1. Two words serve as bookends for the passage this morning: freedom and destruction. In between those two words is the message of Paul to the Galatians. Embrace one and avoid the other. Reject one and suffer the consequences of the other. In between those two options is where we live and find ourselves not only this morning but, seemingly, in our times as a country and a world.
“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.”
Paul is not talking here about political freedom or slavery even though this verse has been misused to say that. He is not talking about economic freedom, freedom of speech or even religious liberty. He is talking about the slavery to the tutor we looked in a previous chapter. The household slave wants to hold on to the child and will not let go. It is the opposition to the freedom of new believers from the restrictions and bondage of the rules and regulations of Judaism.
It is conflict with Jewish converts who wanted new believers to meet the requirements of a Jewish identity. It is not enough to be a believer. They must conform to the rules that are the current non-negotiables. The rules that separate the true believers from the pretenders. “You cannot be Christ follower unless you meet our legal and traditional requirements.” He wanted to open up the borders and give everyone equal access to everything. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” Ephesians 2:19-20. How did they see it? He was tearing down and giving away to outsiders the very things that defined them. He was stealing and giving away their identity to strangers. You can see why they wanted to silence him.
He was opposed by the Jewish converts who wanted new believers to change their identity by fulfilling certain requirements. They wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted the benefits of the new without giving up their special status. As you know, Jews had special status in the Roman Empire. They were not required to serve in the military, their synagogues were classified as colleges and not places of worship, and they were not required to have the image of the Emperor on their coins. Having non-Jews as part of the Church would have jeopardized those privileges for everyone.
2. From what have we been made free?
First, we have been made free from the yoke of something I need to do to get God’s love. There is something I can do to earn it other than the uncertainty of accepting God’s word that there is no condemnation for those who believe. As Dallas Willard says, “Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning.” Paul would be the first to agree that we strive to become mature but he would never say that we strive to become righteous in God’s eyes. He would be the first to say that we need to lead disciplined lives in order to honor God but he would never say that obedience to rules is the way to be accepted by God.
For many people brought up with the notion of a God always looking for what is wrong or for those who break the rules this is almost impossible to accept. For those, we are always asking the question “what can I do to get out from under the harsh eyes of God?” Paul’s answer is impossible to believe until you have experienced grace. There is nothing but to accept the freely given love of God.
For others, they need to be made free not only from their own self-judgment – the inner critic – but from their constant need to find fault with others. In the short novel, “The Fall” by Albert Camus, we read about a man, Jean-Baptist Clemence, who sits in a small cafe in Amsterdam night after night. He invites strangers to his table to hear their story. But, over time, he guides the conversation to whatever it is in their lives for which they are ashamed – their sin. Why? Because, years ago he watched a woman commit suicide by jumping in the canal and he did nothing to stop or save her and he cannot stop judging himself. So, his solution is to discover the sin of everyone he encounters so he can disqualify them from judging him. While it will not make him innocent it will make them incapable of judging him. That is an accurate description of people who are especially good at discovering the sins of others in order to relieve themselves of their own or to make theirs seem inconsequential in comparison. No one is innocent so we must all be guilty together.
3. How much of our life is spent looking for the one thing that is most important to God and will make us feel like we have pleased him?
Some say the one thing is the Great Commission
Some say it is Pure Religion
Some say it is Dying to Self
Some say it is Giving Up Everything
Some say it is becoming a Living Sacrifice
For those of us searching for that “one thing” that will avert God’s ruthless gaze, it is like Flannery O’Connor’s description of the South. We are Christ-haunted. Instead of being comforted and free, we are disturbed and always on the search for what will please the unpleasable God. It is Sisyphus pushing the rock up the mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom time and again for eternity.
We keep going back to our desire to satisfy God with a sacrifice, an offering or a vow. We need to be set free from a haunted religion, don’t we? That is the thing about rules. They are both a whip and a reward – a carrot and a stick. They are real and you know exactly where you stand. There is no ambiguity or uncertainty. When you obey them you are rewarded and when you break them you are punished. When we walk away from them we don’t have them as a guide. We have lost our tutor and our schoolmaster. We have to grow up and accept the uncertainty of maturity. That is the dilemma of the Galatians and it is ours as well. What do we do with freedom? How do we control ourselves and others without the Law to direct us? How do we protect ourselves against those who would misuse that freedom? It’s not a pat answer, is it?
4. “For in Christ Jesus none of these things have any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
What does a free life look like? How does faith express itself?
Faith does not express itself in the right ideology, correct economics, theology, patriotism, or party affiliations. It expresses itself in love for each other – no matter how we disagree with each other about these things. Is this suddenly easy? Can we be satisfied with tolerating each other? No, tolerance is not love. As Chesterton said, “Tolerance is the virtue of men without convictions.”
When Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, “Behold, I show you the most excellent way” he was really saying, “Behold, I show you the humanly impossible way.” Try doing this on your own and you will live a life of frustration, failure and eventually cynicism.
