Working together as the Church of Jesus Christ can be messy business. It always has been. For instance, when we look at the book of Acts in the New Testament, we find conflict, even in the midst of people being led to Jesus through the workings of the Holy Spirit in the apostles and the congregation starting up. We find messiness as these congregations try to figure out how to do life together.
The first church was basically Jewish, and the apostles had Jewish backgrounds. The three thousand who received Christ on Pentecost were Jewish. The early church started out as a Jewish/Christian movement. However, God had bigger plans. For instance, in the story of Cornelius, the Italian who became a believer in Jesus, God showed Peter that He wanted non-Jews in His Church as well. Paul shared the gospel with those of non-Jewish background and many people received Christ into their lives. They began showing up in church, which created a bit of a dilemma for the Jewish Christians who were there originally. These non-Jews had been considered unclean and their enemies in the past. Before Jesus came into their lives, the Jews couldn’t even go into the presence of God after being around them. They wondered if things had changed. Should they be received as equals or begin following Jewish traditions? We find a lot of conflict over these subjects reflected in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Paul had gone into Galatia, part of modern-day Turkey, to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. His message could be described as Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything. Jesus has done it all for us. Nothing needs to be added. That is grace.
After Paul left that area to start new churches, some Jewish Christian teachers came with some different ideas that contradicted Paul’s message. They spoke like theologians and experts and turned the Galatians’ heads by teaching them, Jesus plus something equals salvation. They accused Paul of not giving the whole story and made him out to be a Johnny-come-lately. They taught that the men had to be circumcised, follow their dietary laws, and celebrate ceremonial feasts if they were going to become a card-carrying, bona fide, saved person in the Christian Church.
When Paul heard what was happening, he was very concerned about the Galatians’ spiritual welfare. So he wrote this letter to get them back on track with the gospel. One of the issues he focused on was the gospel he taught, which was the same as the gospel taught at church headquarters in Jerusalem. He told them this story.
After Paul went to Jerusalem to visit church headquarters and hang out with Peter, James, and John, he went back out on the road to do more ministry. While he was gone, Peter returned the favor and visited Paul’s headquarters in Antioch, which is basically a non-Jewish church. When Peter arrived, he was welcomed, and he treated them as brothers and sisters in Christ. He ate with them, which was unheard of for Jews to do with non-Jews; he treated them as brothers and sisters, equals. But then some of his Jewish peers from Jerusalem showed up and were horrified to learn what Peter was doing. Out of fear of what his peer group would think, Peter separated himself from the non-Jews. Perhaps a bit of nationalistic pride played into that as well. Old prejudices came back into play as these friends talked to him about hanging out with the non-Jews. Peter backed away, as did Barnabas and many of the other Jewish leaders.
When Paul came back to town and saw what was happening, he called Peter out on the carpet in front of everybody. He said Peter’s behavior was absolutely inconsistent with the truth of the gospel. Then he reminded Peter that even he didn’t follow Jewish dietary laws. (Jesus had taught that the Jewish laws were only customs and traditions. They didn’t matter now that Jesus was a part of his life.)
Then Paul points out that the gospel embraced Peter. “(Let’s not forget the gospel, Peter.) We ourselves are Jews by birth, not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law (like keeping these traditions and laws) but through faith in Jesus Christ.” No one is justified by the works of the law.
Paul is telling Peter, We are sinners, and as Jews we know these rules about being Jewish, which are being passed on to the non-Jews, don’t save us. We are justified through faith in Jesus Christ.
The term “justified” is used three times in this passage. It is a term from the law courts meaning not condemned by God; pronounced not guilty; pardoned; acquitted. God sees me just as if I never sinned. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are not guilty in God’s sight anymore. Paul places that as a general principle and gets personal with Peter, “We have come to believe that faith in Jesus Christ is what justifies a person.” Then he makes a universal statement: “We know that NO ONE is justified by doing these works. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (vs. 16, 20)
Martin Luther writes on this, “Faith connects you so intimately with Christ, that He and you become, as it were, one person. As such, you may boldly say: ‘I am now one with Christ. Therefore, Christ’s righteousness, victory, and life are mine.’”
Paul continues, “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. To believe otherwise is to nullify what He did for me at the cross” (vs. 20-21). Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything. We can only assume Peter saw the light because things changed after that. Paul probably would not have told this story if Peter hadn’t seen the light.
What is the bottom line here? Paul is saying to these Galatians,
Don’t listen to these crazy characters who are saying, Jesus plus something equals salvation. You are not second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. In God’s sight you are His sons and daughters. Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything, and He plays no favorites in His kingdom.
Brennan Manning tells a wonderful story that I believe captures this. He writes,
“Shortly after I was ordained, I took a graduate course at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The professor was an old Dutchman who told the following story:
‘I am one of 13 children. One day, when I was playing in the streets of our hometown of Holland, I got thirsty and came into the pantry of our house for a glass of water. It was around noon and my father had just come home from work to have lunch.
‘He was sitting at the kitchen table having a glass of beer with the neighbor. A door separated the kitchen from the pantry and my father didn’t know I was there. The neighbor said to my father, ‘Joe, there’s something I’ve wanted ask you for a long time, but if it’s too personal, just forget I ever asked.’
