The person who wrote these words from 2 Peter 3:15-16 perhaps knew the modern frustration preachers have when preaching from Paul: “And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (NSRV).
Imagine being with a few years of Paul’s own time and already admitting that things in his writing are hard to understand. The quotation should provide empathy and hope to those who must preach from any of Paul’s epistles. In this article, however, we will confine our attention to the epistle to the churches of Galatia.
What makes Galatians difficult to preach from? Several things come to mind. First, preaching any text is a difficult task. This must be stated up front. If preaching were less difficult perhaps all of us would be doing it better.
Second, most of our congregations think they are theologically past many issues that, in Paul’s time, were critical to the survival of the gospel. For instance, it would be an atypical congregation which would get excited about a rousing lesson on Paul’s apostolic authority or circumcision — at least for the right reasons. To preachers, Paul’s apostolic authority and circumcision are vital because behind them stand issues of much greater magnitude than many of our folk realize.
Third, coupled with the somewhat alien issues to most congregations, is the intensity with which Paul speaks to them. This is a passionate letter; still, Paul’s passion is difficult to re-create in sanctuaries where people barely understand Paul’s issues, let alone his passion.
Preeminently, though, I believe Galatians is difficult to preach for one reason: it presents the living theological matters in abstract language. Yet most people do not think in straight-forward, linear ways. The mystery of God in Christ is not easy to reduce into a neat set of formulaic propositions.
Preachers need some vehicle to share with congregations the nature of the issues to which Paul speaks with such intensity. This sharing of the gospel must be done in terms that make connections with the experience of the people sitting in the pews.
Stating that something is important, as we all know, is not nearly as effective as showing why something is important. I propose the most effective preaching of Galatians brings today’s congregation into the epistle’s conversation on terms analogous to those who originally heard this letter. But how can this be done?
James Hopewell, in his 1987 book Congregation: Stories and Structures, gives us a clue about people internalizing questions of ultimate meanings. Faced with the prospect of a slow death through an incurable form of cancer, Hopewell sought a plausible answer about this situation which life had presented him. I want to suggest that Hopewell’s question for meaning is essentially every person’s question put to religious faith. Hopewell says, “In the uncertainty of my sickroom we [friends] tried to find accounts that, in the face of dying, would disclose the point of my life. The accounts tended to be stories — personal recollections, tales of similar happenings, hopes, prayers, and resolutions about the future.
“Woven into the telling was the Christian faith that I and most of my friends subscribe to. That faith, plus other perceptions about our personal lives and the course of human history, provided a dimension to our stories that I call their setting: the world the story is set in which the story’s plot can credibly unfold and its character develop” (p. 55).
In other words, when people begin to talk about the intimate parts of their lives they do it through narrative or story.
Teaching Galatians to a large group of informed church women this summer, I noticed a real resistance to this segment of the biblical text. As we talked about their resistance an interesting pattern emerged. Those portions of the Bible the women said they most enjoyed studying invariably had a narrative quality about them. The parables of Jesus, the sagas of the Hebrew patriarchs/matriarchs, and the recounting of Paul’s journeys in Acts all scored high with the group.
Though some said they always enjoyed the Psalms, when pressed they said it was because many of the situations Psalms spoke to were also situations they have encountered. Again, the narrative quality of some portions of scripture made them more accessible to the experience of people today than do other parts.
The question, however, is still before us. How can preaching Galatians be effective today? The key, I propose, is in the realization that behind Paul’s propositional and doctrinal words stand an exciting story of the early church. What I am suggesting is for the preacher to take the congregation back to the story as it unfolds in the churches of Galatia.
Two good things can then happen. One, the congregation has before it Paul’s letter written as a solution to a problematic situation(s). Two, the modern congregation then understands the story unfolding in Galatia that would create such an epistle.
Paul’s battle in Galatia would rival any story seen on television today. At stake was not merely the integrity of the gospel, but the very survival of the infant church. Our methodological discussion breaks here and we will examine three ways my contention can become more concrete.
I. Galatians 1:6
Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel….” Paul says this “tongue-in-cheek,” for he knows there is no other gospel. Paul is calling into question the Galatians questioning his authority. What is the story behind these words?
Paul’s authority is ultimately a vital question. The premise of life-changing decisions, which the gospel certainly forces, cannot be built upon a flimsy foundation of half-truths from “a peddler of the word.” Paul’s integrity is essential to establishing the truth of the gospel.
From the text we can gather that Paul, after planting churches in the region of Galatia, departed to do other church planting. After a time, other unnamed people began to teach, not the radical freedom the gospel gives by grace but the more traditional approach of religious life under the law. Since most of the Christian converts in the first century were Jewish, it is easy to understand why the old comfortable understandings began to slip back into practice upon Paul’s departure.
