Last week I touched a nerve. Ok, more like I tasered your theological framework. I had to. The state of the church has gone so far off the rails that it is completely unrecognizable from what’s depicted scripture. Think I’m overstating it? Consider this:
The work of John the Baptist and Jesus was the ministry of subversion. The result was that people with varying beliefs in God (Jews, Samaritans, Romans, Tax Collectors, Fisherman, Prostitutes, Kings) were put right (Justified) with God for no other reason than Christ erased their perceived GAPS between themselves and God. Paul goes so far as to say that the Good News (gospel) was first given to Abraham that would justify Gentiles (sinners) so that all nations (éthen/ heathens) would be blessed (Galatians 3:8). This means that all people of all beliefs are put right with God regardless of what they’ve done or what they’ve believed, but that doesn’t mean that everyone believes it.
In fact, religion hates this idea. It just can’t or won’t believe it. (I’ll come back to this).
Every character in the bible operated within an institution or framework that controlled or oppressed behavior. Jesus’ gospel offers a way to live among institutional power but remain free of it’s oppressive worldview by first liberating people on the inside spiritually. Salvation is liberation, the ability to see, or what some call enlightenment now. Paul calls it faith or believing the Good News.
The early church was a continuation of Jesus work of liberating people from the captivity of their frameworks (religious or otherwise). As people are enlightened (gain faith) they unify in freedom despite diversity. Fast forward to today, and the church has become a framework of captivity that pits itself against all others. Religion prefers distinction over union, control over freedom. In unbelief, religion sees the good news as too good to be true. Much of the church today, just like in Galatia is in unbelief and fears freedom.
“…but due to the falsely pretending brothers (pseudodélphous /false brothers/ Fake ID) those who slipped into (our) group to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to gain control over us, to whom we did not even give in to submission for (an) hour (moment) so that the truth of the gospel may remain among you…” Galatians 2:4-6
So what happened? Who were the false brothers with the fake ID? Jews hated the idea that non Jewish people (gentile sinners) could be put right (Justified) with God and not have to convert to Judaism. This made God unjust in their eyes. It’s exactly the same in modern world religions. Religious people WILL NOT BELIEVE that people can be put right with God unless they convert to their religion.
Jews believe salvation came on Mount Sinai and we are put right by following the law and tradition. Muslims believe Allah is only merciful to those who sincerely follow the five pillars, all others will suffer. Evangelicals believe only those who accept Jesus in their heart can go to heaven. Buddhists and Hindu’s believe enlightenment and oneness are only possible through meditation and austerity. Religion says: “No ticky, no washy.”
The Good News (gospel) says there is no requirement to convert. Jews remained Jewish. Gentiles remained unaffiliated, each remained a part of their institutional belief system, only now they had faith (belief) that God had justified them. This kind of faith subverts institutional power because it liberates the believer. It’s freedom from conversion.
This is how we know the early church was not the beginning of a new religion but rather an experience of faith. They were freed from rituals, religious practice, fearful obedience, and obligation, into a life of faith in God experienced as the whole of life. These very diverse people shared only the belief that Christ Jesus revealed how close to God they really were. More on how that works later in the series.
A person who is truly liberated on the inside quickly realizes that no ritual, or practice, or perfunctory religious service can make them closer to God. All that stuff may be a nice container but its not required. We are all as close or as far as we can ever be. The early church started out with this kind of liberation, but most couldn’t handle the freedom.
When this finally dawns on us, we begin to get really honest about our religious engagement. Does attending church do more for us than a good run or a day on the slopes? It’s estimated that more than 50% of those attending any religious service are merely going through the motions.
As a pastor, I could no longer insist my congregation prioritize the Sunday big show. Religions pressure sheople into religious attendance for either money, control or ego reasons. I moved online so that I could regain the freedom of the gospel and make sure I wasn’t hybridizing it with burden, obligation, and make believe. What do you do with your freedom?
In Galatia, the church was pressuring non-jews to be circumcised (v.3) and conform to old Jewish practices of obtaining from certain foods (v.12). Paul’s primary focus was to show non-religious people (Gentiles) the freedom from the Gospel. Peter by contrast focused on helping religious people to free themselves from their useless ritual into a life of freedom (v.7). There are not two gospels, but two applications of it because both religious and non-religious people struggle to believe it. The fact that God has put everyone right apart from religion is too good to be true, but if believed, it begins to change everything.
Paul and the church were free to “live like Gentiles” (v.14), and so are we today. Religious people see this as living like sinners, then they label free people as ungodly, worldly, or corrupt. We will look much closer at this next week, but the question today is this:
What have you done with your freedom and how have your responded to institutions who seek to gain control over your time, talent, and treasure? Are you still focused on conversion because you have never grasped the width of the gospel? What changes for you if the gospel never required conversion?