Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sermon: Galatians 6: 12-16 Boasting in the Cross

Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of Christ. So says Paul in our reading tonight. That word boast means to glory, to revel, to be totally captivated and only interested in. Now, it might sound strange to you for Paul to say that - that he boasts, or glories in the cross of Christ.

After all, the cross is a gruesome symbol of death. It would be like someone today saying that they glory in the electric chair, or that they boast in the hangman’s noose. How could Paul be so interested in the cross? As we look at the Bible tonight, it might be useful to have it open, we’ll see just why Paul boasts in the cross. We’ll see that the cross abolishes our pride, makes us die to the world, and brings the new creation.

To understand the passage, we have to understand the context of the Galatian letter. Following Paul’s missionary journey through the region, which is in modern day Turkey, false teachers had come along, saying that for believers to be real believers, they had to be circumcised too. In seeking to promote the Old Testament Law, they were creating real pressure for these new Christians. So Paul writes his letter to the Galatians telling them to stand firm in the faith, and to reject these Judaizers.

As Paul shows, the Judaizers weren’t actually interested in these believers, just in how things appeared. We see three reasons why they wanted the new believers to be circumcised: 1. to make a good showing in the flesh (12), 2. in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross (12), and 3. to boast in your flesh (13).

The Judaizers focus is entirely on the externals, through formal religion. You see, these were Gentiles who had heard the good news of Jesus, and believed in him. But the Jewish believers were insisting on circumcision, to make them real proper believers. These Judaizers were wanting to keep in with the rest of the Jewish community, who had rejected Christ but sought to maintain the law and traditions.

By forcing these Gentiles to be circumcised, they could say to their fellow Jews and point to the fact that they were coming under the covenant of circumcision. By doing this, the Judaizers were seeking to avoid the scandal of the cross - seeking to avoid being persecuted for the cross.

Rather than faith in the cross, they had faith in the cross plus circumcision. A kind of “Jesus plus” idea. I don’t know if you have been in McDonald’s recently. When you place an order, they’ll say, do you want fries with that? The burger is never enough - they want you to take the fries too. Similarly, the Judaizers were saying that faith in Jesus wasn’t enough - you also had to go through the act of circumcision.

So when other Jews came along, these Judaizers could point to the Gentile believers being circumcised, and so they wouldn’t be persecuted for faith in the cross. Instead, their confidence is in the circumcision, in the flesh of the Galatians. It all centres on human pride - what we do to earn merit and favour.

Now, thankfully, there isn’t anyone going about today saying that we should be circumcised to be real Christians. Yet there are still people who try to earn God’s favour through what they do. For example, some might say that if you’re baptised, then you’re saved. Like circumcision, it’s an outward symbol, which may or may not reflect the internal situation. Or maybe it’s believe in Jesus plus go to church twice on a Sunday, or believe in Jesus plus sing in the choir, or ... whatever!

The cross, on the other hand, cuts through all of our pride. They might boast in the flesh, but Paul will only boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than trying to show God how great we are, the cross cuts through our pride, and shows that we can do nothing. It’s only by the sin-bearing death on the cross that saves us. As Paul says in chapter 3 - no one can be saved by their law keeping, because everyone is a law breaker, and a curse is upon them.

‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”’ (Gal 3:13) It takes the death of the Lord Jesus to save us. It takes only the death of the Lord Jesus to save us.

Yet we can’t leave it there. We can’t just observe the cross as an objective thing, seeing that Christ has died on the cross. Because, as Paul goes on to say, we’re also involved. Look at verse 14. ‘But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’

The cross is not just something that happened to Jesus - we are also involved, when we are united with Christ. As well as abolishing our pride, the cross is also an end to our sin and our death to the world. Remember what Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome? ‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?’ (Romans 6:3). Paul’s point here is that we have died to sin, or as he says here, the world has been crucified to us. But also, we have been crucified to the world - we have died to the world’s standards and opinions.

Do you see how revolutionary this is? The Judaizers were living to make a good show in the flesh, to look good to the other Jews. Having been crucified with Christ, we have died to these external pressures, and they no longer mean anything to us. Rather than worrying what people think of us, we have died to the world, so that we live for God, and to please God.

It’s what Paul had written earlier in 2:20: ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ Do we live in fear of what other people think of us? Of how people judge us based on their external, legal, or self-righteous standards? Paul’s saying that they shouldn’t concern us - we are to live for God alone!

Our third point builds on this one, as we see that the cross brings the new creation. Throughout the passage, these Judaizers had their focus on circumcision, all on the externals. To be right with God, they were saying, you had to do all these things. But read what Paul says in verse 15. Because we have died to the world, and the world has died to us, we boast in the cross, ‘For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.’

It doesn’t matter if you are circumcised. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t circumcised. What matters, what counts, at the end of the day, is a new creation. The new creation comes about by the cross of the Lord Jesus, and is an internal work. The cross of Christ is the place where we find new life, real life, in the new creation.

Lanzarote is a volcanic island. Vast stretches of the country are covered with ash and lava from the last eruptions. The lava is a symbol of death and destruction. Cesar Manrique was an artist and architect who lived on the island. One day, as he was walking, he found a series of volcanic ‘bubbles’, and he began to build his house inside these bubbles. Everyone thought he was mad - the lava meant death to them. Yet now, the house is famous - tourists go to visit. Out of the point of death has come life - out of the lava comes a living.

Similarly, we glory in the cross, the symbol of death, because we find in it the end of our pride, the end of what others think of us, and the beginning of life, real life, new creation life, not because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.

As the hymn says:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

Pride, opinions, our achievements, our goodness, all must be sacrificed on the cross, crucified, so that we can always, only, and ever glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. May this be so!

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on the Wednesday in Holy Week, 8th April 2009.

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