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Edward F. Markquart

Books of the Bible- Galatians
Don't Mess with the Gospel

Galatians Series     Galatians 1:1-12

In chapter one of the book of Galatians, the Apostle Paul is firm and forthright that the Christians living in the churches of Galatia are not to distort the Gospel, transform the Gospel, pervert the Gospel. Therefore, I have been thinking of examples of when we distort or pervert something.

For example, at my house, at every birthday, I have a cream pie instead of a birthday cake. So did my father, my grandfather, my children. We all have plain cream pies for our birthday. It is a sacred tradition. I would like to share with you the recipe for this sacred cream pie: one cup of half and half, one half of cup of sugar, three tablespoons of flour, one teaspoon of vanilla, and you bring it to a thick boil and pour it into the pie crust.  That’s it. So simple. It is terrific. Some people want to take this plain cream pie and make it fancier. That is, they want to add coconut in order to spice it up and they will then call it a coconut cream pie. But I don’t want coconut cream pie; I want plain cream pie for my birthday. Still others want to put a meringue on the cream pie in order to make it look more elegant and cover up its basic simplicity. But I don’t want meringue on my birthday cream pie. And still others want to put chocolate into the recipe so it become chocolate cream pie. Now I want you to know that I am really fussy about my cream pie for my birthday. So was my father, my grandfather and now my children. So don’t mess with the recipe of my plain, simple cream pie. I love it the way it is.

Second illustration.  My hair is now white, as white as can be, and I earned every one of these white hairs. As some of you know, a long time ago, my hair was dark brown or black and it gradually became gray and the gray color upset me. But my gray hairs really upset my barber. He insisted that he dye my gray hairs to be black. He did, and my hair became jet black. You saw it when it was freshly dyed and you laughed at me and laughed at the new color of my hair. The true color of my hair today is what you get: white.  Now, for my sister and all others who legitimately dye their hair in order to look younger, that is just fine. My sister, ten years older than I, is a blonde now, but I know that the true color of her hair is white. Pure white, just like mine. You can mess with the truth, the true color of hair and change it. Me? I didn’t want the barber to mess with my hair.

Third illustration. I was at the Des Moines Waterland Parade the other day, and the traditional clowns came by. This one particular clown was really good, with big flapping shoes, red colored cheeks, garish plaid pants, and he came right up to my grandchildren to give them a handful of sugar filled candy. He laughed as he gave them the sugar filled candy as he whispered into their ears: “In real life, I am dentist. Don’t tell any one.” We all laughed. Inside the clown’s clothing was a real human being who was actually a dentist. But the truth of who he was, a dentist, was changed so he became a clown who passed out candy that cause cavities.

In the Epistle lesson for today we hear of a church which was changing the true gospel, was perverting the true gospel, was messing with the gospel. The Apostle Paul wanted people to hear the genuine gospel. In a similar way, I always wanted and want plain cream pie for my birthday. But folks are forever messing with the recipe for plain cream pie and making the pie into something else. So also, people are forever messing with the gospel and changing it into something else, so that it looks better, tastes better, and is more elegant. 

What is the gospel? The gospel is a summary word. It summarizes the whole Christian faith. What is the gospel? That Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by the powers of God and that someday you too shall be raised up to eternal life. What is the gospel? That Jesus Christ died for all of yours sins and paid the penalty for all of your sins, and that we are called to live a life of forgiveness. What is the gospel? To love one another as Christ has loved us. The Jews created more than six hundred rules and regulations that they were to live by in order to be moral people, but Christ gave only one rule for life: love as Christ loves. That is the gospel. Eternal life, forgiveness, a life of love. Three ingredients to the recipe. So simple. All freely given. Don’t mess with the simple truth of the gospel.

As we move into the sermon for today, I need to give you some background information about the Apostle Paul who lived at the time of Christ. The Apostle Paul, before he became the Apostle Paul, was known by the name of Saul, and he was a fanatical Jew who persecuted and killed the first Christians. He was a feared man by the first followers of Christ. On the road to a town by the name of Damascus, Saul was struck by lightning and was blinded. During that experience with the bolt of lightening, God penetrated the rigid shell of Saul’s life and he was transformed. Christ got into his heart. The Gospel got into his heart. Eternal life. Forgiveness. A life of love. And that needs to happen to us as well. Slowly, quickly; at any speed or any slowness; a fast bolt, a slow shock. It is crucial that the Gospel penetrates the shell of our lives and we know the gospel. We need to know that our parents and grandparents live eternally with Christ. We need to know that our sins are fully and freely forgiven. We need to know we are called to live a life of love, the way that Christ loved.

