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“At several times in history this [pastoral] letter, listened to by small groups of Christians, has shifted the direction of the age just enough to make the difference between a surge of new life and a drifting into decline.”* It radically transformed the direction in which the Church developed in its infancy (as we read last week in Acts 15). It also was paramount in shifting the perspective of both Martin Luther and John Calvin, setting loose the revolution we now call the Reformation. What might it be unleashing among us in our world and culture today in which how we are defined and what is considered our usefulness or power is defined by what we purchase, how much we can produce, or who our people are?
The letter was written by Paul to the church community in Galatia (what we now call Turkey). As we read in Acts 15 last week, some traveling preachers have come through those towns preaching that a Christian must first convert to Judaism, embracing Jewish practices. Being circumcised and/or following the Law of Moses in everyday life was the defining thing. After that, one became Christian. “Paul’s greeting [in 1:1] anticipates what we can expect: ‘grace … and peace.” Grace! Lift is a gift. Peace! Life is whole. The two words declare that we are, fundamentally and finally, free to live. Life is what we are given, not what we salvage out of the ruins of home and culture. Life is an entirety into which we grow, not a fragment that we snatch on the run.”*
Experiencing the freedom God created us for and from is what unleashed the world-transforming events of the birth of the Church and the Reformation. In the Ancient World, you were defined and limited by your tribe, people, religion and history. Paul asserts that what Peter, and others in Jerusalem, are advocating is a church of two classes. Those born Jewish are the first-class citizens of the Church, whereas Gentile converts (basically everyone else) were second class, equal, but somewhat “less than” because of their background. The Church exploded into the deeply divided and limiting world of the Roman Empire drawing in the rich and the poor, the Roman and the occupied, the Jew and the Gentile, men and women. What we take for granted – diversity and equality – was a radical message of freedom proclaimed in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. One was saved or made worthy, or holy, not because of genetics, ancestry or observing religious rules and rituals. Rather we all are freed to be the unique creations God made us into when we experience the paradox that we cannot save ourselves but can only be saved from ourselves by someone else: Christ. The Reformation proclaimed a radical equality of education, economic possibility and importance (albeit still flavored with male chauvinism and colonialism) as the Reformers heard this radical message of salvation by faith.
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation
*Citations taken from Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light: Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom, 1988.