A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on June 2, 2013.
When was the last time you got a letter in the mail? A real letter — not a bill, not business correspondence, not a Christmas update Xeroxed for the masses, and not a Hallmark card with a signature at the bottom. I don’t mean to dismiss any of these things – they are all useful, good things that I have regularly received or sent. But when was the last time you got a letter in the mail?
My guess is that, if we don’t count email, then it’s been a while. A letter in the mail used to be somewhat ordinary, but now it’s unusual. But even back in the day, it was still special. Beth and I actually have boxes of letters in our house, letters from friends or family or letters that Beth and I wrote each other before we got married. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the sappy, goo-goo-eyed “I love you’s” and the “I love you more’s.” But no matter who they are from, these letters convey a sense of relationship, a sense of connectedness, a sense of love and affection.
The letters from Paul that are gathered in Christian scriptures have that same sense. Paul, after all, was sort of the parent to the folks he wrote, whether he was writing to congregations he had started or to individuals whom he had baptized. In keeping with this sense of relationship and connectedness, his letters followed the conventions of his day and began with a greeting and a thanksgiving. For instance, the letter he wrote to the churches in Philippi begins: “To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you” (Phi 1:1-3 NIV). His other letters are quite similar – all except one. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul begins with a greeting: “To the churches in Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” and then he launches not into a thanksgiving, but into a diatribe: “I am shocked that you are so quickly turning to a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” . . . Well, it is good to hear from you, too, Paul! I think there used to be an expression for this sort of an angry letter – a poison pen letter. It is certainly not a graceful way to begin a book that is all about grace.
But in order to understand why Paul was so angry and frustrated, we must remember that sense of relationship and connectedness. After all, Paul was the one who planted those churches and nurtured them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ! However, now he has discovered that someone was feeding these fledging congregations a poor substitute of the Gospel. While Paul can be gracious and accommodating regarding other beliefs and practices, he is firm and uncompromising when it comes to the core message of the Christian faith, because the very the health and the vitality of the church is at stake.
So what is the Gospel of Grace that Paul was so adamant to maintain? Verse 4 of Galatians 1 gives us a clue. The true Gospel is defined by Paul as none other than the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ, 1) who gave himself for our sins, 2) to rescue us from the present evil age, 3) according to the will of our God and Father. The Gospel, the good news, is Jesus Christ. The Grace is what Jesus has done for us. Jesus gave himself for us: Christ gave us love in the midst of our indifference and our fears. Christ gave us perfection in the midst of our sin, our imperfection, our brokenness, our falling short of the standards that God has given us for a good life. Christ gave us forgiveness in the midst of our trespasses, our debts, our wrongdoing. Christ gave us his life so that we may have life and life abundantly.
Christ gave himself for us because we still live presently in an evil age. The word “evil” in the Greek may mean moral evil, but it also means being harassed by toils, annoyances, perils causing pain and trouble. Tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, broken families and relationships, violence and violation of our body, mind and spirit, diseases, starvation, injustice and corruption. These are all signs of our present evil age. Christ comes to rescue us from these things to inspire, transform and empower us to live in a way that God originally intended, which is according to the will of our God and Father.
Paul later clarifies what he means by the will of God. In Galatians 3:14, Paul writes: “God redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.” For Paul in this letter, God’s will is this: God wants to bless all humanity through Christ. The apostle John puts it this way, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son . . . .” When Paul says that Christ rescues us from this present age, I don’t think he has in mind a picture of Jesus being a life-raft that whisks us away to another world, leaving all the other wretched people behind. No, Jesus rescues us from our sin and from our present evil age, by setting us aside so that we may be the channel of blessing to all people! In the language of our responsive reading this morning, we are rescued so that “we may reflect the glory of God’s love flowing through our lives.”
Here is the Gospel of Grace. It is Gospel because it is the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ,
1) who gave himself for our sins
2) to rescue us from the present evil age
3) according to the will of our God the Father
It is Grace because none of it is of our own doing. Grace reminds us that we do not deserve Christ’s offering of himself for us. Grace instructs us that we cannot earn God’s rescue from this evil age. Grace humbles us to concede that we cannot dictate the will of God the Father. All we can do is to recognize that we need forgiveness of our sin, we need rescue from this evil age, and we need to surrender our lives so that “not my will, but God’s will be done.” Out of our openness and humble receptivity, Grace embraces us to show that the love of God in Christ Jesus is enough.
In our day, just as it was in Paul’s day, it is easy to forget this Gospel of Grace and turn to a different “gospel.” We have a tenacious capacity to pervert the Gospel revealed by Christ Jesus with another message crafted by human beings. This message goes something like this: “In order to be loved by God and approved by us, you have to accept Jesus plus . . . (you fill in the blank).”
“Jesus plus no dancing or drinking”
“Jesus plus baptism by immersion”
“Jesus plus my approach to the Bible”
“Jesus plus my political leaning”
The Gospel of Grace says … “No plus. Just Jesus.”
As we prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, let us remember that these simple elements of bread and juice signify the way that Christ gave himself for us, to rescue us, and to fulfill the will of God the Father. As we eat and drink, let us be reminded of Jesus Christ, the revealer of the Gospel of Grace. As we humble ourselves to receive these elements, let us be reminded that Jesus is enough. Jesus is enough. Amen.