My father said, ‘What’s your question?’
‘Well, your thirteen children. Out of all of them, is their one that’s your favorite, one that you love more than all the others?’
‘I had my ear pressed against the door hoping against hope it would be me. ‘That’s easy,’ my father said. ‘Sure, there’s one I love more than all the others. That’s Mary, the 12-year-old. She just got braces on her teeth and feels so awkward and embarrassed that she won’t go out of the house anymore.
‘Ah, but you asked about my favorite. That’s my twenty-three-year-old, Peter. His fiancé just broke their engagement, and he’s desolate.
‘But the one I really love the most is little Michael. He’s totally uncoordinated and terrible in any sport he tries to play. The kids make fun of him.
‘On and on he went mentioning each of his thirteen children by name including my own.’
Then the professor ended the story saying, ‘What I learned was that the one my father loved most was one who needed him most. That is the way the Father of Jesus is. He loves those most, who need Him most, who rely on Him, depend on Him, and trust Him in everything. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Placing your trust in Jesus Christ makes you a favorite son or daughter.”
This is what Paul is trying to get the Galatians to claim. But he’s also teaching some-thing else here that’s important for us as followers of Jesus to learn. The gospel of grace is not just the truth to believe in, it’s also the truth to be lived out, to line our lives up with in our horizontal relationships with each other. You see, if you are trusting in Jesus Christ, you are living in a new state – the state of grace. This state has its own norms and customs and values. There are implications for how we feel and think and behave as we listen to Paul point out to Peter that his feelings and thinking and behavior are not in line with the gospel. He seems to be telling Peter, You’ve forgotten how you were welcomed with grace.
My dear brothers and sisters, the ground at the foot of the cross is absolutely level. All of us in the Church of Jesus Christ are sinners and in need of a Savior. All of us are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not of our own doing. God sees us as His children and loves us all the same. There are no second-class children. We are to line up our lives behind the truth and not treat each other as second-class citizens with our own expectation lists of what makes a person acceptable. We are to love Jesus and then love one another as He has loved us, as brothers and sisters in Christ. That is God’s plan.
Karl Barth, a great theologian of last century, once described the Church using this statement: “The Church is a provisional display of God’s original intention.” We in the church are a display for the world to see that God has provided for the world, to see of what He originally intended when He put it all together in the beginning – loving Him above all things with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We are to love one another. That was His plan. That is what the future holds in the kingdom of God. We are called to live in a state of grace.
What does that look like in our church today? Well, if the gospel of grace is at our core, then as followers of Jesus Christ, we become color blind. We stand by everybody who is our brother and sister in Christ, no matter what their skin color might be. There is no place for racism in the Church of Jesus Christ. Racism is not a bad habit; it’s not a bad mistake; it simply is a sin. It’s not a matter of sociology; it is a matter of theology. At the root of it is sin. It’s looking at people as second-class citizens.
Years ago I was able to hear E.V. Hill, an African American evangelist preach at a Billy Graham conference. He was a wonderful man of God and told this story in his autobiography. “As a freshman at Prairie View College, part of the Texas A&M system, I was actively involved in the Baptist student union. Our denomination’s annual convention, which included blacks, was held in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a highlight of the year. Much to my pleasure, I was one of two students selected to go to it. White students had raised the money. That was okay with me as I viewed it as an act of pity on their part or at least a chance to ease their guilty conscience. But then trouble began.
“The trip through the South was to be by car – three whites and two blacks traveling together. Remember, this was the 40s. I had no idea how we’d eat or how we’d sleep. So great was my anxiety and hatred over how the trip might turn out that I almost backed out of going. In all my experience, I’d never seen a white man stand up for a black man, and I thought I never would.
“But then Dr. Howard, the director of our trip (and a white man) spoke up. ‘We’ll be traveling together,’ he said. ‘If there isn’t a place where all of us can eat, none of us will eat. If there is not a place all of us can sleep, none of us will sleep.’ That was all he said. It was enough. For the first time in my life, I had met a white man who was Christian enough to take a stand with a Christian black man.”
This is what Paul is talking about today. In the Church of Jesus Christ, we become classless. We no longer see rich or poor, employer or employee, unemployed or CEO. We are members – brothers and sisters of Christ’s family. We drop the attitude – I’ll sit by you in church, but because I run with a different crowd out in the world, I won’t befriend you or share life with you. In the Church of Jesus Christ that lives in the gospel of grace, we are nonsectarian. We don’t look down our noses at other denominations, questioning whether they’re really brothers or sisters or not. We hold on to that core theology – saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ – and whoever buys that is our brother or sister, whether we agree with them on other issues or not.
We are apolitical. I’m not saying we’re not interested in politics, but we don’t define who was really a Christian by a political party or ideology. We don’t put our expectations and preferences on people like that. We are appreciative of variety if we are part of the gospel of grace church. We worship this way; they worship that way. Nothing is wrong with that; it’s just different.
My brothers and sisters in Christ who trust Jesus, who know of His grace, you are equally loved by Jesus Christ. All are sinners; all of us are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That is the gospel truth of grace.
Believe it, and live it. Line your life up with it.