Monthly Archives: May 2009

Galatians 5:1-15

Faith, Freedom, and Love: Galatians 5:1-15

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 24, 2009

Craig Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this lovely Memorial Day weekend. Our nation sets aside this holiday to remember all of those men and women who died in warfare. Let us also remember their parents, spouses, and children who suffered as well. War has terrible costs, and I think all people of faith can join in praying for peace.

I hope it has been a good week for you and those you love most dearly. We survived commencement at Wake Forest, and Joe Biden gave a very nice address on Monday morning. I noticed a couple of young men in caps, gowns, and hoods standing at the back of the stage during his address. I’m pretty sure they were wearing master of divinity robes and hoods, but they were not our graduates. When the Vice President left the stage, they followed after him, and I could see their ear pieces. I never knew that Secret Service employed agents with Master of Divinity degrees. I need to add that to the career options available for our graduates.

Some of you have already heard my big news, but just to make it official, my contract at Home Church as Theologian in Residence ends in June and will not be renewed. I have enjoyed serving at Home Church for the past seven years, but thankfully we do not have to sell our house. The Dean of the Divinity School has promised me a full-time position beginning in July, and I’m looking forward to that. I will teach the required introductory courses in Christian theology next year and will have administrative duties as well. We are hopeful that this will turn into a permanent position at Wake. My last Sunday teaching this Adult Bible Class will be on June 14. I will have taught the class for just short of four years, averaging about 44 lessons a year. That does not compare to the tenure of Bishop Rondthaler or Jack White. At this point a successor has not been appointed. I will miss our weekly chats, but it will be nice to have an occasional weekend free in the future. If you would like to be in the studio audience for a live broadcast of the Adult Bible Class before I leave, come to the Christian Education building of Home Church next Sunday at 9:45. Tickets are free for the first 100 people in line.

Circumcision Again:            Last week we discussed Paul’s use of the Genesis account of Abraham and his wives to make the point that Christians are children of God’s promise rather than slaves of the law. That section ended with Paul’s rousing statement that it was for freedom that Christ had set us free. This week Paul will turn his attention directly to the issue that motivated the letter: circumcision. Keep in mind that circumcision was not a medical procedure in Paul’s day; it was the sign of the covenant between God and the children of Abraham. Paul recognized that circumcision was symbolic of a life under the law of Moses, which included separation of Jews and Gentiles. He summarizes his argument against the law in the first part of chapter 5, and he works himself up so much that he uses an insult that would be unacceptable for pastors today.

Read: 5:1-15

Christ or the Law:                        Freedom is a difficulty thing. A character in Dostoyevsky’s book The Brothers Karamazov tells a parable about Jesus returning in medieval Spain. The Grand Inquisitor of the Catholic Church arrested him because he was a threat to the social order. He told Jesus that the Church had to “correct” his teaching because people do not really want freedom. He says, “I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.” The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he will order the crowds to tie him to a stake and pile up wood, and they will obediently light the fire because they have chosen to be slaves protected by the church rather than live as free people. At the end of his long speech, the Inquisitor waits for Jesus to protest, but “He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more… come not at all, never, never!’”

“For Freedom Christ has set us Free.” This is Paul’s summary of the Good News of Jesus Christ. For thousands of years, men have built kingdoms, empires, and dictatorships that have oppressed people economically, politically, and physically. Many people feel a need to control and threaten others as a way to prove to themselves that they are important and powerful. For as long as there have been oppressive governments, there have been revolts led by liberators who declare they will set the people free. Time and again, victorious liberators become like the oppressors they fought against.

Paul was familiar with the oppression of the Roman Empire, but he did not call for liberation from Rome. He believed in Jesus as the Messiah, even though the Romans executed Jesus. Paul told the Galatians that Jesus died to set us free. Jesus is the Messiah who liberates his people from oppression, but Paul recognized that oppression is a state of mind more than a state of body. Likewise freedom is a state of mind. Paul had been in prison and in chains, but he knew he was free in Christ no matter what happened to his body. It’s like that old slave spiritual: “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free.”

Paul was trying to convince the Galatians that they were indeed free from religious and spiritual oppression, but he knew that freedom is hard. He knew that simple faith seems too simple a thing for many people. His rivals from Jerusalem came preaching an appealing message that included adoption of the law of Moses. All the Galatians had to do was scar their flesh through circumcision and live according to the dictates of the old law so they could believe they alone were acceptable to God. It is tempting to hand over responsibility for your actions to someone else and to live by a set of rules and regulations, but Paul urged the Galatians to stand fast and live like men and women who have been liberated from the power of sin by Christ.

