We started a new series through Galatians for November. Here’s my sermon for All Saints Sunday on Galatians 1.3-9.
You could call him a saint, hang a halo around his head.
He’s a hero of the faith— and isn’t that what we mean by that word we celebrate today? Saint, a champ of the faith.
Maybe you saw the story. A little over 13 months ago, Albuquerque police officer Ryan Hollets responded to a routine call reporting a convenience story robbery. As Officer Hollets later told journalists, he assumed it was a “mundane assignment I could quickly clear from the call log.”
Officer Hollets dealt with the dispatch, exited the convenience store, and walked out into the parking lot to his squad car to leave. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw a ragged-looking couple sitting down in the grass, up against a cement wall, near a dumpster.
As Officer Hollets approached the couple, he noticed they were shooting up.
In broad daylight.
And as he crept up closer to them, he saw something that shocked him. The woman who was shooting up herself and her companion— she was about 8 months pregnant.
The junkie mother-to-be looked up, dazed, at Officer Hollets. A needle in her hand, not yet high, she grew agitated. When prompted, she told Officer Hollets that her name was Chrystal Champ and that she was 35 years old.
At first, seeing her there pregnant and shooting up, Officer Hollets started to scold her. Or, as St. Paul might put it, Officer Hollets started preaching the Law at her:
“What are you doing?! You’re going to kill your baby! You shouldn’t do that. Why do you have to be doing that stuff. It’s going to ruin your baby.”
The Law, as the Apostle Paul says, only (and always) accuses us, and that’s what it did to Chrystal Champ too. Initially she responded to Officer Hollets scolding and lay-lawing by getting defensive and angry: “How dare you judge me. I already know what I should and shouldn’t do. I know what a horrible person I am and what a horrible situation I’m in.”
Officer Hollets had turned his body camera on as he left the convenience store and approached the couple. The video footage shows him scolding Chrystal Champ and interrogating her— preaching the Law at her— for over 10 minutes.
Chrystal Champ starts to weep.
And then she confesses.
She tells Officer Hollets that she has prayed desperate prayers for someone to come along and adopt her baby. And you can watch it all on the body-cam footage— something about that word adopt triggered a change in Officer Hollet’s countenance.
Officer Hollets later said it was like something compelled him: all of a sudden he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and pulled a picture out of his wallet and showed Chrystal Champ a photograph of his wife and his 4 kids, including a 10 month old baby.
And crouching down in front of her, he said to her, to this helpless junkie mother-to-be: “I’ll adopt your baby.”
You can see it in the footage.
Chrystal Champ looks up at Officer Hollets, absolutely stunned at his risky, gratuitous gesture to rescue her and her baby.
I’ll adopt your baby.
Officer Hollets forgot to shut off his body camera.
The rest of the footage shows him driving frantically to find his wife, who was at a party, walking up to her and telling her: “I just met a pregnant woman shooting up heroin, and I offered to adopt her baby.”
And, on camera, without hesitation— as though compelled by something— his wife said: “Okay.”
Chrystal Champ gave birth to a baby girl last October 12.
Officer Hollets and his wife Rebecca— they named her Hope.
Today— All Saints Sunday— seems as good a day as any to tell you his story, right?
Surely he’s the sort of Christian we’re talking about when we talk about saints. He’s got everything but the stained glass. He’s a modern day icon. What he did for Chrystal makes him a champ.
Of the faith.
He’s a saint.
The problem though:
Singular stained-glass heroes— that’s not how the New Testament understands that word saint.
We think of saints as persons of exceptional piety. We think of saints as examples of extraordinary virtue. We think of saints as role models of righteousness. And in medieval Catholic paintings artists always gilded the saints with bigger halos. But in the New Testament, saints are not examples of godly living. They’re not honor roll students in the school of holier than thou.
That’s why, beginning 501 years ago this week, Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers tore down all that artwork from church altars.
If saints were role models for right living and righteous doing, then you can be damn sure St. Paul never would’ve called the Christians in Corinth saints.
Saints would be the last word you’d use to describe the Corinthians— that would be like calling Chrystal Champ instead of Ryan Hollets a saint.
