The 20th Century hermit and spiritual writer Carlo Carretto lived in the desert of North Africa. During his days of prayer and contemplation he knew that his predecessor had been killed by the people because of sectarian religious beliefs. Still he came to live in his tiny cell to pray, do good works, and meditate surrounded by the Muslims of that community.
Carlo relates the story of an 8-year-old boy who he would talk with every day named Abdaraman from the surrounding farm. One day in his conversations with the boy he realizes that he was very disturbed. So, he asks him if he is hungry, did his father spank him, what is the problem? The boy relates that he is scared that Carlo will burn in hell forever because he is not a devout Muslim, but a Christian. Carlo finds that a man in the village has told the boy this. Carlo tries to comfort the boy by telling him that he believes that they worship the same God, and that he does not believe that either of them are going to hell.
That day during his prayers and meditation Carlo is troubled. After reflection he realizes that it is not the boy’s conversation that troubles him, but the memories that it conjured up for him. He remembers back when he was the same age as Abdaraman in his village in Italy. A man came to town selling Bibles. The people of this devoutly Roman Catholic village harassed this man, threw his books and drove him out of the village. Carlo had been one of the boys, who in religious zeal, threw rocks at this man to drive him out of their town.
That night the village priest congratulate the villagers for throwing this man out of their community and defending the parish citadel. Carlos remembered this episode with a sense of confession. He also knew that his faith in Christ gave him a hope in changing that fear into the freedom of faith.
Carlo concluded that:
“Humanity, perhaps for the first time, is going into the field undefended, hopeful of fruitful encounters, of making friends of strangers.”
Although Carlo thought that this was a new movement of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century it is clear from Paul that this hope extends all the way back to 1st Century Roman writings to the Galatians.
The context of the letter to the Galatians is the difference between the view of the Jerusalem Church in the Book of Acts and Paul in his letter to the new Christ following Gentile community in Galatia. As we often learn Paul’s version is the less politically correct, the less refined, and the less polished for institutional consumption. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is crude, bombastic and revolutionary. The book of Acts version is much more safe.
The central issue in the Galatian church is circumcision. Would adult male converts be required to have the foreskin on their penis removed to be accepted as followers of Jesus Christ? The book of Acts presents a compromise that somehow Paul seems to have missed.
Paul’s answer, against the entreaties of the institutional church, is an emphatic and sometimes offensive, “NO!”
Yet, Paul goes even further to widen the rings of inclusion by not only talking about whether Jew and Greek males are one in Christ through circumcision. Paul muddies the religious waters by including women and slaves. Women are not included in the salvation of humanity and are possessions in this religious culture. This must have been very disturbing to a misogynistic culture of the time.
Not only did he grant equality in salvation of women, but slaves as well.
Freedom given by salvation in Paul’s estimation is something that is radically expansive. It is not something that humanity controls by tradition, rules, manners, liturgy, creeds, and culture. It is central to our text this morning from Paul. Where does such an incredibly radical message of widening salvation come from. Is it something that the theologian Paul conjured up as a compromise with the secular culture that he was trying to work amongst? Was this a mixing of their values with the values that the Church in Jerusalem knew first hand from Christ’s lips?
Paul contends differently. Paul contends that Gospel, Good News comes from the divine and not from human lips, pens or proclamations. It is God’s freedom that gives us freedom. Grace is the undeserved salvation that works in and amongst us despite our worst intentions. The Spirit travels where it will and confounds us no less than Yahweh did to Jonah in saving Nineveh. We are not in control of salvation, only the divine has that honor. We are workers in the field, because as Christ tells us, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”
Paul tells us of the promise of complete and utter freedom in Jesus Christ through faith. Why would we want to enslave ourselves again to finite understandings of the divine’s work in the world, when we could be celebrating with joy the hope in salvation of all?