The Strongest Glue in the World

Galatians 1:11-17, Matthew 19:27-30

25 January 2009

St James, Woodley

Woodley pulpit exchange


There are two themes to today's service. For one thing, it is the close of the week of prayer for christian unity, which we mark by the Woodley churches' pulpit exchange. That's why I'm here!

The other theme is the Conversion of St Paul that we celebrate today.

Both of these come together in the first reading we had from Galatians chapter one. It will be helpful, if you have a Bible, to turn back to Galatians: I will be referring to it throughout the sermon.

The gospel's power to unite

There is a word that brings together the themes of Christian unity and the conversion of St Paul, and that word is "gospel". The word "gospel" appears at the beginning of our reading in verse 11. Actually, it appears before our reading in verses 6, 7, 8 and 9. And it appears in chapter 2 in verses 2, 5, 7 and 14. Our reading places us in the middle of an extended discussion about the gospel.

And one of the things we learn about the gospel is that it is the most powerful force for unity in the world.

As I was preparing this sermon, an advert caught my eye for Gorilla Glue. (It's amazing what I have lying about on my desk.) Gorilla Glue brands itself as "The Toughest Glue on Planet Earth". It claims to bond with ease wood, stone, metal, ceramics and more!

But that's nothing compared to the bonding power of the gospel. The gospel is the strongest glue in the world.

The gospel is capable of taking a man who persecuted the church of God, and uniting him in fellowship and purpose with that same church. Saul was a man who loathed the church of God. He wanted to crush it and destroy it and murder its leaders. He zealously and energetically pursued this aim.

Yet there came a moment when Saul encountered the gospel: Jesus Christ revealed it to him; Jesus Christ revealed himself to him. At that moment Saul became Paul. He was no longer the enemy of the church, he became part of the church.

The gospel took a man who wanted to kill the church, and made him a man prepared to die for the church. That's the uniting power of the gospel.

The gospel not only united Paul with the church in principle, it did so in practice. It actually brought him into fellowship with the church. In chapter two we see that Paul eventually goes up to Jerusalem to meet the other apostles. While there he explains his gospel to them, and they see that it is the same as their gospel. So, Paul says in chapter 2 verse 9, James, Peter and John... gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me.ref

If you and I share the gospel, then we share fellowship. It doesn't matter how our church traditions differ, our social backgrounds, our education, our ethnic group, our respective ages, our worship styles — if we share in the gospel, we are one and nothing can divide us. In the gospel, we extend the right hand of fellowship to one another.

As an example of the power of the gospel to unite, consider this. Paul, by his own acknowledgement, was brought up a devout Jew, zealous for the traditions of his fathers. As such he would have despised the Gentiles, the non-Jews. He thought of the Gentiles as dogs; he would not eat with or associate with a Gentile. There was an 'impassable gulf' [Stott] between Gentile and Jew.

But what was Paul's commission when he met the Lord at his conversion? Verse 16: to preach Christ among the Gentiles. The power of the gospel to unite can bridge even the gulf between Gentile and Jew. As Gentiles too embraced the gospel, Paul, the arch Jew, was united with them in worship and fellowship.

Ony the glue of the gospel has the power to bring Jews and Gentiles together. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes to a church where Jews and Gentiles are in fellowship. He says that the gospel has destroyed the dividing wall of hostilityref between them.

We long for an end to conflict in the Holy Lands. The Jew–Gentile divide there seems deeper than ever. As it was 2000 years ago, so it is now: only the gospel is powerful enough to destroy hostility between these people. We need to pray for Jews to embrace the gospel in large numbers; we need to pray for Arabs to embrace the gospel in large numbers. This is the means that God has appointed for creating peace.

The gospel is the most powerful uniting force in the world.

The gospel's power to divide

But that's not the whole story. The gospel has power to unite beyond anything we can imagine, but it also has power to divide.

To change the analogy: the gospel is like an immensely powerful magnet. Normally magnetic opposites attract, don't they: north to south and south to north. But with the gospel, like attracts like. So if I accept the gospel and you accept the gospel, then we have a bond between us that nothing in earth or heaven can break.

But if non-gospel or bad gospel comes along, then there is a repellent force: a force for division.

Again, we see this in Paul's ministry.

In the first half of chapter 2 of Galatians we found that the gospel brings Paul into unity and fellowship with the church in Jerusalem. But in the second half we find that Peter, although he believes the gospel, stops acting in accordance with it. Peter and others, through hypocrisy, won't eat with the Gentiles. Paul says I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospelref.

