At the outset of Galatians Paul issues a warning to the infant community who has apparently strayed from the Good News, going off on a different path, perhaps adapting what Paul taught them when he was there. As the various communities that Paul preached to would have to live out the message Paul gave to them, they would also have to contend with challenges from without and most likely from within their own ranks, to the Christ he preached to them.
Paul is so adamant that they not listen to anyone about faith he preached to them. He would not tolerate anyone leading his converts astray. And he really doesn’t care what anyone says or thinks about him. You can hear his uncompromising determination to warn the community at Galatia to listen only to him. Why? Because he is a servant of Christ.
This is a very important letter. In it Paul begins to shape his theology. It is not systematized nor will it coalesce into full bloom until later. You might say Paul is a process theologian, adapting ways to convey the one faith he is determined to keep to and spread in his mission to the Gentiles. In this letter we come to the crux of the problem that will tie Paul in knots trying to work through. The problems that assail him and the early communities who would have faith in Jesus Christ. What actually to the non-Jewish Gentiles have to conform to in order to actually become a member of this new faith?
Those issues were: did they, like Jesus and Paul, have to become Jewish first before they could become christians? Did they have to adhere to the Mosaic Law and did they have to be circumcised; submit to the ritual of initiation into the Jewish faith.
At the heart of this issue is who Paul is himself. And who Jesus was. Paul and Jesus were very different men. Although we can no longer depict Jesus as meek and mild, from the gospels we see a person who did not travel very far from where he was born, had a great number of people following him about, traveled with at least twelve others, probably more, and taught by sitting on a hill side telling stories. He went among the people and ate with all kinds of people, including sinners. As we will see this became a bone of contention among the first apostles of Jesus after his death. Purity, keeping oneself apart from those unclean (‘sinners’) and the wicked was requisite to being a good Jew.
Paul, on the other hand, as we have seen from his letters so far, was dynamic in a different way. He traveled widely, could be fierce and fiery, would brook no dissention in the ranks, and traveled with only a few companions, sometimes only one assistant who would transcribe the letters he dictated. He was urbane, educated as a Pharisee, and this is the real clincher – he began his life persecuting those who followed Jesus.
So why would God chose Paul to spread faith in Jesus Christ far and wide when there were surely men who were more qualified, who had gone around with Jesus, who may have known him better and could attest to his life and teachings? Surely Paul was an unlikely candidate for this calling. And yet, true to who Paul was, he was absolutely convinced that he had been chosen by God, had an experience of the risen Lord and by God’s grace he was called to promote, teach and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Because who better to convince you of something than someone who was against it in the first place. Who would be more credible? And at the outset of Paul’s career, it was still believed that this was another form, a truer form of the faith of Israel, and he was called by the God of Israel. And that the risen Lord was born, lived and died a Jewish man. Before his followers would be called Christian they were called the People of the Way. Because Jesus had said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. And I believe that we cannot understand Christianity until we understand Judaism. We cannot really understand story of Jesus until we understand the story of Israel.
Tomorrow as we proceed through Galatians, we will come to the intersection, the crossroads and the beginning of the parting of Judaism from itself.