The letter to Galatia — Paul’s only epistle to a regional church — was written to establish his authority in teaching the gospel. Besides the authority question, Paul wanted to give this gospel definite character. This gospel was in contradistinction to other faiths and syncretisms practiced in Asia Minor during the first century. Paul’s first task was establishing his authority in being a God-sent preacher of the true gospel. Paul does this by advocating that he does not try to please people (a glaring understatement) but is intent upon serving God.
The task for the modern preacher using this text is to re-create in the sermon an experience when undermining a pastor’s credibility served to undermine the credibility of the gospel. An example from history can serve the purpose also. Augustine faced this in the “Donatist heresy.” A fourth-century bishop held the celebrants of the sacrament must be sinless if the rite was to have validity. How often today do the detractors of the church point to tainted leadership as evidence that God’s work on earth is always to be viewed with skepticism?
To preach this text effectively in a narrative style is to draw parallels between Paul’s detractors eroding his authority and how this erosion of authority is alive in the church today. As long as a congregation debates the spirituality, credentials, or education of its pastor, the gospel can be side-stepped for another day. Bold preaching makes it relevant now! As long as people debate “by whose authority,” then other pressing issues can be held at bay.
II. Galatians 3:2
“Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” In other words Paul asks, where did you get this gospel faith you now profess: from people or from God?
In these central chapters, Galatians 3 and 4, Paul offers contrasting means to faithfulness. Representing the conventional faith, both physically and symbolically, is circumcision. We recall Paul’s disdain at the “false brethren” of Galatians 2:4, accused of “spying out” or “spying on” our freedom. These spies were investigating to see if the faith of this Galatian church met the doctrinal standards of the Jerusalem home church. This conventional faith put a tremendous burden upon the believer – both in Paul’s day and in our own. In this view, what we do is of absolute importance concerning our religious life.
What Paul suggests is something different. People do not do something and hope for God’s approval. Rather we accept God’s approval first, then our life of faith will reveal this divine faith in living. The gospel according to Paul does not force, tyrannize, or bully a response. The gospel frees people for faith and faith’s appropriate responses.
A good preaching approach to this text would be to examine ways modern congregations attempt to control God and also the religious life of other congregants. For people in the Galatian church following the right rituals, represented by circumcision, led to the assurance of God’s favor. Paul’s point was different. In Christ we have already received divine approval. The task of faith is to live as though we believed it.
Today people may claim that a certain spiritual gift, mode of baptism, or understanding of scripture assures a place in the realm of God. To preach well today is to remind our people what Paul reminded his: salvation is only by God’s good grace.
III. Galatians 5:22
“But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law…. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against these there is no law” (Galatians 5:18, 22-23).
Paul spends the first twelve verses of chapter five explaining the implications of living under the law. Throughout the epistle he has maintained that the law is necessary until Christ comes, but then people of faith are freed from its strictures. Paul uses the term “custodian.” It is used to describe the function of the law.
This word “custodian” can be understood as a “bad” or “tough babysitter.” Seen in this light, especially by anyone who has used a baby-sitter, the law is the best possible substitute for faith. But as no babysitter can replace a parent, so Paul says the law is only a stand-in until grace through faith comes.
When this faith comes, understood in some sense as a gift of the Spirit, then these attributes – fruit of the Spirit — will be given to the believer. He says there is no law against these. The fruit of the Spirit fulfills the intent of the law. The aim, then, can be said to be the same: to produce holiness in people represented by these attributes called fruit of the Spirit.
The method of attainment is the difference. For those given to the conventional and antecedent faith, contrary to the gospel Paul preaches, the law conforms people to holy attributes. Paul, however, sees the gospel as freeing people to accept this gift/fruit of the Spirit as the sign of convenantal gift from God. How does the preacher get from this “laundry list” of divinely-given attributes to their vibrancy when lived in life?
To return to Galatia, judging from the content of Paul’s letter, the people were eager to have a good relationship with God. This issue is how do people do this? A good case can be made that some false teachers to whom Paul has referred were teaching the people that if they lived life according to the principles of the law, then salvation would follow.
This raises two critical points, which Paul refutes. First, living solely for the reward of faith robs faith of its present power. Not only does Paul’s gospel promise the eschatological reward, but it promises reward in the present. The reward, the fruit of the Spirit, is given in living now. Though life in the flesh may look appealing, it is the way of death.
Second, no one can attain the perfection the law exacts. Life is reduced to jumping through legal hoops. What kind of salvation would this be in any case?
The good preacher will help the congregation see the contrasts between what we perceive and experience in terms of the choices between life in the Spirit and life in the flesh. One brings life, the other death.
