A Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C – Proper 8 – 30 June 2013
John Edward Miller, Rector
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. – Galatians 5:1,13-25
Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Of all the letters Paul wrote to the young churches, I find his Letter to the Galatians the most appealing. His teachings in Galatians are basic to Christian thought – teachings about things like grace, and freedom, and spiritual health. We really wouldn’t be the Church with out them. But beyond these essentials, there is something else about the letter that grabs me. It is the unabashed humanity of the author that connects to my own foibles. Galatians is full of Paul’s personality, his imperfections, and his struggle to be the man God has called him to be. It is a relief to know that believing and being aren’t necessarily synonymous.
Paul’s inner turmoil affects every part of the Galatian letter. He knows what he should be, but he realizes that he falls short of the mark. That causes him to redouble his efforts, and to commend the same to others. Nevertheless, he fails, and he regularly admits his inability to live as he believes. In Romans, Paul put his dilemma succinctly: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” That text is a mirror in which I can see my own reflection.
Like Paul, I have tried to live my life by the rules. I am a first child type; I aim to please, and I have high expectations of myself. Those traits put a premium on achievement and success. But humans – all of us – face failure from time to time. I certainly have, and I’ve been hard on myself because of those lapses. Disappointed that I haven’t performed up to a sterling standard, I get determined to do better. And sometimes that works, but more often than not, the same mistake, or old habit, reappears and I slip again. Not being able to do what I expect of myself is discouraging. But getting down on myself doesn’t help; it only compounds the problem. What has helped me, though, is grace – the experience of mercy, acceptance, encouragement, and helping hands of support.
I remember a time when I was trying to please the four professors that comprised my doctoral committee in graduate school. Each of them had read and annotated a rough draft of my dissertation. My main advisor, Donald Dawe, had freely edited the chapters I had labored to write, sometimes x-ing out whole sections that he thought superfluous or irrelevant. But he did so as my mentor, so I took his critique as positive guidance. Two others made suggestions for minor improvements to the thesis. I appreciated their comments as well. However, there was one reader – a philosophy professor at another university whose expertise in my field was highly touted – whose editorial notes were more like slash-and-burn criticism that helpful hints. On virtually every page of the draft he questioned my logic, my intentions, my style, and my point. My job was to revise my research in response to my readers’ commentary. When I read his, however, I felt as though I was supposed to re-write the whole dissertation.
Needless to say, I was down in the dumps, and down on myself. The project was all about high achievement, and critical remarks like that one professor’s made me feel like a failure. I didn’t understand at the time that he had a particular academic axe to grind, and my thesis ran counter to his agenda. At any rate, I was disconsolate, and I must have appeared so to the faculty. As I stared at my draft in the library, a dark cloud was hovering over my head. That pitiful sight attracted the attention of one of my readers. He walked over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “I recognize that look your face. I had the same look years ago when I was finishing my work. So I want you to know this: really, John, this is only an academic exercise. It’s not your life.” With that he patted me on the back, smiled, and walked away. His empathy – expressed in a few kind words – pulled me out of a slump, and I was able to complete my work. I am grateful for that simple, but powerful, gift; it freed me (at least momentarily) from the futility of seeking approval at all times.
Paul too experienced grace – tremendous grace. Jesus forgave him for persecuting his disciples. Christ graciously came to Paul while he was yet a sinner, and he raised him to a whole new life. And he was given a mission, namely to spread the word that the God of love, whom we know in Jesus, accepts us even though, in comparison to his standard of goodness, we are unacceptable. Our RSVP to that invitation to life is to accept that we are accepted.
Knowing that God’s acceptance had saved him from the never-ending treadmill of proving his worth to God by being tough-minded and ruthlessly obedient, Paul was free to help others trust that same grace. On a mission trip in the Roman province of Galatiain what is now central Turkey, Paul preached grace, and his message was heard. The Galatians became Gentile converts to the Christian way. Their ancestors had immigrated from Gaul (which is now France); thus the name of their province. Ethnically-speaking the Galatians were more European than Asian; they had no Jewish roots. Paul had to talk to them in terms that they could grasp. So he coined a new theme to explain the message of Jesus. For Paul the good news that Jesus proclaimed and lived was we are justified by grace through faith.
