June 30, 2019

Pentecost 3   June 30,2019 Psalm 77, 2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14; Luke 9:51-62, Galatians 5:1,13-25   For freedom Christ has set us free

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For freedom Christ has set us free… stand firm, therefore, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery – the apostle says. Then, just a few verses later he says – you were called to freedom, only don’t use your freedom for self-indulgence – but through love become slaves to one another.

Stay free. Don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. And –

Become slaves to one another through love. Isn’t this a bit of a contradiction?

Let’s do a little very quick review of the background context of this letter to the Galatians – which has been a tremendously influential letter, especially in Protestant theology. Our doctrine of God’s free grace as the source of our salvation flows straight from Galatians (and it’s cousin, the letter to the Romans). Salvation by grace and faith is a huge theme in Galatians – but Christian freedom is actually the main theme of the letter, and our first verse today (Galatians 5:1) works as a theme statement: For freedom Christ has set us free.

But – Free from what? What kind of freedom? Exactly how much freedom? Bible scholars are still discussing and debating virtually every line of Galatians, still trying to figure out what was going on when Paul wrote this letter – addressed to a cluster of churches in the region of Galatia in Western Asia, to the North and West of Israel. What we’re most nearly sure of is – some Jewish Christians with some connection to the Jerusalem church (how much of a connection is debated) have come to the Galatian churches saying non-Jewish church members must be circumcised – and obey all or some of the law of Moses, including Jewish food laws – if they are to be considered Christians. Some, perhaps many, in the Galatian churches have now believed these missionaries.

And Paul is furious. He’s absolutely sure adding any non-essential-to-the-gospel requirements to the gospel of Jesus Christ risks damaging or even destroying the faith of people whose faith is still fragile or shaky.  He argues angrily, creatively, strenuously – that freedom for non-Jewish Christians absolutely non-negotiably includes being free from the law of Moses. The law is for Israel, not for Gentiles. Non-Jewish believers need to know the law but they are not subject to the details of the law…

And here we need to know or remember – this is the same religious law that Paul used to teach, as a member of the strictest Jewish sect, the Pharisees, and a persecutor of the Christian church in his former life. But now here’s Paul, calling  the law a yoke that binds allwho attempt to live by it in slavery. Insisting that the law not only cannot bring salvation – trying to obey it will enslave us in fruitless effort…like running on a treadmill… going nowhere.

And we need to know the issue really isn’t about circumcision (elsewhere in the letter he’ll say twice “neither circumcision nor un-circumcision matters) nor about dietary laws – the issue is making anything other than the gospel itself an issue. Contrary to what we may have heard elsewhere, the bible tells us – the gospel doesn’t have to be spoken in biblical Hebrew or Greek or King James English or contemporary English or any particular language…. The gospel need not be taught the same way we heard it in Sunday School or on tv… As long as the gospel is presented as “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that all who believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life…” And Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again… The gospel is sufficient.

We also need to know that over the centuries this letter has often been misinterpreted as about alleged Jewish legalism. A serious mistake on many levels that should be obvious – given that Paul’s whole argument here is based on his knowledge and understanding of and reverence for the First Testament, which he cites often as authoritative scripture – elsewhere naming Israel as the tree into which we Christians have been grafted (Romans 11).

All the legalism we hear of in Galatians is all Christian legalism.

As early on in the letter, Paul rebukes Peter and indirectly James, the two most influential church leaders of the day, for tilting towards the Jerusalem-based missionaries who insist on Jews sitting at separate tables from Gentiles at meal time and circumcision for Gentiles… Paul has no issue with Jews choosing circumcision, but says he hopes those who want to make circumcision into law for Gentiles will take their argument all the way and cut off the parts of themselves they want others to circumcise. Paul is seriously ticked-off, big time.

As Paul proclaims non-Jewish Christians don’t need to live by the whole law of Moses. Asking, rhetorically, if Abraham, patriarch of the Hebrew people, received God’s blessing through law – or through the promise of God? Of course it was through God’s promises – recorded in Genesis, starting at chapter 12. And the law wasn’t given for more than 400 years after Abraham. And of course the law doesn’t over-ride promises God made to the ancestors long before the law.

