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Oh to grace how great a debtor

1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?]4Have you experienced]so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Galatian’s 3:1-4

As a little girl, I remember standing, hand in hand, with  my Uncle Otis in the pews of his Church of God Sunday service.  I remember singing “Rock of Ages, cleft for me” and then hearing the pastor talk about how grateful he was that we worshipped the loving Jesus of the New Testament, not the thundering Lord God Almighty of the Old Testament. Even at the age of eight, I was confused. If Jesus was the Rock of Ages, wasn’t He in the Old Testament too?  Who was Abraham worshipping? How would he have reacted to Jesus?

Until I was asked to write this commentary, it never occured to me that Saul of Tarsus had the same issue as that Church of God pastor. This loyal Jewish Pharisee could not equate the BCE (Before Christian Era)  Adonai with the  stories he had heard of Jesus.  His god  offered salvation through ceremonies and rituals given only to Jews.  Jesus demonstrated the saving power of a love-based relationship to all who believed in Him.

 Pharisee Saul scrupulously followed the ceremonial laws. He was jealous of and fiercely protective of the traditions that deliniated Judiasm. Even though these ceremonies were object lessons describing the life and  salvation brought by the coming Messiah, Saul could not see them fulfilled in Jesus. Reports of  the power and freedom connected to followers of The Way roused his ire. The law was far more important than  a relationship with the Maker of the law. His desire to protect the object lessons designed to teach the love of God,  led him to became a self- righteous, enraged, mass murderer of those who followed God.

Transformed from Saul the Pharisee, Paul the Proclaimer of Christ became a premier example of the power in a grace-filled relationship with Jesus to change lives, character, and mission. How desperately this last called of the apostles must have wanted to protect Jews and Gentiles from ever repeating the early part of his journey. He yearned for souls and worked to bring all with whom he came in contact to a knowledge of the love that saves us. 

 Now painfully cognizant that ceremonies designed to represent the grace-filled work of God are not more important than a relationship with our God.  Paul  taught  that the Jesus he loved and served was Emmanuel, the eternal God with us. He proclained the  free offer of a  relationship with Him. The Adonai, Elohim and El Shaddai that Jewish children  met, in stories told at the knees of their parents, was our Saviour. Belief in, and relationship with His love is what brought us from death to life.

In Galations 3:1, Paul’s concern and near panic is almost tangible. This is a parent who hears that their child has climbed over the safety fence and is now camping in the middle of a major highway. He doesn’t have time to woo or coddle. He has got to get that beloved child out of the highway. “Get back into the safety of the fence”.  “Who has bewitched you!?”  “Who is leading you to your death!?”  

He quickly points to benefits of the safe place. “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law or by believing what you have heard?” Given Paul’s phrasing, the Galations must have previously known about the gift of the Spirit in their personal and communal lives.  They must have known what it was like to have  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control (and miracles) in their midst. What sane person would not want those qualities in their life?  

Paul  reminds them  of what happens when we climb outside the  fence of safety. He wants to protect them from hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, dissention, factions, envy, impurity, and the challenges of sexual immorality. These qualities warn of a dying soul and threatened community.

Then, knowing that the Galations are focused on a time before Jesus, Paul points to someone from that time who can help them understand righteousness by a faith-filled relationship. “Consider Abraham, He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.“   Belief in this context is not describing a conceptual process. Here, belief is an action verb.  Zealots  stand in awe of the remarkable founder of their faith. Who can argue with the one who left Ur to make a first journey to the promised land? Here is a stellar example of Old Testament religion.  Galations, Zealots and pastor of Uncle Otis’s church – take note.

Like the Galatians, Abraham lived in a land surrounded by those who did not believe in Yahweh. Unlike them, in Ur of the Chaldees or anyplace else in his travels, Abraham is not noted for the number of ceremonies he followed to  maintain his purity. Entering the  sacred story in Genesis 12,  Abraham’s relationship with Yahweh is so close, he recognizes the voice of God. “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you”.  I will make you a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you, I will curse. All people’s on the earth will be blessed through you.” 

Abraham’s grace filled relationship with God  was ongoing, transformative and redemptive. His story is descriptive of how God works with imperfect  beings who crave and cling to a relationship with Him

This  patriarch is one of the founders of faith, but not because he followed  God’s law by  his own effort.  God’s law is what pointed out his mistakes: with Pharaoh. with Abimilech, and with Hagar. Abraham lied. He set his wife up to commit adultery, twice.  He misplaced his faith in God’s ability to miraculously create an heir.

Three things are important to the Galatians about Abraham’s example. The patriarch learns that his own efforts  will create harm (in the case of Ishmael,  harm that seems to have lasted for millenia). He learns that it is only  active connection to God, belief in God’s redemptive power, and willingness to follow where God leads that will keep Abraham, his family and his legacy safe. His craving for a relationship with Yahweh  includes accepting  God’s corrections.

Several incidents show the powerful effect of a grace-filled relationship on Abraham’s life. The peace, patience and kindness with which he addresses  Lot are indicators of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Spirit-filled selflessness and courage lead Abraham to rescue Lot and the kings of Sodom from the hands of Kedolaomer. Spirit-filled humilty allows Abraham to acknowledege Melchizedek’s priestly greatness and bring him sacrifices and offerings. It is His relationship with Abraham that stops the Heavenly One at the oaks of Mamre on His way to Sodom. Because of that relationship, Abraham  knows His voice so well that he recognizes the Eternal One in the garb of a dust stained traveler. It is Abraham that God trusts to become a mediatorial object lesson who pleads for Sodom. It is Abraham who, years later, still knew the voice of his God so well that he recognized it in the command to go to Mount Moriah. And it is Abraham who was blessed with the heart wrenching trust and object lesson of  God  giving up His only Son to save Abraham – and our tiny planet.

 To the Galatians, and to us, Paul offers this picture of Old Testament religion. In sharp colors, Paul brushes the Abrahamic truth that, since Eden, we have  been saved and transformed only by God’s love and our relationship with Him. In Abraham we can all   see the power of that transformation. The sacrifice that Abraham honored by faith, we must accept by that same faith.

Like the Galatians, if we ever begin to believe that we are saved and transformed by an Excel check list of our accomplishments, we have been “bewitched”.  The sin in Eden cursed us and cursed our planet. Our very nature was changed.  Our selfish nature cannot follow a law of love.  We are saved in and by our  active relationship with our Messiah.

It is His atoning blood.

It is His love.

It is Emmanuel, God with us, God living in us, the miracle of the Holy Spirit.

This is Old Testament religion.

This is New Testament religion.

This is Eternity’s religion.

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