Scandal of the Cross:            As we have noted several times in these lessons, Paul saw circumcision as symbolic of a lack of faith on the part of the new Christians. He warns that if they adopt the law of Moses, then they will render the liberating work of Christ meaningless. We are having a similar national debate about our own constitution, rights, and freedoms. It is tempting to give up freedom when we feel threatened because freedom is risky, but what is the point in fighting for freedom if we adopt the practices of dictators? Paul reminds the Galatians that his own life would have been easier in many ways if he had not chosen to follow a crucified Messiah. He would not have been abused and imprisoned if he had simply stayed within the bounds of religious convention. But he found a new way of life in Christ and was granted a vision of a new world where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women could live as brothers and sisters instead of enemies. Once he embraced the liberating way of the cross, Paul did not turn back despite the costs.

There are many theologians and preachers today who are embarrassed by this way of the cross. Some of this embarrassment is because of what some churches have done with the cross, turning it into a magical talisman or using it to harass and abuse people. But many folks are simply scandalized by Jesus’ death. Nearly three hundred years ago, Zinzendorf complained about preachers who were so refined that they wanted to turn Christianity into a legalistic, moralistic religion that rendered the cross meaningless. Today there are theologians who claim that the story of the cross leads to child abuse and other forms of violence. Some even blame the cross for the Holocaust, but they offer scant evidence to support those claims.

If the cross is a disturbing image for us, it was even more so 2000 years ago. Paul knew that the cross was a scandal or a stumbling block. It is still shocking to claim that the Romans crucified the son of God, and it is even more shocking to claim that his death set the world free from oppression and fear. Paul knows that the way of freedom and the way of the cross is difficult. He uses a sports metaphor to make his case. The Galatians were like runners sprinting freely toward their goal, but then their opponents cut them off and tripped them up. Paul wants them to regain their footing and get back in the race.

In the movie Labyrinth a teen-age girl is trying to rescue her baby brother who was taken by the goblin-king, who looks an awful lot like David Bowie. The goblin-king uses various tricks to knock her off the path. At one point, a crone start to pile the girl up with her prized possessions from childhood so that she cannot walk. She is simultaneously being seduced away from her quest and being oppressed by her past. She is offered slavery under the guise of security, and told to abandon her love for her brother in order to make herself happy. This is what Paul is accusing his rivals of doing to the Galatians. They are seducing and tripping up these new believers, and Paul is trying to break their spell. He is so angry that he tells the circumcisers to go all the way and emasculate themselves. It is a crude insult, but is revealing. Paul believed that their way was sterile and impotent.

Serve One Another:                        After class recently someone raised a question similar to one that Paul’s rivals must have raised about his teaching. All of this talk about freedom and not submitting to the law of the old covenant sounds like an excuse for immorality. How would we know right from wrong if we did not have the Ten Commandments and the other laws in Leviticus? Isn’t there a danger in preaching freedom?

Speaking as a parent and teacher, I certainly share this concern. There is a scene in the movie Dead Poets Society where the head of a boys school warns the English teacher against his innovative methods that encourage boys to challenge assumptions. The teacher responded that he thought the point of education was to teach people to think for themselves and be free. The headmaster responded angrily, “Not on your life.” He believed that students must fear authority or they would indulge their selfish passions. Indeed some of the liberated students went too far in expressing themselves. Those of you who lived through the 60s know how quickly talk of freedom can turn to wanton madness. The road to freedom sometimes veers into the morass of chaos and confusion.

In his book The Sacred Cause of Liberty, Nathan Hatch explored how preachers in America supported the Revolution, using arguments from Galatians, but then they grew worried that the new nation appeared to be too wild and undisciplined. They wanted to restore order and control. We often struggle with the question of how to create stable institutions and social order when people are free to make their own choices. How do you balance individual human rights and the common good?

Freedom and Self-control:                        Paul, of course, was not writing about the political system; he was writing to an illegal gathering of Christians living as pilgrims in a hostile world. He was also not talking about freedom in the abstract; he was writing to people who had died with Christ and been raised with Christ into a new life through baptism. He was writing to people who experienced the Holy Spirit in their lives, who had voluntarily rejected their old way of living in order to live as dearly loved children of God. He was writing to those who believed that Christ had purchased them from sin, death, and the devil not with gold or silver but with his own blood.

And his message to them was profoundly simple. The way to live in freedom is to serve one another willingly. If we use our freedom as an excuse for selfishness and sinful indulgence, we merely proved that we were still enslaved to sin. If we use our freedom to oppress, harass, and abuse others, we merely proved we are still enslaved to the devil. If we are still obsessed with our status, our power, our security, our authority, our looks, our property, our wants, and our cravings, we merely proved we are slaves. Paul tells the Galatians, that if they use freedom as an excuse to indulge their desires, they might as well go back to the old covenant and their old religious superstitions. That is not the way of Christ. But if we have been redeemed by Christ and reclaimed by God as his dearly beloved children, then we are free to serve one another out of love.

