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Sermon for Proper 5/Ordinary 9 Gal 1:11-end

April 30, 2016

HinnBenny Hinn has called off his miracle crusade to England. Last year he was turned away from Heathrow Airport. They said his papers weren’t in order but I wonder if it had something to do with keeping out religious extremists.

For those of you who haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, Hinn claims to have the “anointing” by God to heal the sick and he made a number of prophecies such as God destroying America’s gay community in 1995, the death of Fidel Castro, the election of the first female president of the USA and the East Coast of the United States being devastated by earthquakes.

Some preachers make big claims of how God spoke to them. Yet many have their downfall, usually through some sex scandal, like Ted Haggard, who is now starting up his own church.

What do you make of Paul’s outrageous claims in today’s second reading? He’s angry about what had happened in Galatia. They had been swept off their feet by a new set of preachers who were much more like fundamentalists than Paul. These newcomers upheld scripture to the letter and so insisted that the Galatians be circumcised. They saw Paul’s mission as a sell-out of the truth. Paul was making faith easy. No wonder he was successful – all those God-fearers sitting at the back of the synagogue holding out against being circumcised could now join. To Paul, the missionaries’ approach was anathema but they saw it as a betrayal both of scripture and of Israel.

These opponents had better credentials because this man from Tarsus never knew Jesus personally. So Paul claims a special authority for himself. He bigs himself up like Hinn. He echoes prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah who said that God himself had set them apart in their mothers’ wombs. He tells them that he didn’t get his authority from Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem but from a direct vision of Christ. After all, he was a loyal Jew, so loyal that he persecuted Christians. Why would he have made such a dramatic U-turn if he hadn’t had such a dramatic experience on the road to Damascus?

But history is always written by the winners. We assume that Paul was the good guy and that the so-called Judaizers were the bad guys. But were they?

There was a Jerusalem Church which still kept all the Jewish rituals. They were concerned that Paul was preaching his law-free gospel at Antioch so they sent a mission to tell them that the Jewish law was essential. They were persecuted by other Jews so many moved away. Matthew probably wrote his gospel for them. James probably wrote his epistle to them. But they are slagged off by Paul. They are also slagged off by Ignatius of Antioch. The church of Antioch sent delegates to Jerusalem. A council decided that Gentiles could be Christians without the full Jewish law but that didn’t settle the matter because it rumbled on and on afterwards.

Who was right? Paul or the Jerusalem church? The Jerusalem church had scripture on its side. Paul said that the law was temporary – but he cites no scripture, just his own authority. Deuteronomy (11:29) says it is to be observed always, for ever. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith long before he was circumcised but in Genesis God tells Abraham that circumcision is to be an everlasting sign and, in Matthew, (ch 5) Jesus says that the Law would not pass away. Yet Paul continued to emphasise the break with Judaism. Yet the Judaism he criticises is a caricature. Modern scholarship shows Judaism to have been much more – we would say – liberal yet Paul goes as far as to pronounce a curse on those who rely on the works of the law.

Who is right? A sermon allegedly by St. Clement (Pseudo-Clementine homilies) said that Peter and Paul had an argument. Peter says that Paul is wrong because Peter knew Jesus for three years. Certainly Paul softened his approach later on. His letter to the Romans is much more positive towards Judaism where he wrote: ‘God’s choice stands and they (the Jews) are his friends for the sake of the patriarchs. For the gracious gifts of God and his calling are irrevocable.’ (11:29) He sees his mission as extending God’s original call to Jews to embrace Gentiles.

Paul decided to work for unity, to hold the churches together by – money. He traveled through Galatia and passed on detailed instructions about how a collection was to be made. He gave his other communities in Macedonia and Achaea instructions to do likewise.  On the first day of every week, the members of the community were to put something aside in order to guarantee a handsome sum when Paul travelled through to collect it and deliver it to the delegation that would take it to Jerusalem. This gave Paul the possibility of holding the Jerusalem people to their agreement so it served as an instrument in church politics. He could say that that his apostolate to the Gentiles was based on the unity of the church made up of Jews and Gentiles. Without this unity, his apostolate to the Gentiles was null and void.

Who was right? We shall never know. The Jerusalem church was stamped out, its members killed alongside fellow Jews when the Romans besieged Jerusalem in the year 70. There were some outposts – they survived for centuries in Syria. Frequent mentions of persecution in Matthew’s gospel present a grim picture of what life was like for them.

Both the rabbis and the church called them heretics so they lost the battle because of the events of history, not necessarily because their teaching was false. (Themes in Christian-Jewish Relations p. 39f)

That was then but it must ring bells about today’s church: fundamentalist Africans being backed by some powerful financiers seemingly wanting to set up a rival Anglican Communion. Rowan Williams trying to hold everything together, some of us trusting his learning and wisdom. Others wishing he’d taken a lead early on. Not an exact parallel to the early church but the same question poses itself: who is right? Or is everyone a bit right and a bit wrong? I think we can only know if we keep listening to each other instead of breaking off into our own corners.

A wider issue is the relationship between Protestants and Catholics. Martin Luther’s break with the Church of Rome was based on what is now seen to be a misreading of an inconsistent Paul. Luther saw Judaism as a religion of strict laws in contrast to Christianity, where God’s grace accepts us just as we are. We don’t have to earn salvation. Very Jewish! Judaism is also a religion of grace. The rules are simple opportunities to help people turn back to God not a merit/demerit list

Wider still is the question of our relationship to Judaism. Modern scholarship suggests that Christians owe more to Jews than we previously thought. Paul wrote to the Romans that Jews are like an olive tree. Christians have been grafted on. Since the split between Christians and Jews, this tree has been deformed. Healing needs to happen to enrich both traditions so Jewish Christian dialogue is vitally important for both religions and I can sign you up for membership of the Council of Christians and Jews afterwards!

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