But that’s exactly how the Apostle Paul addresses his letters to the Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those saints in Christ Jesus…”
Read the rest of those letters.
The church at Corinth was more messed up (in a bible-bad kind of way) than a Bill Clinton-Donald Trump sponsored bachelor party in Vegas.
And yet Paul calls them saints.
Congregants at Corinth— these supposed saints— were having sex with their mothers-in-law. These so-called saints were getting drunk at the communion table, and they were mean drunks too because they kept the poor from sitting at the communion table with them.
There’s a reason Paul had to lecture them that love is patient and kind. They weren’t any kind of either.
Yet Paul calls them saints, holy ones.
And not just the Corinthians:
The Ephesians— despite being one Body in Christ, they persisted in treating strangers and immigrants as strangers and immigrants,. And yet, even though they did not practice what he preached, Paul calls them saints too.
And the Christians in Rome— Paul didn’t even know them; he only knew they had a serious problem with making distinctions between good people and bad people, but despite their behavior Paul calls them saints.
Same goes for the Philippians— Paul calls them saints from his jail cell, all of them.
And the Galatian Christians, Paul calls them— no.
Not a one.
When it comes to the Galatians, Paul is all piss and vinegar. Have you read it? Galatians reads more like an angry election-season Facebook rant than an epistle.
Not only does Paul refuse to call them saints, he completely skips past the customary salutations. He grabs them by the collar and gets right down to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4:
…the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free according to the will of God our Father.
By the time you get to verse 7, Paul’s calling them perverts, cussing at them and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them. Why is Paul so torqued off at them?
Why aren’t they saints?
The Galatians weren’t sleeping with their in-laws. None of them were turning the eucharist in to a keg stand. They weren’t neglecting the poor among them. They weren’t treating strangers and aliens with suspicion. As far as behavior goes, the Galatians were better than all the rest.
The Galatians were role models of right living and righteous doing. They were singular stained glass do-gooders. The Galatians were so hard core about being Christ’s hands and feet to the world for the sake of the least, the lost, and the left behind that they exhorted one another to be super-disciples.
How can super-disciples not be reckoned saints?
If anyone should get gilded with bigger halos it should be the Galatians.
Yet somehow holy scripture does not call them saints.
The Letter to the Galatians is proof that deep-down, despite what we sing and say on Sundays, we’re addicted to bad news not the Good News.
Like a lot of Christians today, the Galatians assumed they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ and him crucified every week.
Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do now?
The Galatians insisted.
The Galatians took the Gospel for granted.
They turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all, Paul says, for it nullifies the Gospel. This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.
God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.
This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands.
In other words, in taking the Gospel for granted, they’d reverted back to the Law.
As Paul goes on to say in chapter 2: If God in any way regards us based on our obedience to his teachings and commands, then Jesus Christ came and died and was raised for absolutely nothing.
This is why Paul is so amped up over the Galatians’ other gospel.
There can be no middle ground at all between: “Christ has done everything for you” and “This is what you must do.” There’s no reconciliation between those two.
Scripture doesn’t say: While were yet sinners, Christ died for us, on the condition that eventually we would become the kind of people no one would ever have had to die for in the first place. Otherwise the whole deal is off.
Jesus Christ came and Jesus Christ yet comes— in word and water and wine and bread— not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improvable.
Christ came and Christ comes still to raise you who are dead in your trespasses.
And— I do more funerals than you all, I can testify firsthand— corpses don’t contribute anything to their resurrection.
Thus Paul’s emphatic point in Galatians:
There are irreconcilable differences between “Christ has done everything necessary for you” and “This is what you must do.”
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in 6 words is this:
Christ plus anything else is nothing.
The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it. The way to annul the unconditional promise of the Gospel is to add obligation to it:
This is what you must do now— as a Christian. This is who you must be now. This is the lifestyle you must have now. This is how you should spend your money now. This is who you’re not allowed to love now. This is how you must vote now. This is the issue you must advocate now. This is the candidate you must resist now.
The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add extras to it, modify it:
progressive Christian, conservative Christian, social justice Christian, family values Christian, inclusive Christian, traditional Christian.
