Our second reading today, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, is part of a series given by the lectionary for Sundays 9 to 14 in Year C. Because of Corpus Christi last week, we missed the outburst of indignant rebuke with which the letter starts. Today we continue on from that, with Paul raising the stakes of his argument:
The Good News I preached is not a human message that I was given by men, it is something I learnt through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
The Galatians to whom the letter is addressed had been visited by missionaries who set out to undermine and even counter what Paul had taught them. In face of that, Paul now insists on his credentials as an Apostle. Remarkably he does so, not by emphasising how closely connected he is to the Twelve, but precisely the opposite. For his Gospel is derived from God, not from them. His past too contrasts in the sharpest possible way with theirs. Paul had been a relentless persecutor of the Church, zealous “beyond measure”, as he says, for its destruction, and for the strict observance of the law, according to the tradition of the Pharisees.
But then he had “a revelation of Jesus Christ.” This could mean that Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. But many exegetes prefer to understand Paul to mean here that God, through the Holy Spirit, revealed to him who Jesus is. Paul’s “revelation” would then be parallel to that of Peter, as narrated in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. At Caesarea Philippi, we read there, Jesus asks Peter: Who do you say I am? You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, says Peter. And Jesus replies: Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. Paul’s Gospel then has the same source, and the same authority, and the same content as that of Peter. With Peter, Paul proclaims that Jesus is Christ, and Lord, and Son of God, and Saviour. Where Paul and Peter differ is in their intended audience. For the Galatians to whom Paul preached were not Jews, but Gentiles.
The chief point of controversy between Paul and his opponents in Galatia was the degree to which Gentiles seeking baptism should be bound by the Jewish law, especially circumcision, and regulations regarding food, and the Calendar of Jewish Festivals. To underline his own practical conclusions, Paul takes the dispute back to first principles. The outline of doctrine that results has many points of contact with Paul’s later and more developed exposition in his letter to the Romans. And as in Romans, even though writing to Gentiles, Paul remains utterly Jewish throughout, arguing as a Rabbi, and developing his arguments from texts in the Jewish scriptures.
In Galatians, then, as in Romans, we find Paul’s insistence that our salvation comes only from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What matters for Paul is our being identified with Christ, belonging to him, being “in him.” The effect of that, for St. Paul, is justification, or being in right relationship with God. This cannot possibly be achieved through keeping the law, but only through faith in Christ. Faith leads us to possess Christ’s own eternal and divine life, and to share by adoption in his own divine Sonship, through the Holy Spirit. Again, we cannot possibly achieve this as a reward for good deeds, but only as a free gift. And the result of it all is that we have become a new creation, and we are to walk now according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh, rejoicing always in our liberty as beloved children of God.
Galatians is shorter than Romans, but also more passionate. Paul’s burning conviction and ardent rhetoric drives through it from beginning to end. When we read Galatians we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us something of that same fire; the same sense of being overthrown and undone by Jesus Christ, who becomes to us everything, and is worth everything, and who radically changes our view of everything.
The trouble with Galatians is that it is often very hard to understand. We simply don’t know the exact details of the controversy in which Paul was embroiled, and no one can reconstruct them with certainty. At various points, the events recounted in Galatians are hard to reconcile with those recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, or in Paul’s other letters. So Commentaries on Galatians ever continue to pour off the Press, and that is good, because we believe that Paul’s words are limitlessly life-giving, written as they were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
One very influential commentator on Galatians was Martin Luther. 600 years ago Luther thought he had understood Galatians, in a way he personally found very helpful. And in many respects Luther’s insights then were absolutely right. He rightly deplored the ever recurring tendency, or temptation, for people to institutionalise the new life in Christ; to dumb down Paul’s evangelical fire, and even to try to make money out of it; to substitute for Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, and life in the Spirit, a bloodless religion of works; to replace the life-giving grace of God with Pelagian moralising, which is powerless to save.
But Luther took a disastrous turn, in which, let us boldly assert, he was completely wrong. Luther came to identify Paul’s adversaries in Galatians with the Catholic Church of his own day. The whole sacramental system of the Catholic Church, and especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Luther denounced as so many works of the law. Strongly influenced by nominalist philosophy, Luther concluded that the grace of justification is not actually imparted to the sinner, but externally imputed only: as it were, by a divine fiction. Lutheran justification is a reprieve handed to a condemned man on the scaffold, implying neither cooperation, nor true inner transformation. The same process of divine fiction, for Luther, was at work in Christ’s death. God imputed our wickedness to Jesus, and then loaded onto him the punishment due to us. In such a process we have no part to play whatever; its effect on us remains purely external; and there can be no place in it for any ecclesial or sacramental mediation.
When challenged about the orthodoxy of his theological positions, Luther refused to budge. Knowingly and deliberately, he took the route of schism. So the Church of the West was torn apart, 600 years ago, and the consequences of that are still with us.
Nowadays of course we want to be ecumenical, and to seek pathways of reconciliation and reunion. But we can scarcely be expected to celebrate the Reformation. And we insist that the Catholic Church as such has never deviated from the doctrine of St. Paul. We even boldly assert that if anyone attempts to read Paul outside the communion of the Church, and divorced from her tradition, he cannot possibly understand the text correctly.
As for the sacrifice of the Mass: we say that it is the sacramental instrument of God’s power, by which he transmits his own life, and healing, and salvation, to us. Christ continues to act through his Church, which is his mystical Body here on earth. He does so supremely when, in obedience to his command, she offers his saving death in the Mass. Far from by-passing faith, the Mass is precisely the sacrament or Mystery of Faith. Far from being a distraction from Jesus, the Mass gives us Jesus. Jesus acts in it; and through the working of the Holy Spirit, he communicates to us himself.