If God Lives Inside Us (or, when Paul called Peter out for being a Mean Girl)

Deep ThoughtsI watched the television show Saturday Night Live just about every week in the early 1990s, one of its best eras, in my opinion. One of the regular features was “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy.” Jack Handy would read a pithy statement as its text scrolled across the screen, set to some relaxing piano music and an image of various nature scenes in the background—a beach, some mountains, etc.

The thoughts were all farcical. One of the most memorable ones was,

If God lives inside us, like some people say, I sure hope he likes enchiladas, because that’s what he’s getting.

The apostle Paul is one of those people who says God lives inside us. Jack Handy implicitly raises the question—what does that really mean?

Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

This is one of the most theologically dense parts of Galatians, especially so far. What does it mean that Christ lives in me?

In this post I’ll offer an attempt at answering that question, based on my sermon last Sunday. To that end I’ve reproduced the text of Galatians 2:11-21 with my comments below.

The play-by-play: high school cafeteria and (almost) Matt Damon-style

Gal 2:11  When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 

One writer notes that this phrase Paul uses, “opposed him to his face,” is used in the Old Testament for situations where a people successfully wards off an invading army. Paul looks at Peter as an imperial oppressor. Translation: Paul’s getting ready to throw down.

Gal 2:12  Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.  13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

Can't sit with us
Mean Girl

It’s like the high school cafeteria all over again! You’re willing to sit with the kids at the awkward people table, until someone you’re trying to impress comes along and sees you, then all of a sudden… “I’m not sitting here! These aren’t my people!”

It’s a similar dynamic here. Some men came from James, one of the big leaders in the Christian church in Jerusalem. All of a sudden, Peter is afraid to eat with Gentiles. There were Jewish purity laws on the books that called for Jew and Gentile to eat separately, but in Christ, Jew and Gentile were supposed to already be one at this point. Which is why Peter was eating with them in the first place.

So Paul calls him out for changing on that:

Gal 2:14  When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

How can you make people follow what you yourself don’t follow, Paul says? They were “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” I love this—the Gospel, according to Paul, is not just something you believe. Not just a set of propositions, though it does include that. It’s a way of life! And Peter is not living that life here.

This is Peter! You may know him from such works as 1 Peter… and 2 Peter. He’s a big deal:

Peter AnchormanBut he wasn’t acting according to the Gospel.

If look back at Galatians 1:8, Paul has said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” Even if we or an angel from heaven… or the apostle Peter should preach a gospel other than the one we preached…! Strong words for Peter here. You get the sense this is about to turn into a Matt Damon action movie.

Gal 2:15  “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’  16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

This “Gentile sinners” is sarcastic. Of course, Paul is saying, we’re all sinners. We all fall short of God’s standards.

But we are not made right with God by what we do. We’ve already seen Paul address this as a major theme in the letter. The grace of God in Christ wasn’t enough for the Galatians, who were being led astray by other teachers. They wanted to add to the requirements one had to fulfill to get right with God.

Three times in verse 16 Paul says—not justified by observing the law. We’re not reconciled with God that way. Three times in verse 16 Paul says, it’s by “faith in Jesus” that we can stand before God.

Gal 2:17  “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!  18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker.  19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.

The law, in other words, is dead to me. Requirements of ritual, keeping days like the Sabbath—Paul will say elsewhere those are still good things! They’re just not what justifies a person—makes a person right—before God.

An answer for Jack Handy

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Again, a person isn’t righteous—or made right, holy—because of things they’ve done; it’s because of what Jesus has done.

And here we’re back to Jack Handy—“If God lives inside us, like some people say….”

What is Paul getting at?

What he doesn’t mean is that we’re robots, somehow brainwashed, sterilized, and taken over by some sort of Divine Control. We still have personality. We still have these bodies. These bodies are good—all that God has created is good.

But we also know that these bodies and these personalities aren’t all that they could be.

