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Paul's Letter to the Galatians

To tell you I am fond of reading will of course be no news at all, but among some of my favourite genres are letters and diaries. They often you see have snippets of information about the time and place of writing and of course they tell us very much about whoever the author is. When they are artists or poets, for example T. S Eliot, Virginia Wolff or say Ted Hughes it is fascinating to learn about what they thought about everyday things how they related to one another and how they developed their ideas over time; I particularly have enjoyed the exchanges between Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis each of whose letters are in separate published collections and who wrote to each other from their undergraduate days onwards,

So it is not surprising that I like Paul’s correspondence to the various churches nor that of course they tell us a lot about Paul as well as the then emerging Christian doctrine. Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is a very early letter (perhaps the first of those surviving) and comes across as particularly fresh and vivid - in it Paul is working out and beginning to express his theology which will culminate in his finely crafted tightly argued letter to the Romans taken to be the pinnacle of Paul’s writing.

In the beginning, before Paul comes to express his key message he takes trouble to tell his readers who he is - he has already visited them - but he restates his credentials explaining why they should take the trouble to pay attention. Firstly he says “The Gospel that was proclaimed by me was not of human origin - this is not my Gospel but the Gospel I received through revelation.

Paul’s conversion at Damascus was so dramatic to him that he describes everything by contrasting the old and the new. For him the events on that road were a watershed, a line in the sand by which everything was changed. We often hear him saying things like “ I am dead to sin, I have a new life in Christ, Christ now lives in me” For Paul, Christ entered his life and took command. So he tells the Galatians about his past in order to be able to explain that it is by the grace of God that he has been called to proclaim the Gospel among the gentiles. Imagine the persecuting Paul, the zealous pursuer of Christians and let us ask ourselves how much grace might be needed to forgive those sins and lead Paul to such an attachment to Jesus?

Notice too what happened next. Paul under this extraordinary revelation did not spring forward a complete articulate proselytising firebrand but went away into Arabia. He may have gone to the desert regions where there is always an apartness, a special silence, a seclusion from the voices of men. Or he may have gone to ply his trade as a tent maker in the towns we do not know, But this is this letter’s snippet - Paul withdrew. Paul needed to work it out to try and make sense of it all. Does this I wonder, change the way we think about Paul, does it add depth to his character that he may have been so invaded by God that he had to isolate himself from others’ opinions to meditate and to disentangle it to feel what it might mean?

What we will learn as we read more of this letter is the extent of the inner change - Paul the relentless follower of rules will become the man who discards the central longstanding Jewish idea of living by the law as the road to salvation. It isn’t that he simply changes allegiance, decides because of a vision that Jesus Christ was OK after all but he replaces his total philosophy and outlook so he is able to say that following the rules isn’t the way we are to live but we are to live by faith. This is new and shocking.

It took time to evolve this position for it to become the bedrock of Paul’s life - it is no wonder he needed time out. This letter is still early on in his explaining the evolution but somehow in the roughness of the working out we can feel Paul grasping at the illumination that has come to him.

It is easy looking back to see Paul as doctrinaire, outspoken, difficult and grumpy but look at how hard he is trying to convince the Galatians of the rightness of his position - “I do not lie” he says, “this Gospel is not mine it is God’s” “I have not been instructed by anyone” I changed from what I was to what I am now through His grace and his grace alone.

“Listen to what I have learned.”


Amen


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