Sunday, 16 March 2014

Jewish but not Pharisaical

This evening I get to preach on what for me is one of the most intriguing passages in the Bible, the first two chapters of Paul's letter to the Galatians.  Here's roughly what I'm going to say.

Galatians is a passionate letter written by Paul to a group of churches in Galatia, shown on the map.  It's not entirely clear who he's writing to but the explanation that makes the most sense to me is that the recipients were the churches in the south of the province - at Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Pisidian Antioch - which he and Barnabas founded on the first journey they took after being commissioned by the church in Syrian Antioch.  He certainly seems to have known his correspondents personally and talks to them as a spiritual father.  These cities were multicultural communities, Greek colonies in a region inhabited by Celts, ruled by Roman overlords, and the churches there would almost certainly have been multiracial.

The letter addresses one of the most crucial issues for the first century church - what was its relationship to Judaism?  The first Christians and the beginnings of the church were undoubtedly Jewish.  Jesus himself was a Jew, and he and his followers saw his mission in terms of fulfilling the Hebrew scriptures.  The apostles, including Paul, were all Jewish and all or most of the first converts were as well.  In the early days they didn't separate themselves off from other Jews - the members of the Jerusalem church continued to visit the temple, and when Paul began to preach the gospel through the Greek-speaking world he began at the synagogue in every town he visited.  

On the other hand, Jesus and the early Christians were highly critical of many aspects of the Judaism of their day.  The Jewish faith of their time was dominated by the group known as the Pharisees, a name drawn from the Aramaic word perysh, meaning separate or different.  The Pharisees preached a form of religious observance which focused on obedience to the letter of the Law, and particularly on external matters of appearance and ritual cleanliness.  They kept themselves firmly separate from both Gentiles and non-practicing Jews, they paid a lot of attention to dressing in the right way, walking and talking in the right way, washing their hands, eating kosher food, keeping the Sabbath and so on.

If you've read the gospels you can't help but know that Jesus was fiercely critical of the Pharisees.  Matthew 23 records a very pointed diatribe against them.  Here's a few samples.

2 ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others;...

13‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves....

25 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean....

Notice that Jesus does not criticise the Law and does not encourage his followers to break it. What he criticises is the Pharisees' practice. Jesus' problem with them is that they are hypocrites - they are focused on looking holy not on being holy. They evangelise - because Judaism at this time, especially outside Judea, was very much a proselytising faith - but they turn their converts into little versions of the themselves.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus proposes a radically different understanding of the Law. In the introductory part of the sermon he says this:

19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is a very challenging statement because the Pharisees prided themselves on their scrupulous attention to righteousness. Once again, Jesus' problem is not with the Law itself, which he affirms as good. It is with the way it is practiced. Jesus shows what he means by a number of examples. It's not enough to refrain from adultery, you need to deal with your lust. It's not enough to refrain from murder, you need to eradicate anger. It's not enough to be hospitable to your friends, you need to be hospitable to the outcast and the poor.

In other words, it's not enough to clean the outside of the cup, you need to clean the inside too. You need to transform yourself. How can we do this, and what does it mean for the way we live as Christians? This is the problem Paul addresses in his letter to the Galatians. In order to get at the answer to this question, Paul takes his readers back to some recent events in Syrian Antioch.

As I have said, the first Christians were all Jewish converts. When the Jerusalem church was persecuted many of its members fled the city, and some of them ended up moving north into Syria and settling in the city of Antioch. You can read what happened in Acts 11 and 15. Antioch appears to have been the first genuine multicultural church, the first place where substantial numbers of Gentiles were converted to Christianity. Luke tells us it was the first place that the term "Christian" was used, suggesting that the followers of Jesus had begun to carve out an identity for themselves apart from the synagogue and the Jewish community.

It was also a very powerful church, blessed with teachers and prophets, and commissioned Paul, Barnabas and others to spread the Gospel further into the Greek-speaking world to both Jews and Gentiles. As a result, churches on the same pattern were planted across the Roman world, including those in Galatia to whom Paul is now writing.

One of the key problems for these new churches was this: given their mixed origins, what was their relationship to the Jewish Law? This issue didn't come up with such urgency in the purely Jewish church because the law was embedded in people's way of life. All the boys were circumcised at birth, they washed before meals, ate kosher food, kept the Sabbath. This was their culture and it came naturally to them. However, once large numbers of non-Jews became Christians, in communities where Judaism was a small minority, the question had to be faced - what needs to be done to incorporate these Gentiles? There were three possible answers.

The first was the answer already applied by Jewish evangelists - Gentile converts should become Jews. The men should be circumcised, and they should obey the whole Law as interpreted by the Pharisees.

