by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
24 September 2023
In March of 1939 the German passenger ship the St. Louis left Europe with some nine hundred German and Austrian Jewish refugees on board, hoping to escape the Nazis. They initially sailed to Cuba, where they were denied entry, told that their visas were invalid. They sought refuge someplace else. Any place else, in fact. They sailed up and down the Atlantic, but no nation would receive them. Finally, the ship had to turn back and head for Europe.
The captain of the ship ordered that the ship sail as slowly as she possibly could, holding out hope that someone would come to the rescue of these people. Finally, the captain decided that if he must, he would wreck his ship rather than take these victims back to face concentration camps, torture, and inhumane death.
In the end, a few European countries took in these refugees. For many unlucky enough to end up in the Netherlands, Belgium, or France, they were subsequently caught and murdered after the Nazis invaded those countries a few months later.
We must remember that not only did the Allies abandon the Jews on board the St. Louis, no Allied country bombed the railways to the camps or the camps themselves. History has proven that this wasn’t out of ignorance or infeasibility. As the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote “never in all human history was a people as radically abandoned.”
Fackenheim invites us to use our imaginations to conduct an experiment. He wants us to imagine that the State of Israel had come into existence in March of 1939, while the St. Louis was traveling up and down the Atlantic Coast. Receiving the news, the ship’s captain now shouts “full steam ahead.” Fackenheim writes, “Their anguish turned into sudden gladness, his passengers break out into dance and song, and do not cease dancing and singing until they reach the beaches of Netanya and Naharia, where joyful, tearful Jews await them by the thousands.”
This, beautiful, historical “what-if” captures what Judaism means by “salvation.” Salvation isn’t the rescue of individual souls. Salvation is, according to Emil Fackenheim, “the sudden removal of a radical threat – a removal so astonishing that the more it is explained the deeper the astonishment becomes.”
And it is this idea of salvation that I believe captured the imagination of Paul, the apostle. This “sudden removal of a radical threat” he had experienced in Jesus on the Damascus Road, and the experience forever changed him. And it is why he is so angry in this letter to the Galatian Christians.
Paul is angry because he realizes that people have misunderstood the gospel. And in their misunderstanding they are about to undo the astonishing act of rescue that God has brought about. These misunderstandings are threatening the very salvation of humanity that God has given to us.
So, what exactly is going on? What has gotten Paul so upset that he perceives the possible ruin of the Christian movement?
Using our imaginations, I’m going to construct a story that will help us to perceive what’s going on with Paul and the Galatian Christian.
So, imagine with me if you will, two loyal and faithful members of the new church in Lystra, Urbanus and his wife Olympas. When Paul came through Lystra, he stayed in their home, and they became good friends. During his time there, they had learned much from him about Jesus and the apostles and had celebrated the freedom they found in their new faith.
But recently an issue had arisen in the local church, well after Paul had moved on to other places of mission. This new issue arose because of one of the legal realities of the Roman Empire—that all citizens are supposed to worship Caesar. Only the Jews, of all the citizens of the Empire, were exempt from this requirement.
Now, some troublemaker had gone to the city magistrate and asked him about these new Christians. These new Christians were not worshipping the emperor. Some of them were Jews, but some of them weren’t. Nor did it seem that these Gentile Christians had converted to Judaism— they seemed to be participating in some new religion. They didn’t follow the Jewish teachings and rituals. And most tellingly, these Gentile Christians had not been circumcised.
Thus, a debate arose centering on the question—were these Christians a new branch of Judaism or not?
Let’s imagine Rufus, an elder of the church, known for his gentle spirit. Let’s imagine that one day in the church council meeting he proposed a solution. He said,
Now some of the people in this church are Jews. As such, they are circumcised and continue many Jewish practices, while they are also believers in Jesus Christ.
Many others of us are Gentiles, for whom these Jewish traditions are alien. We respect and admire the roots of our faith and respect and admire those who continue to practice the rituals of their traditions. Paul taught us that we Gentiles did not have to first become Jews in order to become Christians.
If the government authorities determine that we are not exempt from worshipping Caesar, then this church and our very lives will be in danger. We will have to choose between execution or doing something that runs contrary to our faith. We would place each other, our families, even the future of this church at risk.
Therefore, I propose that those of us who are Gentiles undergo circumcision. Doing so will be a sign of respect and solidarity with our Jewish members and the faith tradition of Jesus himself. It will also spare us the danger posed by the civil authorities. I propose this as a compromise solution to the situation we find ourselves in.
