All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 February 2019

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 February 2019

Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses 
Readings:  Wisdom 11.21-12.11; Galatians 4.8-20 

Our readings tonight come from writings which seem as unlike each other as any in the canon of Scripture. 

The Wisdom of Solomon is one of the Apocryphal or Deutero-Canonical books which formed part of the Greek version of the Old Testament – known as the Septuagint, because it was believed to have been the work of 70 scholars in the Jewish community in Alexandria.    While these books were not included in the final Hebrew version of what we know as the Old Testament, finalized after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, this was the Bible the early Church knew and used. The Church of England reads them, as the Thirty Nine Articles put it, “for example of life and instruction of manners.”   The Wisdom of Solomon breathes that calm, considered, reflective and sophisticated atmosphere of that group of writings known collectively as the Wisdom literature. 

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, on the other hand, is a passionate, even an angry document, written to deal with an urgent crisis. In language that is anything but diplomatic, sometimes sarcastic, occasionally crude, Paul denounces those he believes are undermining the gospel he has preached. He even addressed the Galatians themselves, as “stupid” – perhaps not the way to win friends and influence people. 

Yet at the same time, he writes out of a deeply felt love for them.. In our passage tonight, we hear him recalling their kindness to him when he was ill, and speaking in maternal terms of being “in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you. I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.”

But while Wisdom and Galatians may seem very different, their contexts have something in common; that is the question of how people of faith in the one God are to love in the midst of a dominant culture which worships other gods and sees your faith as a threat to its spiritual, philosophical and political monopoly.  

The city of Alexandria, named after the all-conquering Alexander the Great, was not only the capital of Egypt but a centre of the Hellenistic culture which had come to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean world.  It had a large and thriving Jewish community which shared in that vibrant cultural activity, seeking both  preserve its own faith and to interpret it in terms of Greek thought.  

The great Doctors of the Eastern Church, some of whom are commemorated on the south wall of sanctuary,  would do the same: making use of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato, as they developed the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity.  Much later, in the West, Thomas Aquinas would repeat the exercise,  using the thought of Aristotle, lost to the West but preserved in the Islamic world  by both Muslim and Christian scholars.  

But even in the midst of this cosmopolitan intellectual and commercial hub, Jewish communities knew that their distinctiveness made them the object of suspicion. This could break out into mob violence, or be manipulated by the authorities, in times of political or economic stress.  Even in those days, Jews knew it was prudent to keep a suitcase packed.  

Tonight, we heard the writer discussing, in terms of past Canaanite and Babylonian enemies – but with a mind to more contemporary ones –  God’s patience and forbearance toward such hostile cultures.  

The Letter to the Galatians was written by a Jew to a Christian community largely made up of Gentile converts. For Luther, it would become one of the foundational texts of the Reformation. In it he found his doctrine of justification by grace and faith.  Alas, too, he applied Paul’s opposites – Law and Gospel, faith and works,  to the split between Protestant and Catholic; and even more balefully,  to that between Christian and Jew in an ugly anti-Semitism which would bear terrible fruit in later German history.  

The Holocaust has forced Christian scholars to take a fresh look at Galatians and the context in which it was written and to question the assumptions which Luther and others have operated with.  

The letter is directed to Christian communities in the Roman province of Galatia, a vast, ethnically diverse area of central Asia Minor. Its inhabitants – including a sizeable Jewish population – were now subject to Rome.   The terms Galatians and Galatia signified an identity and location that spelled out Roman victory and the power to name foreign nations and tribes.  The common name signals the successful subjugation and co-option of the Celtic tribes. Spread all over Europe, they had clashed with Rome for centuries; once even sacking the city itself.  They were seen as barbarians and arch-enemies of civilization.  In the early 3rd century BC, three of their migrant tribes had established the easternmost outpost of Celtic presence by crossing over to Anatolia and settling in what is now Turkey.  Following a century of bloody clashes, they gradually changed from enemies to allies of Rome.  Ankyra in 25 BC became the capital of the newly founded Galatian province, with a magnificent temple to the goddess Roma and the divine Augustus that featured a monumental inscription telling of the emperor’s worldwide achievements. Roads, building projects and colonies of military veterans all demonstrated Roman power.  

When we hear Paul admonishing his Galatian converts in tonight’s passage not to revert to slavery to “beings that by nature are not gods,” and not to observe “special days, and months, and seasons, and years,”   he is talking about  the  imperial cult which has co-opted all other civic deities in a round of public festivals with processions and sacrifices and rituals which defined civic time and space as subject to the Pax Romana.  

To abstain from taking part in such rites was to risk accusations of disloyalty.  Jews had been able to negotiate an exemption from the emperor cult but Christians had no such special treatment. So, returning to at least minimal forms of participation, or even adopting on a fully Jewish status through circumcision, as a way of being excused from civic worship, might seem a prudent course of action to the Galatian Christians,  

Paul couldn’t disagree more strongly. Rather than blending into the imperial society under its’  imperial father and lord  on Caesar’s terms, he seeks to realign the Galatians with the body of Christ,  in a humanity no longer split into competing groups; in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free.  He sought to dis-align them from the destructive and all-devouring law of competition, combat, conquest that he sees embodied in the imperial idols who all falsely claim to be gods (4.8). Instead, they were to members of a community in which they bore each other’s burdens.  

His description of giving birth to this new identity among the Galatians and of the birth pangs he himself is enduring on their behalf (3.19) is one of the most moving passages in Paul.  He reminds them of their first encounter when they had taken in and cared for a stranger whom they could easily have despised. It was precisely in this solidarity with the destitute human other, stripped of all human dignity, that the Galatians accepted the Messiah, the embodiment of an alternative world order (cf. Matt. 28.31-46).  It is to this humanity alongside and in solidarity with another, without distinctions of class and status, wealth and poverty, ethnic identity or gender,   that Paul tries to rebirth his converts: “My children with whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (4.19).  

Perhaps if Luther’s spiritual heirs in Germany has been able to recognize the likeness between the idolatrous claims of imperial Rome in Paul’s time and of the Third Reich in their own, history might have turned out differently. The increase in anti-Semitic acts should serve as a canary in the coal mine – to warn us of danger. There are forces abroad which seek to divide people along ethnic and religious lines, to sow seeds of distrust and hatred.  

Much to the time, our situation may seem perhaps more like that of the Jewish community in Alexandria. We live in the midst of a culture which exerts all sorts of subtle pressures to encourage us to evaluate human worth in terms of spending power and consumption, self-gratification and self-indulgence, rather than generous giving of self in service of others.   

This is a culture which tolerates us as long as we do not criticize it and question its values and refuse to worship its gods which are not gods. But that is bondage, a slavery from which Christ has set us free.