Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 2: 1-10 Freedom in fellowship

Has anyone ever ran a marathon? Just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t either. I might be able to run the 0.22 miles, it would just be the other 26 miles that would give me bother. But imagine that you had done all the training, you ran the race, and then discovered that it was all pointless, that it wouldn’t count, that you were disqualified.

That’s what’s happened to the 5000 participants in the Marathon of the North in Sunderland in May 2013. It turns out that along the way, they followed the wrong directions of the marshals, and the course they ran was 264 metres short of a full marathon (288 yards). One runner went the right route, but all the rest went the wrong way. They hadn’t run a marathon; they didn’t get a finishing medal; they had run their race in vain.

Imagine how they felt when they heard it was all for nothing. All their efforts wasted. Well, that’s the same fear the apostle Paul had - as he says at the end of verse 2. ‘For fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.’ But it wasn’t a messed up marathon that caused this fear. He wanted to make sure that he really did have the true gospel - he wanted to be sure that he hadn’t wasted the last fourteen years of his life, running in vain, by preaching the wrong thing.

If you’re jumping into Galatians this morning for the first time, it might be good to help you catch up. Paul is writing this letter to the churches in Galatia to call them back to the gospel of God’s free grace, the gospel that he had preached to them. But since he had been with them, false teachers had arrived in the churches, insisting that to be a real Christian, you first had to become a Jew - by observing the law, and particularly by being circumcised. Paul has been saying that circumcision isn’t needed, that it’s not part of the gospel of grace, received by faith.

Last time we saw how Paul had received his gospel directly from Jesus. But the false teachers seem to have been saying that Paul’s gospel was different to the other apostles’ gospel. That Paul was missing something important. So Paul tells us about a visit to Jerusalem, where he just wanted to make absolutely sure that he was in the right. In verse 1, he tells us who he brought with him - Barnabas and Titus. And in verse 2 he tells us what he did to be sure that he was right.

Notice that he went to Jerusalem because of a revelation. We find this in Acts 11:28 - where Agabus predicts a severe famine, and so Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were sent to Jerusalem with a gift for famine relief for the Christians in Judea. It wasn’t that he had been summoned by the apostles, like being sent for by the headmaster. He was there for one reason, but while he was there, he ‘set before them [the apostles] the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.’

It would be a bit like checking your homework on the school bus - not copying, but just making sure that you had the same answers as someone else. Just to make sure that you weren’t barking up the wrong tree, that you hadn’t run your race in vain.

So what was the result of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem? He has confirmation that he is preaching the one true gospel. We see this in a couple of ways. The first is there in verse 3. ‘Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.’

Titus, was a Greek, and therefore a Gentile, and therefore uncircumcised. But the apostles didn’t say, hold on, we’ll get a knife out. They didn’t require or compel him to be circumcised. This despite the desire of some ‘false brothers’ to have it done. These false brothers were undercover spies, trying to spy on the freedom Christians have in Christ Jesus, and to try to make us slaves. But Paul and the other apostles didn’t give in to them ‘so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.’ (5)

Paul is sure he has the one true gospel, because Titus didn’t have to be circumcised. He’s also sure because the apostles in Jerusalem didn’t add anything to his message. Paul had set before them the gospel he preaches. And the apostles didn’t see anything he had missed; didn’t need to add anything he was lacking. He hadn’t run his race in vain. They confirmed that he has the one true gospel of freedom.

So what about us? Are we confident that we have the one true gospel of freedom? Are we sure that we haven’t believed in vain, or taught in Sunday School in vain, or preached in vain? Is it in line with Paul’s gospel - what he sets out here in Galatians? Does our gospel bring freedom, or does it make people slaves by having to obey extra rules that we add to the free gospel? For us, the issue might not be circumcision, but it might be certain behaviours that we expect everyone to follow. Paul gives us the one true gospel.

And in the rest of our passage, we see that the one true gospel of freedom is for everyone. We see this in three particular ways.

First of all, in verse 7-8, the gospel is for everyone - not just Jews. I’m sure you know the song ‘If you’re Irish, come into the parlour, there’s a welcome there for you.’ That’s not the case here. You don’t have to be Irish, or Jewish, or any particular nationality. The gospel is for everyone!

The apostles in Jerusalem didn’t add anything to Paul’s message, but they did see something in it. ‘On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.’ (7) The same gospel is for everyone, but there’s a division of labour. Peter was entrusted with the job of preaching the gospel to the Jews (or as the footnote reminds us, the original Greek says ‘circumcised’). And Paul was entrusted with the job of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (footnote: uncircumcised).

The same gospel is for everyone - so everyone has a job to do. Peter’s mission field was different to Paul’s, but they brought the same gospel. God was at work in Peter’s ministry as well as Paul’s, so that the gospel goes to everyone. So who is your mission field? Who is the ‘everyone’ that you’ll be in contact with this week? It probably won’t be the same as the person sitting beside you, or in front of you. Your mission might be at your workplace - I might never meet your colleagues, but you will. You’re there for a purpose. Or the sports club you’re involved with. Or a choir. Or lodge. Or the parents you rub shoulders with at the school gate. No matter who you meet this week, they’re included in the everyone who needs the gospel.

Secondly, in verse 9, the gospel is for everyone - and it brings us together. The Jerusalem apostles (and James), the so-called pillars of the church, they recognise the grace God had given to Paul, and so they recognise the fellowship they have with him. The gospel doesn’t just bring us to God, it also brings us closer to one another.

They gave Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship - they shook hands on it, they recognised that they were brothers. On some Friday evenings, I can be found at Ravenhill. People from all over the province come to get closer to the Ulster team, to stand up for the Ulster men. But as the supporters do that, they also come closer to one another. Shoulder to shoulder in the stands.

The gospel brings us closer to God and closer to one another. Are we living out that fellowship? Are we growing closer together as we follow Jesus together? Are we welcoming others to join us? (How sad it would be if new people were joining us but they weren’t welcomed, weren’t even talked to, just ignored as we talk to ourselves...)

The gospel is for everyone, bringing us into fellowship together. So how can you be a part of this?

Finally, in verse 10 we see that the gospel is for everyone - especially the poor. ‘All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.’

It’s not that the Jerusalem apostles tell Paul to start remembering the poor - they ask that he continue to remember the poor. That was the very reason he was in Jerusalem - the famine relief (Acts 11:28-30). And he was eager to do it anyway. Caring for the poor is an outflow of the gospel - it naturally follows, because the gospel is for everyone; the gospel of free grace which can’t be bought or earned; but which is freely given.

Is care for the poor an essential part of our Christian life and witness here? Are we continuing to remember them? Or is is something we need to start doing? Are we as eager as Paul was to do it?

One of the ways we can do this is through supporting the Craigavon foodbank - towards the end of October we’ll have our foodbank collection - more details will be coming shortly. But are there other ways we can remember the poor, and bring the good news to them?

Five thousand runners went home disappointed from the Marathon of the North. Their aches and pains were all in vain; all their efforts had been for nothing. Make sure that you aren’t running in vain - make sure that you’ve got the one true gospel of freedom - the gospel for everyone: no matter who you are; whatever your income; it brings us together in fellowship, united to God and to one another. This is the gospel Paul preached, the gospel all the apostles preached. The only gospel that saves.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 24th September 2017.

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