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The cruciality of the cross - Galatians 6:11-18

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 18th December 2005.

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It has been said that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ I guess that has been the story of the human race from the very beginning going back to the suggestion by the serpent to Eve that she use her power of choice to reach out and eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge so that she and Adam would become ‘like god.’ Power wanting absolute power. Now of course, we have power plays, power politics, even power dressing. Did you know there is such a thing as power table manners? True. The self styled ‘Queen of Courtesy’, Marjabelle Stewart states that ‘Manners will take you where money can’t.’ So here are some tips for people like me who were brought up to balance your peas on the blade of your knife: ‘Never tuck your napkin into your collar. Never leave a lipstick mark on the rim of your glass. (You will be pleased to know that I have no fears on that score!). Never mash or stir your food. Never, ever hand your plate to the waiter. Never stoop down to retrieve dropped silver.’ In fact when you think about it, the rule of thumb in the quest for power is never to stoop down for anything or anyone. It’s the old children’s game being played out amongst adults at home and at work isn’t it? : The King of the Castle’. You have to fight you way to the top of the castle and stay there by keeping everyone else down. In the 80’s film ‘Working Girl’ Harrison Ford playing the part of a top mover and shaker in the business world puts it like this: ‘One lost deal is all that it takes to get canned these days. The line buttons on my phone all have an inch of little pieces of tape piled on- the names of new guys over the names of old guys-good men who aren’t at the other end of the line any more all because of one lost deal. I don’t want to get buried under a little piece of tape.’ That is our world today isn’t it. The push for power has come to shove. And we are either pushing or being pushed. To be able to boast of that promotion, that deal, that exam result, that put down of someone we don’t like, or that overwhelming majority in parliament so laws can be pushed through regardless of whether people want them or not- simply makes us feel good and the fuel for the boast is power.

But such thirst for power is not restricted to the secular sphere; it is there in the world of religion too. You don’t simply have to look to the corruption of the Borgia Popes or the ecclesiastical conniving of the Barchester Chronicles to see the abuse of power: sadly you don’t have to be a Christian all that long before you see the petty power plays which can go on between church leaders and even church families. It is an ugly sight. And as we have been seeing over the last few weeks that has been one of the underlying factors at work amongst this group of young churches in the area of southern Turkey called Galatia. It has all been a question of power- one religious group trying to draw into their orbit of power new believers in Christ. It is a perennial problem. And as sure as night follows day, the moment people find faith and freedom in the Lord Jesus the vultures will start to circle to feed their egos. And they can have impressive titles, nice fitting suits and sunshine smiles to get their way. So what is the answer? How can we both spot the abuse of power in others and stop the abuse of power within ourselves? Well, Paul tells us in the final section of this letter. And that what Paul is about to say is of such major importance is underscored by what he says in v 12 ‘See what large letters I use to write to you in my own hand!’ You see, Paul would have used a secretary to dictate his letters to. But partly to authenticate his letters against any forgery from impostors pretending to be him, Paul would write the final section himself. But here he seems to be saying something more. The ‘large letters’ with which he writes could mean writing with a heavy hand, leaving a deep imprint. It would be equivalent to us underlining something, and so stressing its importance. And that certainly appears to be what Paul is doing here. He is spelling out the danger of the false teachers, their real motivation, in contrast to what he and the Gospel offers and the two could not be more different.

First of all we have the abused power of compulsion: 12- 13. ‘Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.’ Notice what Paul says. These people are in the business of ‘compelling.’ It is not gentle, reasoned persuasion, although arguments will be used. It is a matter of forcing people, there is a ‘must’ about it all. If these Christians are to be properly related to God they say, then obedience to the whole Jewish law, symbolised by circumcision is a necessity. It is an attempt to drag Christianity back into Judaism, to make it a minor sect of the Jewish faith. Well, Paul has already dealt with the shear stupidity of that at length. That is the way of slavish, joyless, uncertain religion. And as with the way of all uncertain religion it puts you right into the hands of its leaders. They hold the keys to power over you for you then have to come to them for the right teaching, the right ritual, the right experience and keep coming back to them.

But here Paul takes off the gloves altogether and points to the real underlying motives which drive there folk.

