I preached this sermon December 31st as a kickoff to the series on what we believe. The theme was how knowing doctrine affects everyday choices, and how dumb it would be if we chose not to learn what we believe.
Text: Galatians 1:6-12
When I think of New Year’s, I think of two things: lists of the top whatever from the past year and resolutions. This sermon has both. We’ll start with the list, though it’s not a compilation of top stuff from 2006. It’s of dumb stuff people say.
Question: If you could live forever, would you and why? Answer: “I wouldn’t live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever,” —Miss Alabama in the 1994 Miss USA contest.
“I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body,” —Winston Bennett, University of Kentucky basketball forward in the 1980s.
“Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life,” —Brooke Shields, during an interview to become spokesperson for a federal anti-smoking campaign.
“If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.” –Bill Clinton, former president
Computer Tech Support: “What does the screen say now?”
Person: “It says, ‘Hit ENTER when ready.’”
Tech Support: “Well?”
Person: “How do I know when it’s ready?”
A man was purchasing a Coke at a gas station. He thought he had a good deal getting one for 49 cents. When he got ready to pay, the clerk told him, “You know, you could get 2 for a dollar.”
These next ones are actually from US Military Reports, describing cadets who didn’t make it. By the way, here’s the disclaimer: I in no way approve of your using these statements to describe anyone else, so once you’ve heard them, shove them out the other ear.
1. A gross ignoramus = 144 times worse than an ordinary ignoramus.
2. A photographic memory but with the lens cover glued on.
3. A room temperature IQ.
4. Bright as Alaska in December.
5. Donated his body to science before he was done using it.
6. Fell out of the family tree.
7. Gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming.
8. He’s so dense, light bends around him.
9. If he were any more stupid, he’d have to be watered twice a week.
10. If you stand close enough to him, you can hear the ocean.
11. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
12. Some drink from the fountain of knowledge; he only gargled.
13. Takes him 10 hours to watch 60 minutes.
14. Was left on the Tilt-A-Whirl a bit too long as a baby.
People are known for doing and saying stupid things. We can’t help it. As much as we try to play it cool and act like we’ve got it all together, inevitably we mess up and make fools of ourselves every once in a while. And that’s okay. Just Wednesday night Ashley Wade thought I was weird. It’s okay. It’s normal.
Today we’re talking about something that is normal in the Church, and yet is far from being okay. It’s called heresy. Does anyone know what “heresy” means? It’s a big word that means you don’t believe the doctrine of the church, or you have a skewed view of the beliefs of the church, all which come from the Bible. Heresy isn’t disagreeing from your pastor necessarily, though it can be. Heresy would not be one Christian believing that once you get saved you will always be saved and another Christian believing it’s possible to get saved and fall away from God’s grace. That’s not heresy. Heresy would be believing that Jesus didn’t have a choice on whether or not to go to the cross, or that Jesus could never have sinned. That’s heresy.
And Paul lists heresy as one of the acts of the sinful nature in Galatians 5:19-20. He says, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy….” The word factions can also be translated “heresy.” Paul then goes on to say that those who live like that will not inherit the kingdom of God. So it’s really important to know what you believe…to not be a heretic.
But what is basic Christian doctrine? The core beliefs of Christianity. The non-negotiables. Things found in the Apostle’s Creed. I think most of us have heard it before. In case you haven’t, it reads: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”
That’s basic Christian doctrine. And this year, we’re going to be learning it. But before we do, we need to understand the importance of our 52-week journey. Odds are you’re not going to listen as intently next year if you don’t believe that what I’m preaching is necessary. By seeing what happened in the churches in Galatia, and the mistakes the Christians there made, we’ll know why doctrine is so important.
So, if you have your Bibles, turn to Galatians 1:6-12.
Paul writes to the churches in Galatia, churches he started on his missionary journeys there. And Paul’s main reason for writing this letter is because the new Christians have forgotten what he preached to them. They have forgotten what the gospel means and have fallen into heresy. We can learn from their situation why understanding what we believe is so crucial.
It reads, “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—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and 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 him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”
The Judaizers: Dumb Stuff
The first thing I notice about this passage when I read it in comparison with Paul’s other letters is what is missing: Paul’s thanksgiving.
Romans 1:8 says, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.”
