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Grace Beyond Belief: A Meditation on Galatians

by Bruce Epperly

Galatians coverAs a child growing up in a Baptist church in the Salinas Valley, California, I remember altar calls in which the congregation sang:

Just as I am – without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
-O Lamb of God, I come!

Child and adult alike were challenged to place their lives in God’s hands. Regardless of the past, they could become a new creation. Sin, guilt, shame, fear, no longer had power. We no longer saw ourselves through human eyes or self-judgment or the judgment of others, but through God’s eyes, saved by grace, welcomed home, forgiven, and restored.
Galatians has been called the magna carta of Christian freedom. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the “radical Paul,” as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan assert, lets loose in a hymn to grace that overcomes all alienation between God and humankind and humans and each other. In Galatians, Paul describes a grace that accepts sinners like himself and gives them a new identity and purpose in life. We can’t earn this grace, claim this grace, or assume this grace. We can’t build walls around it or exclude anyone from it. It is God’s to give and in Christ, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female are one.
Following Jesus is not about rules, even the well-intended traditions of Judaism or any other religious tradition; it is about a relationship with a living God, who loved us into life and receives us in love at the end of our days. Grace is audacious and contagious. It shows up where we least expect it and makes a way where there is no way. It is the mercy and healing touch of a power greater than ourselves that liberates us to love and frees us from the shackles of shame, guilt, and self-justification.
Many have tried to make grace another rule or work. They connect receiving grace with making a public proclamation or confession of faith. They assume that apart from an altar call, sacrament, or testimony, grace eludes us. But, making a particular emotion or belief a requirement makes grace just one more human effort, another bar we must jump over to be loved by God or others. Grace is simply not grace if there are conditions. God is not like the spouse or partner who says “I will love you if…” Nor does God love us “in spite of ourselves.” I certainly don’t love my grandchild in spite of themselves, but because of who they are, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.
For several weeks, a group of congregants and I studied Galatians at our midweek Bible Study at South Congregational Church in Centerville, Massachusetts. The fruit of that study was Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide. We wrestled with grace and with Paul’s affirmation that regardless of ethnicity and prior religious commitments every follower of Jesus has a place at the table. There are no second-class Christians, nor absolute rules that dictate entrance into the faith. Broken yet accepted, there is room at God’s table for Rowan County, Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis and gay and lesbian persons seeking marriage licenses. In God’s realm, there is neither gay or straight, citizen or immigrant, faithful or seeker. Even doubters are welcome at God’s banquet table. We all belong as God’s beloved. We just don’t know it yet! As one of my teachers, Ernie Campbell asserted, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are in God’s hands and know it and those who are in God’s hands and don’t.”
I invite you to take time reading Galatians, and discover that you can become a new creation. Perhaps you are already and just don’t know it. Let me close with words that have sustained me over the years. In his sermon “You are Accepted,” Paul Tillich describes moments of grace that emerge in the darkest valley when we are unsure of ourselves and the future, and discover a grace that opens the door to new life and hope. Unexpected, this grace changes everything. Let me conclude with these words of grace:

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

Order Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide here: https://energiondirect.com/study-guides/galatians

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  1. Bruce,
    I was reading along, nodding and agreeing with what you wrote until I got to these words: “Broken yet accepted, there is room at God’s table for Rowan County, Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis and gay and lesbian persons seeking marriage licenses. In God’s realm, there is neither gay or straight, citizen or immigrant, faithful or seeker. Even doubters are welcome at God’s banquet table.”
    Kim Davis is obviously a devoted Christian and willing to even go to jail because of her love for Jesus and obedience to His Word. Some of the others you listed show they are not followers of Jesus by their lifestyles. Listen to what Paul wrote the Corinthians: “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is SEXUALLY IMMORAL, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner – NOT EVEN TO EAT WITH SUCH A PERSON” (I Cor. 5:11).
    Please don’t cheapen God’s grace. Jesus paid in blood for the sins of all will repent (turn away from sin) and believe in Him. He didn’t go to hell for us so we can keep on sinning. Universalism, the belief that everyone is going to be in heaven, is like telling Jesus He didn’t have to die for our sins after all.

  2. Bruce:
    I have really enjoyed your posts. I would enjoy an indepth discussion of process theology. Perhaps there will be another Hangout sometime! With respect to Nancy’s comment, It is clear that within Christianity, people come from different starting points. Nancy, as I see it, approaches this and other matters from a literal ‘ God has clearly said this and that is why it is in the Bible’ perspective. Bruce, you come at the question with a more universal approach to revelation, as do I!
    I wonder if this will always be a chasm among Christians. It seems to be pretty intense these days. And we seem to be going around in circles arguing it in forums such as these.
    I don’t know—-is it time to say that a more’ progressive’ Christianity and a conservative evangelicalism are twains that shall not meet theologically even as we seek to keep dialogue open?
    Of this, I am certain: Regardless of theologies and Biblical interpretations, as followers of Jesus, we need to work together in causes of justice and to promote peace on earth. My fear is when religion gets in the way of that!
    Keep up the excellent work, Bruce—–and thank you!

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