An evangelistic message perhaps could address the law of welcoming the stranger found in much of the Hebrew scriptures. The gospel message then presses the point that often it is the welcoming congregation that benefits most from the outsider presence. New people bring strengths and experiences that no congregation can live without. Thus, what might appear as a duty, of welcoming those from without, can be a great gift when received in the gospel spirit of openness.
There are many parallels that can be drawn between the Galatian congregations and the ones we serve today. The plan is to get behind the story of the epistle and into the story of Old First Church.
If the preacher can re-create for the congregation the dramatic story behind Paul’s letter, it comes alive in ways strict doctrinal formations never can. We attempt to do this using sermon illustrations in the more traditional approaches to preaching, such as doctrinal or expository. This method of illustrating is to help the hearer imagine or picture what is being presented in the sermon. There is a tension, however, when the illustration is so good it detracts from the sermon’s point.
What I am suggesting is not to allow the illustration to detract from the main point. Rather, the story that is the illustration may serve to be the point. The sermon is not a set of propositions undergirded by stories/illustrations, but the other way around: stories/illustrations undergirded by a set of propositions.
They go together, no doubt. Where the scripture is recounted as narrative there are propositions which are the story’s foundation. Where the scripture is recounted in propositional language, there is surely a story behind the text.
Not all scripture is written in straight doctrinal language. The Bible gives itself to the narrative art of story-telling. To allow a whole sermon to tell one story illustrating a biblical idea is not a bad thing. Often the text itself will recommend this approach. One of the strengths of the black preaching tradition is that it does precisely this. It takes the Bible and weaves the congregations’s life into it.
The point here is to ask which mode of the sermon is easiest for listeners in the congregation to hear. Any preacher can share that distracted moment when the tightly argued propositional sermon interrupted itself by an unplanned illustration. This moment captured even the imagination of the preacher. Great grace came when authentic communication took place between pew and pulpit.
To further illustrate, the usher’s note to the doctor on the fourth pew is vitally more interesting to most of the congregation than the weight of each of David’s five smooth stones. Why? Because the folks in the pew likely know Dr. Brown’s patient and they ask themselves this Sunday morning, “What is going on?” People relate to life and other’s lives through stories. This is why every child loves stories. It is an elemental way we all ask questions of the world about us — and by that learn.
Preaching to a congregation effectively — meaning in a way honoring both scripture and congregation — the preacher must stand between the two. This stance is in the shadow of the twin peaks of ancient text and modern congregation. Standing here, the preacher must listen carefully to the story of each. If this can be done, then the story of holy scripture can weave its way into the story of people’s lives. Without the weaving of story between text and congregation, the truth of the gospel finds little soil in which to grow.
The skillful listener-preacher must do two things well to communicate the life of the text into the life of the people. On the one hand, the preacher must listen to the text as deeply as possible. What is the background and context of this portion of Galatians, for example? Why does Paul say what he does here, and why does he use this expression rather than another? What other portions of holy scripture speak to this issue?
It is easy for veteran preachers to go limp on sermon preparation, especially with many demands on time pressing in from every direction. This is a genuine temptation, for the faithful steward-preacher knows preaching without preparation is the principal sin of a slothful ministry.
Though Galatians may be expressed primarily in Paul’s prepositional language, behind this language is a story of human struggle with and for the Gospel. Good preaching depends upon the preacher’s diligence in digging out the story to which, in this Galatian case, Paul’s words are an authoritative answer.
On the other hand, the skillful listener-preacher must listen closely to the story within the congregation. No sermon fits every occasion. To respect a congregation is to acknowledge its unique gifts, identity, and problems.
I have served two Methodist congregations of roughly the same size, worship attendance, and annual budget. The two churches, on paper, look to be very similar. The truth was the opposite. One was an older rural church, while the other was a young suburban church. We all know every church is different, yet often we treat them the same. The wise preacher will let the story of the congregation — and every church has its own distinctive story — communicate the Gospel story.
Leander Keck has called this kind of listening — to both the scriptural text and persons in the congregation — priestly listening. Priestly listening puts preachers in the listening role on the church’s behalf. The preacher stands as a special kind of listener to both text and congregation. No one would deny that every Christian can listen to scripture and to other people in the congregation. There is no argument about this.
Be that as it may, the person ordained (or authorized) to speak on the church’s behalf does so differently than other members of the assembly. To illustrate this difference in a concrete way, imagine sending a lay person to do all the hospital visiting for a month. Though many in my congregation are more adept at hospital visitation than I, hospitalized people would be disappointed.
The church sets the preacher-pastor apart for representative ministry. This is true of preaching, too. The priestly listener hears for the church, to both ancient scripture and modern congregation. In this office, primeval truth collides with modern reality. Today, people needing resolution come to the church, which through the ages has let Christ’s story heal people’s stories.

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