Therefore, Paul says – stop trying to be saved by law! Remember how you came to Christ! – by faith! By the grace of God! But the law is apparently now taking the place of grace for some in the Galatian churches. So Paul appears to be turning tradition upside down – as he calls the law, once the emblem of freedom – a yoke of slavery.

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Yet now as we re-enter the letter in chapter 5 –  just as it’s starting to look like Paul’s advocating over-throw of tradition – he brings his argument back to a familiar theme. Saying ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment – you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ So – the law is good after all – if we know the heart and soul of the law is love. From there it’s not such a big leap to – telling us – “through love become slaves to one another…” Anticipating the argument of later poets, many of whom have learned the hard way – freedom without love is not really freedom at all. (As Kristofferson sang in antiquity…) Freedom’s just another word – for nothing left to lose. Nothing don’t mean nothing but it’s free… And so…

Christian freedom then, actually comes through being slaves to one another through love… Which is actually an old, old love song well known in Israel. As God tells us way back in Leviticus (25:55) – “the people of Israel are (my) servants (my slaves) – whom I brought out from the land of Egypt…”

As another poet has sung – “you’ve got to serve someone… it might be the devil, it might be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve someone… And the only one we can serve in freedom is the God of freedom… who sent Jesus to tell us “you shall know the truth (of God in Christ…) And the truth shall make you free…”

And because real freedom is always God’s gift, never something we earn – and since true freedom is found only in love – and since as First Corintians 13 tells us, ‘love does not insist on it’s own way’ – therefore – true freedom is never about doing whatever we want – true freedom’s always about doing the right thing in love – including doing no harm to others (insofar as possible) – and –

Paul gives us now a “vice-list” – as he does in many of his letters – an illustrative but necessarily incomplete list of problem behaviors – that everyone, pagans included, knows – or ought to know – not to practice. Things contrary to the Spirit. Things that can keep us out of God’s kingdom – not for a single or a few infractions – but with protracted practice – any of these practices can keep us apart from God’s kingdom. We’re not under law – but we can’t deny the need for basic morality…

And we notice – both ends of Paul’s don’t-go-there list are standard Jewish–Christian-Islamic-Buddhist-Hindu consensus morality. No to sexual immorality, sorcery, or idolatry on one end – no to drunkenness and wild partying on the other end. And notice all the things of the flesh in between – “enmities – strife – jealousy – anger – quarrels – dissensions – factions –  envy…” All that stuff can kill us spiritually as surely as drunkenness or sexual infidelity… (So – ‘I wasn’t being envious, Lord…just thinking about those guys down at the canal who have time for fishing all day… not jealous… really I’m not…’Anyway…)

The word translated as fleshsarx in the original Greek – isn’t the same as our English word flesh, though there’s some overlap. Some translations translate sarx (or flesh) as “the sinful nature” – which is misleading – as the biblical word flesh while in contrast with Spirit – is more nearly neutral than entirely negative. The biblical word flesh means of the world’s ways of thinking – more than bodily. Which is good to remember considering all the sad history of the church – too often mistakenly calling the body and anything associated with bodily pleasure sinful. Excess in any direction is dangerous. But our bodies are fundamentally good because they’re made by God – for enjoyment of God’s good creation – and for each other – with the guidance of God’s word and God’s Spirit. Galatians assumes we know this or can learn it…

Of course we need the guidance of God’s Spirit to know the difference between flesh in it’s negative and positive senses… And thanks God – the Holy Spirit is always willing to help us know the difference, even before we ask…

Which brings us to Paul’s short list of the fruit of the Spirit – fruit of the Spirit, singular, not plural – all one package – the fruit of the Spirit all believers in Christ have: Love – joy – peace – patience – kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness – self-control…There’s no law (ever)… against any of these

I’m never quite sure I’ve got any good fruit to show…

But I’ve heard much better Christians than I am testify – that all of us who believe in Jesus do have the fruit of the Spirit in our lives… Whether we see it or not… Which I believe because… We’re designed by God to walk humbly with God – so by design it’s much easier to see the fruit of the Spirit in others than in ourselves…

Because it’s not supposed to be about us…

But about the one who loves us – who died for us – to set us free…

For freedom Christ has set you free –

be slaves therefore in love to one another –

The gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.