Keeping Up Appearances

Sermon, July 3, 2016 – Proper 9, Year C
Galatians 6:7-16

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Last week, a church near where we live held its Vacation Bible School. The title theme for this year’s VBS was “Submerged” and the church was decorated like the ocean floor. The Bible text for the week was Psalm 139:23-24 which reads: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The advertisement in the church newsletter read “Kids will discover during the week that Jesus saw people differently. He didn’t see just what was on the outside, He saw people for who they were on the inside…down deep. As kids learn to see themselves and others as Jesus sees them, they can realize that everyone needs a Savior – even those who look like they have it all together.”

Last week Sunday I was sitting in this church listening to a musical offering before the sermon and I was thinking about what I might preach on this week. I had just read through the Galatians passage in the pew Bible when I read the VBS advertisement. It occurred to me that the Galatians passage has a similar message to the VBS message.

One of the primary issues that Paul was dealing with in his letter to the Galatians was a conflict amongst early Christians between a legalistic Jewish group – possibly with a strong Pharisaic influence, and the apostles. A small aside here – the legalistic Jewish group was not representative of Jewish Christians generally, but was a sub-group. They made circumcision their main issue, and this represented their belief that it was very important for Christians to outwardly keep all aspects of Jewish law. In this, they were relatively similar to the Pharisees, who taught that it was important to keep the law and so make themselves worthy of salvation. The focus was on outwardly keeping the law.

Paul and the apostles, on the other hand, argued that Jesus made it clear that outward appearances were not important. What Jesus sought to reach was the hearts and minds of people. Paul is addressing this issue in today’s passage from Galatians. He says “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Paul equates empty, legalistic outward behavior with the flesh, and he equates pleasing the Spirit with transforming hearts and minds. And so what Paul means here is that if we think that we can keep God’s law simply by observing external legalities, we will miss out on the Gospel. We will miss out on the Gospel because that is not what the Gospel addresses.

If you are in the hospital in need of a lifesaving operation that only a doctor can perform on you, but instead of seeing a doctor, you instead go and trim your finger nails so that you look good, you won’t get the surgery you need, and you will die. What we need to do is submit our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ, recognizing that we have no power in us to save ourselves. Interestingly enough, the local church that held VBS this past week has also been doing a sermon series adapting the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step Program to the Christian life. The first three revised steps are as follows:

We are powerless over sin – that our lives have become unmanageable.

  1. We believe that only God could restore us to sanity.
  2. We make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.

The Gospel only works if we acknowledge that the only thing that can save us is God’s grace – given us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we accept this; if we “sow to please the Spirit” then “from the Spirit we will reap eternal life.”

After an interesting aside in which Paul comments on his own handwriting, he expands on his point. He writes “those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised.” In the Jewish religion, circumcision was a powerful sign of belonging to the group. The Old Testament was very clear that if you were a male and weren’t circumcised, you weren’t a good Jew. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ has moved beyond these outward markers. Paul is warning the early Christians about some individuals who were trying to convince them that outward appearance of being circumcised was what mattered.

This is an issue that has plagued the Church throughout all of history and across all types of Christians – old, new, liberal, conservative. It is part of the sinful human condition. We want to belong, to be liked, to be approved of, to be affirmed, to be part of the cool group. And so we are always tempted to adopt the requisite outward appearance to fit in. This can be wearing the right clothes, following the correct sports team, belonging to the correct political party, posting the right memes and opinions on social media, and adopting the pious church person appearance on Sunday mornings. But what does any of this brand identification get us? Fleeting approval from friends and social media friends? What happens when the winds of opinion blow the other way?

Paul says “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything.” He means that superficial social approval is worthless. It means nothing. It is fleeting. Your clothes will make you cool until the fashion changes. People who you impress with superficial outward behaviors, comments or appearances don’t care about you. What’s more, Paul tells us that the only reason they are concerned with appearances “is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.” We hide behind outward appearances to blend in with the cool crowd and avoid putting our lives on the line in following Jesus. Think about it. This is how bullies operate. Everyone wants so badly to be part of the cool group and fit in, nobody dares to stand up to the bully and defend the person being pushed around. This is part of the sinful human condition that Jesus came to save us from.

What is the solution that Paul presents? Let’s look back to the first three steps of the twelve step program. Acknowledge that we are powerless over sin. Accept that only Jesus can rescue us from our sinful condition. Decide to turn our lives and our will over to Jesus. Paul says this very thing in somewhat different words when he writes “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Paul’s choice of words here is a bit difficult for us to absorb here. It’s not the way that we talk. Let’s parse it out. First, Paul writes “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What he means by never boasting is that he won’t identify with or hide behind anything other than the cross of Christ. Not a certain kind of clothing, or the right political opinions, or a clever social media post, or pious Christian church jargon. The only thing that he will identify with is the cross of Christ.

When Paul refers to “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”, he is referring to the fact that we are sinful and unable to save ourselves, but that Jesus Christ has come to rescue us. And so Paul’s point is that he realizes that there is no point in our posturing or maintaining appearances. He is acknowledging that the only identity worth having is through Jesus Christ, as God’s own son or daughter.

Paul finishes by saying that it is in the cross “through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” What he means here is that once we have accepted the Gospel, our primary identity is as a son or daughter of God. What the world thinks of us no longer matters. What matters is that we are part of the kingdom of God.

Being part of the kingdom of God is not about wearing the right clothes, or having the right political or social opinions, or fitting in with the enlightened crowd on social media, or being part of the holy huddle at church. Being part of the kingdom of God is about a transformed heart and mind. It is about realizing that we have nothing to boast about in ourselves. We are powerless over sin. It is only with this acknowledgement and a humble heart that we can turn to Jesus and turn our lives and our will over to Him.

And in this humility and turning to Jesus will the Holy Spirit begin the new creation within us, as we become transformed into the sons and daughters of God and living the lives God has called us to live. Paul writes “what counts is the new creation.” So let us turn away from trying to prove something to others through ourselves and our appearances, and instead surrender to God, and admit that we are powerless over our sinful lives. Let us turn our lives over to Jesus in humility and let the Holy Spirit begin the new creation within us.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, give us the humility to acknowledge that we are powerless in light of our sinful nature. Let us understand what Paul understood and say with him “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” And in so doing Lord, we will become your adopted children through that cross of Christ. Amen.

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