The Entire Law:                        Love, for Paul, is not a sentimental thing; love is active. Love is the intense desire to seek the good of another person. This leads to one of the fundamental teachings of Christianity: the entire law is fulfilled in a single word. Love your neighbor as yourself. This is one of the few times that Paul quotes Jesus, and it is quite likely that this was part of the instructions for early Christians. According to the Talmud, there were ancient rabbis who also said this, and it appears to have been part of a lively debate within Judaism. But the Pharisees generally maintained that the Mosaic laws provides the detailed instructions on how to love God and your neighbor. If you fulfill law, you are loving your neighbor. Jesus, and Paul argued the other way around. If you truly love your neighbor, then you will not need to worry about the details of the law. You will do what is best for them.

Anyone who has dealt with our legal system knows that laws that are intended to help people sometimes hurt people. One of the reasons we have humans as judges instead of computers is because we recognize that even good laws can be harmful in certain circumstances. We recognize that we need wisdom, flexibility, and empathy in our application of the law. The word empathy has been in the news a lot lately, and I’ve been surprised that people do not seem to recognize it as a primary Christian virtue. Jesus defined love of neighbor in terms of the Golden Rule that we should do to others only what we would want them to do us. Philosophers point out weaknesses in this aphorism, and skeptics ridicule it by saying we should do unto others before they do unto us, but the basic message of the Golden Rule is powerful. Jesus tells us that we need to be empathetic. Paul told the Galatians that those who have been redeemed by Christ and set free from the law should be able to feel the pain of others. The love of Christ makes us more empathetic, not less. Jesus teaches us to see how our actions affect others for good or ill.

This is what Paul is talking about when he says that the law is fulfilled when we love our neighbors as ourselves. It is curious that the Greek version of this commandment is written in the future tense. This may indicate that Paul recognized that the Torah itself was looking toward a day when the law would no longer be needed because God’s people would live in love. Martin Luther expressed Paul’s teaching here in a profound paradox. Christians are the freest people on earth, subject to no one. But Christians are also slaves of Christ and thus subject to everyone. Because they have been set free by Christ and no longer live for self, Christians can be loving servants of their neighbors.

Stop Devouring Each Other:            Paul believed that the church was one place in this brutal world where the values of love and empathy should govern our behavior. Perhaps he was naïve, but I’ve noticed that many of the so-called realists sow discord and distrust when try to control others through intimidation. Comenius understood this, and he warned the rulers of his day that if you rely on coercion and force, people turn violent. Paul held a mirror up for the Galatians to see that the result of their legalism was that they are arguing and fighting with each other. He describes them like hungry dogs trying to destroy one another. We often think churches divide over theology or doctrine, but churches really get in trouble when they lose the ability to love. When you can sing because you know you are free; you can also love as Christ loves you.

Galatians 4:12 – 5:1

Paul’s Birthpangs: Galatians 4:12-5:1

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 17, 2009.

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class broadcasting live from Home Church in Old Salem. I hope it has been a good week for you and those you love. It was a loud week at the church. They have been cleaning out the air ducts in the building as part of our renovations, and it was a bit hard to concentrate at the church. So I wrote part of this at Panera bakery. This is a big weekend at Wake Forest culminating in commencement tomorrow morning. Last night we hooded the graduates in the Master of Divinity program. There were some who were not sure if Greek or Hebrew would prevent them from graduating, but they passed. I want to give a shout out to one graduate, Linda Osborne, who is a member of Home Church. Linda pursued a call to minister at an age when most people are pursuing a calling as grandparents. She graduated from Salem College as an adult student, and then she enrolled at Wake Forest Divinity School. It was not an easy road for Linda, but she persevered despite many obstacles, including a flood that left her temporarily homeless. Tomorrow she will receive her diploma, and next year she will be serving as a chaplain at Baptist Hospital. Hopefully, one day she will be called Rev. Osborne.

Last week we discussed Paul’s bold assertion that Jesus had fulfilled the law of Moses, and in doing so, had freed all people from the restrictions of the law. The Son of God had broken down the barriers between the Creator and humans and made it possible for all people to become sons and daughters of God. We are heirs of grace in the household of God rather than strangers and sojourners. The alienation between God and humans that is described in Genesis has been overcome through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our lesson for today, Paul hammers home this central point by personalizing his argument. The disagreements and conflicts in the Galatian church are not abstract theology; they affect Paul personally. He writes passionately to his brothers and sisters.

