Faith, Freedom, and Love: Galatians 5:1-15
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 24, 2009
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.
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.