First Corinthians 1:4 says, “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”
Second Corinthians 1:3 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles.”
Ephesians 1:3 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
Paul thanks God in similar fashion in Philippians, Colossians, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians—every letter to a church, EXCEPT this one to the Galatians (See 1 Timothy 1:12, where Paul only thanks God for giving him strength, and Titus. Both letters are written to leaders of churches falling into heresy as well).
Paul obviously is writing about a serious situation, one that causes him to forget all notions of thanksgiving. He gets right to the heart of the matter. They are falling away from the gospel, from the message of the grace of Christ. But why are they falling away? That question is not so easily answered just by looking at these few verses. But if we look at the whole of Galatians, we can tell why Paul was writing. Let’s take a quick survey.
In verses 11-24, Paul talks about being a good Jew, but then getting a call from God to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, non-Jews. Then in chapter 2:3-4, he writes, “Not even Titus, who was with me (in Jerusalem), was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” So somehow Christians in Jerusalem are asking Titus, a Greek, to be circumcised. And Paul associates this with being a false brother and taking away their freedom in Christ. And in chapter 3:15-16, he says, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” Paul makes a contrast between following the law and faith in Christ.
The rest of the book is littered with references to Judaism and the law and to being made free from the law by Christ. What was happening was there were Jewish Christians in some of the churches in Galatia. They were convincing these new Gentile Christians that they needed to be circumcised and to obey the Law of Moses. They were perverting the gospel of Christ—literally “turning something into its opposite.” This word is used here and in Acts 2:20, where the sun will be turned to darkness. And yet to these Jewish Christians this was normal.
Following Jewish customs and traditions and observing Jewish religious laws was a normal way of life for Jewish Christians, whether they were Jews by birth or through conversion. For them, belief in Jesus as the Messiah of Jewish expectation enhanced, but did not replace, their Judaism. Christianity was not regarded as a religion distinct from Judaism but rather as the truest form of Judaism. These Jewish Christians had all been circumcised as infants, or upon conversion to Judaism, and they also practiced the kosher dietary laws and rules of ritual purity prescribed in Mosaic Law and rabbinic tradition. Further, they continued to worship at the temple in Jerusalem until its destruction by the Romans in ad 70, and certain Jewish Christians continued to meet in synagogues.
Yet Jesus never commanded this, nor did Paul. But because they were such new Christians, they were swayed by their Jewish brethren. It’s like how a parent has to teach their children not to talk to strangers, not to go near strangers who ask kids to come to their cars. If the kid never learns that, or learns it but forgets, odds are he/she will be just as friendly with a stranger as with his/her parents. Kids are easily conned into getting into a car for candy or to see a puppy…because they don’t know any better.
The Galatians were easily conned into believing they needed to follow the 613 commands in the Torah and to be circumcised…but they should have known better.
Paul’s Message: Doctrine
So Paul writes in verse 6: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel.” Paul had been there before. He had preached the grace of Christ. And grace is a gift from God. Jesus’ death on the cross was a gift from God. And we can do nothing to add to it. Grace has accomplished everything to bring us to God. And yet these new Christians were now being taught a new way. Follow the rules. Follow the rules, please God, it’s all good. But doesn’t following a bunch of rules in order to please God run smack dab in the face of grace? Yes. It’s like saying God’s gift of grace wasn’t good enough and I need to do more.
Paul redefines what the gospel means. He says it is the gospel of Christ that they preached to them, and that the Galatians accepted, verses 7 through 9. The gospel is all about relationship. That between God and us and between you and I. The gospel is only passed through relationship, when one person trusts another person. When one person cares enough about another person to tell them the good news about Jesus. If all of humanity lived alone, with no friendship, marriage, or family, there could be no gospel.
Paul also makes it clear that the message he preached to them was not something he made up. In verses 11-12, he says, “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” And the interesting thing about what Paul says is his choice of verbs in verse 12. When he says he did not receive it or was taught it, he is using technical terms. Terms used to describe receiving revelation by most people of his day. Paul then uses a third verb at the end: receive by revelation, apokalupsis. That word is what we get “apocalypse” from. It’s why we call the book of Revelation what we call it. It means “uncovering” or “unveiling.” When Jesus revealed the good news to Paul, He revealed Himself, on the road to Damascus. It’s like Paul’s saying, “You can know what I preached to you is truth because first, I didn’t get it from man, and second, because God revealed something of who He is.”