Read: 4:12-20

Become Like Me:                        So far in the Letter to the Galatians, the central figure has been Jesus Christ, but in verse 12 Paul urges his audience in Galatia to become like him. It is a statement that startles the reader. We would expect him to urge the Galatians to be like Christ, like he does in other letters. Imitating Christ would fit the argument Paul has been making about Christ leading his followers out of slavery into freedom, but Paul is shifting his argument here. He has already said that Christ lived under the law and fulfilled the law, and so he does not want the Galatians to imitate Christ in that way. Instead Paul lifts himself up as an example of someone who was born under the law but now lives by faith in God’s grace. Christ was the one who makes the new life possible, but Paul is an example of someone living in that new reality.

Some folks think Paul is being arrogant by holding himself up as a model, but isn’t that what motivational speakers in our day do? Just think about all those books and lectures by people who tell you that you can be a success just like them. Thousands of people promote themselves as models of how to be a good businessman, manager, mother, coach, leader, entertainer, and so on. People also offer themselves as models to follow if you want to lose weight, overcome addictions, or have better style. We love to have heroes to emulate, and we pay people large sums of money to brag to us about how wonderful they are. I’m tempted to write a book titled “How I Got Rich Writing Self-Help Books for People Like You to Buy.”

Even though we make celebrities of self-promoters in our age, we get offended when Paul urges the Galatians to become like him. We think he is lacking in Christian humility and is saying that he is better than anyone else. Perhaps we should read his story the way Paul intended. He told the Galatians that he was a living example of someone who overcame religious fanaticism, prejudice, and violence through a spiritual encounter with Jesus Christ. Paul fought hard to break through to a vision of a new human community where love and grace would be the primary values, and he wants the Galatians to be part of that new paradigm. Unlike our modern gurus calling for “paradigm shifts,” Paul is not doing this to make himself rich or famous. The Galatians knew that Paul had been physically scarred in the effort and was hanging out with slaves and poor people, with Gentiles and sinners.

Notice that Paul does not merely tell the Galatians to become like him; he reminds them that he became like them. He lived as one of them rather than separating himself because of his ethnicity and religion. He reminds the Galatians that he ate with them, prayed with them, worshiped with them, and shared their joys and sorrows. He reminds them that they were friends who did him no wrong. He reminds them of the relationship they once had with him and with each other.

Weakness                        Paul did not arrive in Galatia with advance publicity announcing his speaking tour and book signing. The Galatians did not pay Paul large sums of money to come and speak to them so they could become devotees of Paul’s “five steps to a better life.” Nor did Paul sell the Galatians a complete line of Pauline products guaranteed to bring them “apostolic success.” No, Paul first came to the Galatians because of an illness or infirmity. We do not know which city or town he came to; nor do we know who took Paul in and cared for him. All we know is that Paul was weak and suffering when he came to the Galatians, and they cared for him.

Paul doesn’t identify the nature of his infirmity, leaving later generations a mystery that has inspired all kinds of speculation. Many preachers have assumed that this illness was a manifestation of the famous “thorn in the flesh” that he mentions in 2 Corinthians 12:7, but no one knows what Paul actually meant by that phrase. Since Paul claims that the Galatians would have torn out their own eyes to give to him, many readers have suggested that Paul’s illness involved his eyes. Some have put this together with the account of his seeing a blinding light on the road to Damascus to indicate that Paul had persistent vision problems, which could have been very painful. But this is all speculation based on scanty evidence.

Paul makes a statement about his condition that may indicate it was something more than an eye problem. He reminds the Galatians that his physical ailment was a trial for them; it “put them to the test.” He doesn’t say what the test was, but he indicates that they passed the test by accepting him into their homes. They welcomed him as an angel rather than despising him or treating him with scorn. Whatever was wrong with Paul, it is clear that many ancient people would have despised him because of his suffering. They would have mocked him, rejected him, and left him homeless. Some scholars have speculated that Paul suffered from epilepsy, which was often viewed in ancient times as caused by evil spirits. Even in our day, those who have seizures are subjected to ridicule and derision. Others have speculated that Paul had some kind of skin illness that others found disgusting.

There is another intriguing possibility that makes sense in the context of Paul’s letters. We know that Paul was often beaten, abused, and even tortured because of his preaching. He calls his scars the “marks of Jesus” because he identified his own sufferings with the scourging Jesus endured. It is possible that Paul had fled to Galatia because of the wounds he had received elsewhere. Not only would his face and body have been disfigured and horrible to look at, he would have been identified as a trouble-maker or criminal. The trial faced by the Galatians may have included the social shame of caring for someone who had been publicly rejected and cast out. We are so accustomed to viewing Paul as the great apostle and missionary that we forget he was also a victim of religious violence. Paul spent much of his life as a homeless outcast who depended on the kindness of others. Sometimes he depended on strangers to nurse him back into health.

