If you have read the Harry Potter series, perhaps today’s epistle lesson rang a bell. In the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and his friend Ron miss their train to go to the magical school Hogwarts. Rather than, oh say, getting help from a grown-up, the pair endeavor to solve the problem themselves, borrowing the magical flying car of Ron’s father, Mr. Weasley. The car is totaled by a magical tree called the Whomping Willow, but not before it gets them to Hogwarts. Shortly after their adventurous arrival, they’re sitting in the dining hall when a letter arrives for Ron. But this isn’t any ordinary letter... it’s a Howler! When the letter is opened, the voice of Ron’s mother shrieks through the hall, excoriating him for his behavior and threatening severe consequences if he so much as puts a toe out of line again.
It bears some striking similarities to today’s reading from Paul’s epistle to the church in Galatia. If you’ve spent some time reading the New Testament, perhaps you’ve noticed that there’s kind of a standard format for the opening lines of an epistle, and Paul has an even more specific formula that he almost always follows. First, he introduces himself, and perhaps any other disciples who are with him as he writes, perhaps alluding to his own biography in a way that hints about the themes of the letter he’ll be writing. Then he identifies the recipient of the letter, again, perhaps with some details that hint at important themes. Then he extends a salutation: “Grace to you and peace from God,” again, perhaps with some theological detail that speaks to the themes of the letter. Then, typically, he will either offer a thanksgiving to God for the church he is writing to, or he will praise God, starting to describe what God is doing through the church.
Okay, so that’s the standard format. Shall we take a look at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Galatians? First, he introduces himself. In Galatians, he writes: “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me...” Okay, well that sounds a little defensive, the adamant denials that his authority is from humans and assertion that his mission is divine. But all right, moving on. Second, he names the recipient of the letter. So we read, “To the churches of Galatia.” Okay, well that’s a bit terse, but fine. Third, the salutation. He writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Well, that’s pretty standard Pauline theology, even if “the present evil age” isn’t his cheeriest topic. Now, we would expect either praise or thanksgiving. But what do we read instead? It seems that we’ve opened a Howler. Paul writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you.” On and on he goes, unleashing a tirade of ire and curses toward anyone who contradicts the Gospel that he has taught the Galatian church.
For us, Christians who are part of an inclusive, progressive church two thousand years later, Paul’s screed can seem shocking and off-putting. We proudly proclaim that “no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here!” We make room for diverse theologies. This faith community is one full of seekers, skeptics, questioners and doubters - we are a church that believes that God is strong enough to withstand our questions. We are a church that believes that the grace of God is for everyone, not just those of us whose theology is precisely orthodox. We are a church that believes in loving God with our minds - by wondering, by asking, by thinking, by imagining, by being honest about what we aren’t sure of and what we don’t believe even if someone else told us we should. So it can be hard to hear Paul excoriating people who believe something different with words like, “if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”
So first, let me say that your questions, your doubts, your theologies - even if they are different than mine - are welcome here. And second, let me say that perhaps Paul’s words have something to say to us today, despite sounding harsh and exclusionary.
In order to understand why Paul is coming down so hard on the Galatian churches, we have to know a little bit more about what was happening there, and about Paul’s relationship with the churches in Galatia. Paul’s work as an apostle was to start churches all over the known world. He would go to a place, start preaching about Jesus, and people would convert to Christianity. Paul would work to build a small community of Christians - perhaps a few dozen people - and stay with them until they were ready to be a church on their own. Then he would move on to another place and start forming another church. Each place he went, he formed strong connections with the people he brought into the family of faith, and so he would maintain correspondences with the churches he founded. Some of those letters were preserved and passed down, canonized in scriptures, and are the texts that we now know as the epistles. So it’s important to remember, when we read the epistles, that we have intercepted someone else’s mail.
When we read Galatians, we discover that after Paul converted and taught the first Christians in that region, formed churches, and departed, some other early Christian evangelists came. Now at the time, there was a very active conversation about what exactly the relationship between Christianity and Judaism was - remember that Jesus and all his disciples had been Jewish. And so the question was, was Christianity a new movement within Judaism, or was it something new that transcended the boundary between Jews and Gentiles? This debate got hotter as Gentiles, like most of the members of the Galatian church, flocked to Christianity in droves. So after Paul had departed, another Christian teacher came, but they had a different perspective than Paul’s on this question of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. While Paul saw Christianity as a movement that could include both Jews and Gentiles, these teachers understood Christianity to be a movement for Jews. And so, they taught, if Gentiles wanted to be part of the Church, they must first convert to Judaism. Eventually, word reached Paul that the people he had converted were now converting to Judaism and (some of them) being circumcised, because they believed that that was what they had to do in order to be Christian. Paul’s fury, then, actually has a subtext of inclusion. Remember that Galatians is the epistle which includes that beloved verse “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer slave and free, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s anger is about beliefs different from his. But when we dig a little deeper, we see that Paul’s reaction is to a theology that throws up barriers and boundaries, that says that people are not welcome to follow Christ just as they are, in the station of life where they find themselves. Paul’s gospel is that the grace of Jesus Christ is for everyone - Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female - and that we are welcome in God’s church no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. And when he hears that people have been going to his churches to say, “Well, yes, we want you to be part of the church as soon as you meet our list of requirements,” he is furious.
Perhaps we know something of that rage. Perhaps we feel that rage when we hear of churches that claim to welcome gay people, but then ambush them with demands that they change who they are in order to earn God’s love or participate fully in the church. Perhaps we feel that rage when we hear of churches that seem to welcome women, but would never permit one to stand in the pulpit. Perhaps we feel that rage when we hear of churches that claim to welcome children, but tap breastfeeding mothers on the shoulder to send them out of the sanctuary, or chastise any child who makes even the slightest bit of joyful noise. Paul’s anger is at theologies that claim that Jesus is for a select few, that some are welcome in the house of God, and others are not.
The good news, friends, is that we are called into this family of faith just as we are. We can be part of God’s people no matter our age or ability, no matter our native language, no matter our gender or sexual orientation. The work of the church is not to judge whether people meet the requirements for entry, but to make space for all kinds of people at the table. Our work is to be a community where children can be welcomed and loved just as they are and taught to worship joyfully and faithfully; to be a community where people with differing abilities can find inclusion and accommodation so that they have what they need to participate fully; to be a community where everyone’s gifts – regardless of race, class, or station – are put to use in building up the reign of God; to be a community where people who believe whole-heartedly in traditional Christian doctrine and people who are filled with questions can take arms and follow Jesus together. Our job is to be a community of open doors and warm welcome. And if that’s not worth sending a Howler about, I don’t know what is.