The second possibility was that there could be two ways of following Jesus. The Jewish Christians should continue to live as Jews obeying the Law, but the Gentiles need not, they could follow Jesus in their own Gentile way. This would inevitably lead to two churches, because following the Law strictly meant not sharing meals or mixing too closely with "unclean" Gentiles.

Both of these paths are firmly rejected by Paul and he advocates, passionately and forcefully, a church in which there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, where all are equally part of one body living by faith in Christ. This is clearly the approach Paul taught the Galatians when he first preached the Gospel to them a few years earlier, but since then other teachers have visited them and taught them differently. Hence Paul's letter.

Why does Paul advocate this position so passionately? It seems to me that there are two reasons.

The first is, that striving to obey the Law won't make you righteous. Paul sees any teaching based on obedience to the law as a betrayal of the Gospel. This is how he puts it in Chapter 1.

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

The term "gospel" means "good news" and for Paul, obedience to the Law is not good news. Why not?

16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

The point is not that the Law itself is bad. The point is that we are powerless to obey the Law. The more we try to do so, the more we fail and the more we become aware of our sinfulness. Those who strive hardest to obey the law end up becoming the greatest hypocrites. We can only make ourselves appear righteous through our own obedience by deceiving ourselves and others. As John says:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The answer to sin is not obedience, it is repentance and faith. We can only deal with our sin by seeking forgiveness and relying on God's grace. Paul's great fear is that those in the Church who teach obedience to the Law are leading Christians away from this and back to the Pharisaic view, the view that if you strive hard and obey the whole Torah then you are being faithful to God. Paul sees clearly that there is no hope that way. There is no other gospel.

This is Paul's major, overriding concern, but he also has another. He illustrates this with his story about Cephas (i.e. Peter) in Chapter 2.

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’

What's happening here? First, the church is being divided down the middle, Gentiles on one side, Jews on the other. Although Paul doesn't say as much, there is a clear implication of superiority - the Jews will not eat with the Gentiles because they are unclean. Hence the church begins to define two classes of Christians, an inner circle and an outer circle. You can only enter the inner circle by going through the formal rites of Judaism, including circumcision. This is contrary to the Gospel. If we are all saved by grace, through our faith in Christ, there can be no question of some of us being superior to others. Jesus is the only one who can be considered superior. It pushes us back to the focus on externals which Jesus taught his followers to rise above.

Along with this comes the charge of hypocrisy, which Paul levels at Peter in just the same way that Jesus levels it at the Pharisees. Peter stops associating with Gentiles not because he believes he should but because he is afraid of what other powerful people (especially James) will think of him. He begins to conceal his true thoughts and motives behind a facade of obedience. He becomes a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is the opposite of faith, because if we keep front and centre the fact that we are saved by faith we will be able to admit our own weaknesses and failings, and we will be able to accept those of others knowing we are liable to the same.

This might seem like a dry academic subject. Here in Australia the church does not really face the pressing problem of Jewish Christians trying to make us all obey the Torah. Yet moving beyond the accident of history, the central problems faced by the Galatians are faced by Christians in every age.

First of all, we are continually confronted by the temptation to focus on externals and make them the definition of our faith. The 21st century church is full of such controversies. Should women speak in church or be silent? Should communion be served in little individual cups, or in a single cup passed hand to hand? Should all Christians speak in tongues, or is speaking in tongues evil? Should we baptise babies, or only those who are old enough to make their own profession of faith? Which wording of the Nicene Creed is correct? Will the millennium come before Jesus' return, or after?

Each of these issues, and many others besides, have led to Christians separating themselves off from one another, hurling abuse at each other across sectarian lines. Some of them have even been a contributing factor in people going to war, or in acts of political repression involving the imprisonment and execution of heretics by other professing Christians. 

Where these divisions are so fierce, hypocrisy cannot be far behind. If we fear disapproval, excommunication, punishment in one form or another, we have a strong incentive to conceal what we really believe, to do what we do behind closed doors to avoid prying eyes. Who can say they haven't done this? I know I have.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are saved by grace, and that these questions and practices are peripheral to our faith. Not that any of them are wrong in themselves, but that they only have any meaning in the context of our faith in Christ. The life of faith is the life of learning and relearning humility and resisting hypocrisy, of unmasking and standing up to our inner Pharisee. We could obey every external practice of the Anglican church (or whatever other denomination we find ourselves in) and still not be righteous. We only become righteous through faith in Christ, through repenting and seeking forgiveness. Everything else in our life of faith comes from this, and leads back to this. The moment we forget it we are preaching another gospel, and that is not good news.

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