This is a passage for people who have forgotten what it is to be saved by faith.
When the Galatian Christians first came to faith, it was because they realised how much God loved them and what he had done for them. They realized that, however good or religious they were, they could not save themselves; that they could not do anything to earn the love of God. But they also understood what God had done for them in Jesus – and so they received his love, his forgiveness and his Spirit simply by putting their trust in him.
But some false teachers have come to the church in Galatia, and they are telling them, ‘You need to do more than just receive the Spirit of God. You need to earn it. You need to be good; you need to be circumcised; you need to keep special days in special ways’.
That is what Paul is on about when he speaks about observing special days, months, seasons and years. He is not having a go at Christians who fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday or Wednesdays or Fridays; he is not having a go at those who keep Sunday special or who celebrate Easter or Christmas or the special church festivals. He is having a go at those people who are saying that if you do not do those things – if you don’t celebrate those days – then you are not a proper Christ-follower. He is challenging the people who say that you need faith in Jesus plus something else in order to be a proper Christian.
And Paul is saying that when you do that, you are turning back from a God who offers you unconditional love, who offers you the freedom to be his son or daughter, into a system of slavery (v8) – of slavery to the law – of slavery to a system that says, ‘If you do this and this and that, then God will like you and bless you’.
Listen, he says!
It is hard to miss the passion in the letter: ‘I am astonished you are so quickly deserting the one who called you’ (1.6); ‘I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!’ (1.9); ‘You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you’ (3.1); ‘I wish those who unsettle you (who demanded that they should all be circumcised) would go and castrate themselves’ (5.12). And here in v20, ‘I am perplexed about you’.
Listen, he says!
‘Haven’t you got it?! Don’t you remember the joy when you realised that God knows you and loves you, and there is nothing you can do to make him love you more or love you less?
Don’t you remember the freedom that comes from realising that you don’t need to do anything in order to be forgiven or filled by the Spirit of God – apart from to simply receive the Spirit!’
Listen, he says!
Don’t pay attention to these false teachers.
Don’t become slaves to a system that promises you glory but gives you the gutter.
Never ever think that you can earn the love of God.
And in this letter, he challenges the pride of the man or woman who thinks that they can be good enough or religious enough.
He challenges the arrogance of the man or woman who thinks that they can do something for God which will put God in their debt.
What a joke! It is as if I give you £10 million, and then you give me back £5, and expect me to say thank you. How can we do anything that puts the One who has given us everything in our debt.
When I was about 18, I remember – in a moment of devout fervour - praying, ‘God, I will do anything for you’. And immediately I had a thought. It was so clear and sharp and counter-intuitive and penetrating that I can say with some confidence that God spoke to me. He said, ‘Who are you to do anything for me?’ It was astonishingly liberating, because in that moment I realised that I couldn’t do anything for him – but that I didn’t need to, because he loved me and had done everything for me.
And Paul goes on to say that when he first visited the area – and he turned up at the door of the Galatians not because he planned to but because he was ill – they welcomed him and they welcomed his message.
Because he told them that whatever they did - not even if they gave away all their money, gave their life to bring hope to people living in desperate poverty, dedicated the rest of their life to be in church or saying prayers, or devoted their lives to meditation or mindfulness – they could never ever get themselves right with God.
But he told them they did not need to.
He told them that God knows them. Do you notice that strange verse (v9): ‘Now however that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God’? God knew them – the good in them and the muck in them. He knew their pride, self-centredness, their refusal to trust in him. And yet despite that, he loves them, has forgiven them, and he has reached out to them to offer them forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and a future hope. And the only thing that they need to do is to receive the gift that he offers to us.
That is why, at the heart of the Christian faith, it is not about what we can do for God but about what we can receive from God.
