Paul’s Letter to the Galatians has been deemed by many scholars to be the “Magna Carta of Christian Liberty” because it deals with the question of whether Gentiles must become Jews before they can become Christians. Paul writes this letter generally to the church in Galatia that he established. However, the content of the letter is pointed to address the issues at hand.
The target of his pointed language is at Peter who has been known to have eaten many meals with the people in the church without observing Jewish food laws. Paul attacks Peter, a strict advocate that Gentiles must become Jews before they can become “real” Christians, over his personally relaxed attitude toward Jewish food laws when he is dining with the Galatians while maintaining his very public cry for strict adherence to all things Jewish — food, circumcision, and other purity laws.
We, Disciples, don’t have creeds or tests of faith and believe that the Table of Grace is open to everyone seeking God’s love, grace, and wholeness. However, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we have established barriers to being a full participant in the life and ministry of our congregations. At some point (which is code for “we should have been considering this all along, but we aren’t, so I mean now”), we need to consider what those barriers are, why we have them, and how we might begin to remove those barriers so that all might feel welcome.
To that end, Alicia Vargas, a dean and professor at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, encourages us to ask these questions of Galatians and ourselves:
In his mission to take to gospel of Jesus Christ to non-Jews, Paul confronted the large questions of ethnic and religious practices and requirements for Christians of different backgrounds and traditions. How do we as the church measure up in these kinds of questions?
To what extent are our congregations mixed at all, combinations of people from divergent ethnic and religious/denominational backgrounds?
Do we diligently strive to find ways to be both fully respectful of racial/ethnic differences among the people while at the same time being mindful and discerning of what are those things that are and are not essential in making us who we are?
In our churches, do we implicitly or explicitly require new participants (“members”) to conform to previously existing patterns of congregational behavior? Are there requirements or expectations for specific doctrinal affirmations or other expected behaviors?
How diligent are we in discerning what is necessary and what is contingent in these matters of congregational life and faith?
And as important as these matters are, — and they are very important — do we really and truly take to heart Paul’s message that no human acts or works, none whatsoever, are what ultimately justify us with God?
Humans have expectations of who God is and how God acts. In the Church, we heap our expectations on one another and barriers to who gets in and who doesn’t. What would/could our congregations look like if we removed the barriers and relaxed our grip on what we thought God is doing? Galatians helps frame that conversation for us today.