So Paul confronts Peter publicly. Peter has moved away from the gospel, and this results in disunity.

Only the gospel unites us as Christians. When we move away from the gospel, disunity will be, and should be, the end result.

That's one level of division that the gospel brings: when someone stops living it out.

There is another level of division the gospel brings, which is when people start changing the gospel message.

We see this in chapter 1 of Galatians. Paul starts his letter by saying I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at allref.

Paul accuses some teachers of trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. And he reserves his strongest language for them. He repeats, let him be eternally condemned, or let him be accursed.

Falsely teaching the gospel brings division.

And there is a third level on which the gospel divides. It divides the believer from the unbeliever. We saw that in the reading from Matthew. Jesus talks about, everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sakeref. Jesus takes it as given that following him will divide us from others, even our closest family. The gospel splits the world in two: those who embrace it and those who reject it.

Just one of many stories from the current Barnabas Fund magazine:

"Hannah" is a Christian and the daughter of a British imam. She had to be taken into police protection in December 2007 after she received a death threat via text message from her brother if she did not return to Islam. Hannah became a Christian when she was 16. Since then she has moved house 45 times to escape detection by her family.

How comforting Jesus' words must be to Hannah: everyone who has left houses or brothers... for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.ref

The gospel is the most powerful dividing force in the world.

What is this gospel?

What, then, is this gospel that has such power to unite and divide? Simply, it is the message about Jesus, preached by Paul and all the other apostles.

Perhaps Paul's most succinct statement of the gospel in Galatians is in chapter 3. Chapter 3 verse 13,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. ref

Perhaps it's not the Bible's most thorough statement of the gospel — that has to be the book of Romans — but the elements are here:

I deserve to be punished, cursed, by God because of my evil heart. But Jesus Christ died in my place, taking that curse upon himself. In doing so, he unites me with God so that I can receive his Holy Spirit, and he unites me with his people. And all this through no merit or work of my own: only by putting my faith in the life and death of Jesus. That's the gospel.

So we can see why the gospel is the most powerful uniting force in the world. If we have the gospel we have the strongest possible bond with God, and that unites us with everyone else who also has the gospel.

Now, Paul insists that this gospel is not something man made up. This gospel is God's gospel. There is only one gospel. And if we dare to add to or take away from this gospel then we rob it of its power.

A couple of years ago a painting by Jackson Pollack sold for $140 million, making it the most expensive painting in the world. Now, you and I might think we could quite easily improve a Jackson Pollack painting. Actually, I think my four-year-old daughter could probably improve it. But if we actually tried to change it in any way — painting on a few flowers; cutting out some interesting shapes — we would not succeed in increasing its value. Whatever we did would actually render it near worthless.

And so it is with the gospel. Change the gospel in any way, and it loses all its power to unite. A modified gospel is worse than worthless: it is no gospel at all.

Over history people have tried to modify this gospel in every conceivable way, presumably with a misguided view to improving it.

The Galatians in Paul's day were saying that the gospel wasn't sufficient. They said you needed to add some things to it like keeping certain rules and adding certain acts to be saved. For them it was law and circumcision, but many churches today would want to add their own rules and ceremonies onto the gospel. But adding to the gospel makes it no gospel at all.

Some people say that there are other ways to know God apart from his gospel, that faith in Jesus is not necessary. This is to subtract from the gospel, making it no gospel at all.

Others today would want to take away the curse. They would say that Jesus wasn't bearing punishment from the Father in my place on the cross. But this is to take away from the gospel again.

The gospel is the strongest glue in the world. But if we modify its formula in any way it doesn't just become useless, it actually becomes repellent. It becomes a force for division.


On the feast of the conversion of St Paul, we celebrate the power of the gospel in his life, uniting the irreconcilable. Because of this gospel the church's enemy became its servant.

And at the end of the week of prayer for Christian unity we must ask ourselves, Do we believe this gospel? Do we truly believe that Jesus, the son of God, died to bear God's wrath that we deserve? Do we believe that his death alone is sufficient to bring us to God, and that we can add nothing to it?

Seeking to build unity on any other foundation is futile. But with this gospel we are bound by the most powerful force in the universe to Christians across the world. We have the strongest unity imaginable. And this is what we will celebrate in communion together in a few moments time.