So Saul became Paul. Saul was transformed into Paul. He became the greatest author of the New Testament, writing some thirteen or fourteen letters. He became the greatest theologian of the early church, giving us great theological ideas like gospel and grace and freedom. He became the greatest missionary of the early church. He was the missionary who brought Christ to the ends of his earth.

After Paul was converted and the gospel of Christ finally penetrated him, he went home to his home town for three years before going up to the capital city of Jerusalem and meeting with the leader of the first disciples, Peter. Peter and the first disciples were very Jewish. They were Jewish Christians and they wanted other new Christians to be Jewish too. That is, they wanted people to believe in Christ, PLUS follow the Jewish rules, regulations and rituals. They wanted new converts to believe in Christ PLUS experience circumcism. What is circumcism? It is a Jewish ritual. At eight days, the babies would be circumcised. That is, the foreskin of their penis would be cut. Now, that is permissible for children but another matter for adults. Peter and the other disciples wanted new converts to Christ to go through circumcism, a very painful process, especially for adults, in order to be Christians. Circumcism discouraged new converts, needless to say. The Apostle Paul shouted, “No way. Christians do not need to be circumcised into order to become Christians.”

In other words, new Christians did not have to become Jewish, with Jewish customs, in order to be Christian. The Apostle Paul uncoupled Christianity from Judaism. Would you imagine a railroad train? A railroad engine and it is coupled to the railroad car coming behind? The Apostle Paul uncoupled Christianity from Judaism. Christianity was to become a new religion and not merely an extension of Judaism. Currently, I am reading a fabulous book entitled JOHN ADAMS by David McCullough, a Pulitzer Price winner. This book tells the story of the birth of America. It gives us the details of our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the war with England. The United States of America could have remained forever legally coupled to England. We could have remained a colony of England. But as a nation, we were uncoupled from England and we became a new nation, the United States of America. The Apostle Paul was doing the same thing in his century. He was uncoupling Christianity from Judaism, and a new religion was formed, the most powerful religion and force on earth.

This was the missionary genius of the Apostle Paul. He uncoupled Christianity from the rules, regulations and rituals of Judaism; from the circumcism of Judaism. Therefore, Spanish Christians could be Spanish. Gallic Christians could be Gallic. Roman Christians could be Roman. None of these new Christians needed to become Jewish in order to be Christian.

But new Christians needed to hear and believe the gospel: Jesus was raised from the dead by the powers of God and so will we someday. All of our sins are freely forgiven through the death and execution of Jesus on the cross. We are called to live a life of love, loving as Christ loved. That was the core. Those were the essentials. You didn’t have to become Jewish to become Christian, but you needed to retain the gospel to be Christian. You couldn’t mess with the gospel. You couldn’t change the essentials.

Paul went home to think about these matters. He was for three years before going up to Jerusalem to talk through his ideas with Peter. He went home again, this time for another fourteen years, meditating on the gospel. During all this time, Paul concluded he would be the missionary to the rest of the world outside of Jewish Palestine. The original disciples would be missionaries to the Jewish world of Palestine. Paul would take the gospel, the summation of the Christian faith, to the rest of the world, to all the world that was non Jewish. He would tell the essential truth about Christ: Christ was raised from the dead by the powers of God; Christ paid the penalty for all of our sins; Christ gave us one rule, to love as Christ loves.

He first went to the island of Cypress and the governor of that island was eventually converted to Jesus Christ. This was Paul’s first convert. His very first convert. What was the name of the governor of the island? Sergius Paulus. Paulus. Paul then took the governor’s last name to be his own name. He will have a new name: Paul, the missionary to the rest of the world outside of Palestine.

Do you know the gospel? Has Christ penetrated the shell and hardness of your life? Has Christ broken through so that you know that Christ was raised from the dead by the powers of God? Do you know that you are fully and freely forgiven through Jesus Christ? Do you know that you are called to love as Christ loves? Do you know the simplicities of the gospel?

But the simple gospel is never enough. Christians then and now are forever trying to change the gospel, just like people are always trying to change the simple recipe for cream pie.

Let me give you examples.  The following are examples of where the simple gospel was not enough and Christians became wrapped up in the “issue of their day” and slowly and surely, the “issue of the day” became a substitute for the gospel.

