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Plastic Rolex

June 6, 2016

“Plastic Rolex” Galatians 1:1-24 © 6.5.16 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Back in the day, I often did seminars on campus ministry at presbytery educational events. One of these was at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa. We met in a classroom which had obviously been used to teach creative writing. On a bulletin board were left several examples of imaginative comparisons. One stood out: “He was as phony as a plastic Rolex.”

There are messages we hear and actions we see claiming to be faithful to the gospel that fit that writer’s description of his fictional character. A plastic Rolex is obviously fake, as are these counterfeit gospel messages. Frauds that are easily recognized, transparent in their attempt to cloak other motives in biblical language. Of course, what’s obviously corrupt and false to you or me feels and sounds like the real thing to their practitioners and preachers.

Such obvious gospel cons are probably not a temptation for us to follow. We know better than to fall for such messages. I suspect, though, that you and I are less capable of identifying well-done knock-offs that seem true and real. Their arguments are difficult to refute; their promises, appealing; their purveyors, sincere and attractive.

So it was for the Galatians. A little background might help us understand the situation. Galatia was a region and province of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey. The recipients of this letter were members of several churches. In which cities they were located we don’t know.

Paul’s first visit among these people was due to some sort of physical ailment. The apostle seems to have suffered from some severe eye problems, so maybe that was the illness that kept him in Galatia for awhile. Anyway, the people cared for him and received him warmly. They became close, and their relationship was strengthened by the response of the Galatians to the gospel Paul preached.

His convalescence ended, Paul left and went on his way to other places. But no sooner had he left than some Christian missionaries with another viewpoint came to Galatia. They were associated with or considered themselves associated with the highly conservative group in Jerusalem, where the Mother Church was located. These men charged Paul with being an innovator, teaching a new-fangled liberal gospel out of touch with the teachings of those who actually ate and drank and spoke with Jesus. They, on the other hand, were close friends with the original apostles and others in the group that surrounded Jesus when he walked this earth. The missionaries to Galatia were name droppers: “Yeah, just the other day I was lunching with Peter in this little bistro near the Temple. Wonderful falafels! You have to try it.” “Mary Magdalene let me in on a secret the other day from a private conversation she had had with Jesus.” “James? Yeah, I know him. I’d be glad to introduce you sometime.” On the other hand, Paul had only had a vision of the risen Christ and had never seen or heard the historical Jesus. So what could he know? Who made him the authority?

In addition, the apostle, they said, was a charlatan, a chameleon, who would say anything, do anything to gain converts. And he wanted to make things too easy. He talked about freedom, when in fact the gospel was and should be about obedience. According to the missionaries, Jesus had come to fulfill the Law of Moses. So anybody who wanted to be a true Christian had to submit to the requirements of that law. They should eat kosher foods and observe certain holy days. And most of all, the men had to be circumcised, showing by their submission to the pain of that procedure that they were sincere in their commitment, bearing on their very bodies the sign of their covenant with God like the ancestors did. Of course, because women were not circumcised, they could only be second-class believers, subservient to men in all things, not fit to teach or preach the faith, whatever secrets Mary Magdalene might have to tell.

Paul was furious with the Galatians for having embraced such notions so readily. Unlike his other epistles, this letter contains no thanksgiving for his readers. Instead, he comes at them right away with guns blazing. Later he gets nastier. He calls them stupid and foolish and wonders if someone has placed a controlling curse on them, so they are bewitched. We’ll look at that matter in a couple of weeks. Here the apostle is flabbergasted, astonished, dismayed, and yes, personally hurt. But his main concern is that these people have abandoned God, the One who called them. The Galatians have been seduced by a false gospel that won’t save them, has no power, and will prove to be nothing but bondage. Why would they choose slavery after tasting the freedom Paul proclaimed?

