June 20, 2010

Let’s not be foolish Christians

Passage: Galatians 3:1

While reporting to the police that her car had been stolen, the owner mentioned that her cell phone was still on in the stolen vehicle.  The police immediately called the cell phone number.  When the crook answered, they pretended to be answering an ad from the news paper to buy the car.   Thinking this a wonderful way to unload the stolen vehicle and make some ease bucks, the robber arranged a meeting place, where he was subsequently arrested.

Another thief stole a stereo set from a department store.  When he arrived home, he was shocked to find the police waiting for him.  However, he’d been easy to track, because he had his name tattooed on his forehead.

And then there was the hunter in Europe, who was poaching on private land when he saw a large stag standing immediately above him on a small cliff.  He took careful aim and killed the buck with a single shot.  Moments later, he himself was killed when the buck fell on top of him.

Some people just seem to have an knack for doing really foolish things!

Surely that’s how the Apostle Paul felt when he heard what was happening in Galatia.   Members of the congregation we’re falling under the spell of some of the Jewish members who claimed that the only way to be acceptable to God was by obeying the Laws of Judaism.

We sense the measure of Paul’s frustration, when we read the first 5 verses of the 3rd chapter of his letter to the Galatians.   Very much like a good trial lawyer, Paul pummels his readers with a series of devastating questions, all of which force them to look at the truth, - that it’s only through Jesus Christ that we are saved, - and not through our own personal efforts.

Whose bewitched you?   Why are you so foolish?   He asks, and then he reminds them that they received the power of the Holy Spirit, not because of anything they’d done, but because of the sacrifice which Jesus paid on their behalf.

His words sound harsh because he’s accusing the Galatians of stupidity; but it’s out of love for them, and not a desire to ridicule, that he utters them.  However, for us to fully understand why Paul was so aroused, we need a little background information.

Following the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, - the disciples and many followers of Jesus had been left bewildered, frightened and confused.  However, on the Day of Pentecost, God’s Spirit entered the place where they were and rested upon each one of them, and in an instant they were changed into an energized, focused band of crusaders who clearly saw that their mission was to spread the Good News of Christ’s victory to all people.

Shortly thereafter, Paul and several others began travelling throughout the Roman world spreading the Gospel message wherever they could.  The book of Acts records 3 missionary trips that Paul took, before he was arrested and sent to Rome to face the emperor.

Whenever these Christian ambassadors arrived in a new community, they’d begin by first seeking out the Jews living in the community, because they were the ones who would most readily understand who Christ was, and what He accomplished.  Then, after speaking in the local synagogue, they go out into the community to preach to the gentiles.   Once a congregation was established, Paul and the others would move on to another community, leaving the members to carry on without them.

As you’d expect, not all the Jews were willing to accept the message of Christ, and many continued in their old faith, often in open opposition to the Christians.  But some Jews did convert, however in doing so, many of them continued to believe that God expected them to still keep the old laws of Judaism.   That’s what happened in Galatia.  A number of the Galatian Christians began teaching their new gentile converts that they too had to adhere to the Jewish laws.   This is was what upset Paul.

The issue was this.  Not that the Jewish Laws were in any way harmful, but rather that by relying upon obedience to them, believers were wrongly assuming that it was their effort and not Christ’s sacrifice that assured their salvation.   But that’s not what Christ taught!

Since we are all sinners, there’s no way we can earn a place in heaven through our own efforts.  It is only thanks to the Grace of God, which we receive through faith in Christ, that it’s possible to obtain pardon for our sins and thereby gain eternal life.

Paul knew he had to act quickly to correct the misunderstanding, or the message of the Gospel would be corrupted.

Few of us today would be tempted to rely on the weighty laws of Judaism as a means to find our salvation.  Yet many of us still cling to the belief that if live moral lives, and are generous in helping to those in need, we’re somehow improving our chances of getting into heaven.

