Lunch with the Apostle Paul, Pt. 3: The Entrée

A dramatized sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
June 16, 2013

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The Book of Galatians

For several years now, I’ve been thinking that if I could have lunch with anyone who has ever lived, I’d like to have lunch with the Apostle Paul.  I’d like to get to know him personally.  I’d like to see if I can understand his mind, and I’d like to ask him about some things in his letters which are as his friend Peter once put it, hard to understand.  Since that’s not going to happen this side of heaven, I’ve asked my friend Dr. Scott Spencer, professor of New Testament and Biblical Interpretation at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond to come sit in in Paul’s place for this four part series from the letter to the Galatians that I’m calling “Lunch with the Apostle Paul”.  Today, coming back, our own David Powers in the role of, the waiter.
Scott Spencer:  These young people.  I mean lots of them.

Jim Somerville:  Young people love your letters, Paul.  They sit around and read them day after day.  Hard to get them to do their homework actually, yes.
SS:  Hmmm.  I believe that.
David Powers:  Pardon me sir.  The Baptist special, fried chicken, and for you sir as requested, the least expensive item on the menu.
JS:  But it’s exactly the same as what he’s having.
DP:  Precisely.  May I bring you some more free bread or perhaps a refill on the free ice water?
JS:  No, thank you.  That will be fine.
DP:  Sir, I hope you’re saving your money for a big tip.  Not likely.  You Christians are notoriously poor tippers.  I understand God himself only gets ten percent.
SS:  Ten, Ten percent really?
JS:  He, He’s exaggerating.  Most Christians don’t give nearly that much.
SS:  We need to have a talk about that some time Brother James.
JS:  Probably so, but, but I want to talk today about something we, we mentioned last time, and that’s when we were talking about justification, that big, dense, theological term that you use here in Galatians, but as we talked, it seemed clear that for you justification is simply a matter of how we become part of God’s true family.  And near the end we were talking about baptism as a symbol of that.  You know I did a baptism recently in the Atlantic Ocean.
SS:  The what?
JS:  The ocean, the sea.
SS:  Like the Mediterranean?
JS:  Like that.  Bigger, but like that.  I’m doing another baptism on July 21st in the James River, but I think that in your time when someone was being baptized he would typically shuck off his old clothes and leave them there on the river bank as a sign of his old life left behind and then wade out into the waters of baptism and be immersed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  That he would come up to a whole new life and then go back to the river bank and someone would give him a new, white robe to wear which was a symbol of his new life in Christ.  Is that about it?
SS: Yeah, yeah, yes, most all the time.  I mean it varies from place to place depending on where we were, but, but ah yes, I love that, that robing ceremony.  That sense as you put it of coming through almost like the waters of death, shedding everything from before and then coming up a new person and then putting on that fresh, clean, glistening white robe.  The phrase I like to use, I think I used it in Galatians, is this picture of actually putting on Christ.  Where Christ envelopes us from without and energizes us from within and then going from that point and walking in those new clothes.  You know when you put on new clothes, you kind of feel like, you walk a little straighter and you feel a little bit better.  Oh, also, another thing that we often did at the baptism site, well it was just sort of done spontaneously, is that these folks would come out of the water and either before or after they put on their robe they would just shout, “Abba! Father!”  There really was this sense of renewed placement in the family of God.  What ever kind of alienation they’d experiences before and how they were, they were adopted.  And as you put that, family language is very important and they now had the family clothes to wear and were walking in this newness of life.  Which also reminds me, I didn’t write about it in Galatians, but that wonderful parable that Jesus told.  I think you call it the parable of the prodigal son where this poor boy goes off and thinks he’s got it all figured out, but becomes terribly estranged from his father and his family and out there where he thinks he’s got all this freedom turns into disaster and he hits rock bottom and say, “What can I do, but I guess I’ll come trundling back to my father, but he won’t be my father anymore.  I mean he’s probably rejected me.  If I can just be a slave at least I’ll get something to eat in that house hold.”  But you know the story.  The Father has been looking on the horizon longingly and lovingly the whole time and he sees this son coming and his love just woos him.  While the son has this speech all prepared, “I’m a horrible sinner Father and I don’t deserve to be…”  He doesn’t get any of that out because the Father runs and squeezes him and starts kissing him and say, “Hey!  Bring a robe.  Bring the best robe we got.  This kid smells, and look at the tatters on him.  This is no way for a family member, for my son to look, bring this great robe, put it on him, put a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet.  Let’s have a great banquet in celebration because this my son, never quit being my son, not a slave, but this my son was lost and is found and he’s alive again and that’s something to rejoice about. 
