Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Image illumination Galatians 1:1

Illumination from the Letter to the Galatians

A sermon on the Uniform Series text for Sunday, February 19, 2017, Galatians 5:1-18. The focus statement provided to Sunday school teachers has this to say about the text: “Rigorous self-discipline is appealing to some because it seems to promise mastery over temptation. What is the key to living a morally acceptable life? Paul urges the Galatians to stand firm in Christian freedom and to live by the Spirit, which leads to greater holiness, not greater self-indulgence.” If I were writing the focus statement, I would say this: We often contrast “legalism” with something more desirable – whether “authenticity,” or “freedom,” or sometimes – mistakenly – “Christianity.” But the more fundamental contrast lies between “self-justification” or “self-righteousness” and “justification – righteousness – in Christ.” Self-righteousness gives rise to hair-splitting formalism. Christ’s righteousness, by faith working through love, does the opposite.

Somewhere along the line, I heard this story:

Three pastors find themselves seated side by side in the torments of hell. Since they have a long time to get to know one another, they begin by asking how they ended up “down here” instead of the other place. The first pastor says, “Well, friends, it’s my own fault. I never did get comfortable with the seventh commandment, so I had a lot of lady friends over the years; I kept telling myself I was going to reform, but then one night in the middle of enjoying the company of my latest companion, I had a heart attack, and so, here I am.” The second pastor says, “Well, friends, it’s my own fault as well, because I never did get entirely comfortable with that eighth commandment, and because the Presbytery minimum was a little too minimal, I’d gotten in the habit of borrowing from the collection plate when I needed to buy good wine or good clothes or good art for the manse; I kept telling myself I was going to reform, but then one night after having spent the day hanging out at the country club with some wealthy congregants and enjoying an excellent meal of steak and lobster courtesy of the loose offering from the previous Sunday, I had a heart attack, and so, here I am.” The third pastor says, “Well, friends, I have to confess, it’s my own fault as well, because on the last day of my life I had gotten up early to attend a protest march on behalf of immmigrants, and then spent several hours helping out at the community food pantry, and then I’d gone to the hospital and visited all the sick in the congregation and taken them extended communion, and on the way home I stopped off at the homeless shelter to drop off the baby clothes we had collected, and then when I got back to the house, I dozed off instead of finishing the pastor’s annual report to the denomination by the deadline, so when I had the heart attack … well, here I am.”

The joke, of course, is that we don’t really believe that last administrative delinquency is on a par with the other two, and certainly shouldn’t outweigh a life of devoted service to the least and the lost.

But then … in everyday church life, we often act like we believe those administrative sins are matters of eternal life and death! In fact, I’m confident most of us could name any one of a dozen things in the everyday life of an average congregation that, small as they are, we treat like mortal sins. It could be not changing the paraments back to green after Pentecost; forgetting to turn the lights off in the kitchen before leaving the church after a meeting; staying too long in the worship service with our fussy crying toddler; not turning in our mileage vouchers on time – all that stuff that some of us members of the congregation – and I’m guessing we know who we are – treat other members of the congregation like mortal sinners for doing. And if we hang around church long enough, I’m afraid we will find out we’re guilty of a number of “mortal sins” of that kind ourselves!

This is really the root problem addressed by our text this morning – this problem of setting out what we might call “check-boxes” or a “to-do list” for salvation.

Unfortunately, the letter to the Galatians can lull us into the false confidence of seeing other people as the ones who stir up this kind of trouble in the life of the church. After all, it was those “Judaizers,” whoever they were, who are the problem in this letter, because they have come along and gotten the Galatians to think that they had to be circumcised before they could be real Christians. They seem to have persuaded the Galatians that before they can hang out with the Christians who are really in with the in crowd, so to speak, they have to take the very specific step of circumcision. In effect, the status of belonging to the “circumcision” seems to have become a criterion of really belonging to the church –something people had to do, as we might say today, to be “saved.”