Imagine, that while on their way home from this meeting, Urbanus and Olympas discussed what Rufus said. There appeared to be great wisdom in his proposal. What he suggested seemed to be an acceptable compromise that would ensure everyone’s safety and keep everyone in the church happy. After all, whether one was circumcised or not wasn’t really that big a deal. In the spiritual sense, of course. It wouldn’t affect one’s beliefs. And seemed like a simple solution that would avoid the possibility of greater problems down the road. A potential conflict had arisen and had been quickly and easily avoided with a reasonable compromise.
Now, imagine, that a couple of weeks later, Olympas wrote a letter to Paul, just like she did every month or so. She would write to keep him up-to-date on the church and its ministries. In this letter, she recounted that Phoebus had joined the church, that Junia’s daughter had been born, that Rachel was getting married, that the new program to help feed the people over on the bad side of town was really going well, and she recounted the church council meeting and Rufus’ speech.
Olympas did not expect the letter she received in response. And this letter was addressed not only to her and Urbanus, but to the entire congregation, and also to all the churches throughout Galatia. “What is this all about?” she wondered.
After a brief and hurriedly scribbled greeting, the letter began:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. . . there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
Needless to say, Olympas was herself astonished. Paul was in a tirade, one rant after another: about his authority as an apostle, recounting his life story (which she had heard before), attacking other leaders of the church, calling people hypocrites, attacking her and others for abandoning the faith, going on and on about what it meant to be a Jew, and strange tangents about law and faith and all sorts of topics. She was puzzled. What in the world could this be in reference to? What had she said in her last letter that so angered Paul, her dear friend and teacher?
Then, finally she got to it,
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.
Oh! That’s what he’s angry about. Rufus’s solution to the problem of our exemption from worshipping Caesar. Now, she was puzzled as to why Paul would make such a big issue of this? Why did he think that this idea had the potential of destroying the church?
In the letter Paul says it is better to face the possibilities of persecution and hostility, because that is what Jesus himself did in going to the cross. And, it is through Jesus’ suffering that we truly overcome the powers of this world, he writes. True freedom comes from the cross, not from avoiding persecution through compromise.
So, Paul’s saying that circumcision itself is not the central issue. Circumcision is, actually, irrelevant to God’s grace. You are not excluded or included from God’s grace based on whether or not you’ve been circumcised. What’s really at issue is that if they take this course of action, then they risk the new creation found in Jesus. They will be throwing away the grace of God.
So, what is this grace that Paul is writing about?
Let’s go back to the story I opened with -- the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis waiting for an astonishing rescue. In other words, waiting for salvation.
Paul preached that without Jesus we are ourselves refugees. We are exiles living under a curse. We are exiled from our authentic selves. We are exiled from genuine relationships and true human community. We are estranged from God’s will for the creation. We are abandoned, and stand in need of an astonishing rescue.
Paul believed that that astonishing rescue came in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The one he believed to be the long awaited Jewish Messiah. Jesus signaled that God was breaking into the world in a new way, bringing about a new creation. And in that new creation all would be free, and all would live according to righteousness and peace. God’s new creation is people, people living together in genuine and loving human community.
So, what is at issue, according to Paul, is how you become one of those people, how you become part of God’s chosen people. Some thought you were only part of God’s chosen people if you followed certain rules. Some argued that only the circumcised were God’s chosen people. Others thought it was based upon culture or ethnicity.
But Paul was a radical, with a universal, maybe even somewhat pluralistic view. Paul said God’s chosen people are simply everyone who has faith. You aren’t required to do anything, or follow any set of rules, or be a certain race, to be part of God’s people. All you have to do is have faith.
So Jews can be Christians and remain Jewish, and Gentiles can be Christians and remain Gentiles. In fact, it was vitally important for Paul that the church be big enough to include people from all these diverse cultural backgrounds. Paul thought that this racially and culturally diverse community would itself be the great witness to God’s grace. That this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural church was the sign that God’s new creation had been born. The testimony that God’s dramatic rescue of the world had occurred.
Thus, if the Gentiles were circumcised, they would rob the church of its cultural and ethnic diversity. They would rob it of its freedom. They would thwart the freely given grace of God. And they would be giving evidence that God’s great rescue of humanity had in fact failed.
So, the lessons for us today are obvious. Those who think Christian faith is all about following set of rules, are denying the Spirit and gratifying their own flesh. Those who shun racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the church have fallen away from grace. Those who deny women leadership roles have disobeyed the truth. Those who exclude and threaten God’s LGBT children are teaching a false gospel.
Let us, therefore, follow Paul, in proclaiming the radical, amazing grace of God.