Paul does not dwell on his own sufferings in chapter 4. He is simply reminding the Galatians that they were the ones who took him in and showed him mercy. They were like the Good Samaritan in the parable. We do not know if they were Christian when they welcomed Paul “like an angel” or if they were merely the kind of good and compassionate people who would be open to hearing the gospel. In either case, Paul found that these pagans were righteous toward a suffering human being. Rather than despising him because of his suffering and weakness, they listened to the gospel he proclaimed to them. Paul was not eloquent or physically impressive. He was not the kind of person we think of as a hero or celebrity. His body was broken and his voice was weak, but the message he brought was powerful. It is the Gospel that had the power to transform lives and give strength.

Why the Change?                        Almost as soon as he reminds the Galatians of their kindness toward him, Paul shifts tone and accuses the Galatians viewing him as an enemy rather than a friend. He writes like a jealous man who fears that his lover is being seduced away from him. He tells the Galatians that his rivals who have come from Jerusalem are not really interested in the wellbeing of the Galatians. They are using flattery and deception to try to persuade the Galatians to follow them and abandon the Gospel that Paul brought to them in his weakness. We could interpret Paul’s words as evidence of a power struggle between two apostles. Paul feels that he is losing control over his people and that another will be taking his place. However, it sounds like what Paul most fears is not a loss of authority, but a loss of relationship with the Galatians. He senses that his rivals are turning the Galatians against him. By promoting circumcision and zealousness for the law, the new missionaries were telling the Galatians that Paul was unrighteous. Paul appears to have been the object of their attack precisely because Paul chose to live like the Galatians. Reading this letter centuries later, when Paul has been named a saint, we are apt to miss the point that it was Paul who was being excluded from the Galatian church. Of course he was angry and hurt and frightened. He had a vision of a new world where Jews and Gentiles could worship together and eat together, and he had suffered in body and soul to bring this about, and now it was in danger of falling apart because of some smooth-talking fellows from Jerusalem.

Paul will not give up his relationship to the Galatians without a struggle. He uses a rather odd analogy that indicates the depth of his concern. He says that he is like a woman in childbirth before epidurals and other ways of deadening the pain. Paul is says that he is screaming in agony as he is trying to bring a new thing into the world. Jewish apocalyptic literature often used the analogy of birth pangs to described the violent upheavals that would accompany the creation of a new world order when the Messiah comes. Jesus used such imagery in his preaching, but Paul takes that idea in a new way. He describes himself as a mother in childbirth. It is not the world that is suffering birth pangs of the in-breaking kingdom of God; it is an apostle trying to bring about a transformation of individuals and a community. This is personal and local.

Paul says that he, personally, will be in agony until Christ is formed in the Galatians. This is a mixed metaphor since it sounds like Paul is having a baby in someone else. The metaphor does not work out rationally, but the emotional impact of Paul’s statement is clear. He is laboring so that the Gentile Christians in Galatia may be formed into living images of Christ. He is telling them that his anger and distress are like those of a woman during delivery. He cares deeply about them and is afraid that the new covenant community will be still born. Paul admits to being angry and perplexed by this turn of events, and he uses yet another argument to try to persuade them to stand fast in the freedom of Christ.

Read: rest of chapter 4

Hagar and Sarah                        Although the whole point of this letter is to convince the Galatians not to adopt the Jewish law, Paul uses the Torah to support his argument for an expanded vision of God’s covenant. We’ve already discussed his use of Abraham as evidence that the grace precedes the giving of the law. Here in chapter 4 he uses the family of Abraham to illustrate his point about freedom and slavery. Hagar was an Egyptian slave who bore Ishmael, and Sarah was Abraham’s wife who bore Isaac.

Paul tells us up front that he is reading the Old Testament allegorically rather than literally. This should give modern Christians permission to do the same with the Old Testament. Paul was no fundamentalist, even though fundamentalists love to quote Paul.  Allegory is a method of interpretation that allows a reader to go beyond the literal meaning of a text to discern deeper moral or spiritual truths. Paul is not interested in Hagar and Sarah themselves; he uses them as symbols of two types of relationship with God. Hagar was a slave, but Sarah was a free woman. Their sons were different, too. Paul’s colorful expression was that Ishmael was born according to the flesh, but Isaac was given miraculously to the elderly Sarah. Ishmael was born in slavery according to the will of the flesh, but Isaac was born in freedom according to the will of God’s spirit.

Paul makes the surprising claim that Hagar represents Mount Sinai, presumably because Mt. Sinai is in Egypt, the homeland of Hagar. Since Isaac was seen by Jews as the bearer of the covenant, we would expect that his mother would be associated with the mountain where Moses received the law, but Paul contradicts this idea. Sinai was only a stage on the way to freedom. Paul is acknowledging that the old covenant with Abraham led to Sinai and the giving of the law, but he denies that this was the final destination of Israel.