The first is to avoid persecution-v12. Paul often found himself being driven out of town by those former Jewish colleagues of his because he preached that forgiveness and new life is obtained not through keeping a religious code but by trusting in an wooden cross. So it is pretty obvious that if you want to curry favour with these people and avoid the treatment meted out to Paul, then you teach the code. No political group today will turn a hair if the church were to launch a ‘back to basics’ campaign. The government want children and young people to be respectful. I was speaking to one teacher the other week who said that he was given an assignment in his teaching course to write an essay on ‘ Good citizenship’ because his tutors didn’t know what it meant and wondered if the students might be able to help them out. But the church’s job is not to teach morality it is to proclaim the Gospel of the cross. And of course you cannot do that without saying things which are unpalatable: that human beings are naturally sinners and twisted; that we cannot save ourselves; that we cannot improve on ourselves; that Christ is the only way to God; that we need to change our thinking and our direction. This cuts us off at the knees and we will not initially be thanked for it, especially by those who think we can embark upon our own moral self-improvement schemes and that we are naturally good and we need to change for no one. After all, as we saw at the beginning, the use of power by definition means we stoop down for no one, and that includes God. So if you want to avoid being given a hard time, then down with the cross and up with the code.

Secondly, they want an opportunity to ‘boast’ –v 13, ‘boast about your flesh’ another reference to circumcision. Now the word used here translated boast means to ‘glory in’, ‘revel in,’ ‘live for’. It is that which fills our horizons, what gets us out of bed in mornings, in short, what is our ‘obsession.’ So do you see what these people are obsessed with? The number of converts. Pardon the picture but this is not so much the number of scalps they have notched up, but the number of skins they have taken off- foreskins. They are not bothered about the spiritual well being of people, but how people can be used to boost their ego. This is the bigger the better mentality, the minister who gets a buzz out of the number of people following him. This is the mega ministries of the large following where the man at the front is all and the people in the pews merely there to serve his pride. But as with all such power it is so short lived. And a wise man will recognise that. One such was the Emperor Charlemagne. He asked that he be buried sitting upright on his throne with a crown on his head, a cape around his shoulders and a book on his lap. That was in AD 814. Two hundred years later a team opened the tomb and what they saw was rather gruesome. The crown was tilted, the mantle moth eaten, the body disfigured. But on one the skeletal thighs of Charlemagne was the book as requested. And do you know what that book as? The Bible. And one bony finger pointed to Matthew 16:26, ‘What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world and yet loses his soul.’ That is exactly the danger of power crazed ministries-losing their souls and taking others with them. After all these people don’t even practice what they preach according to verse 13, they don’t ‘obey the law.’ At least that means the main point of the law which as we saw in 5:15 is, ‘loving your neighbour as yourself.’ This is not neighbour love they are showing it is self- love, using people to serve themselves.

Secondly Paul tackles the problem of the misplaced power of symbolism v 15-16. ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.’ In other words, the external symbol is not the important thing, but the inner reality it signifies. What God is in the business of through the Gospel is making new people not providing new rules. What makes a person a true Israelite- a member of God’s people is not a membership badge- circumcision- but a connected Spirit which results in peace and mercy. What God was looking for in the Old Testament through prophets like Jeremiah was inner circumcised hearts, that is, hearts and lives set apart for God of which physical circumcision was an outward sign. Think of it like this. My wife gave me a ring which is on the third finger of my left hand. It is a symbol of our love, not a source of our love. When we have had our moments, I have not taken it off and rubbed it to get some extra love. I have not put it on a pedestal and asked it for wisdom. If I were to lose the ring I would be disappointed, but it would not be the end of the world, it is, after all only a symbol; the reality-the love would go on. Now suppose that I tried to make the ring more than it is. Suppose I became a total idiot, neglected my wife, didn’t care for the home and it reached breaking point. Suppose my wife said: ‘You don’t show any devotion to me any more. No affection.’ How do you think she would respond if I countered: ‘What’s your problem? I am still wearing the ring you gave me.’ But supposing she were to say, ‘Oh I am sorry. Of course! You have beaten me and neglected me, but you have been so sacrificial wearing that ring all those years. For that we can forget all that has happened.’ Mad isn’t it? And yet that is what these Christians were being fooled into thinking- it is the rite that matters not the relationship. And we have our modern day equivalents don’t we, things which are good in themselves but which can easily have a misplaced power because of a misplaced confidence in them. ‘Yes Lord, I don’t give you too much thought, but I was baptised as a baby all those years ago that surely is a one way ticket to heaven?’ ‘But I take communion every Easter, what more does God want?’ ‘My grandparents were married at St John’s in 1942- that gives me some immunity for divine disfavour, surely?’ All of that totally misses the point, says Paul. Symbols may demonstrate salvation, even express salvation, but they cannot impart salvation. Putting your trust in a symbol is like claiming to be a good sailor because you have bellbottom trousers, or claiming to be a good husband because you have a ring. Do we honestly think God would save his children by a symbol? Can you honestly imagine God saying to the religious hypocrite: ‘You never loved me, or sought me, but because your name was on the baptism register- you had better come into my heaven.’ Or what kind of God would look on an honest believer and say, ‘Yes, you dedicated your life to me, you loved my people, helped the needy put into practice on the outside what you believed on the inside, but I am sorry that your church only took communion once a month. Because of a technicality you are lost for ever’. It is not the symbol that saves, it is the Saviour. It is not a practice but a person. And it may well be that you are here this morning and you are still depending upon your religious affiliation or the fact that one of the family is a Christian to secure you a place in heaven. If so then listen again to what Paul says: ‘Circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything.’ What matters? That you are a new creation. How does that happen? Well because of the third thing Paul is at pains to spell out- the hidden power of crucifixion, but not any crucifixion-v 14: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.’ And again v 17 ‘Let no-one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.’