JS:  So when someone puts his faith and trust in Christ, the Father puts this new robe on him, welcomes him into the family, kills the fatted calf, throws a party, there’s a celebration.  I was thinking about that scene on the river bank, all those people clothed in their new, white robes.  There they are standing, and I’m guessing that under those circumstances it would be hard to tell who the Jews were and who the Gentiles were and who the slaves, and who were the free…I mean all those people were now somehow miraculously one in Christ Jesus.  Which is the gospel that you preach everywhere you went.  So, tell me, in this letter to the Galations, sounds as if someone came along and begin to preach another gospel adding to what you had shared with the Galations.  Tell me just a little bit about that.
SS:  Well, it’s terrible, yes and I’m quite angry about it.  It seems that even though there’s all this reason to celebrate and be joyful there’s always somebody or some group not that happy about others’ freedom.  In the parable, coming back to it, there’s that elder brother, you remember, that’s all kind of snooty and well I’ve been here all along and what’s this low life coming back and etc., etc.  Well, that’s what was happening to my Galatian congregation.  They had been freed.  They’d come from this terrible pagan background.  They didn’t know the law.  They weren’t Jewish.  They had no idea about circumcision or anything like that.  They had been struggling to define their way and to find meaning in life and they found this freedom in the Gospel of Christ that I preach.  Christ had commissioned me to go to these Gentiles and to say there’s freedom in Christ.  Now there’s a lot that they didn’t understand.  There was a lot of growing and teaching that needed to take place, but they were free.  They were clothed.  But later, after I’d gone on to some other congregation, some Jewish teachers, now I’m a Jewish teacher.  There are lots of different types of Jewish teachers, but this particular group, they were kind of like that elder brother.  They came in and said, “Well, OK.  You Gentiles have been out there living all kinds of stuff, doing all sorts of things and we’re happy that you’ve come to Jesus and such, but there’s some more cleaning up that you can do, that you need to do.  Kind of like you’re a little bit on probation here and we’ll get you in.  We want to get you in, but you need to be circumcised.  You need to keep the law.  This is being a little bit unkind, perhaps, it’s almost like they came in with their knives sharpened, wetted and yeah, like we need to circumcise…that’s horrible.  They were those who were free in Christ and imposing this kind of ritual, minor, some would say.  Not when you’re an adult Gentile male by the way.  This was a major step and all together unnecessary.  That’s a different Gospel.  That’s not good news.  That’s backward news.  That’s going back away from freedom. 
JS:  This Gospel of freedom that you proclaimed among the Gentiles, I mean you say so right here in your letter that we know, you said this to Cephas.  You said, “We know a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.”  And you shared this, didn’t you, with the leaders of the Jerusalem church? 
SS: Oh yes.  I thought we had settled all of this.  I went to the leaders after a while, the big three, the big triumvirate.  Some people called them sort of the pillars of the church.  Whatever their reputation was doesn’t make much difference to me.  I’m not into that sort of thing.  And, remember, we sort of settled this earlier.  I, too, am an apostle sent by Christ Jesus.  Now, James, your namesake, Cephas, the rock and John, yes, they walked with Jesus and knew Jesus and they had some advantages and I’ll give them that.  And they were the pillars of the Jerusalem church.  We’ll we got together, along with Barnabas, another Jewish believer.  All of us, Jews.  All of us had been circumcised and kept the law, but also had found freedom in Christ Jesus and we were going to talk about this Gentile question.  Yes, Christ had commissioned me Barnabas to go to the Gentiles and they come in in droves.  Well now questions were arising.  So, what are we going to do?  Do they need to be circumcised or not?  Well, we got together and talked about this, but a very important thing guided that conversation, and this was one of my better moves, if I may say so myself.  I made it personal.  You know, so much of the time when we talk about people we get these labels, the Gentiles.  Well, what does that mean?  The Greeks.  The Romans.  The, what do you all call yourselves, Americans?
JS:  Americans.

