Paul was angry when he wrote Galatians. We can tell that by how he introduced this epistle. All of Paul’s letters begin the same way. He opened his letters with a greeting (usually “grace and peace”) and then gave thanks for those persons to whom he was writing. First the greeting, then the gratitude. Every single letter of Paul in the New Testament follows this pattern–every letter except Galatians. Paul was so angry that he forgot to thank God for the Galatians. Where we would expect to read, “I thank God for you,” we read, “I am astonished that you are turning to a different gospel.” And a little later, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed!”
Why was Paul so upset? Why was he angry enough to curse others? Because the Galatians had been led by others to abandon the gospel and desert the Good News they had received. He was upset because someone was telling lies about God. He was angry because the Galatians were being poisoned with heresy.
Heresy is a word we’re uncomfortable with–a word we’re suspicious of for good reason. The word heretic has been applied over the years to people who were more in tune with the truth of God than the majorities who condemned them. (Jeremiah was accused of heresy and treason because he was so advanced in his understanding of God.) Heretic is a label that closed-minded, rigid authorities have often used to maintain their control over others. (Think “Inquisition.”) Heretic has been applied to people who were simply ahead of their time.
Enough people have been burned at the stake, pelted to death with stones, and subjected to unspeakable horrors on the charge of heresy to render all of us suspicious of the word. As Christians we must never forget that we serve one who was condemned on charges of blasphemy, heresy, and treason. So, we must be very careful with the word heresy. But just because a word has been misapplied and manipulated by others does not mean that the word cannot at times point to a real danger, a serious problem, or a grave distortion.
Listen to one pastor, Eugene Peterson, as he comments on the true meaning of heresy.
The word heresy comes from a Greek word “to choose.” A heretic is one who chooses a single item out of the entire body of truth, and ignoring or denying the rest of it, makes that privately preferred and chosen truth the only truth, and teaches others to do the same. Heresy is the choice of a fraction instead of the whole. The heretic blocks access on the part of himself and others to the fullness of God. With the heretic life is simplified, but it also becomes impoverished. The heretic solves our problems by reducing our lives.
If heresy is a choosing of the part at the expense of the whole and reducing all truth to a privately preferred portion of the truth, then I think we would have to admit that our world has more than its share of heretics. We may be appalled that the church once burned heretics, and we should be appalled! But perhaps we have gone to the other extreme in making the heretics of our day celebrities and rewarding them with 6-7 figure salaries. Today’s heretics are glamorous, persuasive, and insistent. With smooth talk, slick presentations, staged sincerity, thundering voices, big smiles, and crocodile tears, they speak a small, minute portion of the truth. But sometimes a small portion of the truth can be so minute and so removed from the whole truth that it becomes a lie. And ultimately that is what heresy is–lies about God. And that is why Paul was so concerned for the Galatians, for he knew that lies about God would reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in past guilt, and cripple them with anxieties and fears.
The particular heresy and the specific lie Paul had to deal with in Galatians came from those who believe that potential Christian converts must first become Jews before they could become Christians. Some in the church believed these potential converts had to meet a number of legalistic requirements to be reconciled to God. They had to do some good works, observe certain rituals, undergo circumcision (if they were male), and embrace the Mosaic Law before they could belong to God. And Paul said, “That’s a lie. It’s a lie about the nature of God! It’s a perversion of the gospel! It’s a denial of God’s grace. You’re saved by God’s grace, not by your works or goodness or obedience. Salvation is a gift from God. Redemption is the result of God’s unconditional love.”
Now how did Paul know this? He had experienced it. For years Paul had believed this very lie about God–that God was an angry deity who must be appeased–that God had a list of requirements that had to be met before one was acceptable or worthy of God’s love–that God was a rigid, calculating tyrant storming through the heavens out to get every trespasser and throw him into the fires of hell. I love Eugene Peterson’s description of Paul’s concept of God prior to his Damascus road experience: “Paul’s idea of God was that he was an angry bachelor uncle, impatient with the antics of romping and undisciplined children. Paul’s response, along with many others, was to shut up the children and make them sit in a corner until they learned to behave in such a way that they wouldn’t disturb the old man, and if they wouldn’t shut up, send them off to reform school or the penitentiary and throw away the key.”