ShipwreckThere is the story of John Newton—a sailor and slave trader in the 18th and early 19th century. He talked about sinning “with a high hand.” “I made it my study,” he said, “to tempt and seduce others” to sin.

After a dramatic conversion on a boat that was fast filling with water in the middle of the night, Newton went on to become an Anglican clergyman and slave trade abolitionist. And he gave us one of the best-known and well-loved hymns of all time: “Amazing Grace.”

“I am not what I might be,” he once wrote, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be; but I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.'”

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.

Even if we don’t have a story as dramatic as Paul’s or John Newton’s, we who have turned to Jesus can say with Newton, “I once was blind, but now I see.” “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live”—it’s the death of the “old me.”

“Out with the old, in with the new.” As one commentator puts it, “The old life of self-effort has been condemned and put on the cross.”

To put it another way (as this truth has captivated musicians and lyricists throughout the ages): “My sin… not in part, but the whole… is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more!”

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.

But I’m not dead—there’s still a self here. It’s just a self that Christ inhabits, lives in. Christ lives in me.

Samuel Ngewa, a Kenyan seminary professor, writes, “This experience is difficult to define…But the meaning is clear. Christ so dominates Paul’s whole experience that Christ-likeness is all that is seen in him.”

Christ lives in me.

Having been changed by grace, we are transformed by Jesus, inside and out. Christ lives in us, and “Christ-likeness is all that is seen in [us].”

But it’s not just personal!

Looking at the rest of Gal. 2:20: The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Faith is personal, on the one hand—I believe the promises of Jesus. I believe that what God says about himself is true. I believe that what God says God will do… God will do.

And to live life by faith is a highly social activity, too. It’s not just “Jesus and Me.”

Remember that Paul’s theologizing here arose out of that high school cafeteria lunch scene—Peter was not living out the Gospel in his interactions with others.

To “live by faith in the Son of God” means to live by faith in my interactions with others. It means to remember that Christ lives in me and to live like it!

One of the ways I’ve tried to do that is through short phrases I call to mind, prayers I pray in the midst of a situation that calls for faith.

Alcoholic Anonymous arms themselves does a similar thing (and they do it well), using short phrases in the time of struggle. “Easy Does It.” “First Things First.” “One Day at a Time.”

Here are some others, as we try to live life by faith in Jesus: “Lord, show me your will.” Or maybe God’s will seems to be clear in a situation, so we’d do better to pray, “Not my will but yours be done.”

Or just a simple, “Jesus, you live in me.” A prayer of affirmation to God that is also a reminder of who I am. “Jesus, you live in me.”

“God, please give me strength.”

Many other short go-to prayers we could commit to pray—perhaps starting this week.

Because we have been crucified with Christ, it is not just we who live, but Christ-in-us. We have been transformed through and through.

This is the Gospel that Paul so eagerly upholds in Galatians. This is the Gospel he calls them to, that in those moments when they are tempted to rely on what they can do in a given situation, they would call instead on Jesus, who lives in them, who has saved them, and who continues his saving work each day.

The Revised Common Lectionary is going through Galatians in six weeks, and I’m preaching on it. See my first Galatians post (Your Grace is Enough?) on Galatians 1:11-12 here. My second (Your Christian testimony has no shock value? No matter–it’s still compelling) is on Galatians 1:11-24, and is found here.

Your Christian testimony has no shock value? No matter–it’s still compelling

materWhen our five-year-old son was younger, about two, his favorite movie was Cars, by Pixar. In that movie, race car Lightning McQueen finds himself stuck in a small town the week before his big Piston Cup race. He befriends an old pickup truck named Mater, who is voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.

Mater declares himself to be, among other things, “the world’s best backwards driver.” He shows Lightning his skills, using his rear-view mirrors to look behind him and quickly drive backwards through town and over various obstacles. “Don’t need to know where I’m going,” Mater says to an impressed Lightning, “Just need to know where I’ve been.”