SS:  And the American way and the American and the American dream and the American pie and I don’t know what else, but.  And of course the, all Americans, that means are absolutely identical, right? 
JS:  No, not at all.
SS:  Of course not.  Those labels don’t mean anything, but we wind up particularly with people who are different than us by labeling them, and that means, OK we can talk about them and we don’t have to mess with them too much.  But, when you’re talking about any group, you’re talking about individuals, with a face and a name.  We were concerned about the Gentiles.  Well we Jewish guys could sit around and talk about Gentile policy, but I brought me a live one.  Titus.  Ah, one of my favorite guys.  Had a pagan background.  Been involved in all sorts of things.  Was a Greek by birth, fine, but as a young adult, he responded to this message that I preached and embraced Christ with everything that he had.  He didn’t understand everything about Jewish Messiah and this and that.  He’s learning, but he embraced Christ, was filled with the Spirit and I mean everything about him exudes faith and promise and he’s been one of the best co-laborers with me and I brought him to James and Cephas and John and I said, “Fellows, what ever we decide here today, we’re not deciding about some abstract block of people out there.  It’s what are we going to do with Brother Titus.  Are you going to force him to be circumcised?  Are you going to tell him, one, two, three, you need to do this?  Are you going to tell him he’s somehow a second class citizen until he does this?  Is he going to have to ethnically become a Jew which is effectively what being circumcised is?  Circumcision’s a great thing, but it is the badge of our Jewish identity.  It’s not for Gentiles.  Are we going to make him become one of us?  What are we going to do?  And to the pillars credit, I must say, they said, “No.”  They recognized in Titus all these great gifts and said, “No, we’re not going to impose any of this on him or any of the Gentiles.”  And they gave me and Barnabas and Titus, the right hand of fellowship.  Don’t you all still shake hands some today?  Yeah, well there we go.
JS:  So these pillars of the Jerusalem church, they endorsed the Gospel that you preached to the Gentiles, this Gospel of freedom, this Gospel of faith and trust in Jesus Christ that didn’t require anything else?  Not the keeping of the law, not circumcision, putting their faith and trust in Jesus and then living out that life.
SS:  Free to then live as Christ would have them live.
JS:  Tell me this if you will, I mean I know you are a theologian, you’re not a psychologist, but why is it, why is it that people always seem to want to add something to the simple, saving message of Jesus Christ?  And here’s the other thing, why do people fall for it, why do they seem to accept additions of some kind, further requirements beyond what the faith would require?
SS:  That’s a great question Brother James.  I really, I don’t have all the answers for that.  Peoples motivations and psyches if you will are very different, but I think some it has to do with, well, in the case of the Gentiles that I was working with, they responded to the gospel because there was this incredible longing within for meaning, they were aching for security, for rescue, for salvation, and they were very religious.  The worst thing you can think of is that the Gentiles didn’t care about religion, no, if anything they were hyper-religious.  Trying to worship multiple gods, some of whom conflicted with one another, they were trying to avoid this spirit and that spirit, and they felt very vulnerable Brother James, as I think we all do, but they were really searching and really felt enslaved by these unseen spirits and gods they were trying to please but felt that these gods maybe were out to get them, and all of that, so when freedom came behind Christ, whoo, they needed that freedom.  But they needed it so badly that when some other folks came along and said, “Well you’re free, but not quite,” they were so willing to do anything to maintain that, what they  had found in Christ, that they were willing to add something, and that’s a terrible irony, it’s a tragic irony because while wanting to be free, and wanting to do everything they could to become free, they were turning back to enslavement, in this case through circumcision and keeping the law and such, and that’s a terrible reversal, I think that’s why I got so upset.  If you’re free and then continue to walk in that freedom, don’t go backwards for goodness sake.
JS:  I was thinking about Moses, and the Red Sea, you know, here’s Moses leading these Hebrew children out of their slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea.
SS:  I know where you’re going.
JS:  Through death you might say, and into life on the other side, and then they get to the other side and what do they do?