Paul extends his allegory further, claiming that Hagar represents the earthly Jerusalem, which was under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Paul doesn’t have a lot to say about Jerusalem, and it is doubtful he thought of it as the Holy Land or the Promised Land. Jerusalem was the city that handed Jesus over for crucifixion. For Paul, the earthly Jerusalem was a corrupt city, and its Temple was no longer the house of God. Paul was looking for a New Jerusalem, the true Zion, which would appear at the end of the age. He identifies Sarah with this heavenly Jerusalem, which he calls our mother city. This heavenly city would be a realm of perfect freedom and love, where the Messiah would rule in peace and justice. In this heavenly Jerusalem, there would be no need for a law because Christ would rule in all hearts.

Paul adds a quote from Isaiah 54 that associates Sarah with a restored Jerusalem. Interestingly, this prophecy from Isaiah follows almost immediately after the chapter on the suffering servant that Paul used to describe Jesus as the Messiah. He believed that the sufferings and death of Christ not only freed Jews and Gentiles from the slavery of the law; it also was step toward the true Jerusalem.

Conclusion:                        Paul’s argument about Hagar and Sarah may not be the most compelling in our day, but in this chapter we see Paul turning to the Torah for help in convincing people that the law of Moses was not binding for all time. He wants the Galatians to view themselves as children born of God’s promise rather than the will of the flesh. Even though they were not Jews by birth, they could be part of the new covenant through the sacrifice of the Son. As children of the promise, redeemed by Christ, the Galatians should get rid of the child of slavery. Paul repeatedly warns them not to adopt practices that divide people. Paul ends this section of Galatians with a watchword that all Christians should remember: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” This is the dramatic conclusion of his allegory of Hagar and Sarah, and it is the introduction to chapter 5, which we’ll discuss next week.

No longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female

Galatians 3:13-29  One in Christ

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 3, 2009

Craig Atwood

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to this weekly broadcast of the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love most dearly. It was a quiet week at the church. We had to shut the buildings down for three days because there was no electricity. That was all part of putting in the new heating and air conditioning system. Classes ended on Wednesday at Wake Forest and we are now in exams. For some reason, students don’t seem sympathetic to the plight of professors having to grade all of these papers and exams. Now that classes are over, I’ve been able to give some attention to deferred maintenance on our house. I’ve also started packing up my books so I can move them over to my office at Wake. Sometimes I wonder what I’ve done with my money and then I start packing books and remember. Each one of them seemed worth it at the time. I try to tell myself that there is a reason we have a library on campus.            

Curse:                        We ran out of time last week before I got to the end of the lesson, and so I’ll begin where I left off. We were talking about Paul’s assertion that it is our faith in Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives that allows us to become righteous and just. To press home his point that it is Christ who leads us into a new way of life, Paul says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Paul quotes from Deuteronomy to indicate that those who died by hanging on a tree were cursed. There is evidence that in Paul’s day this verse was applied to crucifixion, which was not a Jewish form of punishment. It is possible that the opponents of Christianity used this verse to condemn those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. They could have claimed that Jesus was cursed and abandoned by God. Paul uses this verse to shock the Galatians back to their senses. If they are going to embrace the law of Moses, then they will have to follow the whole law. They will have to view Jesus as having been cursed because of his crucifixion.

Paul uses the scandal of the cross to shock us into looking at things in a new lights. Jesus voluntarily took on the curse of the law to redeem us from the law’s curse. Paul is not rejecting the Scriptures, but is radically reinterpreting them in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul viewed Jesus as the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 whose suffering and death made possible the messianic vision of the peaceable kingdom also given by Isaiah. The messianic kingdom leads through the cross.

Read 3:15-29 We continue with verse 15 of chapter 3.

Abraham’s Seed:            I have to agree with commentators who point out that this is not one of Paul’s better passages. It appears that Paul himself was a bit uncomfortable with the analogy he draws between the law and a person’s last will and testament because he states that he is going to speak in a human manner, meaning that he is talking for himself not for God. Translations obscure this by paraphrasing what Paul says. He is actually admitting that he is using an imperfect analogy to make a point, something preachers do all the time without always acknowledging the limits of their analogies. Paul says that God made a promise to Abraham and his offspring.  We call such a promise a “will” or “testament.” Paul is using a pun that works in Greek because the Greek version of the Old Testament calls the covenant a testament. This is why Christians call the Hebrew scriptures the Old Testament, by the way. First testament or original covenant would be appropriate names as well.

Paul claims that the original covenant included a promise to Abraham’s offspring, and like any will, it is still valid. Paul points out that the law of Moses was not given for another 430 years, and he insists that the law did not annul the original promise, which was based on Abraham’s trust in God. It is not a very strong argument, and Paul does not use it in Romans when he discusses Abraham and the covenant.

