God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
Today is the first in a six-week series of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This is both an important letter and a good one to dig into because there is so much information confined in a few short chapters. Most of the central ideas in Paul’s theology can be found in the letter to the Galatians, and we will have an opportunity to explore those ideas in the next few weeks.
My first sermon today will cover some of the context behind the letter—to whom Paul was writing this letter and why. So it may not be my most riveting sermon ever, but bear with me. This information is going to help us out as we work through the letter.
First of all, who were the Galatians? Paul traveled around to many parts of the known world, establishing Christian communities in various places. As he moved on, he would write letters to communities, usually those he had visited before, to provide instruction, encouragement, and admonishment to the Christians in these places.
Many of Paul’s letters are written to Christian communities in particular cities—Philippi, Corinth, Rome, and so forth. Galatia, however, is not an individual city. It is a region in modern-day Turkey.
Paul is writing to the churches in Galatia, multiple communities in various towns and cities. These Christians may have been Roman citizens. They were definitely Gentiles—meaning they weren’t Jewish. And that is going to be very important to understand what’s going on with the Galatians.
Keep in mind that Jesus and his disciples were all Jewish. Most of the people Jesus healed and fed and preached to were Jewish. There are a few notable exceptions—the Roman centurion in our gospel reading, for example—but mostly, Jesus’ ministry was with and among Jewish people.
On Pentecost, when the apostles spoke in many languages, they were still speaking as Jews to other Jews. But if you continue to read the book of Acts, you find that the gospel of Jesus Christ begins to extend beyond communities of Jewish people and into communities of Gentiles.
Paul’s whole ministry is about bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. We’ll hear more about that next week. But for today, let’s just note that the Galatians are Gentiles who have heard the good news about Jesus Christ and become Christians.
The next thing we need to know is something about ancient letter-writing. How many of you learned formal letter-writing format in school? So you know that letters require certain elements. You have the date, you say who the letter is from, your address, a salutation, the body of the letter, et cetera.
Even in the technological age, there are certain formats that we stick to. When you write an email, it’s got a From: line, a To: line, a subject, and a body. There are components that go into the message.
In Paul’s time, there was a particular format for writing letters. When I looked at Paul’s letters with our confirmands, we compared the first few verses of many of these letters.
1 Corinthians begins, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Philippians begins, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” They all start in these terms, and we heard the same thing in the first verses of Galatians today.
Letters in Paul’s time followed a particular format. First, the letter would say who was writing, who the letter was from. Then the letter’s recipients are named, and there is a greeting. In Galatians, it says, “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers with me” (that’s who the letter is from), “to the churches in Galatia” (that’s who the letter is for): “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (that’s the greeting).
All Paul’s letters start out this way, following this format. After the names of the senders and recipients and the greeting, there is another introductory element necessary to any letter in the ancient world: Thanksgivings. Letters are supposed to begin with thanksgivings. If I were writing a letter to my husband in the ancient world, I’d write, “From Jennifer, to my dear husband Steven: grace be with you. I give thanks to you for doing the dishes last night, and for helping me take the dog for a walk…” Then I’d get onto the business of the letter.
Paul writes some beautiful thanksgivings in his letters. In the letter to the Philippians, after the greeting, Paul writes, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.”
But if you look at the letter to the Galatians, we read, “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers with me, to the churches in Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (That’s the sender, recipient, and greeting.) Then it continues, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” That doesn’t sound like thanksgiving.
Paul is supposed to begin his letter with a thank you. When the Galatians heard this letter read in their assembly, they would have been expecting words of thanks. Instead, they hear, “I am astonished!”
The point of all this is that Paul is skipping the thanksgivings. He is breaking the format and jumping right in to scolding the Galatians for abandoning the gospel. He is really angry with them. So angry that he’s ignoring social niceties and the dictates of good manners.
Which should lead you to ask, “What the heck did the Galatians do?” What did they do to make Paul this angry? What has gone wrong? What is at stake in this community and in this letter?
The letter to the Galatians is a letter to Christian communities in crisis. Over the next several weeks, we are going to hear about what has happened in the Galatian churches and what has gone wrong.
In the first verses of the letter, we can already see what Paul believes is at stake. He tells the Galatians they have deserted the gospel and turned to a false gospel. They are listening to the teachings of people who are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.
Paul went to Galatia and preached the gospel there, creating communities of Christian believers. Now, the Galatians are following a new teaching, a different teaching, and Paul is very concerned about what they are doing.
I read one interpretation of this letter that compared it to the sign you see when you return a rental car: “Warning: Severe Tire Damage! Do not back up!” What Paul is writing to the Galatians is, “Warning: Severe Theological Damage! Do not back up!” He is afraid that they are falling backward, losing the grace and good news that they have gained. He is warning them not to back up, not to go backwards.
In the coming weeks, we will hear that Paul believes the gospel he preached is a gospel of grace and freedom, salvation and new life. That is what he wants the Galatians to hold onto. And as we study the letter to the Galatians, we will be reminded to hold onto the same good news. Amen.