As we continue our 30 Days of Paul Reading Challenge, we begin one of my favorite letters of the New Testament — Galatians. I absolutely love this letter! First of all, it’s written to a bunch of Celts! That’s right! According to Wikipedia, “Ancient Galatia was an area in the highlands of central Anatolia in modern Turkey. Galatia was named for the immigrant Gauls from Thrace, who settled here and became its ruling caste in the 3rd century BC, following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans in 279 BC. It has been called the ‘Gallia’ of the East, Roman writers calling its inhabitants Galli (Gauls or Celts).” So, for us Celtic Spirituality students, this is an amazing letter. To think that the ancient peoples I love and whom have so much to teach us today are not only mentioned in the Bible but specifically addressed is dream come true! So, let’s dig in!
A lot of people read these first two chapters as a kind of “Paul thinks a little to highly of himself” type of thing. That’s not the way I see it. Not at all! For me, it looks more like he’s trying to defend himself. After all, he’s laid the foundation to a certain type of building — like a Celtic High King’s Hall. There was one door and everyone was welcome to come in and dine with each other. Something that the Celts (or Gauls) would have understood.
But, as Paul was apt to do, he left Galatia and travelled elsewhere (Mysia and Troas; Acts 16.6-8).
While he was away, he got word about the churches in Galatia. Apparently, another group had come in and began building a different type of building, one that had at least two different doors — one for Jews and one for Gentiles. They taught that if one was really a follower of Jesus the Messiah, one would need to become Jewish. And that meant being circumcised and keeping the Law of Moses. Paul, they seemed to claim, wasn’t really an apostle, not like James or John or Peter. This new group was from them and they were teaching the real “good news.” Or so they claimed.
That’s the inference I get when reading these chapters. The points that Paul’s making in these first two chapters are about his apostleship and the gospel. If we can keep that in mind, the whole letter falls into place.
What’s astounding to me is his reprimand right at the outset of the letter. As we saw with 1 Thessalonians, Paul usually has a lot of uplifting things to say before he gets to the “meat” of the letter. Not here! He jumps right in with, “I’m amazed that you’re so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of the Messiah to follow another gospel. It’s not really another gospel, but certain people are confusing you and they want to change the gospel of the Messiah” (1.6-7). He then jumps into defending what he teaches as the gospel and his apostleship. Paul even notes that, when he met with James, John, and Peter, they didn’t make any changes to what he taught. In fact, they shook his hand as an equal, recognizing that G‑d had called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles just as G‑d had called them to be apostles to the Jews (2.6-10). The only thing they stressed, Paul says, was that he take care of the poor (2.10).
However, even those guys weren’t without their issues. Paul states that when Peter, considered by some as the foundation of the church, visited Paul and his companions, Peter separated himself from the Gentile followers of Jesus after Jewish followers from Jerusalem showed up (11ff). And Paul called him on it! In front of everyone! Kind of the opposite of what Jesus stated in Matthew 18.
Paul pointed out that Peter was being a hypocrite. He had been acting like a “Gentile” even though he was a Jew. And when some Jewish followers of Jesus showed up at their little soiree, he separated himself from the Gentile followers of Jesus and wouldn’t associate with them anymore.
This sounds just like a teen movie! Over the summer a geeky girl helps out one of the pretty girls and they become friends. Then, when school starts back up, the pretty girl doesn’t even acknowledge the geeky girl because she doesn’t want the other pretty kids to find out. And when the geeky girl approaches the pretty girl, the pretty girl goes out of her way to insult and ridicule the geeky girl.
That’s what Paul’s getting at in chapter two of this letter. He’s telling the Galatian followers of Jesus that are supposedly following the superior gospel from Peter that even the great Peter screwed up the gospel! The gospel is about freedom — not only from false religions, but also from the trappings and shortfalls and segregation of first century Judaism. The gospel is about Jesus being the world’s new leader and, if that’s true (and Paul believes it to be so), then Jesus is birthing a new humanity. One that’s not based on separation of people or good things and bad things or spiritual things and physical things. But a restoring, a reconciling, a joining together of those things that other religions and societies and peoples have separated.
So, in these first two chapters, the questions that come rushing to the front for me are these: What about our journey’s with Jesus? Are they about inclusion or exclusion? Is our gospel about bringing people together or separating them? Do we view creation as “good” or “bad”? Our answers to these and other questions may help us determine if we’re really practicing the “good news.”
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC