Trouble was brewing in Galatia. St. Paul had preached the Gospel to the people in this region of modern-day Turkey while they nursed him back to health from an undisclosed ailment. They treated him "as angel of God, as Christ Jesus."
But after his departure, other preachers came to the Galatians and said that the Gospel as Paul preached it was not good enough. He was watering down God's law.
WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN
This stained glass image of St. Paul can be found in Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Mundare.
They questioned his credentials as an apostle and told the people that if they want to be saved, they need more than the grace of the Holy Spirit. They need to follow the Mosaic Law and they need to be circumcised. The Holy Spirit alone is not good enough.
When he heard of this, St. Paul was outraged. He was angry that the people would follow the word of these "false brethren" and he was angry that they had come to believe that the Gospel was not good enough. So, he wrote a strong letter to the Christians in Galatia.
Much has been made of the angry tone of this letter. St. Paul calls the Galatians foolish and he sarcastically says that he wishes the preachers who think circumcision is so important would castrate themselves. This is not language one would find in say, a bishop's pastoral letter.
But important things are at stake. The Christian community is new. It is still part of Judaism and is still defining what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Many want Christians to remain good Jews, to follow the Mosaic Law strictly.
The Council of Jerusalem, however, has already taken place. It has decided that traditional Jewish practices, such as circumcision and dietary laws, are not essential to being Christian.
Paul has taken this bit in his teeth and run with it. It is abundantly clear to him that if we are saved through the power of the cross then there is no need for circumcision. By submitting to the Torah, one is saying in effect that Christ's sacrifice was not effective. That one needs something beyond that.
But Paul sees clearly that this demand involves a lack of faith. He asks the Galatians point blank: "Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (3:2-3).
Paul talks about his own example. He says he is an apostle "sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead" (1:1). He raises this, not to blow his own horn, but on the contrary to say he has done nothing to deserve being an apostle.
He describes how he had violently persecuted the Church and tried to destroy it.
Yet, he says, God "had set me apart before I was born and had called me through his grace" (1:15). In that light, how can he possibly claim to deserve to be an apostle?
Despite all that, Christ is embodied in Paul: "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me" (2:19). Moreover, this intimate relationship that Paul has with Christ is not something unique to him. All the baptized have "put on Christ" (3:27).
Salvation is open to all. It is not limited to Jews, to men or to those who are not slaves. We do not need to be circumcised or to obey other ritual laws. We need to be baptized and to live in the Spirit.
The Christian life is not one of following a long list of burdensome rules. It is one of service and love. "Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another," he encourages the Galatians (5:13).
There are many "fruits of the Spirit" (5:22-23), but first on the list is love.
If Paul is angry, it is because he sees what is at stake. Either Jesus has saved us or he has not. And if he has, the Mosaic Law has only been a guardian that would restrain our worst impulses until in the fullness of time, the path of faith would be revealed.
Excerpts from Paul's letter to the Galatians will be read during daily Mass from Oct. 6 through the 15th. In places, it is a colourful letter. Reading it, studying it, can help a Christian to be more aware of the extent to which our faith is God's gift.