But then something happened. On the Damascus Road Paul met all the truth of God, and not just a slice of truth. He came face to face with the purest revelation of the Divine, and he knew that God was not what he had been told. He learned that God was not against us but for us—that God was not furious but compassionate–that God was not out to get sinners to make them good and sorry. No, God was out to find sinners to make them good and joyful. Paul learned that God loved him, in spite of what he had done to the church. He learned that God loved him with or without all his blind obedience to the Mosaic law–that God loved him unconditionally and eternally and that nothing could ever change that –nothing could separate him from that love. And Paul was blessed with the joyful mission of going out to tell the whole world–Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free–that God was waiting for them not with balled-up fists and an angry spirit but with open arms and a loving heart.
Paul called this truth about God the gospel. Paul loved the word gospel. In his writings he used it more than 60 times. (Mark uses it seven times, Matthew four, Luke twice, and John once. But Paul uses it more than 60 times) It was good news that could ultimately drive out all the bad news we and our world would ever face. God loves us–God is for us–God is out to save us and make us whole. And Paul said, “Anyone who tells us something else is a liar. Let that person be accursed!”
Lies about God: that is what heresy is–a preferred part of the whole truth exaggerated out of proportion so that that part of the truth becomes a lie. There are many lies about God today, both within and outside the church. There is the lie that God doesn’t care what we do to each other and to our world–the lie that we can, after all, serve God and mammon–the lie that our lives and our world can be fragmented into parts, some of which should be penetrated by the truth of the gospel while others parts can be left untouched by God’s redeeming and transforming grace–the lie that God is a figment of our imagination, a projection of our selfish desires in this vast and cold universe. There are many lies about God, but the one Paul dealt with in Galatians and the one we are looking at today is perhaps the worst lie of all. To counter that lie, we must say with Paul: “We are saved by grace. We and all others are loved unconditionally and eternally by God. God is a Parent with open arms and a warm heart. That is the truth about God–the essence of Christianity. That is the only authentic distillation of the gospel which is legitimate, because when all is said and done, as John tells us, “God is love.” And “perfect love casts out fear.”
And until we know that–until we feel that deep down–until we allow those everlasting arms to surround and envelope us and all those others, (some of whom we would perhaps give limited access to God because they don’t fit our standards of acceptance) we can never be free from fear, free from sin, and free from death.
Paul said, “Don’t let anyone take the good news of God in Jesus Christ and turn it into a lie.” May such heresy never be on our lips or touch our lives.
Not all Disciples churches have communion at the end of the service. Many celebrate the Lord’s Supper before the sermon. I, however, like the idea of our worship culminating with this gathering around the Lord’s Table. By celebrating communion when we do, the last word uttered in our service is always a word of grace. No matter what else has been said or done in our worship–no matter how wrong the sermon may have been or how many mistakes we have made, the last word is grace –the unconditional, indiscriminate, everlasting love of God. What we experience at this Table anticipates the last word of God for us and indeed the whole creation. As we eat the bread and drink the wine of the new covenant, may we experience deep within and among us the Good News of Jesus Christ for this world God so loves.
As we go out into the world we shall be tempted on many fronts to forget the good news of God in Jesus Christ. The tools of evil are always lies–lies about God, about goodness, about love, about hope, about trust, about faithfulness. We who have tasted the goodness of God at this Table should never allow anyone or anything to lead us into the temptation of forgetting the gospel or turning it into a lie about God. As we go in the name of Christ, may we always remember who and whose we are as we hear that last word of God–a word of grace echoing through the corridors of eternity and calling each of us by name. Amen.
Lord Jesus, stretch forth your wounded hands in blessing over your people, to heal and to restore, and to draw us to yourself and to one another in love. Amen.