The second part of Paul’s argument sounds very strange to modern readers. He points out that the promise was to Abraham and his “seed” or offspring. The Greek word “spermata” is singular, as Paul says, but spermata is a collective noun, as is offspring. We might not be persuaded by Paul’s point here, but he is using a type of interpretation employed by ancient rabbis. Before the time of Paul, rabbis had connected the idea of Abraham’s seed to the promise that David’s seed would rule in Israel, and they argued that a single descendent of Abraham and David would be the Messiah. Paul simply takes the rabbinical argument to claim that the promised seed of Abraham was Jesus. Thus, Jesus, not the law, was the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham.

The Law as Custodian:            This leads into the question of why God gave the law to Moses at all if the inheritance was to be granted through faith. Paul claims that the law was given to Israel because they had become sinners. You may remember that the Israelites trusted in God enough to escape slavery in Egypt. They crossed through the waters to freedom, but then they turned to idolatry. Paul implies that this was why the law was needed. The Israelites could no longer be faithful without a written law. His second point is that this law was given through intermediaries rather than directly by God. Moses was a prophet and spokesman for God, but he was not God. For centuries, rabbis had pointed to the presence of angels on Mt. Sinai as a way to elevate the majesty and awe of the giving of the law, but Paul claims that it was the angels rather than God who gave the law to Moses. In other words, the law came through several intermediaries rather than being given directly by God. It is not a very strong argument, but it can be strengthened through modern biblical study, which indicates that the law evolved over many centuries.

It is intriguing that in verse 22, Paul uses the word “scripture” instead of “law” when he claims that the written code imprisons all things in sin. You may have noticed that biblical literalists do not hold this verse up at sporting events or preach it from the airwaves. Paul recognized that the Bible be twisted to harm and harass people. The old Moravians often pointed out that even inquisitors and crusaders quoted from the Bible. Paul is not condemning Scripture or the law; he is pointing out that the Scripture shows us that all humans are subject to sin. The law reveals to us just how imperfect and flawed we really are. The law is not opposed to the promises given to Abraham, but the law could not fulfill the promise. Even though the law appears to offer a way to righteousness, we find that it highlights just how far from God we truly are.  

We like to divide the world into the righteous and the sinful, but Paul shatters that illusion. He says that the Law of Moses reveals to us the reality that we are all sinners. We are all in bondage to the laws of death and corruption. None of us can fulfill the law’s demands.

Paul offers another way of viewing the law. It functioned like a paidagogos, which is not quite the same as a pedagogue. The paidagogos was a slave who took the master’s children to school and made sure they obeyed. Once the children came of age, they were freed from the watchful eye of the paidagogos. In other words, he was like a custodian of the children and served as their disciplinarian. These are the functions the law had in Paul’s thinking. The law was given by God to preserve the children of Abraham and to keep them in line until the proper time. In other words, the Law of Moses was relative rather than absolute. It was provided for a particular time and place. Pauline Christians today should keep this argument in mind when quoting from Leviticus or Joshua. The old law served its purpose until Christ came, but the law worked by punishment and threat. Christ brings freedom.

Paul tells the Galatians that they are no longer until the curse of the old law; they have been set free by the faithfulness of Jesus. Paul implies that the world has come of age, and the old is passing away. We should read Paul’s words as a call for maturity and self-control, not as a license for bad behavior. We no longer have a disciplinary because we have come of age. We can be freed by the fears that plagued the ancient world as well as the fears that keep us imprisoned today. To live in Christ is to live as free and responsible moral agents who have internalized the fundamental principles of God’s intention for the world. Gone are the days when we need teachers to rap our knuckles or paddle our behinds. Gone is the controlling force of the law. Banish the voices that tell you that everything you do is wrong. If we are in Christ, we are free to live.

Sons and Daughters:            This brings us to one of the most important things that Paul ever wrote. Galatians 3:28 is the culmination of Paul’s whole argument thus far. He tells his audience that they are all sons of God through Christ. Today we would says sons and daughters since Paul clearly includes both males and females in this statement. You are sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ. The pious people in Paul’s day believed that God was a distant deity who had decreed laws and would preside on judgment day. Islam teaches that God has no sons. God is God and humans are humans. In contrast, Jesus claimed God as his father, and the church proclaimed Jesus as the unique Son of God. Paul goes much further and makes the provocative claim that those who place their faith in Christ also become the sons and daughters of God. You are sons and daughters of the Most High and are loved with the infinite love of God. All who believe in Christ are members of the household of God. Paul claims that the barrier between God and sinful humanity has been torn away by Jesus.

It is because we are sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ that all other barriers are torn down, too. Some scholars think that Paul may have been quoting a baptismal creed in verses 27-28. If so, it would have been the creed that he used when he baptized people in Galatia. He reminded them that they had all been baptized in Christ and clothed in Christ. He makes an allusion to the ancient practice of baptizing people nude and then clothing them in a white robe symbolizing their new life. Moravians do not baptize this way, but the pastor wears a white robe. Zinzendorf took this metaphor of being clothed in Christ and combined with Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet to produce his beautiful hymn: The Savior’s Blood and Righteousness, my beauty is, my glorious dress.