Where have you been? What’s your story?

There’s power in our stories; there’s power in a good and compelling story. Paul knows that, and so in the second half of Galatians 1, he tells the Galatian churches his story.

He preached the Gospel in Galatia—that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us” (v. 4) and that “God the Father… raised him from the dead” (v. 1).

But this Gospel wasn’t enough. The Galatian Christians came under the influence of some teachers who said the Galatians needed not just faith in Jesus, but steadfast observance of Jewish rituals in order to be truly at peace with God. These teachers tried to undermine Paul’s authority.

So Paul tells them a story—his story. “You have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism,” he says in verse 13, “how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Paul had been so zealous for his faith that he tried to root out and destroy people of any other faith. He treated Christians with violence, and “breathed murderous threats” against them.

The Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio, 1600
The Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio, 1600

Then God intervened. Acts 9 tells the story of Paul (then called Saul) heading to Damascus to find some Christians to imprison. He’s on his way, part excited, part bloodthirsty, listening to Slayer or Pantera or Wolves in the Throne Room or some other heavy metal to get him pumped up. And then—a bright light from heaven flashes all around him. He gets knocked to the ground and hears a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It’s the voice of Jesus. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Paul goes to Damascus, still reeling from the vision and unable to see, eat, or drink, and finds a man named Ananias who restores his sight, baptizes him, and sends him on his way, a new man.

This account is what one reader of this passage called a “Biography of Reversal.” It’s a biography of major reversal.

Where have you been? What’s your story?

Well, mine’s not quite like that. I always wanted a conversion story like Paul’s. I remember in high school when I first learned about giving a “testimony.” I didn’t think I had much to say. The questions were always—what was your life like before Christ? How did God intervene? What is your new life in Jesus like now?

I grew up in a Christian home, two pastors for parents, and as an oldest child, was a pretty well-behaved pastor’s kid. I do remember saying a prayer when I was four to ask Jesus to be God of my life, and then a recommitment to Christ in 8th grade. But nothing flashy. I wished I had a testimony like Paul’s, or like that big-name speaker at the youth rally: I was into drugs—not just doing them but selling them– and went to clubs till 3am every night, was in a gang… and then I got saved!

And here’s Paul—persecuted others, tried to destroy them, violent… then a bright light and a loud, booming voice!

It’s a great testimony, a great conversion story.

But Paul wants to point beyond the conversion itself, and to the person who is behind the conversion. Paul has this incredible testimony, but if he were here explaining this letter to us this morning, I bet he’d say—don’t get too caught up in remarkable reversal in me… give praise to the God who orchestrated it! –The God who is behind every testimony, whether it’s the testimony of a well-behaved pastor’s kid or of an ex-murderer.

This God, Paul says in verses 15 and 16 does four things–with Paul, with an ex-gang member, with anyone who comes to faith in Christ.

First, God sets his people apart from birth. God has knit each of us together in our mother’s wombs (Psalm 139:13).

Second, God calls us by his grace, by his undeserved favor. St. Patrick put it like this: “I was like a stone lying in deep mud, but he that is mighty placed me on top of the wall.” A stone that is stuck in mud has no way of pulling itself out—someone has to come along and do that. God has called us, pulled us out of our mud, by his grace.

Third, God has been pleased to reveal his Son in us. It really gives him joy to do that! It’s like a highlight of his day, this act of showing us Jesus.

Fourth, this is so that we might share the good news of Jesus with others. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.” We do this, in part, by living lives that bear fruit (a testimony to grace), which Paul will elaborate on later in the letter.

Like Mater from the movie Cars, Paul knows where he’s been. His aim in the second half of Galatians 1 is to say that whoever he is, wherever he has been—that is ultimately rooted in the gracious initiative of God. “Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck,” author Ann Lamott writes, “When you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.”