Now that that particular quarrel in the church has been resolved for just under 2,000 years, and we’ve forgotten the good, Biblical, pious arguments of the folks on the circumcision side, it’s maybe a little too easy for us to think of the whole thing as someone else’s problem. It’s easy for us to miss the way this is as much our problem as it was theirs.

We do have same struggle today, just around different issues – because while the church has moved on from worrying about whether people do or don’t need to be circumcised, the church always faces the temptation to think of Christianity as a way for people to secure their own individual salvation, and to miss the vision of Christianity as a new way of life, in Christ, that offers the hope of a righteousness that springs from the life of Christ being formed in us as we are led by the Spirit, of Love, that is Christ’s own Holy Spirit. Securing our own individual salvation is always tempting because it’s still playing the same old game of self-righteousness that everyone in the world has always played; living in Christ by the Spirit is a whole new game.

Because of this temptation, it’s easy for us to get the wrong idea about the main point of Galatians, a wrong idea that has floated around the church for centuries, the wrong idea that the essential problem in the text is that the Galatians were leaning toward “old Jewish legalism” vs. “new Christian freedom.”

Because the essential message from the Judaizers to the Galatians is actually as contemporary as a TV church sermon or a tract in your door, and it goes something like this: Christianity promises salvation – from sin and death – and you can have that salvation if you do this one simple thing (which in the case of Paul’s opponents was getting circumcised) – but if you don’t, you won’t be a Christian who’s saved from sin and death, you’ll be an outsider. That basic line presents Christianity as all about what’s in it for us, and says: if we want the payoff, we just need to check off the right boxes on God’s cosmic to do list. That basic line says: the whole point of Christianity is our eternal security, and we can have that eternal security for the low low price of correct observance.

Now I haven’t heard of anyone being told they need to get circumcised to be saved, at least not recently. But I do hear regularly from Christians who tell me that people have to say the sinner’s prayer and accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior and be “born again” or their Christianity does not count. They may have grown up in church, they may love Jesus, they may be devoted, but if they don’t have that particular second birth certificate, they are probably in trouble. I do know a young man whose high school friends told him that he should have been baptized the right way, by immersion, because his Presbyterian baptism wasn’t going to count. I do know someone who sang in our choir who was taught all her life that “people like us,” who didn’t speak in tongues to show their baptism of the Holy Spirit, were just kidding themselves about being Christian. I do know that all through history Christians have thought the gates of heaven and hell lay along denominational lines. These are all updated forms of the “different gospel” Paul is arguing against.

And at the bottom of that “different gospel” is what Paul is really arguing against, and that is: the project of self-justification, of self-righteousness. That is, the project of justifying yourself, of qualifying for salvation, on the basis of having done all the right stuff.

I think we’re tempted to turn this message about self-justification into a message about something we call “legalism,” for a good reason. Because the project of self-justification will always lead us to focus on following specific procedures of some kind. It’s like the rich young man said to Jesus, “Lord, what must I do to be saved?” The idea there is that there’s a to-do list, and I want to know what it is, so I can to-do the stuff that’s on it, so God will give me the grade I want.

And really, our lives are full, full of examples of this kind of project. For instance, I am in the middle of working on an application for a certificate from the government for our daughter, and it’s a great example of what we’re talking about here; it’s a 6-page application form, with 9 pages of instructions, and the instructions tell us exactly what all the questions mean, who they apply to, who has to answer them, what color ink we have to use, what documents we have to submit to accompany this application, how much money we have to send to have it processed … and supposedly, if we follow these instructions and do everything right, we will get a piece of paper at the end of this process that says “you are a citizen of the United States.” We’re doing this because, even though we know our daughter is a citizen of the United States, because of the Child Adoption Act of 2000, we don’t trust other people to respect that, we want her to have more security than that.

But if it isn’t filling out a government form, then maybe it’s taking a class, which has specific requirements listed in the syllabus; or it’s following the instructions for filing an insurance claim; we have all been in some situation where we want something, and we just need to follow all the instructions to get it. We understand this game all too well.

