“Smooth Sailing” (Galatians 2:11-21)
When I still lived at home with my parents, in 1987 my family and I moved 60 miles east of Los Angeles to the infamous town of Rancho Cucamonga. My commute to college and later to the schools where I taught increased significantly. It would usually take me about an hour and a half to reach my destination. My route included a couple of freeways, which would often turn into parking lots due to accidents. There were some alternate routes that I could take on side streets, and I would take them if the traffic report on the radio reported a slowdown up ahead. However, many other drivers would try to bypass the traffic jam, too, so even the side streets were bogged down. There were many days when I was late to class. As a student, I would simply rush in late. As a teacher, I had to call the office and have someone cover my first period, much to my chagrin. I’m sure the secretary got tired of hearing that art teacher call again to say he’s going to be late. And this was before the days when everyone had cell phones. I would sweat it trying to get to an offramp and find a pay phone.
Needless to say, I’m glad that my commute to the office nowadays only takes me about seven minutes! But there have been times when I’m expected home for dinner after making a hospital call in Everett. But driving back on Highway 529, either the drawbridge over the Snohomish River is up or the one over Steamboat Slough is opened to let a slow moving boat through, and I’ve had to make the call, “Dear, don’t expect me right at 5:00!”
There’s nothing more frustrating than wanting or needing to get somewhere, and the way you have to go is blocked. The “smooth sailing” of a free and clear highway is turned into a parking lot.
Through faith in Christ, you and I have “smooth sailing” in God’s grace. But there are roadblocks that get in the way and block our access to God’s grace. Two of those roadblocks are in our text today. The first is “faithless fear.” The second is “Pharisaic pride.”
Just before today’s reading from Galatians, Paul describes and incident which occurred when he was at the congregation at Antioch. The church at Antioch was primarily composed of people who were not Jewish. Peter made a visit to them and freely ate at table with them. Remember, in that culture, table fellowship indicated more than just casual friendship. To have table fellowship indicated that the participants were united in the church. Sometimes, the meal they ate together was followed by the Lord’s Supper. (CJ 18.2)
Then, a group from the Jerusalem church travelled north to Antioch. They were Judaizers … Jewish Christians who insisted that one must still obey the regulations of the Law given to Moses by God. They especially insisted that it was not right to associate with “Gentile sinners” because they were unclean and had not been circumcised according to the old covenant. Out of fear of the Judaizers, Peter stopped associating with the Gentile believers at Antioch. Peter’s actions also influenced Barnabas and other Jewish Christians. For this reason, Paul had to confront Peter and show him where he was wrong.
Faithless fear was a problem even for the apostle Peter. Even after having seen the resurrected Jesus, even after having received the Holy Spirit with power on the day of Pentecost, like you and me he still struggled with his old sinful self. And, like you and me, he let other people’s false beliefs and opinions shape his behavior. But when those false beliefs and opinions run counter to the freedom we have in Christ – not the freedom to do what we want, but freedom from obeying certain rules and regulations to gain God’s favor – when these legalistic burdens are laid upon us, we must stand firm in our Gospel freedom.
The other roadblock to “smooth sailing” in God’s grace is Pharisaic pride. That’s what these Judaizers had. Like the Pharisees who tried to earn God’s favor by holding to a strict interpretation of the Law of God, these Judaizers felt that they were being better Christians for holding to the demands of the Old Testament.
Exclusionary, Pharisaic pride becomes a roadblock for us, too, when we refuse to associate with someone because we think that we are a bit better than they are because we are Christians.
There’s only one way to avoid those roadblocks. There’s only one way to enjoy “smooth sailing” in God’s grace, and that’s through repentance and faith alone in the Lord Jesus.
It’s not by observing the Law, as Paul says, “by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal. 2:16) This delivers the knockout punch to those who think that they somehow can perfectly obey God’s commands. They can’t. We can’t. But even if we could, it is clear that no one is made righteous in God’s sight by holding to a certain set of rules and regulations.
Paul then poses an interesting question: “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?” (Gal. 2:17) In other words, is Christ actually encouraging us to sin in order to show that we are indeed sinners, and in this way it becomes clear that he is the one who justifies? Paul emphatically answers, “Certainly not!” Any sinful conduct on our part shows that our old sinful nature still clings to us, and that we, too, need a Savior. (SSOE, p. 216)
You’ve heard the old phrase, “Burn your bridges.” It means to do something that makes it difficult to return to a past relationship or behavior. In a way, that’s what we do in repentance. We burn the bridges to our old sinful conduct. In keeping with today’s theme, maybe we should say that repentance helps us put up roadblocks to sin, to keep sin from having “smooth sailing” in our life. But Paul says, “If I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.” (Gal. 2:18) So often we rebuild those bridges we just got through burning, and we return to the very same sins of which we just got through repenting.
Again, this doesn’t show that Christ is encouraging us to sin. Rather, it shows the main purpose of the Law in our lives. Although the Law is holy and righteous and good, for us sinful human beings it’s a killer. Paul wrote in Romans 7, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” And then he goes on to give a specific example: “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (Rom. 7:7-11)
Back in Galatians, Paul says, “through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.” (Gal. 2:19) Through the Law God reveals our state by which we deserve hell. He shows us the many ways in which we have not kept His commandments. And by doing so, He kills us so that He can make us alive again by trusting in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.
In Holy Baptism, we are united with Christ in His death and in His resurrection. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) Life without Christ is really death. With Christ in you, you are really alive, and you can willingly serve Him in love because of His presence and power in you. This life is yours through the faith which Jesus gives you. This faith trusts in the death which he died in your place. No greater love will you ever know. No greater salvation can be found than in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. (SSOE, p. 217)
And God’s grace covers all sin no matter how enormous.
David’s adultery and murder were covered by God’s grace. David was caught in adultery and murder, and the prophet Nathan confronted him. David acknowledged his sin and said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Without missing a beat, Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” Although there were earthly consequences that David had to face, he was still completely forgiven and righteous in God’s sight.
Gentile immorality was covered by God’s grace. Though they had once lived as immoral pagans, the Gentile Christians in the congregations at Antioch and in Galatia were forgiven for their former way of life. There was no need for them to follow any Old Testament ceremonies to be made clean again. The blood of Christ had already cleansed them. And Gentile and Jewish believers in Christ could enjoy table fellowship as God’s forgiven children.
Peter’s faithless fear was covered by God’s grace. After Paul confronted him, Peter must have acknowledged that he was in the wrong. In fact, in his first epistle, Peter speaks out against faithless fear, against being afraid of those who criticize you for doing the right thing: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” (1Pe 3:13-15a)
Our sin of faithless fear; our sin of exclusionary pride; any and all roadblocks to God’s grace, no matter how big or how small they are – no matter what sins of thought, word, or deed are troubling you today – they are all covered by God’s grace. As Jesus said to the woman who anointed his feet, so Jesus says to you, “Your sins are forgiven … Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:48, 50) Your faith has saved you, not because of the greatness of your faith, for our faith is often weak. Rather, your faith has saved you because of the object of your faith, that is, Christ, who saved you at the cross … Christ whose true body and true blood poured out from the cross he pours into your mouths this morning.
And when you are dismissed from His Supper today, you will hear those words once again: “Depart in peace.” Through faith in Christ alone, there are no longer any roadblocks to God’s grace. The highway is clear. Enjoy “smooth sailing.”