On a clear day you can see forever, an old song says, but in the run of any random day there are countless clouds to fog up the view. As Christians we need the occasional strong wind to come and blow the obstructions out of sight. We need reminders of what it’s all about, in life, in the church, in the plans of God.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of those strong winds. The Galatians were a church in the grip of a massive failure to see what really mattered. (They wanted to re-establish the practice of circumcision as an essential part of being God’s people. Paul said this was like saying Jesus’ death was meaningless.) In response, Paul blustered—or perhaps thundered would be the better word—a great reminder of the basics of the gospel. Little wonder that Martin Luther, the stormy leader of the 16th century reformation, claimed this letter as a sort of rallying cry for the cause of Christ.
In our own church in the last year, it seems that a haze has fallen among us. A lot of emotion and energy has been spent on matters that are not central to being followers of Jesus. It happens in almost every church from time to time: in this haze it’s easy to lose sight of what it’s all about. I have fallen under the haze myself more than I should have: I’ve let myself get sidetracked by these matters, to my own detriment as a church leader. To all of us Galatians still has the power to speak some needed words of reminder.
The first ten verses of Galatians 1 (a nutshell of the whole letter, actually) give us a few key reminders:
1. The good news is this: “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.” (Gal. 1:4)
Here we learn about our situation in terms of a problem and a solution. Our problem is that we have sinful hearts. We deal with the disastrous effects of sin and death in our world. This is our real problem, the bad news. And the solution, the good news, is that we have been rescued by God from our sin. Jesus has brought us into a new world, a new way of looking at and living life for him instead of ourselves.
Sadly, we often get this wrong. We worry about less significant matters as if they are the major problems of life. The point of our being the people of God is not such things as the size of a choir or the manner in which we collect offering. These may be more important to some while being less important to others. But they are not what it means to be Christians. What it means to be Christians is that our biggest problem has been solved: though we are sinners, we have been redeemed by God through Jesus’ death.
2. We need to guard against running toward any gospel other than the gospel of Jesus 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 aside to a different gospel.”)
This is closely tied to the first reminder. If we forget that the problem, sin, has been solved by Jesus’ death, we can easily let our own pet issues become our “gospel.” When churches get bogged down in squabbles it’s often a sign of a lack of focus on Jesus. It’s often a sign that we’ve forgotten that our whole life depends on a gift: Jesus gave himself for us.
Most arguments in churches are about “how to run the church” rather than the substance of the faith. It’s sad but true. We do best to remember to stick to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we remember that we are welcomed to God in grace, we will think more about what he has given than about the odd time when things haven’t gone our way.
3. Pleasing God is more important than pleasing people. (Gal. 1:10: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people?”)
In nearly a decade as a pastor, I’ve had my share of stresses and worries and restless nights over church matters. But when I think back, in most of those cases what I was worried and stressed and restless about was what people were thinking of me, not where I stood with God. Most of us fall into this trap at least on occasion, and when we do this we are prone to forget what he’s calling us to be and do. Where God calls will not always be popular, whether in Christian leadership or in living the daily Christian life. But if we can stand before God with a clear conscience, we are concerning ourselves with the right thing.
As individual Christians and as a church, our main concern should always be to please God. People’s approval is not the goal of any of our lives. God’s approval is what counts, and that only comes through Jesus Christ.