The Galatians were falling away, making dumb mistakes to follow the Law and be circumcised. Paul redefines the gospel, saying it is a gospel of relationships and of God directly revealing Himself to mankind.
Paul’s goal is to get them to not make the dumb mistake. He doesn’t want them to be only as bright as Alaska in December. Paul understood the differences between Judaism and Christianity. Even though many Jews wanted to see Christ as the true teacher of Judaism, and to add Him to what they already practiced and taught, Paul knew God had something else in mind. He writes in the following verses about how far he had advanced in Judaism. He of all people had made the leap from Judaism to Christianity. He knew that what you believed about Jesus and His message would radically change how you live.
If you believed that Jesus was just an add-on to Judaism and a good teacher, your life wouldn’t change that much. It would be too easy to slip into life as you knew it before He came. After all, there had been and would be many more great teachers to explain God’s Word. Jesus could be just another one of them.
But if you believed that Jesus came to show us the Father, and that He called for a radical lifestyle change, in which you loved God with all your heart and loved your neighbor as yourself…it would turn your world upside-down. Paul knew that, and wanted the Galatians to know it as well. That’s why he wrote.
For you and me today, there are implications to understanding what we believe. Christian doctrine affects the way I treat Muriel and Lewis. Christian doctrine affects the way I view coming to church on Sunday.
Let me give you an example. I believe that salvation is a lifetime experience of growth in grace. I believe that God gives me grace each day, and that without His grace, I would never meet His standard of holiness. And I believe that God’s primary way of giving grace to the world is through His church, which is made up of local churches. Therefore, I make it a priority to be in church whenever the doors are open. Let’s say I believed that salvation is only about saying a prayer and then trying to do my best. I believed that I could just read the Bible and pray, but do it all by myself. God would understand…besides, church is boring. So I don’t go to church unless I feel like it or it works in my schedule. See the difference? By not attending church, I am missing out on God’s grace. I am missing out on experiencing Him, on worshiping Him with others, on seeing people get saved. Yes, you can do all of that apart from a local body of believers, BUT God set up the church to function the way it does. By rejecting God’s church you are saying, “I think God made a mistake.”
The hard part of all of this is that our Church and the Church in Paul’s day are quite different. Instead of having only one group calling us to believe something different, we have literally thousands. Think of all the different denominations of churches in Baraboo alone: Presbyterian, Nazarene, United Methodist, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Catholic, Assemblies of God, etc. So many churches and so many messages. And on top of that, think of all the televangelists you’ve heard. By one person’s account, there are at least 33,830 “Christian” denominations. Not to mention cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarians, Universalists, etc. It would be pretty easy to get mixed up as to what you should believe.
And you may be asking, “So what makes you think you have all the answers?” I don’t. No one does. The Bible is God’s Word, and everything else is commentary. One of the ways we learn about basic Christian doctrine is dialoguing with each other after reading the Bible.
As we look at things like the church, salvation, death, baptism, and creation, think critically. Read the passages you are given in the bulletin before coming to church. Write down questions you may have and ask me. This won’t be like the Spanish Inquisition. We won’t burn you at the stake if you aren’t sure of what you believe.
I’m looking forward to 2007. And here’s the resolution I promised: I promise to be stretched, to be teachable, to yearn to know more of God and His Word, and to not be like some of those military cadets (gate’s down, lights are flashing but no train). I hope that you will make that resolution as well.
2007 will be a year of learning what we as both Christians and Wesleyan Arminian Christians believe. My sermons will be focused on topics covered in Bounds’ theology classes, ranging from Scripture to communion to the Church, to the Trinity… Right now we have a small grasp on theology at Parkway. To say we could communicate the doctrine of salvation as outlined by the Wesleyan Church/John Wesley would be far from the truth.
My goal is to both teach what the Bible says and then explore how that applies to our lives…family, job, fun. Doctrine is great—and I’ll admit one of my pet peeves is someone who calls themselves a Christian yet hasn’t started discovering God and asking questions about Him—yet doctrine alone is useless. My hope is transformed lives by God’s grace and truth, mine included.