This is what makes our stories in Christ compelling—not the details of what we’ve done or haven’t done, but who has been there with us, all along… setting us apart, calling us by grace, and revealing his Son Jesus in us. This is a compelling story. Those of us who have said yes to Jesus have powerful testimonies, because the one who stands behind our testimony is powerful.

The Revised Common Lectionary is going through Galatians in six weeks. Two Sundays ago (June 9) was the second Sunday, covering Galatians 1:11-24. The above is excerpted from the sermon I preached on that passage. See my first Galatians post (Your Grace is Enough?) on Galatians 1:11-12 here.

Your Grace is Enough?

Galatians, IlluminatedThis last year my family has had the privilege of living in a winter rental on Wingaersheek Beach. We were just a two block walk from Coffins Beach, a shoreline that if you follow, takes you to the beautiful Essex Bay.

Last week I was running along Coffins Beach at dusk, and I saw three people huddled together on a blanket, looking at the ocean. Well, actually, I could see that at least two of them were looking at their phones. As I approached them and then passed them, I was struck that these 4 or 5 inch screens had somehow won the focus of these beach-sitters, with the vast ocean in front of them and the orange tint of sun on the horizon.

Paul asks in Galatians 1 whether the Gospel of Jesus is enough? If the work that God has done on our behalf, by sending his son Jesus to rescue us from our sins—is that enough? When we think about who we are, our identity, our security in life—is Christ’s death and resurrection sufficient for us?

It didn’t seem to have been enough for the churches in Galatia.

Some teachers had come among the Galatian Christians, seeking to undermine Paul’s authority and the content of his teaching. They were telling the Galatians that this Gospel of Jesus—that Jesus rescued us from our sins (v. 4)—was not enough to save you. Yes, these teachers taught, the Galatian churches needed Jesus, but they also needed to observe all of the customs and regulations and laws that were a part of 1st century Judaism. In other words, they have to believe in Jesus and fulfill all the requirements of the law to be accepted by God, to find his favor, to be right with him.

When I read the Bible, there seems to be something of a recurring pattern. I read a passage like this, perhaps looking ahead to Galatians 3 where Paul says, “You foolish Galatians!” and say to myself—yeah, those foolish Galatians! Who would buy such garbage; who would believe the lies they are believing? Paul says, “Who has bewitched you?” And I think—really! Who has bewitched you, Galatians?

And then I sit with the passage a little bit longer. And I think about myself. And… I start to see myself as part of Paul’s audience. I know that I believe that the Gospel of Jesus—”Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”—I believe that that Gospel is enough. But do I always act like it is?

Am I confident in the sufficiency of the Gospel of Jesus, or do I look elsewhere to supplement it? Can I just rest in my identity as God’s much-loved child, or do I still find myself doing things to try to boost my standing in God’s eyes? Tim Keller says, “We love to be our own saviors… so we find messages of self-salvation extremely attractive.”

This grace, this undeserved favor from God is so present, and yet how often do we think it’s great, but not really enough? “I’ll take it from here, God!” Are we at times too quick to gloss over the grace that is all around us? Just as we see ourselves as part of Paul’s audience, perhaps we also see ourselves in those people on Coffins Beach that I ran past last week. They had a majestic ocean sunset in front of them and yet were glued to their tiny screens.

That is no gospel. The true Gospel of Jesus–the grace that God offers–is enough. And the call in the first part of Galatians is to accept the gift of God’s grace. We receive it. Paul talks about this Gospel of grace (in verse 9) as something that the Galatians once received. In verse 12 he talks about this Gospel of grace as something that he received from Jesus.

The grace of God in Christ is something to be received, accepted, arms held open, palms facing upward.

The Revised Common Lectionary is going through Galatians in six weeks. Last week (June 2) was the first Sunday, covering Galatians 1:1-12. This week (June 9) overlaps the last two verses of that reading and covers Galatians 1:11-24. The above is excerpted from the sermon I preached on Galatians 1:1-12.