Today we start a six week series on Paul’s letter to Galatians. This is how he starts it:
"I, Paul, and my companions in faith here, send greetings to the Galatian churches. My authority for writing to you does not come from any popular vote of the people, nor does it come through the appointment of some human higher-up.
It comes directly from Jesus the Messiah and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. I'm God-commissioned. So I greet you with the great words, grace and peace! We know the meaning of those words because Jesus Christ rescued us from this evil world we're in by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins. God's plan is that we all experience that rescue. Glory to God forever! Oh, yes!" – Gal. 1:1-5 (Message)
Backstory is what makes any story especially interesting.
Fifty or more years from now, the names of US presidents that we are pretty familiar with won’t mean as much as they do now. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump will just be names on a list of dozens of other presidents. We have a different response to the names today more than folks in a distant tomorrow because we understand their backstory. A Hollywood actor turned politician. A thousand points of light. Indiscretions. Longest war in US history. The first African American president. The tweeter (for now). These are just scratching the surface, of course, but you get the idea. Because we know their backstory, the stories themselves are much more interesting and compelling.
The Bible is a collection of 66 writings of various genres from a wide variety of authors, all written for specific purposes with clear agendas. Each writing has its own backstory, and so do the characters portrayed. When we don’t know the backstory, it’s easy to lose interest. This letter to the region Paul lived and worked in for a period of years where he starteda number of communities of faith starts like any other Pauline letter. An introduction. A word of blessing. Usually Paul takes a moment to celebrate and praise the good things he has heard about the community he is addressing. But in his letter to the Galatians, he doesn’t do that at all. Instead, things take a sharp turn south:
"I can't believe your fickleness—how easily you have turned traitor to him who called you by the grace of Christ by embracing a variant message! It is not a minor variation, you know; it is completely other, an alien message, a no-message, a lie about God. Those who are provoking this agitation among you are turning the Message of Christ on its head. Let me be blunt: If one of us—even if an angel from heaven!—were to preach something other than what we preached originally, let him be cursed. I said it once; I'll say it again: If anyone, regardless of reputation or credentials, preaches something other than what you received originally, let him be cursed." – Gal. 1:6-9 (Message)
You may notice from the quote that Paul is a little agitated. You can surmise pretty quickly some of the backstory without much help: Paul is accusing the Galatians of embracing a false message that someone has presented to them. As far as Paul is concerned, those who persuaded them to follow a message different from Paul’s can go to hell. He’s so mad he says it twice! So, what happened? We can’t be exactly sure, but apparently Paul moved to the region to present the message of Jesus to non-Jewish people. They embraced it, formed communities, and things were great. Paul left. Not long after he left, some other Jesus followers came in after him and told these Galatians that if they really wanted to be right with God, they also had to follow the Jewish traditions that Jesus followed. In particular, the guys had to be circumcised. No big deal, really, it’s just a requirement to have some dude cut the foreskin off your penis. Outpatient surgery. That day was the start of when women outnumbered men in church… This flew in the face of what Paul had taught them about the favor of God. That’s the surface level of the backstory. Makes the harshness of Paul’s statement a little more understandable, doesn’t it? His impassioned tone continues beyond his cursing:
"Do you think I speak this strongly in order to manipulate crowds? Or curry favor with God? Or get popular applause? If my goal was popularity, I wouldn't bother being Christ's slave. Know this—I am most emphatic here, friends—this great Message I delivered to you is not mere human optimism. I didn't receive it through the traditions, and I wasn't taught it in some school. I got it straight from God, received the Message directly from Jesus Christ." - Gal. 1:10-12 (Message)
He's mad. He’s frustrated. He feels like his character has been put into question. How will Paul handle this situation? These people have clearly found affection for another voice. What can you do to win them back? Let’s take a look:
"I'm sure that you've heard the story of my earlier life when I lived in the Jewish way. In those days I went all out in persecuting God's church. I was systematically destroying it. I was so enthusiastic about the traditions of my ancestors that I advanced head and shoulders above my peers in my career. Even then God had designs on me. Why, when I was still in my mother's womb he chose and called me out of sheer generosity! Now he has intervened and revealed his Son to me so that I might joyfully tell non-Jews about him.
Immediately after my calling—without consulting anyone around me and without going up to Jerusalem to confer with those who were apostles long before I was—I got away to Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus, but it was three years before I went up to Jerusalem to compare stories with Peter. I was there only fifteen days—but what days they were! Except for our Master's brother James, I saw no other apostles. (I'm telling you the absolute truth in this.)
Then I began my ministry in the regions of Syria and Cilicia. After all that time and activity I was still unknown by face among the Christian churches in Judea. There was only this report: "That man who once persecuted us is now preaching the very message he used to try to destroy." Their response was to recognize and worship God because of me!" – Galatians 1:13-24 (Message)
What is he doing? He is reminding them of his backstory so that they will remember why they listened to him in the first place, and why his argument made sense.