The perfect example of this is Jesus’ story of the two brothers in Luke 15.11-30
The younger son has lost everything and really messed his life up. He thinks that he has to show his Father how repentant he is. He prepares his speech: ‘I am not worthy to be called your son. Make me your servant’. But his father doesn’t even let him get his speech out. He runs to him – and all the younger son has to do is to allow his Father to embrace him. And as for the older son – we all feel for him – it does seem unfair. But it seems that all along he was trying to earn his father’s love by working hard in the fields, by being good, by doing everything that his father asked him to do - when actually he had never really received his Father’s love. He had never allowed his Father to embrace him.
And what is interesting in the story of the Prodigal Son was that it was only when the younger brother suffers a catastrophic moral failure that he began to realise the depths of his Father’s love. And it often is the moments of deep failure - moral or spiritual – when we are brought to our senses, and we realise we have nothing to offer God but can only receive his forgiveness. I think that is one of the reasons why Luther said, slightly tongue in cheek, that if you are going to sin, make it a big sin.
So when we come to church: we begin by receiving. We receive from God’s word; we receive the declaration of his forgiveness; we receive his word; we receive at communion; we receive the presence of God – his Holy Spirit – to come and live in us.
We’ve had an amazing service of choral evensong. But I have to confess that a few months before I came here to St Mary’s, I had two problems with choral evensong.
The first – and I am ashamed to say this - was because I was arrogant and judgmental. I remember sitting in a cathedral listening to a choir singing the Nunc dimittis, and thinking, ‘They’re singing it, and it is beautiful, but how many of them believe it?’ And I had another of those very sharp penetrating thoughts: ‘Forget about them. What about you?’
Who am I, who are you to pass judgement on the faith of another? The only person I can judge is myself, and most of the time I get that pretty wrong.
And my second problem was that I didn’t do anything in the service.
I have had the privilege of spending the last 10 days on a conference at St George’s House in Windsor Castle. Every evening, at 5.15, we had choral evensong in the chapel. And the only thing I did in that service was to sit when I needed to sit and stand when I needed to stand, and say the creed. But that, I have come to realise, is one of the glories of the service. This is the place where I have come first of all to receive. To receive from you – and I want to say thank you – but also to receive from God.
But I also want to issue a spiritual health warning. You give so much, week in and week out. And yes, I know (because you tell me) that you love singing, and being part of the choir – but if church is simply becoming the place where we come to give or to perform (and I now include myself as vicar in this), we are in serious danger of declaring the truth of the grace of God but also missing the truth of the grace of God. Before we give we do need to receive. We need to receive from God.
So can I urge you to realise again that it is not about you trying to get to know God, but it is about God who already knows you and who loves you. It is not about you trying to please God. Instead it is about first receiving from him. He gave the most precious thing that he has for you: his son. He longs to give himself to you. For me, that place of receiving is when I am often on my own with his word; It is when I come to services like this; it is when I hear the bible read and taught; it is when I am receiving communion
And while I appreciate that it is great for you to have your Sundays back for a few weeks, please don’t completely stop going to church. You don’t need to come here (although we would love to see you!). Go to a church near where you live or where you are on holiday; go to a church that is very different; and even if it is a rubbish service, still try and find something to receive: prayer, reading (word of God) or communion. It is not about what we can do for God. It is about what he has given to us.
The false teachers want to turn what could be an open family of people who know that they have nothing to offer but can only receive, into a club of like achieving people. Get so many marks and you are in. They want to turn a party that is open to everybody, into a party that is only open to people who can bring along a very expensive bottle of champagne.
So Paul is saying to them, in verses 12-20, please don't become like that. You haven’t done me any wrong, but if you go down the route of saying that you need to be circumcised or you need to keep special days in special ways, then you will do me wrong. You will exclude me. You will cut me out. Because, he says, I have nothing to bring to the party apart from my sinfulness and my inadequacy.
The thing about the gospel that Paul preaches, the gospel that the Galatians believed and that we have believed, is that you have got nothing to bring and everything to receive. That is what unites us in one family. We are not here because of our achievements, our religiousness, our knowledge, our moral success or even our ability to sing. We are here because we have realised that God knows us. We are here because we have chosen to receive the free gift of his love, forgiveness, of the Holy Spirit and of eternal life. And it is all gift.