Pastor, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
This is the Sunday before the Universal Exaltation of the Precious Cross. The Epistle Lesson is take from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, 6:11-18. In this passage, as well as throughout the whole Letter, St. Paul’s emphasis is on “the Cross of Christ.” In part, this explains why we read this portion of his Letter today.
St. Paul was writing the Galatians about the negative influence a group of Jewish converts to Christ was having on their community. Galatia was a province located in north central Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. The larger cities of Galatia contained a mixed population of locals as well as Greeks and Romans. Greek and Latin was the language there. In the more rural areas the population was largely Galatians, who were related to the Celts and spoke a language more akin to Celtic than the languages of their neighbors.
Today’s reading is the close of St. Paul’s Letter to them. It begins: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” (v. 11) St. John Chrysostom believes that this indicates that St. Paul had written the whole Letter himself, rather than leave the task to a scribe. For him, this was an indication of the intense concern Paul had about the situation, and for the Galatians themselves. Modern scholars think that the first part of the Letter was given to a scribe to write and that St. Paul wrote this part by way of emphasis. Either way, St. Paul is clearly upset and concerned.
Here is the reason: “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.” (v. 12-13)
It might seem odd to us that what we do today for largely medical reasons was a deeply religious question in the early Church. However, according to the Mosaic Law, the primary sign of the covenant between the Children of Israel and God was circumcision. It was and still is what defines Jews as a Chosen People. For St. Paul, to accept circumcision was to subject yourself to the Old Covenant. It was a step backward.
St. Paul’s contention was that these people had no interest in truly proclaiming the Good News of Christ’s coming. Rather, they wanted these Galatians to undergo a ritual that was largely for show, while ignoring the true internal spiritual transformation that should occur in those who follow the Lord. These were fundamentalists who rather than stand up for Christ — which would have probably subjected them to persecution — took the ‘zealous’ route that would make them look devout, but really cost them nothing. This is what’s behind the statement: “they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.”
His answer to these ‘missionaries’ is: “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (v. 14-15) By the “cross” St. Paul means the whole ‘economy’ of our salvation; the whole of God’s plan for us culminating in the Lord’s death and resurrection. He also means the cross that every Christian takes up when they decide to follow Christ. The ‘world’ that has been crucified to him is the world of sin and excess; the passions that lead away from God. This should be the cross that we ourselves pick up, choosing against sin and for the Lord.
St. Paul then offers a blessing: “Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.” (v. 16) He is sending two subtle messages in this blessing. He is saying that those who follow the ‘rule,’ that is, who choose the newness of Christ over the ‘dead end’ of the Law, will receive God’s peace and mercy. And, by referring to the ‘Israel of God’ he is at once answering his critics — the Judaizers — that he is not ‘Jewish’ enough, and asserting that the ‘Israel of God’ is now the followers of Christ.
Expressing his exasperation with the Judaizers, he says: “Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (v. 17) The word translated here as “marks” is, in Greek, “stigmata.” Because of how we use ‘stigmata’ today, it has led some people to speculate that St. Paul had on his body the crucifixion wounds of Christ. However, in the ancient world this word meant something like “branding.” It was used for the branding marks burned into slaves and cattle. It is more likely that St. Paul means the very real scars on his body that were the result of the multiple floggings he had received. Anyone who has seen photographs of the backs of slaves who had been flogged will immediately understand what he is talking about. His scars mark him as belonging to Christ.
He finishes this rather harsh Letter with a blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen.” (v. 18) The words that he chooses, and especially using as the very final word the affectionate term ‘brethren’ — brothers and sister — he wants to soften whatever hurt they might be feeling, and let them know that from his perspective all is healed.
As we reflect on St. Paul’s words, we should recommit ourselves to take up our cross and follow the Lord as St. Paul did.