Human love, love for a child, love for country, love for a spouse, a parent or dozens of other things is not what Paul means by love. That is a skill we can develop on our own with enough effort. We can take courses and seminars in that. What Paul is holding up here is “agape” or supernatural love that does not have its source in even the best of people. It is a gift from God and no matter how hard we try we cannot manufacture it. It can only be received. There is no secret formula in the vault to preserve it.
No wonder they wanted to go back to something with a scorecard – even if it made them slaves again.
“I want a religion that values how I define love.”
“I want a religion that improves me.”
“I want a religion that is possible – even if it is difficult. I want a carrot and a stick.”
I trust God to love me and that love is not dependent on my finding something that will please him. I trust God not to protect me from all harm or obstacles or heartbreaks but to know that once and for all I need not keep pushing the rock up the hill over and over again. I am at rest. Genuine rest.
One of the reasons we love the Eric Liddell quote so much, “When I run I feel God’s pleasure” is we do not feel it ourselves. Yes, we know God loves us and has forgiven us and we are somehow free from condemnation but we do not feel his pleasure. We do not sense his joy in being with us. He has graciously held back from giving us what we deserve but wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel God’s pleasure? That is what Paul is saying here. In Christ, we can not only experience the justice, love and forgiveness of God but also his pleasure. We can experience the “well done” in this life and not just in eternity.
5. But there is a purpose for freedom. It is not just personal satisfaction or the escape from the displeasure of God and slavery to rules and regulations. We are made free from slavery to become willing servants to each other. There is nothing natural in this. It is supernatural. Everything in us makes us want power over circumstances, people, difficulty and the unpredictable nature of life. But, we are servants now – not free agents. It is not as free agents that we can love our enemies. It is not as free agents that we can love those who persecute us. It is not as free agents that we can love those who insult, slander, and turn us into fools. That love is a supernatural act and a gift of God. That is why the love that people equate with so much of Christianity is false and ultimately harmful. It is idealistic and romantic love – not supernatural love. It is love up to a point – but not supernatural love. It is love that, like the first several signs of Moses to Pharoah, can be done as well or even better by the world. It is the best that men and women can do but in the end the rock rolls back down the hill.
6. Why was Paul concerned about their abusing their freedom? He knew that the abuse of freedom and liberty would be the flip side of the coin. The rejection of freedom for rules would make them slaves again. The abuse of freedom would lead them to tyranny. Men cannot live with chaos. They would rather have tyranny. He was warning them that unless they understood that faith must express itself in love they would eventually give up their freedom just to survive. As we read before in Lord Moulton’s essay on Law and Free Choice, there is the great middle domain of “obedience to the unenforceable” that is the foundation of a free society. The abuse of freedom and the abuse of regulations will only create tyranny. Paul is calling the Galatians – and all of us – to live in that middle place where only wisdom and God’s love can rule. That is why Jesus says in John 15:5 that we are to remain in him because apart from him we can do nothing. Apart from the freedom he brings we will swing between the abuse of freedom and the abuse of power.
The only way to live the not-so-simple life God intends for us is to stay connected to Christ. Every other option will lead to our destruction.
7. And that is where we meet the other book-end: destruction. Without the freedom that Christ brings we will over time come to devour each other. Once the supernatural has disappeared we are left to ourselves and our own best efforts at love and our own ways of controlling the abuses of freedom then we end up in tyranny. We end up with biting and devouring each other and, inevitably, destroying each other. How far do we have to look to see this illustrated so well? How much of what we see happening is exactly this – even in the Christian world with brothers and sisters biting and devouring each other over political differences? When the Church is no longer capable of supernatural love then we are left in a world that can only do what it knows to do – fight for power, for prestige, for dominance and the spoils of victory. You may remember the story of the two sons of Eli in the book of 1 Samuel. The wife of his eldest was pregnant when her husband died. Why did he die? He and his brother were corrupt leaders. They were not only greedy in taking what was not theirs and personally benefiting from their office as priests but they were immoral. They were sleeping with women who were under their power and control as servants at the Tabernacle. When her father-in-law, Eli, heard the news of his son’s death he fell over backward off his chair, broke his neck and died. The woman went into labor and named the baby Ichabod or “the glory has departed from Israel.” When the Church becomes just another agent for tolerance or another combatant in the fight for power then God may well write “Ichabod” over the door. As Paul says, “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” and it does not take much to corrupt an institution that represents the supernatural love of God.
8. So, we really do live in the in-between, don’t we? We are constantly tempted to give up the responsibility and ambiguity of freedom and always tempted to justify our desire to bite and devour those who disagree with us. We desperately need the Church to show the way in that in-between world and to show us how to value the only thing that counts – faith expressing itself through love. Dallas Willard said it best for me: “The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes – a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.” He is right. This is not a time for political or business leaders or even religious celebrities, but an age for spiritual heroes and a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power and, I would add, in their faith expressing itself in love.