Since President Truman integrated the Armed Forces after World War II, there has been a saying that there is only one color in the Army: green. 1900 years before that saying was invented, Paul was telling the Galatians that there is one name for the sons and daughters of God: Christ. All who have faith in Christ and are baptized in Christ are clothed in Christ. Because of this, Paul can make the bold claim that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female.

Slave and Free:            I wonder how much this statement shocked the original hearers. Paul has been building a case to prove to them that the division between Jew and Gentile is no longer valid in the church, but he pushes his argument further. Not only are Jews and Gentiles united through baptism as the sons and daughters of God, so are slaves and free people. Slavery was one of the harsh realities of the ancient world, and servitude marked a fundamental division in the social order. Owning slaves was a sign of power, wealth, and status. Being a slave was a sign that you were a lesser creature. Slavery defined your identity. You were unworthy of respect and you had no dignity. You were not a man or woman like other men and women. We know that there were slaves and masters in the early church, and it is clear that Paul did not simply condemn slavery as unchristian. He did something more revolutionary. He declared that in Christ there is neither slave nor free. All who are baptized in Christ have the same status as sons and daughters of God.

No matter what the world said; no matter what the law said; no matter what the powers and principalities said; no matter what the emperor said; Christ made slaves and free equal. One of the most shocking aspects of early Christianity was that slaves and masters ate together and talked together. This is why the emperor wanted to destroy this subversive religion. Though the church often ignored Paul and lost sight of this vision, his words have repeatedly shocked Christians back into faithful devotion to Christ. These words inspired Leonard Dober to offer his life to the slaves in St. Thomas. These words inspired William Wilberforce and John Woolman and David Walker and Sojourner Truth to bring down the slave system in the 19th century. These words continue to inspire Christians to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Male and Female:            It can be scary to shake the foundations of the world by declaring radical freedom and equality in Christ, but Paul wanted to make sure the Galatians got the point. Not only is there no division between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, there is no division between men and women. It is possible that the Galatians had been baptized with these words that Paul uses: In Christ  you are all one; there is no longer male and female. With a few exceptions, such as the radical Pietists, Christians over the centuries haven’t grasped the full import of Paul’s words here. Churches love to quote other parts of the NT that subordinate women rather than taking Galatians 3:28 seriously. It is interesting that the same churches that embrace Paul’s arguments against circumcision and preach that the just shall live by faith lose their courage when it comes to 3:28. Rather than recognizing this as the climax of Paul’s argument in Galatians, they jump right over it to other letters they like better. In doing so they miss the whole point of Galatians. They become just like those people was warning the Galatians about. They reject the freedom of Christ and want to go back to the old ways.

Paul is telling the Galatians and us that the followers of Christ are living in a new world. We have one foot in the kingdom of God even though we are living in a corrupt and sinful society. Those who are in Christ are equal in Christ. Although even Paul made compromises with the world in which he lived, he recognized that Christ changed everything. Even the most basic division between human beings, even the oldest form of oppression, has been atoned for by Jesus. We are no longer under the curse of the law or under the curse of racism, nationalism, or sexism. Who would have thought that Paul would write such a thing?

I know what some of you are thinking. Why should we take this verse more seriously than those verses in Timothy and Ephesians that subordinate women to men? Why should this verse be our guiding principle, our touchstone, and our rule of faith? Part of the reason is that this verse is not just an isolated statement that Paul throws in. It sums up his whole argument about being justified in Christ. Galatians 3:28 describes the new reality of being clothed in Christ. It even makes sense as to why Paul was so reluctant to reintroduce a ritual that marked only men as part of the covenant. Baptism is for men and women.

Galatians 3:28 also makes sense as a summary of the atonement because Paul himself writes about the women who shared his ministry: some were the heads of churches, some were prophets and apostles. It makes sense that we highlight this verse above others because Jesus welcomed a Samaritan woman into the household of God and let Mary sit at his feet. It makes sense that we live by this verse because the first ones to proclaim the good news of Easter were women. Paul tells us that Christians are called to live according to the spirit of God that unites us rather than focus on the flesh that divides us. Gal. 3:28 makes sense because we are no longer under the curse of the law that subordinated women and enslaved the poor. It makes sense because whenever the church has rejected this message, it lost sight of Christ and turns to violence and oppression rather than love and liberation.

Conclusion:                        We’ve come to the end of our time on the radio this morning, and I thank you for listening. Next week we’ll continue our study of Galatians and examine what Paul has to say about slavery and freedom.

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