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A homily based on
Galatians 3:23-29
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Let’s begin with a symbol that all of us will immediately recognize. We first met it in elementary school not long after learning the alphabet. Later some of us learned to use it to pad our college research papers. But recently, marketing moguls have forced us to view this little mark differently. Just to see that mark raises our eyebrows-when it’s next to a notification of our "all-expense paid trip to Disney World." Can anyone guess what symbol I’m describing? Of course I’m referring to the simple asterisk, that little * thingy that floats above the lines of a sentence.

Here’s what the dictionary says about this little mark:

asterisk - as·t? ·risk“ - From the La. asteriscus, "little star;" (*) . . . used to note an omission or footnote.*

An asterisk is a flashing red light above some fantastic, incredible, unbelievably wonderful claim; it says, "Beware-this is not what it seems." Every day asterisks float across my desk through newspapers, magazines, and junk mail. Just when I’ve been told that I’ve won the Readers Digest Sweepstakes®, along comes one of those little black stars to lead me to the fine print at the bottom of the ad. The asterisk tells me that the chances of me beating out 12 million other contestants are as probable as becoming a methodist clergy sumo wrestler.

Today, for instance, I was leafing through Time when I saw this huge advertisement spread across two pages.

"Here is one thing seasonal allergy sufferers can do to fight congestion 24 hours a day."

Each phrase was larger than the previous phrase; it looked so powerful, so salvific that I was ready to run to the nearest Rite Aid to get this stuff-even if I don’t have allergies. But when I turned the ad over, I discovered an entire page of micro print. This was the asterisk page-reminding me of things not mentioned in the two-page ad.

"Precaution: adverse reactions," it read. Then it described some of the reactions that have occurred in some of those who have used this product:

Increased sweating, thirst, abnormal vision, back pain, chest pain, conjunctivitis, ear ache, eye pain, facial edema, fever, flu-like symptoms, leg cramps, malaise, rigors, hypertension, diarrhea, dyspepsia, tongue ulceration, tooth aches, vomiting, and flatulence.*

But did you know that the asterisk has now gone audio? Comes as a tag at the end of radio ads. A bombastic car dealer now interrupts our favorite country station with the deal of the century: "Giant Summer Carbeque-HOT Deals! PT Cruiser’s as low as $99 Bucks A Month." But just listen closely and you’ll hear the audio asterisk in low, hushed tones zipping past faster than most of us can recite the Lord’s Prayer: "18% APR financing. Limited time offer. $300 delivery fee. $3,594 due at signing. Tax, tags, license and registration buyer’s responsibility. Offer good only to qualified buyers. Other restrictions may apply."

Only one person out of 12 million is going to qualify to get the $99 a month PT Cruiser; the rest of us have settle for a lot of hype. The asterisk turns what we thought was the mother of all car deals into a disappointing disclaimer. Add-ons and disclaimers. Small print. Fast talk.

In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul the Apostle seems to have encountered a congregation quite conversant with asterisks. The bright banner on the church lawn might have read in bright, big letters,


"We Proclaim Salvation Through Christ!"*

At first blush what could possibly be wrong with this statement? As we, so this congregation believed that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; that on the third day he rose from the dead; that he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

As we, so they too believed that a leading a moral life was very important to Christian faith. As we, so they too believed that restoring wounded members was a priority. As we, so they too believed that the Hebrew Scriptures helped them to live a better Christian life.

So what’s so theologically incorrect with the Galatian church that Paul calls them "bewitched," and charges them with preaching "another gospel?" He even wishes the troublemakers would castrate themselves! What makes an evangelist spew out such strong language?

The asterisk.

The fine print at the bottom of the marquee included a disclaimer "Certain restrictions apply-circumcision compulsory, strict adherence to the Law required, observance of special seasons and feasts mandatory."

Add-ons and disclaimers. Small print. Asterisks that tell us that Christ plus something else truly assure us of salvation. What asterisks do our congregations attach to their church banners through their actions? Christ plus Law, good manners, fasting, church attendance, tithing, prayer, spiritual gifts, adult baptism, pedo-baptism, the rapture, the virgin birth, the doctrine of resurrection? What ultimately-or with whom ultimately-does our faith truly lie?

Paul had apparently discovered some add-ons, disclaimers, and fine print to their claim about Jesus and salvation. They had begun in Christ, Paul explains, but they had added to their faith journey-through the efforts of asterisk "teachers" additional requirements. The Christian was obligated to the Law as well as to Christ; full-bodied Christianity required the keeping of strict dietary moral codes of the Law; families had to commit to circumcision as a sign that they were also sons of the Law, and thus, sons of Abraham. They celebrated specific feast days and days of remembrance as required by Law. So Paul looks at this strange admixture of Law requirements and Jesus’ saving act and sees poison-the dangerous undermining of God’s saving love in Christ.

My Christian community of origin is a Pentecostal denomination. I was part of a Bible-believing, second-coming warning, spiritual gifts emphasizing, Holy Ghost baptizing, and Jesus-heals-today community. When I went to seminary I was able to augment this rich heritage through a new set of tools handed me-literary criticism, an appreciation for liturgy and order and a deep reverence for the sacraments.

Freshly out of seminary and now in a new denomination, I was appointed to a rural church on a part-time basis. The rest of the time I taught at a Christian College of my former denomination. What an interesting mix! During the week I would gather with my Pentecostal students and colleagues, listen to spirited preaching and hallelujahs enjoying many of the distinctives that I’d grown familiar with. But come Sunday, I robed and stoled, read prayers, and offered the Eucharist.

It wasn’t long before two groups of people worshiped in the congregation: Pentecostals and charismatic from the college where I taught and the mainline types. We soon developed a language problem: Neither group could be fully convinced that those on the other side of the pews were fully Christian!

One group would come at the other with a "born-again" language which was totally foreign to mainline ears. And my mainline friends thought it pure fanaticism to worship God sticking their hands up in the air like antennae. Must be a cult-thing, I’m sure some of them must have thought.

We had to remind ourselves anew what the Galatian church had to discover: we are not saved by our differences. We are saved by faith in Christ alone. Period. How God chooses to accomplish this great gift of salvation is God’s secret. Some come to God in a most reverent, quiet, uneventful way. Others come squallin’ and ‘a ballin.’ Either way-whether through a dramatic "born-again" experience or through a quiet process of conversion, Christ saves. Period.

And that’s where Paul goes in our lesson this morning. Goes to the Source of salvation: that "in Christ there is no such thing as Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all of you are one in Christ." To which I might add: there is no saving virtue in Pentecostalism or in mainline tradition. There is no saving grace in differing views on Spirit-baptism vis-ą-vis water-baptism, no efficacy in one worship style over another. But what truly counts, what truly matters is that we are new persons in Christ. No asterisks. No add-ons. No fine print.

William Temple once said, "I can contribute nothing to my own salvation, except the sin from which I need to be redeemed." Christ plus . . . anything turns the gospel into something less than gospel.

John Wesley said of his saving moment:

"I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Salvation is so simple that we overlook it; so profound that we never comprehend it; so free we can’t believe it."

Hear the good news: Jesus saves!

No asterisks!