Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 1: 1-10 Freedom by grace

Some mornings when I’m working in the study, I hear when it arrives, but other days, when I arrive home, I take a wee peek into the box to see if there’s anything there for us. What am I talking about? The post / mail, of course! Most days there are a few different things, so in the porch you sort it out - things for Lynsey, and things for me, But then, you still have to sort out the post further. It seems that there are three categories of mail: the things you want to get - wedding invitations and thank you cards and such like; the things you don’t want to get - all the junk mail which is quickly filed in the recycling bin; and the things you don’t really want to get, but that you need to get - bills, or appointment letters.

This autumn, we’re focusing on a letter that Paul sent to the churches in Galatia. But which sort of a letter is it? As the churches gathered to hear the letter read to them, would they want to get it or not? We’ll see that it’s one of those letters that they might not have wanted to get, but that they needed to get. We’ll see that Paul says some hard things to them, but only because he wants to bring them back from a dangerous place. He sees that they’re in trouble, so he writes to them, calling them to get back to safety, to see the danger that they’re in.

So this morning we come to the start of the letter. When we sit down to write a letter, we know how to go about it. You start off with the ‘dear so and so’, and at the very end you finish off with (is it) yours faithfully or yours sincerely, and your name. Well, here, the name of the person writing the letter comes first. The author introduces himself: ‘Paul, an apostle - sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead - and all the brothers with me.’

You know if you’re writing to people you don’t know, you might include a wee bit of background to help them understand who you are? Well, Paul knew these people. They know him already. He had started their churches. This would be a bit like a husband turning to his wife and saying, hello, I’m your husband, we met so many years ago and got married on this date... So why does Paul write all this in verse 1?

He’s showing that he is God’s man, God’s apostle. The word apostle means someone who is sent - and Paul makes sure that the Galatians know that he wasn’t sent by other people, that his authority isn’t from anyone else. He was sent ‘by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.’

You might remember that this happened on the road to Damascus. Paul (who was known as Saul at the time) was on his way to arrest or kill Christians, but then he met the risen Lord Jesus. His life was turned around. Jesus sent him to share the good news, to make other people Christians. Paul didn’t wake up one day and think, I’m going to be an apostle; he wasn’t sent by other people. He was sent by God to proclaim the news that Jesus is alive. Paul is God’s man, God’s apostle. And he’s writing this letter.

So who is the letter to? Verse 2: ‘To the churches in Galatia.’ Galatia is the middle bit of modern Turkey, including the capital Ankara. Paul had travelled through the region planting churches on his first missionary journey which you can find in Acts 13-14 - Antioch, Lystra, Iconium and Derbe.

And to these Christians, Paul the man of God brings the message of God in verse 3. It’s so easy to just pass over those first words. ‘Grace and peace to you.’ This is more than just a formal greeting, this is the summary of salvation. God gives us grace (his undeserved favour and goodness towards us), and peace (welcome and acceptance where previously there was wrath and hostility). This is the message of God - and we receive grace and peace because of what Jesus has done for us: ‘who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’

The message of God is freedom - freedom from the present evil age, freedom from our sins - freedom by grace, because Jesus gave himself for our sins. He died, and was raised from the dead to give us grace and peace. Have you received that grace and peace to you that God offers in Jesus? Have you marvelled at the free gift you don’t deserve?

This is the longest formal introduction that Paul writes in any of his letters. Flick over to Ephesians (p. 1173) and it’s a lot shorter and quicker. But here in Galatians, Paul wants them to be sure that he is God’s man with God’s message.

Now if you’re still in Ephesians, have a look at 1:3. There’s some praise. In all of Paul’s letters, he’ll share some praise, or offer thanks, or tell his readers he’s praying for them. In every letter, apart from this one. Beyond the formal introduction, there’s no small talk, no chit chat. It’s like the awkward phone call you have to make, so you ring up, and you get straight down to what you need to say. Here, in verse 6, Paul gets straight down to it.

‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all.’

Paul simply can’t believe what he has heard about the Galatians. They had heard God’s call to repent and believe, to receive the grace of Christ, when Paul had been in Galatia; they had set up their churches; they were rejoicing in the grace of Christ. But now, they were deserting the grace of Christ - so quickly too - and they were turning to a different gospel.

They were jumping ship, deserting the gospel of grace, and turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Our word gospel means good news. So what Paul is saying is that they were turning to what they thought was good news, but it’s really bad news.

So how had this happened? How had the Galatians turned from the true gospel to a false gospel so quickly after Paul’s visit? Verse 7: ‘Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.’ Some false teachers had come to town, they were changing the gospel, adding something to the gospel, so that it’s no longer just by grace that we’re saved, but by something that we do, it’s partly by our efforts, our works.

(We’ll see in the weeks to come what exactly it was)

Now why does this matter? Why does it matter what we believe? Can’t we all just get along with our own opinions and ideas about God, and our own pick and mix gospel? Paul says no - this is serious. So serious, in fact, that Paul proclaims a curse on those who preach another gospel - because other gospels themselves will lead people to be condemned. And he says it twice - in verse 8, ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you...’ and in verse 9 ‘if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted...’ ‘Let him be eternally condemned.’

Paul is saying that it’s only the gospel of grace in Christ that will save us. Or, as the reformers put it, ‘grace alone.’ There’s nothing we can contribute, nothing we can add, nothing that’s lacking that we can give a helping hand, nothing that we can top up - it’s all by grace, and only by grace.

It is God who calls us by the grace of Christ. He is calling you today, perhaps for the very first time, to receive his grace, to receive what Jesus has done for you on the cross. Receive it as a free gift, with open hands.

Or maybe you’ve been a believer for a while. But it seems as if you’ve been believing a different gospel, which isn’t good news, only bad news. And as you look back over the past while, you realise that you’ve done what the Galatians were doing - you’ve deserted the grace of Christ, and you’ve been trying to please God by doing it yourself. It’s bad news, because it hasn’t been working. You’ve been exhausting yourself trying to do better, or been plunged into depths of despair because you’re not succeeding.

Turn back to the one who calls you by the grace of Christ. Rediscover the joy of knowing your sins have been paid for, that Christ has been raised, that God is for you and loves you. We can be sure of this, because Paul is God’s man with God’s message. He writes this letter, not to please people - but in order to please God, and serve Christ. As we continue in this letter, we’ll hear from God as he speaks to us, as he shows us the glorious freedom that we have, only by grace.

But this morning, here’s the summary of this first section: Paul is God’s man, with God’s message, so don’t turn away from the gospel of grace.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 3rd September 2017.

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