When I heard Richard Muller being interviewed on NPR in 2007, I immediately bought his book, Physics for Future Presidents. He is a world-renown Physics professor and scientist from UC Berkeley. I bought it mainly because in his book he addressed many of the most important scientific topics of that day – many of which are still as hot today. One of the chapters was on Global Warming, which left me a little bit numb. He said he was sure the world was warming, but unsure of whether or not human beings were responsible for it. When somebody with his credentials says something like that, you have to listen to the guy. I wanted to buy the book because he seemed to be willing to be truly scientific in his quest. Several years later, he decided to take on Global Warming. With funding from one of the Koch brothers, he worked to try to understand the data related to Global Warming, going back further into history than any previous studies. He took volcanic activities into consideration. He threw out studies that were too small. He looked for any and all factors that correlated to Global Warming. The only one that matched up was related to carbon emissions. Carbon emissions is driven purely by human beings. So, in 2012, Richard Muller made the announcement that he believed that Global Warming is real, as critical as the numbers indicate, and that it is human caused. Why did his announcement get attention? Backstory. His backstory. The opponent became the proponent. That’s why Paul’s story is so compelling. He’s not just anybody saying that God bases God’s favor with us on grace alone. Paul was the guy who championed the cause of the Law as the means by which we find favor with God.
Alan Chambers’ backstory is similar. He was the founder of the Exodus Program which worked to “cure” people from homosexuality. As a man who has lived with same sex attraction as long as he can remember, even though married to his wife for many years, he finally conceded that he believed same sex attraction was not curable. He said he thought he was wrong, and he apologized for any pain, suffering, and even death his program may have caused. He’s not just anybody with a statement. He’s a guy with a backstory, which makes his story interesting and perhaps compelling. Again, this is like Paul, who was a guy out to round up and potentially kill Christians who later completely flipped his position, becoming the greatest influence for Christ in history.
Paul’s backstory and story was so powerful that it overcame natural skepticism among Christians. At the end of the day, his story – so genuine an example of the power of the grace he proclaimed – overpowered doubt and fear and led to belief and praise.
We are going to talk a lot about why Paul was so upset about what happened in the coming weeks. We are going to discover that we are Galatians. We hear about the full grace of God, yet we get suckered for something less just as they did. Why is that? Backstory.
From the earliest moment human beings began to wonder about Ultimate Reality, a Greater Other, God(s), etc., who were supreme over them in every way, the idea of earning their favor entered. Sacrificing animals as a way to show devotion and as a way to atone for sin became popular in many cultures. To modern ears, it sounds primitive and barbaric. Yet, if we dig a little beneath the surface, we must admit that we still make bargains in myriad form with God. We make deals with God when things are bad. We do spiritual things to make sure God stays on our side. All of these are modern variants of the old idea that we must somehow win God’s favor. Which happens to be diametrically opposed to the message of Jesus, and the overwhelming message of God from the creation of the universe forward.
The real backstory from the Jewish tradition which Jesus modeled and moved forward is that we are absolutely, completely, and eternally loved unconditionally. The Good News, the Message of Christ is that we’ve gotten the whole thing backwards, thinking that we had to earn God’s love and favor for the rest of our lives. In reality, we’ve always been loved. The point is that we begin living like it’s true. No longer trying to get God to do stuff with our bargaining. No longer trying to appease God with our trivial sacrifices. Please! The love is already and completely there – a foundation of stone upon which we can build beautiful lives, harmonious communities, and living, breathing, thriving creation.
What’s your backstory? What has shaped who you are? What voices spoke into your life to help you form your identity? Were they helpful, affirming voices? How about your faith? What compelledyou to think about God in the first place? How have you bought into a false message that we need to somehow win God’s favor? How has that shaped everything you are and do?
The reality is that we are Galatians. We struggle to stay true to the Good News that rescues us from all that seeks to destroy us. We fail to realize that we are a story in the making – a collection of stories that just may cause someone, somewhere reason to overcome fear and doubt with reasons to sing praise to God. If we’ll have it. If we’ll pay attention to our backstories as we create the stories we weave together that are filled with the favor of God. Because that’s the Good News.
Until we mine our backstories – individual and collective – we will be limited in our capacity to grow forward. Every time Paul shared his backstory, which likely numbered in the hundreds of times, I imagine he learned one more thing about himself, about his motivations, his character, and his dreams. When we share our backstory with others, we grow similarly. Sharing our story out loud helps us hear it differently, and invites feedback which will help us gain further insight. Those who get to hear our backstory benefit as well, as they learn more about us, but also are subtly encouraged to mine their own backstory as they are hearing ours. Because sharing backstories is itself a catalyst for learning, the impact of our sharing goes well beyond our immediate audience. While it may not be as dramatic as Paul’s experience, we likely will never have any idea how God’s work in our lives – shared with others – will influence people down the line.
So, don’t be slow to mine your backstory. For your own benefit. For the benefit of the immediate audience. For whoever God impacts here and now, everywhere and for the rest of time.
Get to work!
Watch the video of this teaching here.