Cephas, Barnabas, and other Christian Jews had begun living as the Gentiles in order to share the good news of the risen Christ with them. But when opposition grew in numbers, they backed off of their convictions and once again started living according to the laws of the Jews. Paul took exception to this behavior. He believed that their actions were sending a strong message to the Gentiles that they were inferior, perhaps even not saved, because they were not living according to the laws of the Jews. Paul reminded them that we are not saved by what we do, but by what Christ did.
Today we proclaim with our words that we are saved by grace through faith. But in reality, each of us has made up our minds about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I’m good because I give to charity. They’re bad because they steal. I’m good because I don’t lie (except I do – I’m just so good at it, I don’t even realize I’m doing it). They’re bad because they’re identity thieves. I’m good because I’ve only killed in war. They’re bad because they have killed for drugs. I’m good because I fight for my country. They’re bad because they’re terrorists. I will go to heaven because I’m good. They will go to hell because they’re bad. All of this is contrary to Christ’s message. No one is all good, and no one is all bad. We are all just people who make some good decisions and some bad. The occurrences of our good and bad choices differ. But none of that matters to God. If we were punished for our bad choices, heaven would be empty. But if we are saved because Jesus changed the fabric of creation and made a new covenant with humanity that depended solely on God’s ability to be faithful, then hell is empty. I choose to believe the latter. Love wins.
Narrative Lectionary Text: Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.