Sermon on Galatians 1:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on June 2, 2013.
A few weeks ago, one of the great television shows of the previous decade had its series finale. Starting in 2005, The Office was one of the first sitcoms to dispense with the “live studio audience” format and was instead presented as a documentary that chronicled the story of a mid-sized paper company called Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Though filled with ridiculous personalities, the show’s most memorable character was easily Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin’s hapless regional manager who wanted nothing more than to be considered the greatest boss in the history of the world. One of the running jokes is that he carried around a mug that reads “World’s Greatest Boss” that he bought for himself. Michael, played uncomfortably well by Steve Carrell, was a famous people pleaser who tried mightily to get people to love him by constantly avoiding unpopular but necessary decisions. He passed the buck, he waffled, he tried desperately to distract people from the issue at hand. A telling line occurs during one of the shows signature producer interviews, when in response to a question Michael muses: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy: both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” Michael’s need to please people is clearly taken to the point of absurdity, but I think that most of us can relate to his profound need to be liked. If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that many of the things we do, many of the choices we make are made in an effort to please other people. It’s human nature. Our preoccupation with popularity when we are in high school points to a larger reality: ultimately, we care very deeply about what people think of us.
So when we hear Saint Paul make the claim that he really doesn’t care what people think of him in our reading from Galatians this morning, we’re inclined to pay attention. Paul’s dismissal of human approval goes against a very human impulse. It’s intriguing to me that the Church places such enormous value on Paul’s writings when he devotes so many of his letters to defending himself and his understanding of the gospel. If you think about it, more than half of the letters that we have are adversarial and downright angry in tone at one point or another. Nowhere is this adversarial tone more evident than in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And Paul makes his anger and frustration clear from the very beginning of the letter. As you know, Paul usually begins his letters by way of a complex and circular introduction: he starts by identifying himself, generally as called apostle or a slave of Jesus Christ or sometimes both, and then he identifies his audience, usually including some positive affirmation of what God has been doing among them. In Galatians, however, Paul is much more abrupt: “Paul an apostle– sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” Paul makes it abundantly clear that his authority as an apostle comes directly from God. After introducing himself in this abrupt way, Paul identifies his audience, but has nothing positive to say, no extra words of encouragement, calling them simply “the churches of Galatia.” Already, Paul is making it clear that he is not happy with the Galatians. And in case there was any doubt, Paul hammers it home in the next verses. While all of Paul’s other letters include a thanksgiving paragraph, a series of verses where Paul gives thanks for all that God has done in the community, there is no thanksgiving paragraph in Galatians. Paul implies that he has nothing to give thanks for when it comes to the churches in Galatia.
So what’s going on? What is it that is irking Paul so much? We start to get a clue in the next paragraph, where Paul says that he is astonished, mystified, blown away that the Galatians have abandoned the faith to which they had been called and embraced another gospel. What seems to have happened is that after Paul left the Galatians, someone came along and claimed that his initial proclamation of the gospel was somehow insufficient, inadequate, incomplete. In other words, someone came into Galatia and said that Paul was wrong. Now, I don’t know about you, but when somebody talks behind my back and questions my integrity, my first reaction is to get mad, to defend myself, to enlist others in my defense: “How dare you call me a liar! How dare you say that I’m wrong!” My first inclination, in other words, is to take it very personally. Maybe this is what’s going on with Paul. Maybe he’s blowing off steam because he’s really concerned about whether the Galatians like him. Unfortunately for this theory, the very next thing that Paul says is “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” If people liked me, then I would not be doing my duty as an apostle. Paul makes it clear that his job as an apostle is not to be liked, not to be loved, not even to be respected; it is to proclaim a gospel that was revealed to him in an apocalypse of Jesus Christ, a revelation from God that changed his life forever. Before Paul had his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he was probably pretty well liked. He was respected as a zealous Pharisee and people took him very seriously when he warned against the Christian threat. In spite of his opposition to the Church and the gospel, Paul encountered the Truth; he came face to face with the risen Christ in an extraordinary and transformative vision, and he spent the rest of his life and ministry trying to sort out exactly what this revelation meant. Paul understood that his call as an apostle was to speak the truth and ensure that the truth of the gospel was proclaimed, regardless of whether people liked him for it. After his experience of the risen Christ, Paul rejected the very human impulse to please people and strove instead to serve God and proclaim God’s grace made known in Jesus Christ with his entire being.
The other day I was in the line at Target and I noticed on the magazine rack that Reader’s Digest is currently featuring a list of the “100 Most Trusted People in America.” I thought it was an odd designation for this kind of format, and so with piqued curiosity, I picked up the magazine. Upon scanning the names, I discovered that the vast majority of the people on the list were actors or television personalities, people for whom trustworthiness doesn’t seem to be a crucial quality. I realized that these people could more accurately be described not as the most trusted people in America, but as the best-liked people in America. These were those celebrities who basically seem like nice people, those you want to have over for dinner, like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington. What was more striking is that there were only three publicly religious people on the list, including Billy Graham, Rabbi Arthur Scheiner, and Tim Tebow. On one level, the absence of religious leaders on the list surprised me because most religious leaders strive to be trustworthy. But on another level, if this was actually a list not of the most trusted but of the best-liked people in America, then we should not be surprised that there aren’t many religious leaders on the list. If Paul shows us anything, it is that commitment to the gospel of Christ is not something that is necessarily going to win you friends and admirers. If Paul’s experience at Galatia is typical, the gospel is not necessarily going to make people like us. And this is okay because rejection by the world is an important part of who we are called to be as Christians. The grace, mercy, and abundant love made known by God in Jesus Christ are challenges to this world driven by greed and selfishness. When we agitate for economic justice in a world that seems driven to keep the poor in their place, we are going to ruffle a few feathers. When we affirm the promise that God’s grace is available to all in this world so obsessed with status, we are going to make some people uncomfortable. When we proclaim Resurrection in a world laid low by despair and hopelessness, we are not going to be popular. And yet, God does not call us to be popular; God calls us to speak and live out the truth. Like Paul, we are meant to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in everything that we do, with our whole being, regardless of what the world thinks. If you think about it, this is incredibly liberating. We are called to build for the kingdom regardless of who’s in charge, we are called to be the Church regardless of who makes fun of us, we are called do the work of the gospel regardless of who tells us that we are attempting the impossible. When we realize with Paul that serving Christ is not about getting people to like us, then we will be able to serve the world in God’s name, not because we are well-liked, but because we are participating in Jesus Christ’s work of transformation.