Delivered by Rev Dr John Evans
on Sunday 20 June, 2010
During the week I read how Eugene Peterson came to write the translation of the bible we know as the Message. A translation we used this morning. It is translation marked by a striking use of idiom and the vernacular, albeit American vernacular.
Peterson did not intend to be a bible translator. That, as they say, just, happened. He had been the Presbyterian minister of a congregation in a dormitory town to Baltimore, Maryland. He in fact had been the founding minister of this congregation, and by the time our story starts he had been minister there for about twenty years. (He ended up staying for 29 years.) In the early 1980’s there was a national economic downturn, and indeed race riots in Baltimore. As Peterson observes, everyone was becoming security conscious; racial fears were developing into racial slurs; and as only the Americans can do – gun owning increased. These were the attitudes of the wider community – and they were reflected in Peterson’s congregation. This annoyed and troubled him intensely. As he says
“How could this congregation of Christians so unthinkingly absorb the world’s fearful anxiety and hateful distrust – and so easily?” (“Eat this Book” p. 131)
In response Peterson set himself the goal of unpacking the book of Galatians for this congregation. For two years he concentrated on the study of this book. There were special studies, sermon series – Galatians it was . . Sunday by Sunday.
As he says, this was the angriest of Paul’s letters, and he Peterson was angry. And he saw the situation in is congregation parallel to what had happened in Galatia. Now I am not suggesting that we are like the good citizens of outer Baltimore – retreating into armed camps while race riots rage outside – but the theme of Paul’s letter applies as much to us as to Galatia or Baltimore. It is indeed almost a universal theme: as human beings encounter stress, we retreat to religiosity, to the pattern of religion, when certainly within the Christian faith, we are called to a freedom, freedom within the spirit of Christ to live a different life.
To set this scene it may be useful to just backtrack to the beginning of Paul’s letter – and if I may, I will use Peterson’s translation of Galatians.
“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!
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 blunt: if any 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.” (Message 1603)
You have the picture. Paul is not happy – and he is not happy about this reversion of the Galatians community to this certain brand of religiosity within the Jewish faith. As Peterson himself says in his introductions to the book of Galatians:
“When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument of controlling others, either putting or keeping them “in their place.” Paul of Tarsus was doing his diligent best to add another chapter to this dreary history when he was converted by Jesus to something radically and entirely different – a free life in God. Through Jesus, Paul learned that God was not an impersonal force to be used to make people behave in certain prescribed way, but a personal Saviour who set us free to live a free life.” (Message 1602)
Our reading for today is the climax in Paul’s argument against the Christians in Galatia. Paul has to show two things. On the one hand that the way of Christ offers a direct, personal relationship with God in which we are free to live a new life in the Spirit. On the other hand the law of Moses is, well, not all bad – that there is in fact still a role and place for the law – but that it is a secondary role.
So we have the famous assertion of freedom – there is no division with Christ’s family – no division into Jew and non Jew( the religious divide), slave and free (the economic divide of rich and poor); and male and female (gender divide over which we have no say who we are). “Among us all are equal. That is we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” A message which is surely relevant to Refugee Sunday. We are like all who received the great covenant promise to Abraham we are blessed by God and a blessing to others. And as to the law – well it does serve a purpose. It was like those Greek tutors – in other translations the disciplinarians ( think I like better tutor) “who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for” This is the purpose of the law. The problem is that the law becomes an end in itself – people check up on other people – and ultimately it does not get to achieving any relationship with God. As Paul says “for if any kind of rule keeping had power to create life in us, we would certainly have gotten it by this time.” (Gal.3:22)
There was a moment in the recent Synod meeting which captured the tension: being open to the leading of the Spirit, and not being hide-bound by the rules, demands of institutional structures, or patterns of organisation, or the expectation coming from society. Sean Winter, the professor of New Testament at the Hall, had just given a stirring bible study on the nature of Jesus’ call of the disciples. Did we also sense that call. . . that call into a freedom and relationship with God? This was immediately followed by a report on very challenging and confronting research into often the profound fragility of many of our clergy: a fragility that is no doubt in large measure born of the church’s own fragility at this time, but manifested in a considerable number of clergy feeling threatened and bullied in their congregations. So what do we do? Well the suggestions were – develop policy guidelines around this phenomenon of threatened and bullied clergy; develop training and education programs for congregations and no doubt eventually have a training officer who may roll out such programs and ensure compliance. Strengthen the institution – our already fragile flower of an institution.
With Galatians as a clue – Paul would say – you foolish Galatians, or Victorians and Tasmanians. Yes, laws and policies will act like a those Greek tutors who escort children and protect them from danger or distraction, and probably you do need that. You are however, deluding yourself if this is the Christian response to the problem. Are you really grappling with what the Spirit of Christ actually means within the church community - and just taking a quick response with law, in dealing with some fundamental issues that has given rise to the bully and the breaking of trust in the first place. In reality not all that different to what Peterson encountered among his fearful congregation in outer Baltimore with its concern over security. The law, as a Greek tutor, has a place – but is it going to lead us to a full and free life within the community of Christ in which there are no divisions within Christ’s family: Jew and Gentile, slave or free, male or female – and do we add threatened clergy and powerful lay person.
So what does this mean for us here at CAN?
Well the message, the thrust, of Paul’s message here of the freedom granted to us in Christ is surely relevant. The need is the call – and then responding in the spirit of Christ – and meeting the challenge of “that can’t be done”, “that is not what a congregation or parish mission” should be doing is what our history shows we have done. We have not been constrained or cowered by current regulations or restrictions. However, perhaps like Peterson’s congregation in Baltimore, do we deeply understand this freedom – in that instance freedom from a racial maelstrom and fear of people different from us. For us our context is being not many in number, and yet the opportunities many.
As chapter 5 begins
“Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.”
A harness that I am sure can be seen in many ways. . . personally and for the church.
There is a second implication of all of this – in the scheme of things – a minor implication in the face of this essential message of Paul in Galatians. But how do we express; interpret this – even translate our message of freedom of Christ – to our generation which has lost the language of scripture, its stories and its motifs. What is the “language” of our message to amazingly diverse suburb of Carlton.
In a sense this was the issue, the first issue, Peterson encountered in his Baltimore congregation. How could he get the message of Paul over to his congregation? The language of scripture was either so dense, or too familiar to be understood, let alone speak freshly and challenge. And so he stumbled into translating a couple of hundred words each week into a different idiom, a vernacular which he thought his people would understand. In fact that was the essence of these studies. And as he reflects on this – it was like his people hearing something for the first time. Bizarrely this great message of freedom in Christ – now divisions within Christ’s family – was locked away and inaccessible. What is this language we need to use today to communicate what Peterson calls “the message”; we more familiarly call it the gospel. Yes we endeavour to translate this in deed and action – in our various programs and activities. We are now, through our Australia Dreaming endeavours –wanting to do this with the wider Carlton community. But what is the language and interpretation we place on this central message of freedom we have in Christ?
I respect Peterson’s work and his pastoral and if you like evangelistic heart. He didn’t start out wanting to translate the scriptures. Indeed after this “Galatians season”, he continued on for numerous years as a minister – only to convinced by a publisher that he should translate all of the bible. Ironically that request took him away from his people, he left his congregation – and the next ten years were spent in the task of translating the rest of the bible. Yes sometimes his insight and idiom does not work for me – and other times it is very powerful. But the need is there. Peterson indeed himself makes the point – the New Testament was written in koine, community Greek – and not attic or high, or classical Greek. It was a language of the people – and ironically we have turned this vernacular – into being remote and distant.
Do we hear the message of freedom and are we able to express it?