That doesn’t sound like anything that Jesus said in the gospels, because it wasn’t. Paul never heard Jesus preach, or tell parables, or see him heal the sick. He came to know Jesus through a vision. So he didn’t tell the story of Jesus’ life; instead he told people about the meaning of Jesus’ life. His teaching about justification by grace was Paul’s way of saying that the Galatians, like all people, were accepted despite their flaws. This was a pure gift from God. It’s the only way it could happen. Being justified – that is, being “put right” with God – is not something that we can do for ourselves. Paul knew that no one earns or deserves that standing on his own merit. It is God’s amazing grace that saves everyone; all we need to do is believe that, to trust that, and acceptance is ours. We are truly free.
Well, it seems as if the Galatians were relieved to know that. They became disciples of Jesus Christ, and Paul assisted them in organizing a church before he went on his way to preach the same message to other Gentiles. However, it also appears that Paul’s message went in one ear and out of the other in the Galatian community. The apostle has heard that something has changed in Galatia, and he is not pleased.
In his letter, Paul expresses his disappointment in the Galatians. More than that, he is angry. That is the sub-text of this passage of Scripture today. He is so put out by their behavior that, in other spots in the letter, he vents his frustration in graphic language – some of it far too edgy for polite conversation. Calling them “foolish” Paul proceeds to jump on their case. He lambastes them for their lack of spine, conviction, loyalty, and wisdom. To Paul the Galatians appear gullible and naïve. His letter is addressed to their vulnerability and ignorance of what is genuine and true.
The reason for Paul’s anger is that, in his absence, a group of evangelists known as the Judaizers has moved into Galatia and completely hoodwinked the fledgling church he had planted there. The “boys from Jerusalem” thought they knew the score better than Paul did, and told the Galatians so. The Judaizers’ main message was that any Gentile convert would have to become a Jew first in order to qualify as a Christian. For the Gentiles that intermediate step would have significant dietary, religious, and surgical consequences. It would impose hundreds of Jewish laws, statutes, and customs on people who had very little understanding of those rules. But more than that, it meant that all of Paul’s work had been undermined by letter-of-the-law nitpickers – people so caught up in correctness that they failed to see everyone’s need for God’s grace.
Their attitude was that if one follows the rules, then one’s relationship with God is healthy and good. Paul understood that rule following cannot bridge the gap between “is” and “ought.” If legalism were able to accomplish that feat, then there would be no need for a church, or a Jesus. Experience alone teaches that crossing t’s and dotting i’s does not justify us – does not span the chasm between God and humankind. We simply cannot make this relationship wholesome by our own efforts.
That’s because we humans are slaves to self rather than servants of God. “I did it my way” was not just Frank’s or Elvis’ theme song. It is also ours, to a greater or lesser degree. “This is what’s best for me” is a common explanation for actions that indicate egocentrism. Even rule following is/can be self-serving. Pride over a clean record with no demerits leads all of us Jack Horners to boast “what a good boy am I.”
Paul pleaded with the Galatians, saying, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” When he speaks of “the yoke” his reference is to a means of subjugation. A yoke across the shoulders of an ox or a man prevents freedom. Under it there is only slavery. In Paul’s own life, his slavery was to legalism. He was always zealous to obey the letter of the law. Christians, in his estimation, were non-conformists, law breakers. Hence he took it upon himself to harass them into obedience. But his behavior flew in the face of the spirit of the law, which was to preserve peace, order, and the integrity of the community of faith. It took an intervention by Christ to free him from his self-centered slavery to correctness. Through God’s grace he was saved from that slavery. Well, almost. He still had enough ego to feel bruised by the Galatians’ lack of loyalty.
Every child needs to experience grace. Every child needs the comfort of knowing that he is loved unconditionally by his parents. Being accepted without ifs, ands, or buts, is a powerful force for the good. It is enlivening and freeing. Released from the toil and strife of seeking to please, a child can grow into the full stature of Christ. To me that means developing into a grateful, gracious person. It means that one is truly free to love. Freedom of this kind is not the license to do as I please, an entitlement to receive or to presume one’s own importance. Rather it is the liberty to serve, and to give, and to grow in grace for the sake of God’s pure, unbounded love for the whole world.
Accepting God’s acceptance is a process. The gift of grace is not the flipping of a switch; it is an acquired taste. God keeps on giving, and our task is to remain open to God’s continuous stream of unconditional love. Grace had not completely taken hold of the Galatians. Nor had it taken hold of Paul. Neither has it sunk in with us. But grace abides. It is real, and it works, if we’ll let it.
A Collect for Peace
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.