Sunday, March 25, 2012

Death to Slavery (Scandal series)

Audio file.

Galatians 5 (message)

Do you hear the intensity and urgency in Paul's message?  Last week he is confronting the apostle Peter in front of everyone.  This week he speaks of castration.  "Stand firm" he urges, and this is no passive standing.  It is active, it is war.  "Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."  On the first Sunday of Lent, we began this message series, exploring a summary of its theme in the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, scandalous to Jews and moronic to Greeks”, to use the Greek roots “skandalon” and “moria” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  In the following weeks, we followed the implications of this theme as Paul develops it, quite extensively, in his letter to the Galatian churches.  For Paul, the call of Christ was a call to the cross, and a call to a death.  First, “death to people pleasing” – If we live to please God, then we don’t have to worry about performance anxiety for anyone else.  Then, last week, “death to self-righteousness”.  Only bad people go to heaven, only sinners are saved.  As Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).  In our quest to please God, the path is not paved by our own efforts, but by the goodness of Jesus himself.  Such a radical negation of self-righteousness implies a radical equality of all persons before the cross.  As Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
            Today, we conclude our work in Galatians and prepare to return once more to 1 Corinthians for Palm/Passion Sunday and for Easter.  Today, we look at another death, death to slavery.  If last week we talked about the impact of the cross on our salvation – only bad people get to heaven, only sinners are saved – this week we ask the “now what?” question.  Now that we have come to Jesus, now that we have embraced the cross . . . now that we are “saved”, now what?  What does this scandalous and moronic gospel mean for what the Bible calls elsewhere, “working out your salvation” (Philippians 2:12)?  In the language of the Wesleyan tradition, we are talking today about “sanctifying grace” – the gift of God that makes us holy.


If our own efforts do not make us righteous enough for salvation, why should we expect them to make us holy?  But we do.  It is so much simpler to live by our efforts, to live by rules, to live by Law.  Paul told us that we could not be saved by the Law, by rules, by effort.  And, here, as he explores the transformed life, he starts out by declaring: “Stand firm.  Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).  Death to slavery!  Slavery to the law, slavery to our efforts, slavery to rules.  Do not let yourselves be burdened again by that yoke of slavery!  And, while you are at it, don’t try to burden anyone else with that yoke either.  In Paul’s time, this yoke of slavery was symbolized by circumcision.  It was the idea that, to become Christian, you also had to become Jewish, to be circumcised, and therefore, to obey the entire law.  Galatian Christians were accepting this idea and, according to Paul, they were nullifying the “offense (skandalon) of the cross” (5:11).
            The symbol of that yoke in our own time varies.  In Haiti, we were told that the big taboos were smoking and tattoos.  I’ve been places where those symbols were long hair on men (over the ears or collar) or rock music of any kind (even “so-called” Christian rock).  A former pastor of mine, Dick Woodward, called it “geographical holiness”.
            For Paul, the issue wasn’t the symbol, but what it represented.  Circumcision represented righteousness obtained by obeying the law, by following the rules.  But we died to all that, why start living in it?  He tells us that we “[a]wait the hope of righteousness” by faith (5:5), not by obedience to the law.
            Today’s symbols tend to represent a legalism that many of us would find oppressive.  But it is still so easy to begin pursuing a righteousness obtained by our own obedience, by our own efforts, by the law.  We use the language of “should” and “ought”.  We live with guilt and shame, and consider them to be healthy motivators. 

Dick Woodward tells the story of the “morning after” his conversion as a youth.  He had publically responded in an altar call.  The next morning, his brother – who was not a follower of Jesus at the time – woke him up.  He was distraught, worried for him.  “Dick, do you have any idea what you have done?  Now you won’t be able to have any fun!”
            I have my own version of that story.  In my youth, I was really into discipline, effort, structure.  My kids will tell you that I’m still that way … though I’ve mellowed a good bit!  One of my friends invited me to do something fun – go rock climbing, hang out, something.  My response was “I’ve already done my one fun thing for the week.”
            We receive the gift of God by grace through faith.  If we get that scandalous and moronic truth, we often miss the truth that we live as disciples of Jesus by that same grace and through that same faith.  The operators of discipleship don’t suddenly change as the transformation continues.  It remains the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ.
            But it is easier to rely on our own efforts.  It is easier to go back into slavery, to let a rule by our master.  There’s nothing wrong with the rules, but like any kid who hears “no”, we start to wonder what we’re missing, we obsess about the line.  How far can we go before we actually break the rule?  An example: “Don’t look at pornography.”  It’s a great rule.  Porn objectifies people, people created in the image of God.  And porn diminishes the beauty and holiness of the gift of human sexuality.  If our focus is on the rule and slavery to the rule, we get picky with it: “What constitutes pornography?”  Or, we obsess so much over not breaking the rule that we become just as focused on breaking the rule.  “Oops, I did it again.”  Rules function like this (see Romans 7).  When we pursue a righteousness built on obedience to rules, we find ourselves enslaved to rules and enslaved to sin, to what Paul calls “the works of the flesh” (5:19).  Because, if we are trying to become righteous by our own works, we’ll soon find ourselves doing our own works, all right!  “Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (5:19-20).  I shouldn’t, but I just did.  You shouldn’t, and you just did.  Slavery.
            “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1).  Paul would not argue with the fact that obedience to God is a good thing.  He tells us, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence” (5:13).  Obedience to God is good.  He would argue, however, that obedience is not the engine of transformation.  And, that if we seek to be transformed people only by obedience, that is, by our own effort, we will find ourselves in a sinister and soul-destroying slavery.

So, if the way forward, the path of transformation, is not the path of rules or the path of self-indulgence, then what path is it?  What is the engine of transformation?  It is LOVE.  “The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).  It’s the favorite verse of the founding figure of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, and the verse we’ve been reading together each Sunday through Lent.  It is worth memorizing.  “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (5:22).  That’s what the spiritual life is about, and “there is no law against [that is, no rule governing] such things” (5:23).
            John Wesley talked about “Christian perfection”, but most folks get confused with his vocabulary and imagine a perfection of obedience to the law.  No.  Christian perfection is “perfection in love”.  We’ll still be ignorant of things – and make a “wrong” decision.  We’ll still make mistakes.  We’ll still lack wisdom and have poor judgment.  It happens, and it is unavoidable in this life.  However, nothing can stop love.
            I expect that I will always struggle with anger.  I had no idea how angry I could be until a few months into our marriage, when we entered a stressful and uncertain work situation.  It was a rude awakening for me, as well as for Robin.  But anger does not have the power over me that it once did.  Why?  It is not because I kept telling myself, “JP, you shouldn’t get so mad!  Why do you do that?  What’s wrong with you, JP?”  It is not because I kept working at it, though I certainly did and do “work” at it.  The engine that drives transformation is love.  I’ve been loved by God – a God whose “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).  I’ve been loved by Robin and our boys.  And I love – I love Jesus, I love Robin and Jesse and Caleb – with all my heart.

So, if you struggle with any of the “works of the flesh”, if you crave any transformation in your life, if you are ready to be made new – a totally new creation – the way forward is the way of love.  Who do you love?  Have you accepted the fact that you are loved by God, and there’s nothing you can do to change that fact?  Don’t wait to claim your love.  Don’t wait to tell those you love that you love them.  Today, tell them you love them.  And, today, tell Jesus you love him.  There’s no day like Today!

Blessing:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!  (6:14-15)
The only thing that counts is faith working through love.  (5:6)

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