The Gospel message is not the Army’s message. It’s not Be All You Can Be. You don’t need to die to self or do anything because the promise of the Gospel is that you have already died with Christ. You have been crucified with him for all your sins. And by your baptism, all of you, warts and all, is in him. You don’t need to become anyone else.
The easiest way to erase the Gospel is to add to it. Be better, do better, build a better world.
The Gospel message is something else entirely. The Gospel message is not Here is what you must do. The Gospel is Everything has already been done. By another. For you.
That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel at all. In fact, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.
He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly. When it comes to the Law— the teachings and commands of God— you can’t pick and choose.
You can’t say I’ll advocate for the poor and oppressed but protecting the unborn—- really not my issue.
Likewise, you can’t say I’m for protecting the vulnerable in the womb but when it comes to the vulnerable at the border— not my problem.
I’m not trying to be political; I’m trying to point out how when it comes to our obedience under God’s Law there is no distinction between any of us.
All of us fall short. Not one of us is righteous, not one.
When it comes to the teachings and commands of God, there’s no A for effort.
It’s all or nothing, God says.
And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed. Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high. This other gospel in Galatia, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.
But Christ already fulfilled the Law perfectly.
He was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect.
His perfect record— it’s your inheritance, scripture promises.
Notice, scripture doesn’t call it your wage. Something you earn. Something you deserve. Scripture says it’s your inheritance.
Something gifted to you freely by way of another’s death.
Something better than deserving.
Something you need only receive in trust.
Trust— faith, alone— that’s why Paul doesn’t call them saints.
The word saint, sanctus, simply means “holy.”
As the theologian Robert Jenson says, what makes the God of the Old and New Testaments holy, in distinction from us, is God’s ability to make and keep unconditional promises. Only God can make and keep unconditional promises because only God is not bounded by death.
What makes God holy is God’s ability to make and keep an unconditional promise.
Therefore, what constitutes God’s People as holy is not decency, cleanliness, propriety, temperance, civility, or sobriety. The God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, eating and drinking and befriending scoundrels and sinners, was in no wise “holy” and Jesus had harsh words for those begrudgers who presumed to be so “holy.”
If what makes God holy is God’s ability to make and keep an unconditional promise, then what makes us holy is how we relate to God’s unconditional promise.
Holiness is not about behavior.. Holiness is about belief— trust— in the promise of God.
Holiness is not about being good or doing good. Holiness is about trusting the good work God has done for you in Jesus Christ.
The unconditional promise we call the Gospel.
If holiness is about trust— faith— then:
The opposite of vice is not virtue.
The opposite of sin is not sinlessness.
The opposite of vice and sin is faith.
Saints are not those who’ve managed to live their lives carrying around their necks bigger and heavier millstones than the average rest of us.
Saints are just sinners who know— by faith— that they’ve been rescued.
Adopted undeservedly into Christ.
They’re not so much champs of faith like Officer Ryan Hollets.
They’re more like…well, they’re more like Chrystal Champ.
Chrystal Champ had been homeless for over 2 years when Officer Hollets encountered her. She’d been battling a heroin and crystal meth addition since she was a teenager, scraping up $50 a day to score hits. She’d tried before, multiple times, to get clean.
She told the press: “I’d tried before to do good, to be good, to change. Every time, I failed. It had me captive. Every time I tried to save myself it just kept coming back to ruin my life.”
Not incidentally, Chrystal Champ has been clean and sober nearly a year this week. When asked what made this time different than all the others up and down the wagon, Chrystal Champ chalked it up to her rescue.
She chalked it up to the nature of her rescue.
Remembering the change in Officer Hollet’s countenance, how he’d crouched down and condescended to her with his offer (I’ll adopt your baby), Chrystal Champ said recently:
“It was like, all of a sudden, he became one of us. A human being. Not high and mighty, a police officer, but one of us…The way he rescued me…I didn’t deserve it…I guess it’s just changed me.”
The good news—
If super-disciples like the Galatians are not saints, then saints are not sinless stained-glass heroes.
Which is how on All Saints Sunday, you all get to light so many candles today for so many imperfect Christians.
We can light those candles for them without lying about them.
The crazy fun and folly of the Gospel is that when it comes to holiness—
Thanks to the cross, the bar ain’t that high.
Saints are just sinners without a trust problem.