"Seeking Approval"

Scripture:  Galatians 1:1-12

 

Introduction to Galatians

This morning we begin a series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians that will take us through the month of June.  Before I read our passage from the letter, I want to give a little bit of background information about it.

The letter was written to a group of churches is Galatia. that Paul had helped to form when he was passing through the region.  Through the context of Paul’s message throughout the letter, the churches appear to be made up primarily – or perhaps even exclusively – of non-Jewish, Gentile converts to the Christian movement.  Paul preached to them about Christ, and they received his message with joy and enthusiasm. 

According to the Apostle Paul, their gentile background was a non-issue: He believed that the Gentiles could enter into the Church directly through the grace of God offered in Christ, without having to enter into the Jewish faith first.  There was a great deal of controversy, however, in that there was a strong faction of Jewish Christians who believed that gentiles must be circumcised and convert to Judaism before they could “secure themselves a place among the people of God.”[1]

So, that is the setting in which we find Paul’s letter.  After Paul had shared his gospel of grace and freedom with the churches in Galatia, he continued on with his journey of itinerant missionary preaching.  Sometime after he left the region, however, a group of rival missionaries came in and began undermining his message and his authority, telling the Galatians that in order to receive salvation, they needed to be circumcised.  The Galatians, who were struggling with balancing their Christian identity with their pagan surroundings, were no doubt vulnerable to the security and guarantees offered in the message of circumcision.[2]  Perhaps some of them had even gone through the ritual already.

Eventually, Paul received word about what was happening back in Galatia, and he was angry – So he wrote a letter to these congregations, which we now have before us.  Our reading is the first 12 verses of the letter.  Listen for the Word of God:

From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead; and from all the brothers and sisters with me.

To the churches in Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. He gave himself for our sins, so he could deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. To God be the glory forever and always! Amen.

I’m amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow another gospel. It’s not really another gospel, but certain people are confusing you and they want to change the gospel of Christ. However, even if we ourselves or a heavenly angel should ever preach anything different from what we preached to you, they should be under a curse. I’m repeating what we’ve said before: if anyone preaches something different from what you received, they should be under a curse!

Am I seeking the approval of human beings, or the approval of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ.

            Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the gospel I preached isn’t human in origin. I didn’t receive it or learn it from a human. It came through a revelation from Jesus Christ.

AMEN.

A Desire For Approval

Human beings seem to have an innate desire to seek approval and acceptance from one another.  If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is drive past a middle school in between classes, and you will see plenty of examples of humans seeking the approval of other humans.

Or, perhaps, you can remember back to your own middle school days.  That is, if it’s not too painful.  Because, unless you were among the extremely lucky 1% of the population, then middle school was smack dab in the middle of your “awkward stage.”  As you can see from my middle school Student ID card, I was among those blessed… with an awkward stage.  [I will pass my ID card around so that you can all see it, because I'm a firm believer that it's good to laugh in church.]

To try to overcome that awkwardness, middle schoolers do all sorts of things to try to be accepted by one another.  I remember putting an absurd amount of hair spray in my hair each morning, because apparently it was uncool to have hair that moved when the wind blew.  I remember searching for all the right brands of clothes, trying to listen to all the right kinds of music, and trying endlessly to wiggle my way into the group known as the “popular kids.”  I even remember bringing a mediocre sack lunch to school every day rather than buy a lunch at school – not due to any financial hardship, but simply because it wasn’t “cool” to buy a lunch.

Luckily, I mostly grew out of that stage.  But even today, I find myself going out of my way to make others happy and comfortable.  I want to be recognized and affirmed. 

And don’t we all?  I think that we like to look good in front of our peers.  No matter how old we are, it still feels good to be approved and accepted by others. 

God’s Approval

For all of those reasons, Paul’s message in today’s passage makes me uncomfortable.  He asks a rhetorical question, and then answers it himself.  “Am I seeking the approval of human beings, or the approval of God?  Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ.” 

Paul isn’t offering an outright condemnation of seeking human approval, but he is suggesting that it shouldn’t be priority number one.  Instead, our first priority should be pleasing God.

Apparently Paul had been accused of watering down the message of Christ because he told the Gentiles that they need not be circumcised or adhere to the Jewish Laws in order to be saved.  Justification by God’s grace alone, as a gift freely given rather than earned, seemed too easy to Paul’s opponents – so they accused Paul of rejecting observance of the law as a requirement for salvation in order to win converts by eliminating the prerequisites.  But Paul responded that it wasn’t about winning over friends, but about being true to the gospel of Christ as he received it.  Whether or not it made him popular among humans wasn’t his primary concern – instead, he was concerned first and foremost about being the most faithful follower of Christ that he could possibly be.

And therein lies the weight of this passage.  I actually get excited when I read those lines, and I want to jump right on Paul’s bandwagon and say, “Yeah, Paul!  Way to tell ‘em!  That’s truly what it’s all about!”

…But then I realize the implications of those words.  “If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ.”  Or, put another way, Paul says, “If I were trying to please people, I wouldn’t be practicing the gospel that I have preached – and, in fact, I wouldn’t be preaching the gospel at all.”

At Odds With Society

If we take Paul’s words seriously, we have to acknowledge that following Christ might make others uncomfortable, or even make them angry.  They might look at us funny, talk behind our backs, or ignore us altogether.  Following Christ would be so much easier if so many of Jesus’ teachings didn’t fly in the face of today’s status quo.

Because, let’s face it – we all try too hard to find a happy balance between following Christ and living in harmony with human society.  We no longer require circumcision, but each denomination and church has its own set of rules and requirements – both official and unofficial – for people who want to become followers of Christ.  We find ways to claim to accept everybody, but still keep out the people who make us uncomfortable or challenge our prejudices.  Jesus said to love and serve everybody, but most of us have our own set of “untouchables.”  We say things like:

       “Yeah, but Jesus obviously didn’t mean (fill in the blank).”

       “Jesus said to love and serve the least of these, but he didn’t know there would be so many people watching”

 We love Jesus, but many of us have some sort of line, somewhere, that we’d rather not cross.  We tell ourselves things like:

       “I know I should share my faith, but what if they don’t want to hear about it?  What if it creates awkward tension?”

       “It’s not that I’m ashamed of my faith, it’s just that I want to keep my church life and my normal life separate.”

The gospel as it was preached by Paul and recorded by the New Testament authors is pretty clear that all means all and that self-giving love should be our primary mode of interaction with one another.  But authentically living that out can put us seriously at odds with our society. 

Unfortunately for our timid hearts, nowhere in the bible does anybody say, “But if any of this is too hard to do or if it makes you too uncomfortable, you don’t have to do it.”  Instead, Paul reminds us that even though serving Christ may not help us win any popularity contests, we will please the heart of God.

Conclusion

I want to end with a Quote attributed to Mother Theresa, written on the wall of her home for children in Calcutta:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
    Love them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
    Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
    Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
    Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. 
    Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
    Be happy anyway.

The good you do today will often be forgotten.
    Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. 
    Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
    It was never between you and them anyway.[3]

 



[1] Charles B. Cousar, “Galatians” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), 4.

[2] Cousar, 4.

[3] Mother Theresa, “Do It Anyway”  Accessed online at http://prayerfoundation.org/mother_teresa_do_it_anyway.htm


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