, then they will do what I need them to do for our ministry to succeed. And I can tell you that it is a trap, a purely transactional relationship where pleasing those around us does not necessarily replace pleasing God. It just gets confused with it.
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
And the temptation to play to the crowd, to do that which is popular instead of what is right is not temptation that everyone faces, clergy and lay.
When I was a young associate pastor, I was eating lunch alone one Saturday at a restaurant alongside Jefferson Avenue when I looked out the window and saw a church van of a large congregation in a neighboring town pull into the parking lot, towing long U-Haul style trailer. When the van came to a stop, the driver opened the trailer and out climbed the youth group. About a dozen of them.
I can tell you, as I sat there in the restaurant, the very last thing on the face of the earth that I wanted to do was make this my problem. I sat there at my table, with this little internal dialogue going on in my mind, the angel on one shoulder, and the devil on the other. “Just let it go. I am sure it will be fine,” the devil said, “Besides, mind your own business. Who do you think you are anyway?”
The angel, on the other shoulder took my mind back to a story from 1982, when a U-Haul truck filled with 62 University of Virginia students overturned on route 29 on the way to a party in Lynchburg, injuring many and killing two. “I am just saying,” the angel said, “I am just saying…”
So I went out there as they were still climbing out of the trailer. And with my voice shaking, I told them that what they were doing was illegal and very dangerous and that they should not be doing it. And then I told them that I was going to stand behind that trailer until every one of those kids called their parents and got a safe ride, or I was going to call the police.
This went over exactly as well as you are imagining. They were angry, I was unpopular.
“I told you so,” said the devil.
But they did it.
Later that afternoon, I was speaking to the youth leader of my church and his wife, and I told them what I had done, and how I just felt so guilty for it, still trying to make peace with that initial desire to do nothing.
“Well,” he said, “Would you rather feel this way, or feel the way you would feel if you heard about them on the news?”
“I told you so,” said the angel.
Seventeen years later and I can still feel the sting of disappointment that those youth and adults had in me.
“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” For me, this is one of Paul’s most difficult teachings, and I imagine, this is the case for you as well. It is hard to stick out, to have the unpopular perspective, to speak the difficult truth, to rock the boat, as it were. There was a time that many of you can remember when the Christian perspective was the predominant perspective, and it was easier to silence that interior dialogue, to go along and get along.
Yet it although once easier, it has never been easy. Paul inserts these verses into his Galatian epistle almost as if he is trying to convince himself that he has the fortitude to say everything that will follow.
I said last Sunday that there will always be a temptation for you, for me, and for the church to make peace with the status quo and move on. There will always be a temptation to convince ourselves that God will use some other means, or some other person to speak God’s truth, to bring about God’s redemption, to usher in God’s kingdom. The pull of human approval will always be great, will always seem justifiable, will always seem very, very safe.
Yet, is that the life to which we were called? I do not think so. As we will see in this series on Galatians, Paul certainly didn’t.
Sisters and brothers, I believe that there are still things in this world worth suffering and dying for, and chief among them are justice, mercy, love, and truth. Say the forbidden words. Let the world sound its buzzers. There is so much at stake in our life and ministry. May our lives, our life together, and our priorities reflect it.
So then give us the wisdom, O God, by the power of your Spirit, to know what is right, and give us the strength and fortitude to pursue it, come what may, until your just and righteous will is done for this sinful and broken world. So then, give us hearts, O Lord, to follow you and to serve those around us as though the world were at stake in our life, witness, and ministry, and give us as your disciples, the courage, fortitude, and faith to be outsiders to the world around us, to be different, to not fit in, and may our different-ness make a difference for the sake of this broken world that Christ gave his life to save.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.