When we are playing this game, when our mission is us getting what we want, we’ll naturally focus on what the instructions are, and on which ones are really important, and maybe on which ones we might be able to ignore, and on being clear about what exactly we have to do … on the legalities, on the requirements. We can call that legalism – but notice that our legalism is the symptom of the game – of being caught up in the project of self-justification.

This is why Paul says: well, if you’re trying to justify yourself, then Christ is of no benefit. His point is: you’re passing up the whole benefit of Jesus Christ! Because the benefit is that we get to stop playing that game altogether! Paul is trying to get the Galatians, and us, to see that there’s another project, a way better project, which is the project of living our lives “in Christ,” by faith working through love. We can do that because we’ll be relying on Christ and Christ’s righteousness to free us for a whole different focus, a whole different way of life, a life where we can stop worrying about how we’re doing, what grade we’re going to get, and start focusing on other people, on what we can do for them, on how we can make their lives better. Now, we have a real hope of righteousness becoming a characteristic of the community, the world we’re living in.

But we can only live that way when we stop making our main priority whether we are going to get the payoff we want. We have to turn our attention and our focus to Christ and to one another, and we have to make the welfare of the others our top priority: loving our neighbor as ourselves, being slaves to one another: that is, taking our directions from what the people around us need to thrive, to flourish, to live well.

The genius in this is the same kind of genius in good coaching … the shift in focus makes it possible to accomplish the thing you were trying so hard to accomplish, but more completely, and without all the wasted effort. It’s something like the way a great coach will tell you, for instance, hey, when you are taking that swing, focus on the destination of the ball … and suddenly your whole game improves.

Because notice how at this point Paul says, in effect, “if you live this way, you’ll be doing the entire law.” He explicitly says, “the whole law is fulfilled in this one commandment: that you love your neighbor as yourselves.” And although he has been talking about freedom a lot, he says here – really, you could think of this as a choice of whose slave you want to be. Are you going to be slaves to yourselves, which is going to end you up being slaves either to the elemental spirits or to the law or to the “flesh,” to your appetites – in other words, to something that pushes you around relentlessly and does not lead you towards righteousness – or are you going to be slaves to one another, which paradoxically will end up creating a better life for you as well.

Because think about it: the most complete form of self-securing would presumably be found in a community in which everyone took everyone’s welfare as their genuine priority. Just imagine: a community in which everyone wants everyone else to be well; everyone wants everyone else to flourish; everyone wants everyone else to live lives that are happy, joyous and free. And because everyone wants that, everyone is willing to contribute what they can to get that result, everyone is listening to everyone else, communicating – hey, how are you feeling about this? How are you doing? Are you getting what you need? What can I do for you? Wow. Who would ever feel deprived in a community like that? Or put-upon? Or taken for granted or taken advantage of? Or any of the things we’re afraid of if we stop obsessively trying to secure our own lives by our own righteousness, because we would all honestly be caring for one another. This is the vision Paul is laying out here, the vision that is summed up in the idea that if we are led by the Spirit, we will not worry about gratifying the various desires of “the flesh.”

It would really fit the description of “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” that is one of the great ends of the Church.

I know … it sounds utopian; we aren’t there yet, and we seem to have a long way to go; we keep waiting, but we don’t see that righteousness in action … very much … maybe in glimpses here and there. Nevertheless, this is the vision of the Church at its best, and it is the vision Paul is offering us as the good news, the gospel of faith working through love in Christ.

But all this promise and hope of righteousness depends on our giving up that other project, of self-justification, that project of getting our heavenly ticket punched, so that we can be free for throwing ourselves into the life of service Christ offers us and trusting Christ to be who he says he is and to do what he says he will.

The choice Paul was laying out for the Galatians – the choice between the project of self-justification and the project of faith working through love – is a choice we still have to make today. It’s a choice of who is going to be the central focus of our lives: whether it’s us and what we are going to get out of life, or Christ, and what we can contribute to Christ’s body, to our neighbors. Paul urged the Galatians to answer the call to freedom, to life in the Spirit, of love and of transformation. The Word of God today still urges us to answer that call the same way … for we are called to freedom, brothers and sisters, the freedom of living by the Spirit of faith working through love.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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