Saturday, 23 January 2016

Why Galatians?

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With a bit of luck, Caversham's Anglican CTM Parish will be doing another sermon series, late spring/early summer this year, looking at a whole book of the Bible over several weeks. This may seem like a no-brainer for other church traditions, but is actually a departure for the good old CofE.

Last year we looked at Mark's Gospel: an easy choice for a starting point. This year I am suggesting that we look at Paul's letter to the Galatians. So, why Galatians?
  1. Firstly, Galatians is about what it means to be people of God, to be followers of Jesus Christ, and to be Church.
  2. Also, Galatians is about change. In particular about the change from being a movement where nearly everybody shares a common religious background and upbringing to one where significant numbers are coming in who do not share that background.
  3. Thirdly, Galatians is a letter where good, clear, coherent preaching can really add value. 
  4. Galatians was almost certainly the first of Paul's letters, and therefore the very first part of the New Testament, to be written.
  5. Last but not least, Galatians is a document of God's Grace.
You might think that last point should come first, but 'grace' as a term has become so hijacked by religious ideology that its meaning is watered down and corrupted, both inside and outside church communities. So I think the starting point needs to be in different, more approachable, terms, with preaching which demonstrates the grace  of God - its power, its opportunity and its love - through these contexts. 

Approached 'cold' Galatians can be a hard document to get a handle on and too many commentaries and commentators seem to start from the assumptions and politics of the 16th Century. This makes preaching it challenging, as many of the usual aids are unhelpful, but it should encourage preachers to really focus on the letter's original themes and their application in and around today's changing church environment.

One example of an area where a more modern understanding of the political geography of the day is helpful is that of the letter's basic context. Nowadays we know that the new churches established during Paul's first missionary journey were along a Roman road, the Via Sebaste, which was in the south of the Roman province of Galatia. So we can easily place the letter as being written between Paul's return to Antioch (in Syria) and the Council of Jerusalem. Basically this background is covered in Acts 13 through to the beginning of 15, with a bit of preamble at the end of Acts 11 concerning Paul's base in Syrian Antioch and the changing nature of the church there.

The speed of the change in the church's place in English life over recent decades has been astonishing. We now live in a post-Christendom (pdf link) era: a time when we cannot assume that everyone goes to church, has been to church regularly as a child, or even is familiar with the old Bible stories which used to be told out in Sunday Schools and primary school assemblies.

Both St John's and St Margaret's recognise, I hope, that his means that they have to bring in significant numbers of people who don't share their religious backgrounds. I'm not sure about St Peter's, where the issues are more hidden.

In a post-Christendom context, what does it mean to become a follower of Jesus? Does it involve going to church, necessarily? Does it require changes in behaviour, or in our hopes and fears for the future, or in the way we treat other people? Does following Jesus make any difference at all?

That is what a sermon series on Galatians could and should address, in my view.

Grace and Peace.

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