So let’s set the record straight.  Yes, Christians are expected to live exemplary lives:-  to be honest and truthful; to attend worship services regularly; and to demonstrate love and care for those in need.   But we should never deceive ourselves into thinking that by doing these good things we’re making ourselves more acceptable to God.  Paul is very clear on this point.  In fact he says that:  “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse;”  (Gal. 3:10) by which he means that if we put your trust in obedience to a set of rules, we’re doomed to failure

The motivation for doing good works must always be God’s love working through us, and not something we do for a reward.

By way of an illustration of how God expects us to live, I’d like to share with you the story of one man, whom I believe fully understands what it means to be a practicing Christian.  Elio Madonia has been a very successful Christian busy man, living in Toronto.  But his story begins in Palermo, Italy where as a student he accidently stumbled into an evangelical worship service. – What attracted him there was the sight of some beautiful young women whom he saw going into the meeting, rather than any spiritual inspiration.  But although his motives were suspect, the impact of that serve and the message he heard, changed his life forever.

Raised a normal Roman Catholic, faith had never been a central focus of his life.  And he’d never heard the Gospel preached the way it was that night.  He returned the following evening and witnessed adult baptism.   So after that night,  he gave his own life to Christ.

Since then, Elio has become a very active Christian, applying the principles of Christianity to all aspects of his life.  Although he was very successful in business, he’s never attributed his success to his own efforts;  but always gave the credit to his Lord.

When Elio retired, he planned to settle comfortably with his wife, in a retirement community.  But before doing so, the couple took a short vacation to the Dominican Republic.  During this holiday, they went for a walk in a village just outside of Puerto Plata.  All of a sudden, they found themselves in the midst of one of the most horrible poverty they’d ever seen;  people living in flimsy shacks, without even the basic necessities of life.  Children, many of them naked, playing in puddles teeming with insects and filth.

Elio & his wife were overcome with horror at the sight.  They decided to contact a local pastor whom friends in Canada had told them was working in the area.  When they found the pastor, they asked if any members of his congregation happened to live in that slum.  They were shocked when they learned, he himself lived there with his family.

The pastor invited them to his home, and to those of several members of his congregation.  All were living in deplorable conditions; - flimsy shacks with dirt floors, no water, and rarely even an electrical hookup.

For days afterwards, Elio was tormented by the persistent question – why?   Why does a good God allow such human suffering?   But then, as he prayed about it, he heard a voice within him answering:  “If you’re so moved by what you see, do something about it?”   Suddenly, he was faced with a dilemma.  What was he willing to do?

With little hesitation he determined that the least he could do, was pay for a new home for this pastor;  then when he returned home to Toronto, he’d appeal to his congregation for more help.

But somehow, this initial effort didn’t silence that small voice within him which kept saying, but what more are you willing to do?   In answer, Elio went to the mayor of the local town, (whom he discovered was a also Christian), and sought his help in finding a plot of land at no cost where they could build some good homes.  Sometime later Elio purchased a larger property and thus began his first village project.  It was in January, 1990, that this first village, known as ‘Maranata’ was finally inaugurated.

Since that small beginning, Elio has overseen , and provided funding for 9 more villages in the same general area.  Each one carefully laid out in streets, lined with neat, secure concrete block homes,  a medical centre, a church and a school.   As soon as a new school is built, Elio works with the Dominican Republic’s ministry of education to find qualified teaching staff.

For the past 20 years, Elio has continued to solicit help from churches in several European countries, Canada and the U.S.A.  Today, hardly a week goes by but that volunteers from somewhere, arrive to help with the building process; many bringing medical and educational supplies with them.  The group of which Grace & I were a part brought over $10,000 worth of medical supplies, plus prescription glasses, school supplies and hygiene kits for all the patients in a local public hospital, - in addition to money for the building of  3 more homes, (2 of which were funded by our congregation.)

I’ve told you Elio’s story, because I believe this humble man demonstrates what Christ expects each of one of us.  When you talk with Elio, it’s very evident that he has done all this, not to achieve glory for himself, but simply because he’s been moved by his deep commitment to Jesus Christ, and his belief that every Christian is called to be his brother’s keeper.