What is Paul’s obsession? What is the thing he thinks about during the day and dreams about during the night? What fills his teaching and shapes his living? Well, it is the cross of Christ.

Now do your realise what a bizarre thing Paul has just said? He boasts in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ! Literally, the cross of Jehovah, Jesus the King. Just think of how that would have sounded to a Roman let alone a Jew. This is what one Roman writer Cicero said: ‘To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder; to crucify him is what? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a death.’ All of these things happened to Jesus. And yet Paul says he revels in the cross. Why, to speak of this being God’s means of salvation is like claiming today that God’s new way of saving people is through a man dying with AIDS. That is the shock reaction that would have occurred. And had God not revealed it who would possibly have thought it? I wouldn’t and neither would you.

But notice what Paul says has happened to him through the cross of Christ: ‘The world has been crucified to me and I to the world.’ What does he mean? Why doesn’t he say, ‘Through faith in the cross I have been put right with God, my sins have been forgiven?’ Well, he has already said that back in chapter 2. Here he is making a different point. When Paul speaks of ‘the world’ he is referring to a certain mindset or mentality. It is the mindset which says, ‘I can do and achieve whatever I want and I can do it without God.’ It is the attitude of boasting, revelling in self and self-achievements. But when you truly understand the cross all self- boasting has to cease. That aspect of our natural fallen character has to be killed off- crucified. You see you can’t boast in your own achievements and the cross at the same time. The cross highlights our failure; this is the best we can achieve left to our own devices- killing off the most wonderful being that ever walked this earth. The cross focuses for us the futility of our own self- efforts at salvation, for if we thought we could save ourselves then why did God have to go to these lengths? And when we begin to think that we as Christians have achieved so much and how God must frankly be quite pleased with us- we again turn to the cross and we see that in comparison to what he has done our so called achievements are really quite pathetic. It is like a five year old comparing his finger painting to that of a Rembrandt and saying ‘Haven’t I done well?’ No, the surest antidote to the quest for power and the pride which goes with it is to meditate long and hard on the cross. There we see God’s power, but it is a power shown in weakness, but it is the only power available which is able to snatch men and women from the depths of hell and lift them up to the heights of heaven. There is no other power in the universe which can do that. How can anyone possibly think that having some foreskin removed in circumcision or having some water splashed on them at baptism is the thing God is looking for when we see the lengths to which he has gone on the cross? How dare we abuse power, even in ministry to feed our ego when in our minds eye we see Jesus hanging there with ego destroyed for the sake of people he loves? The blasphemy of it all becomes evident the moment it is spoken.

And Paul is willing to walk in the way of the cross for he speaks of ‘bearing on his body the marks of Jesus.’ Paul, unlike these false teachers has been beaten for proclaiming the cross. Like his Master this is man who is willing to put up with persecution and hardship so people can be saved. He does not abuse his congregation but is willing to be abused for his congregation. Isn’t that what God is looking for in all Christian workers? Not the short term ‘gap year ministry’ which is becoming so popular today out on the mission field and in the churches- but folk who so love Jesus and his people they are willing to give up the whole of their lives and careers for them. To live in the undesirable places so people can be reached for Christ. It is not a ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentality-the mentality of power, but the ‘what’s in it for Him?’-the mentality of service. That was Paul. And that is what we need to recapture today amongst ourselves if we are going to see our needy world won for Christ.

You see, it all boils down to a single word; a word whose meaning has provided the theological glue for the entire letter. If you have found some of the arguments a bit hard to follow, don’t worry, so long as you remember this word. And it is there in v 18: the word is-‘Grace’ – ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit brothers.’ A small word, but a big word. It means all the underserved, free, merciful, bounteous, overwhelming kindness and love of God which comes to us through Jesus alone. Grace. Don’t lose it. Don’t exchange it. Don’t ever take it for granted. But cherish it and revel in it- dare I say enjoy it? For that is what God wants you to have- and to have it for ever.

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