Apparently the Galatians went after this other gospel because they craved security. They wanted to be identified with something established instead of being part of something new and strange. Paul was asking the fresh converts to do something really hard. They had to think for themselves instead of walking in lockstep with somebody else’s idea of true religion and spirituality. And he believed men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile were equal to each other and could relate to each other without playing domineering power games. He said God had a covenant with all nations, not just Israel—a wildly inclusive vision. Yes, Paul knows about boundaries, limits, rituals, obedience, a disciplined way of living; he boasts of his respect for and adherence to such things. But none of those are the way we are accepted by God. Instead, they are the means by which believers live out a responsible freedom. Good works are a response to the God who gives freedom in Jesus Christ.

Paul’s ideas grabbed the attention of the Galatians and sounded great at first. But then they began to feel way too risky and scary once the thrill wore off, and the missionaries started questioning Paul and his motives. The new teachers talked about clear boundaries, a way to belong to an established and ancient tradition, trusted centralized authorities in a holy city who could make decisions for all believers about right and wrong. Surely for such value the Galatians were willing to pay the price being asked.

How can we argue with clear boundaries and answers, security, and established lines of authority in church and home? Don’t we need those for comfort and help in our day when the next time we turn on the TV we could see another startling, horrific story about murder or terror, when the traditions of yesteryear are disdained, and every day brings something else bewildering and new? We need something solid to cling to when we’re frightened, confused, alone, helpless, and abandoned.

That’s why the heirs of Paul’s opponents are still with us and probably always will be. Their sort-of gospel is hard to tell from the real thing. In fact, the teachers of this alternate gospel insist that they are the ones with the true word. It’s Paul and his ilk who preach a counterfeit or as the king said in the old movie: “a false lie.”

Times have changed, and the specific issues that made Paul so upset are no longer with us. But the principles at stake are very current indeed. We hear, read, and see all sorts of messages through social media, on TV, from our friends and families, from preachers like me. Which are the real thing, and which are plastic Rolexes or harder to spot fakes?

You must decide for yourself case by case, but I’ll give you some clues about how to distinguish the fraud from the faithful. The true gospel points people to Christ, who frees people and gives them hope. The messengers of that gospel exhibit the loving spirit, the holy character, of Jesus, while the preachers of a false word are hateful, intolerant, and judgmental even as they claim to speak for God. The authentic good news unites, comforts, restores, and builds, while a false gospel drives a wedge between people and thrives on suspicion and fear. The real thing encourages and empowers people to live as Jesus lived and treat others as he did, reaching out to the least of our brothers and sisters. Or in a single sentence, as my former professor Charles Cousar put it: “The fundamental nature of the gospel is grace” (Galatians: 21).

Grace as the message and graciousness in the messenger. That sums up Paul’s gospel and his way of proclaiming it in one sentence. The first word spoken and heard when God calls us is his acceptance of us, warts and all, sin and all. He delivers us in Christ from bondage to whatever has enslaved us, whether, as Cousar put it, that’s “religious legalism or secular cynicism, … paralyzing apathy or frantic anxiety, …. being oppressed or being the oppressor… cowardly fear or brash self-reliance…” (22). Following rules and regulations and performing rituals are not requirements to earn God’s love. There’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more than he already does, because his compassion for humanity is as big as the universe itself. When we obey God’s commands, we do so out of gratitude for such amazing grace.

Those with a practiced eye and experience, perhaps with the help of technology, can recognize a fake ID or a counterfeit bill. We can see through the scams and spot the frauds in business, politics, and personal finance. We know how to shop for the best value in what we buy, recognize potential problems, and sort through claims, rejecting those products and services that seem too good to be true. Maybe we know something is wrong, not from any hard evidence, but from our intuition. Let all of us pray for and develop that same kind of discernment when it comes to the hearing and proclamation of the gospel in our day. Because only a gospel that bears the distinctive stamp of the grace of God in Jesus Christ will save us, encourage us, and provide the resources we and our neighbors need for abundant life. When we become accustomed to hearing and living only the true gospel, even very good knock-offs will seem as obvious as a plastic Rolex.

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