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JULY 8, 2007: Fourteenth Sunday of the Year

Readings: 

Isaiah 66:10-14c
Galatians 6:14-18
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

More than any other writing in the Christian Scriptures, Paul's letter to the Galatians tells us what it really means to be a follower of Jesus.

It's an understatement to say Paul's angry when he writes this letter. He's furious! He'd evangelized the Galatian community, teaching the essentials of faith: to imitate Jesus' dying and rising. He assured those who dared take such a drastic step that they would both experience the risen Jesus in their lives and the power of his Holy Spirit in all they did: sure signs they were on the road to salvation.

Not long after he moved on, Paul received word that some conservative Christian missionaries had recently arrived in Galatia, proclaiming a different gospel. Modern scholars refer to these people as Judaizers: those Christians who insisted Gentiles first convert to Judaism before they covert to Christianity. According to their faith, all followers of Jesus must adhere to the 613 laws of Moses, symbolized by male circumcision.

Paul not only refused to impose Torah obligations on his Galatian Gentile converts, he argues that those who do impose them are simply replacing an experience of the risen Jesus and his Spirit with an experience of rules and regulations.

Fortunately for us, Paul couldn't return to Galatia to personally confront those whom he claimed were distorting Jesus' real message. Instead, he dictated a letter; a letter he didn't sleep on before he mailed. (At one point he angrily states, "Would that those who are upsetting you (about circumcision) might also castrate themselves! 5:12)

Just before today's pericope, he writes, "It is I, Paul, who am telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you . . . . For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." (5:2, 6)

That's why Luke carefully describes Jesus sending the "seventy-two" on their first missionary endeavor. Though he narrates the event as a reminiscence of something the historical Jesus had done, he's actually setting the standards and procedures for missionaries in his own community.

God's already planted and cared for the crop. The men and women Jesus sends out are simply to do the harvesting. Yet they must never forget that they'll often operate in a hostile environment. As lambs among wolves, they're to focus solely on their mission. Nothing should interfere with their basic proclamation: "The kingdom of God is at hand for you!" Not even rejection is to slow them down. Their faithful participation in God's plan of salvation will eventually result in "Satan falling like lightening from the sky."

Obviously agreeing with Paul, neither Jesus nor Luke believed real evangelization revolves around teaching a set of rules and regulations. All three expected converts to experience a person in their lives, someone they'd never before experienced. During his earthly ministry, Jesus, like Third-Isaiah, emphasized that the person experienced should be God. After his death and resurrection, Jesus' followers presumed that divine person was actually the risen Jesus. (Remember Rudolph Bultmann's oft-quoted remark: "After Jesus' death and resurrection, the preacher became the preached.")

No one can hear today's three readings without doing a "gut check." Can we actually agree with Paul's statement, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world?" Many of us have successfully avoided being scarred by those wounds.

No matter how difficult at times to follow a specific law, it's always more painful to give oneself to another in love. Yet that's the only gospel Jesus and his authentic disciples preach.