SS:  Well, yeah, I mean the great Old Testament liberation freedom event, I mean it just stands like a beacon is the exodus.  You’re exactly right, releasing us from generations of back breaking, death dealing slavery.  And across the Red Sea we’re free, and on to the Promised Land, I mean, to finally fulfill that covenant that God had made with Abram, but then the crazy thing is, eh we Jews are crazy sometimes, just like people, we want to go back, oh we begin to complain about the food, of all things.  If we’d had this fare we might have been fine, I don’t know.
JS:  I don’t know.
SS:  But they said, “Ah, we’re out here and we’re gonna die, we want to go back, cause ah, he wasn’t that great but at least we had three square meals before we die!”  They wanted to go back, can you believe that having been freed and on the road to freedom, and then even giving the law which was not clamping down, that was actually providing the path, the way of freedom, but it was always this looking back, “Oh, it was better back there.” It makes no sense, but there’s something within us humans apparently, Jews, Gentiles, we don’t how to deal with freedom very well.  We get scared of the freedom and somehow want the security of the old life even though it provided no security at all.
JS:  We don’t have much time left, but you’ve been talking about Hebrew slaves in Egypt, you’ve been talking about Gentiles, formerly pagan who have become Christian, you’ve been taking about Jewish teachers who want them to be circumcised and follow the law.  Not much of that has much to do with where we are today in this country..
SS:  You don’t debate about circumcision and such anymore?
JS:  Not so much, and yet I do think, I do think there are many ways in which people want to add to the simple, saving gospel of Jesus Christ, they want to add further requirements.  I’ve heard people say sometimes, “Well now, a real Christian, you know, would be in church every Sunday, and a real Christian would give at least 10 percent, and a real Christian would be in Sunday School and study the lesson, and invite a friend to church, I mean this is what real Christians do, and if you don’t do this or any number of other things, then you are not a real Christian.”  And I think sometimes that plagues us as believers.  I wonder if you were looking at this congregation today, as you are, and these beautiful young people behind us, what kind of good word could you leave us with, what is the good news for us?
SS:  If I may quote myself, which I can certainly do…
JS:  You may, we do it all the time.
SS:  I don’t know the chapter or verse, but it would be, for freedom Christ has set us free, which sound’s like double-speak, but it’s not.  It really is for freedom that we are then to live within this freedom that has been open up to love God fully, and to love one another.  You know, one of the problems, and it hit me when you were talking about the things we add and such, all these are good things!  You just mentioned a bunch of good things, circumcision is a wonderful thing, it’s a sign of the covenant with Abraham, the bible is a wonderful thing to read, it points us to God.  The cross is a wonderful, the sign and symbol, but all of these, that’s the key word, all of these are signs, vital and important but by definition a sign is not the thing in itself to focus on.  A cross is a piece of wood, circumcision is a piece of skin, a bible is a piece of paper, but they point to the living God and we, that’s where it has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ.  They are inspired, I love talking about the inspiration of the bible, but it’s inspired as a sign pointing us to the reality.  Unfortunately we get bogged down in the sign, and sometimes making it a wedge issue and fussing and fighting over who’s doing the sign and who isn’t, and doing it the right way.  The focus though is on this life of freedom for which Christ has set us free to love God and to love one another which, by the way is the summation of the law that God has given to us.  That’s the good news for everyone here regardless of your nationality, background, social status, age, career prospects or not, all of that Christ has said, “For you there is this path to freedom.”
JS:  That’s good news Paul, shall we pray?  Gracious God, we thank you for this freedom we have been given in Christ Jesus.  Freedom that sets us free to love you, to love others without being hindered, or held back by an endless list of religious rules.  We  pray that our love for you, our love for others could guide our words and our deeds in such a way that everything we do and everything we say honors you and the one you sent, even Christ Jesus, in whose name we pray, Amen.
Paul, thank you so much for being with me again today.  I hope to see you next week for desert.
SS:  Well I, I look forward to it.
JS:  Let me invite you to stand if you will as we sing our hymn of invitation and response, its hymn 477, “We Are Called to be God’s People.”  I invite you to come if you will, to give your life to Christ, to recommit yourself to Him, to join this church as a member of the family of God in this place, hymn 477.  Will you sing?

—Jim Somerville © 2013

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