Sunday, October 08, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 2: 11-22 Freedom by faith

Have you ever noticed that before a football match, the two captains come into the centre with the referee. They’ll toss a coin to see who kicks off. They shake hands, but once the whistle goes, it really does kick off. For a moment they were friendly, but now they are sworn enemies, out to beat the other team. As the bowling club tournament runs in the hall this week, you’ll see the same idea - a polite handshake one minute, then opposed the next.

As you listened to this morning’s Bible reading from Galatians, you might have wondered if the same sort of thing was going on. Glance back to verse 9 in Galatians 2 and you might remember from last time (before the harvest) that Paul and Barnabas shared the right hand of fellowship with James, Peter and John. They shook hands to show that they were in agreement, they were on the same team.

But was that just a formality? Was it all for nothing? Did it mean absolutely nothing, when you read verse 11, just two verses later, and discover that suddenly Paul is opposing Peter to his face, calling him out in public! What is going on? Why were they friends and brothers one minute, and then the next are at each other’s throats?

And when you see why Paul was opposing Peter, you might think, was it a storm in a tea cup? The row arose over something as small as eating arrangements - who sits with who, and what that says. Now, maybe you’ve planned (or are planning) a wedding reception, and you have all the names on bits of paper, seeing who can sit with who, and which people need to be kept apart for everyone’s sake.

That gets us so far in thinking about the importance of sitting and eating together. But the actual issue is there in verse 12. Peter was visiting Antioch - a city in modern day Turkey. The church was made up of Gentile believers. Peter would gladly share in fellowship with them - sharing meals with them, sitting at the table together, with no problems.

But all that changed when some people came from Jerusalem - members of the circumcision party. They were those who insisted that Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be real Christians. And when they arrived, Peter withdrew from the Gentile Christians, wouldn’t sit and eat with them as he had before, and would only eat with Jews. When Peter did this, he influenced all the other Jewish believers to also draw back from the Gentiles, in effect making a distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

It was as if Peter was saying there are Premier League Christians - those who are Jews; and there are second division Christians - the Gentiles. Or imagine that as you arrived for church today, the churchwardens asked which football team you supported, and you only sat with people who support the same team - and then insisted that Man United supporting Christians are the real deal, while the Liverpool supporting Christians are at best, second rate.

Paul gets to the heart of what Peter is up to in verse 13. ‘The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy.’ None of us wants to be a hypocrite - saying one thing but doing another. But that’s what Peter was doing - he was saying that all Christians are the same, but then by his actions he was showing that some were more important than others. That to eat together, you Gentiles would have to be circumcised. Without it, you would miss out.

But as Paul says, in verse 11, he was clearly in the wrong. Peter was in the wrong because, verse 14 ‘they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.’ Peter was a bit like a picture hanging on the wall that isn’t level. Maybe you never notice, but sometimes when you see a picture that’s askew, it just needs to be straightened up, to hang right. Peter was out of line when measured against the plumbline of the gospel.

And so Paul confronts him - not privately, but publicly. It’s right that in Matthew 18, Jesus gives us guidelines for resolving a private dispute with a brother or sister, but this is a public matter. Peter was leading people astray, so needed to be publicly rebuked. And the rebuke comes in verse 14.

‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’ Peter was a Jew by his family line. But now he wasn’t living according to the strict food laws and cleanliness code. Jesus had taught him that all foods were clean, and so he was living like a Gentile. Yet now, by his actions, he was forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs in order to sit and eat with him. He wasn’t living that way himself, so why was he forcing others to do it?

In verses 15-16, we get to the heart of the matter. What does it take for someone to become a Christian? What is needed to be justified - to be declared in the right with God, declared innocent? There are two alternative paths to take; two approaches to being justified. Either we can do it by observing the law - obeying every detail of the Old Testament law, by living not just a good life, but a perfect life; or we can do it by trusting Jesus.

Listen again to these verses. Three times we’re told the right answer, the only way to be justified: ‘We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.’

How is someone made right with God? Not by observing the law - because no one will be justified that way. It’s only by faith in Jesus Christ. Trusting him. Depending on what he has done for us, because we can’t do it by ourselves.

And it’s the same whether you are a Jew or a Gentile. Only by faith. Yet Peter was showing by his actions that faith in Jesus wasn’t really enough - you would also have to be circumcised. It’s right that Paul confronted Peter, so that Peter’s words and right hand of fellowship weren’t just meaningless, weren’t just hypocritical, but were followed through in his actions in welcoming all who believe in Jesus.

We are only made right with God by faith in Jesus. Nothing else will do. Nothing else can make it. Paul then goes on to answer an objection to this. Ok, someone says, you trust in Jesus, does that mean you can live how you want? If you’re not obeying the law, then does that mean that you can sin freely and still know that you’re saved? Like the person who sets out to commit some terrible sin, saying to themselves, it’s ok - God will forgive me after. ‘Does that mean that Christ promotes sin?’

‘Absolutely not!’ Paul says that being justified by faith doesn’t give us a free pass to live how we want, and sin freely. Rather, we will be changed when we’re justified ‘in Christ’ - united with him. When we trust Jesus, we are then ‘in him’ - so that what he does, we do and where he goes, we go.

In verses 19 and 20, Paul talks of the death and the resurrection of every believer. But it’s not a future thing, something that will one day come to pass. No, he speaks of it as something that has already happened, when we first put our faith in Jesus:

‘For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’

As we put our faith in Jesus, we go through death and resurrection - dying to the law and its demands. Crucified with Christ so that ‘I’ - the old me, the unrighteous me, the sinful me, the trying to be justified by myself me - my old self has died. Instead, Christ lives in me.

No longer do we live for ourselves, no longer do we try to justify ourselves by our good works or obedience to the law. Now, ‘I live by faith in the Son of God’ - the Son of God who did all that was needed for me to be saved - ‘who loved me and gave himself for me.’

The only way to be made right with God, to be justified, is by faith in Jesus, who loved you and gave himself for you. Trusting in Jesus is the only way to be saved - by the grace of God, giving us what we don’t deserve. So how could Peter insist on faith in Jesus plus circumcision?

Or how could we insist on faith in Jesus plus anything else? It’s all, and only by grace. We cannot achieve it by our efforts, we simply kneel at the foot of the cross. And, as Paul says in verse 22, if righteousness could have been gained through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

So stop trying to earn God’s favour by your good works - your giving to charity, your prayer times, your church attendance, whatever it might be. And don’t look down on others who don’t match your supposedly high standards of achievement. Your high standards are still useless to save you. Instead, simply receive. Take hold of the grace given by the death of Jesus for you. You just need open hands to receive - as we’ll do in a few moments at the Lord’s Table.

As you come forward, as you receive the bread and the wine, remind yourself of these words: ‘The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ Stop your striving, and stand in his grace.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 8th October 2017.

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