“Image is . . . Nothing!” (Galatians 1:1-10; Luke 7:1-10)
You are walking through a busy mall. Suddenly, your foot catches on something on the floor. You don’t fall, but you stumble in a rather foolish way. Your first reaction is to look around to see if anybody noticed how ridiculous you looked.
Come on, admit it. I’ve done it. We all have. We like to maintain a certain image in public. We like to look cool. When Billy Crystal was on Saturday Night Live, one of his characters was a “Fernando Lamas”-type character who lived by this philosophy. Impeccably dressed with his perfectly coiffed hair, holding a martini in his hand, he would look out at the camera and say, “You know, dahling, it is better to look good than to feel good.” And a certain soft drink once tried to convince us to buy their product instead of the other big-name sodas with their slogan: “Image is Nothing! Thirst is Everything!”
Sometimes the motivation to maintain a certain image causes us to do or say things to please those around us. That can be a problem when the things we do or say are not pleasing to God. When it comes to obeying God, today’s reading from Galatians might be summarized with this slogan: “Image is . . . Nothing! The Message is Everything!”
When we make our “image” our sole motivation, when we are tempted to please people by what we proclaim as the Gospel truth, we may be tempted to water the message down. In our pluralistic society, where truth is considered relative, it’s hard to proclaim that there is absolute truth. It’s hard to proclaim that believing in Jesus is the only way to heaven when the “image” that will give to others is that you are unloving, unaccepting of other’s viewpoints, and a religious bigot. And so, we may be tempted to water down the message. Though we often are tempted to please people, we ought to live to please God. In today’s world, it is tempting follow in the footsteps of the Galatian Christians. They were being taught that in order to please God, in order to be “good Christians,” they had to do something other than simply believing the message. Paul’s summary of that message, that Gospel, that Good News, is given where he says that it is “the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.”
Those who were “perverting the Gospel” were adding something to it. They were called Judaizers. They taught that in order to be a “good Christian,” you also had to be circumcised like the Jews, even though the Galatians were Gentile believers. Even though the old covenant, of which circumcision was a sign, was done away with through the sacrificial death of Jesus. By accepting this message, by submitting to circumcision in order to be “good Christians,” Paul says the Galatians were deserting God, who called them by His grace to believe in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. There is no need to add anything else to that message. When you add something to the free grace of God in Christ Jesus, the Good News stops being good. It becomes Bad News.
People add things to the message today, too. They say that in order to be a “good Christian,” you must serve in some capacity in the church, you must not drink alcohol, you must not smoke, you must only listen to Christian radio stations and read Christian books, you must speak in tongues, you must go to private confession, you must accept this other book along with the Bible, you must be immersed completely in water or else it’s not a real baptism. These are all adding things to the message. They become more rules to follow, and they become a burden. The Good News is turned into Bad News.
Paul says it even stronger: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” The Good News Bible translation gets it right when it puts it bluntly, “may he be condemned to hell!” Paul speaks with such strong words here because of the spiritual danger that comes with mixing Law and Gospel. By preaching a message other than the pure Gospel, by telling people to trust in their own efforts in addition to what Christ has already done for them, these false teachers would be sending people to hell because they are not relying on Christ alone for their salvation. By saying this, Paul was certainly not concerned about his “image,” was he? All he wanted to do in regards to proclaiming the truth was to please God, and not men.
For us, truly pleasing God means faithfully proclaiming the message and believing the Gospel message with a humble heart.
Faithfully proclaiming the message means not being worried about your “image” when you speak the truth. Of course, we “speak the truth in love.” But remember, “image is nothing, the message is everything.”
And this is the message: It is a matter of life and death. It is a matter of life and death because it is about Jesus’ life and death on the cross for you. He “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.” This “present evil age” is ridden still with sin and death. It is characterized by lives dominated by sin and opposed to God. Sickness and sorrow are results of the ravages of sin in this life. But as we heard in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus showed his power over sin and death by healing the centurion’s servant of His terminal illness.
Just as surely as God loved that centurion and his servant, God loves you. That is why He sent His Son to heal your terminal illness of sin. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus has saved you. In Holy Baptism, He has brought you out of this “present evil age” and into a “new age” of eternal life, peace with God, and a life overflowing with His Spirit and His love. He has done it all for you. A pure and simple gift. Not watered down. No additives. That’s the message we are to faithfully proclaim.
We get into trouble when we rely on our own strength, don’t we?
Take, for instance, the young seminarian who was excited about preaching his first sermon in his home church. After his first two years in seminary and a successful vicarage, he felt adequately prepared. When he was introduced to the congregation, he walked boldly to the pulpit, his head high, radiating self-confidence.
But he stumbled reading the Scriptures and then lost his train of thought halfway through the message. He began to panic, so he did the safest thing. He quickly ended the message, prayed, and walked dejectedly from the pulpit, his head down, his self-assurance gone.
After the service, everyone filed out of the nave, shaking hands with the seminarian on their way out. One of the elders of the congregation leaned over and whispered to the embarrassed young man, “If you had gone up to the pulpit the way you came down, you might have come down the way you went up.”
Indeed, we get ourselves into trouble when we forget to rely on God and his strength alone. Instead, we humble ourselves before Christ like the centurion in today’s reading from Luke.
The centurion’s servant was ill and near death, and so he sent some Jewish elders to ask Jesus to heal him. They told Jesus, “He is worthy to have you do this for him” (Lk. 7:4).
Notice the contrast, though, with the centurion’s attitude. He sent friends to tell Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed” (Lk. 7:6-7).
“I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” That’s the kind of humble faith that pleases God. Both James and Peter remind us, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). By nature we are both proud and stubborn, and so we know that this kind of faith is a faith that doesn’t come naturally. It’s a faith we don’t get by our own effort. Just as salvation is a gracious gift of God through Christ alone, our faith is also a gracious gift of God. The centurion somehow had heard about Jesus and the Holy Spirit had worked faith in his heart, and as a result, he humbly trusted Jesus for the healing of his servant. The centurion knew he had nothing to offer Jesus. Jesus does it all.
Jesus does the same for us today, and we humbly trust Him for the healing of our souls. We know that we have nothing to offer Jesus. He has already done it all for us.
Some people use a prayer adapted from the centurion’s words as they kneel at the altar for Holy Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” Perhaps you may wish to use those very words today as you approach the Lord’s table, preparing yourself to receive the Lord’s true body and blood with a humble faith, knowing that everything Jesus is giving to you is a sign of His love for you and the promise of your forgiveness.
That’s the message. It’s good news. Nothing added. Nothing subtracted. Proclaimed purely to please God, not men. Image is nothing, but the message is everything.