Angry for the gospel

Galatians 1:1-12

People can get angry about the smallest things. Of course it never ever happens to me – I never turn into Victor Meldew, and irascible is not my middle name, but I do see people get angry so often about such trivial things. Road rage is common, for instance, although you can understand that when you see how some people drive in Farnham. Sports fans get angry when their team doesn’t perform as they expect. When an electrical or household appliance breaks it leads many to frustration, and don’t get started about computers!

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, gets angry, but his anger, or rather his passion, is focused on the truth of the gospel. What is that truth, and should we be prepared to get angry about it?

One of the big themes in this letter will be our new identity in Christ. Paul believes this identity is under threat, and gets quite angry and passionate. It’s said that if you speak when you’re angry you will make the best speech you will ever regret. Paul isn’t counting to ten in this letter. If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you have received, let that one be cursed! (verse 9)

Paul will rail against those who are telling the Gentile Christians that they need to be circumcised and keep the Jewish law in order to be fully right with God. Paul believes this is a distortion of the true gospel and vents his anger in this letter. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to different gospel. (verse 6)

Even in his brief opening words, Paul mentions some essential truths of his gospel. He starts (verse 1) by identifying both Jesus Christ, and God the Father, as the true source of his mission. That compound name Jesus Christ carried a twofold shock to people of Paul’s day. First, the term Messiah or Christ is now defined by the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Second, this Messiah was crucified as a common criminal by Rome. Our world looks up to powerful figures who appear strong and forceful. Our politicians strut their stuff, not wanting to show signs of weakness. The Apprentice gives the impression you need to be aggressively assertive, in order to win in business. The strong win. Even today it is difficult to accept a Saviour who got himself crucified. No Hollywood action movie would have its hero hang on a cross and forgive those who put him there. Yet Paul hints that forgiveness and love sets us free from our sins.

God the Father, the second title of the affirmation of divine commissioning, prepares Paul’s readers for the idea he will develop as the letter proceeds – the Galatian Christians are the children of God, adopted and set free by their gracious Father. For a Gentile audience such as the Galatians, who probably regarded divine figures as dangerous powers needing to be appeased, the affirmation that the one true God of the universe was loving and merciful would have been a new concept. Just the concept of God is becoming a strange thing in today’s secular Britain, never mind the concept of a loving and merciful one.

The male language for God in the Bible has led to much debate and controversy. A minister was planning an assembly in a local school with one of the teachers. Father’s Day was coming up and the minister suggested she did a comparison between earthly fathers and our heavenly father. There was a sharp intake of breath. Not a good idea, said the teacher. Take my class for example. We have two fathers who are behind bars, one is being prosecuted for violent abuse of his partner and another has absconded from his responsibilities to his children. You ask how earthly fathers are like the heavenly father and I can’t be held responsible for the type of reply you’ll get!

As early as the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus rejected any idea that God was male, but argued that the use of father was a purely relational term. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ transforms our lives and our faith by drawing us into the family of God, even, and especially, if we have known broken homes and damaged relationships. Paul claims this God raised Jesus from the dead, thereby overcoming all the powers that enslave humanity, even death itself.

There are many powers at work in our world, such as racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, that are causing division and evil. It’s no comfort to know that, even at the start of the church, people had their divisions and their markers of who was a true believer and who wasn’t. Wandering away from the faith, was also a problem, then as now. The parable of the sower and the prodigal son are about people wandering away from faith in God. What is our response when we see people being distracted from the Christian way? Do we say nothing? Do we challenge them?

Paul’s anger may seem over the top, but anger can be a sign of passion and care. We get angry about the things we care about most. We can agree it is right to be angry about injustice, hypocrisy, and lies. Should we also have the same passion and concern about those who are perverting the gospel of Christ or turning to a different gospel? (verse 6-7)

In our present culture there’s the assumption that no-one has access to absolute truth. Paul believes that his gospel is the only one. Is he being arrogant or just passionate for truth? Does truth matter enough to get angry about? Or are we more concerned that we don’t cause offence or look stupid? Do we get angry about the wrong things when we need to get angry about the right things?

Anger is a difficult passion to master. One day a grandson came to his Grandfather with a look of anger on his face. Grandfather said, “tell me what has happened today”.
The child said, “I’d been really helpful around the house and my Dad was so pleased with me he bought me a toy car! I went to school the next day and took my toy car with me. Some boys came around me and started saying bad things and one of them snatched the toy and they all ran away laughing.” At that moment the boy’s anger returned, “I hate them. I hate them all!”
Grandfather said, “I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is as if there are two wolves inside me, one is white and one is grey. The White Wolf is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offence when no offence was intended. It will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the Grey Wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing. Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”
The boy looked intently into Grandfather’s eyes and asked, “which one wins, Grandfather?”
Grandfather smiled and said, “the one I feed.”

Paul will later warn these Galatian Christians to not consume each other, but instead live by the Spirit of Jesus (Chapter 5:15-16). If we’re going to get angry, let’s make sure we get angry about the right things. Let us, like Paul, contend for the truth of the gospel, which is love, grace, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness.

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