For example, in 325 AD, there was the Roman Emperor named Constantine. Constantine used Christianity to glue his empire together. He made Christianity to be the legal religion of the Roman empire.  All citizens were to become Christians. That became the law. Also, under his reign, the Nicene Creed was written. The Nicene Creed was the body of doctrine that all  Christians were to believe in so that they could be called Christians. And soon, the body of doctrines became the gospel. The hot issue of the day became the energetic focus of the Christian movement. No longer was the gospel to know that Christ conquered death, that our sins were freely forgiven, that we were to live a life of love. No, that was the gospel PLUS a body of doctrines called the Nicene Creed. Now, there is nothing wrong with the Nicene Creed. The creed states the doctrines of the Christian church, but that theological formula slowly became the gospel itself. The Biblical gospel was replaced by a creedal gospel.

Another example. 467 AD. There was an enormous conflict between two theologians, Arius and Athanasius. At the focus of their debate was whether or not the Holy Spirit was truly and fully God. Athanasius won the battle, and a Trinitarian Creed was written to state the doctrinal truth about the Holy Spirit. That Trinitarian Creed was and is great, but is soon became the gospel. The Trinitarian Creed was the hot issue of the day, and it became more important than the Biblical gospel itself.

The year was about 1750; 1743, to be exact. The burning issue was whether the earth was the  center of the universe and whether or not the earth was flat. That was the hot issue of the 1750s during the time of Galileo. Gradually, a Christian was to believe the gospel PLUS that the earth was flat and the earth was the center of the universe. The hot issue of that day, the earth being flat and being the center of the universe, slowly became more important than the Biblical gospel itself.

The year was about 1850. The missionaries from the United States and Europe were flooding into Africa by the thousands, and they knew the basic gospel. But to these missionaries, the gospel of God raising Jesus from the dead, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and we are to love one another as Christ loved us; this gospel was important PLUS Africans becoming European and American in their culture. The missionaries started to teacher western culture such as men wearing pants, women wearing skirts, men wearing leather shoes and women wearing blouses and all the Africans learning hymns from Germany or England or the United States. The Africans were to know the gospel PLUS the Africans were to become European or American in culture.

The year was about 1950, and the western world became strongly anti-communist. It was the era of Eugene McCarthy and John Foster Dulles. The world knew the gospel of Christ PLUS Christians were to be democratic capitalists and being a pinko communist meant to be an materialistic atheist. In the 1950s, Christians knew and loved the gospel PLUS the hot and burning issue of the day was to be anti-communist. And as always, the hot issue of the day slowly became the gospel. The Biblical, simple gospel of eternal life, forgiveness and love was transformed into a focus of being anti-communist.

And soon, the burning issue of the day was abortion. Christians were to believe in the gospel PLUS to become anti-abortion. In fact, certain Christians felt so strongly about the abortion issue, it slowly replaced the gospel itself.

And soon, the burning issue of the day was homosexuality. Christians were to believe in the gospel PLUS be against gay behavior. In fact, certain Christians felt so strongly about the gay issue, it slowly replaced the gospel itself.

Some people get upset with me about the abortion or gay issue. Such people tell me that I have changed positions; that I don’t preach about these issues as I did in years past. I would like to suggest to such people that I have better notes and transcriptions of sermons from the past. In fact, it was twenty-five years ago that I wrestled with these texts from Galatians. As I reread my sermons from a quarter of a century ago, I said the same thing: people always get hyped up and focus on the burning issue of the day and the burning issue of the day replaces the gospel. Twenty-five years ago, I said that abortion and the gay rights become the gospel for many people.

What is the gospel? What is the core of the gospel in the Scriptures. It is so simple.  God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and shouted from the mountain tops that death itself had been destroyed. What is the gospel? Jesus died on the cross, paying the price for all of our sins. Our sins have been fully and freely forgiven. What is the gospel? That Christ loved the world so much and we are to love one another as Christ loved us. The gospel. It is crucial that a slow lightning bolt or a fast lightning bolt penetrate the shell of your life and mine, so that we believe and know the gospel.

We had a birthday in our family the other day. My oldest son wanted the traditional cream pie, as did his father, grandfather and great-grandfather from decades before. He wanted a plain simple cream pie. Not with coconuts. Not with meringue. Not with chocolate. He didn’t want anyone to mess with the basic recipe. Amen.

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