Freedom in Everyday Life

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

In last week’s reading from Galatians Paul was saying, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and I was thinking, “Come on, Paul!  Couldn’t you wait one more week to say that?  Couldn’t you wait until the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, when we are celebrating our independence?”  Because that would have been perfect, wouldn’t it?  To read that passage on a morning like this one and then preach on freedom?  But maybe it’s not too late, because after proclaiming our freedom in Christ Paul warns, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” and that’s something we probably need to talk about.

Last week Frances Twiss gave me a book called The Sewing Room, by an Episcopal priest named Barbara Cawthorne Crafton.[i]  It was on my desk on Sunday but I didn’t have a chance to look at it until Monday.  I opened it just to see what the writing style was like and on page 31 I read this line, “Nothing was more important than freedom.”  “Well, that’s interesting,” I thought.  “I was talking about that yesterday.”  So I read more, and what Crafton was talking about was that time in American history at the end of the 1960’s when young people in particular were obsessed with freedom and she, as a young mother living in New York City, was trying to teach her eight-month-old daughter about limits.

She wrote: “One summer afternoon I was sewing.  I had spread the fabric out on the floor so I could pin the pattern pieces onto it.  There were sharp pins and fragile pieces of tissue paper involved, so when my little one began to crawl over the cloth, I picked her up quickly and sat her down on the floor outside its perimeter.  ‘No!’ I said, firmly.  She sat there for a moment, absorbing the action and the word.  Then she opened her mouth and howled.  I watched in awe.  This was the first time she had experienced a limit.  For the whole of her conscious life, I had been all smiles and applause at her all-fours exploration of the world.  And now I was saying ‘no,’ and there was an exclamation point at the end of it, and I was stopping her from doing as she wished.  This was the very first time it had ever occurred to her that her wish was not the final word to others that it was to her.

“It was an outrage.”

That was in 1969, Crafton explained, when a lot of people were outraged by limits.  “Do your own thing” wasn’t just a slogan in those days; it was part of the struggle against oppression.  “Oppression of the poor by the rich, of the East by the West, of the black by the white, of the woman by the man.  The overthrow of self-control was also a part of this struggle.  The use of mind-altering substances was a statement of personal alliance with the worldwide movement toward liberation.  So was the resolute avoidance of a commitment to sexual fidelity.  So was a contempt for the business world.

“Nothing was more important than freedom,” she writes.  “It was understood to be freedom from restraint.  It was freedom from, not freedom to.  Freedom to what?  It wasn’t always very clear.  And when the cost of that freedom began to be apparent, when people began to go crazy and die from doing drugs, when people owned up to the loneliness of their rootlessness and promiscuity, the scaffolding that supported that behavior collapsed.  And never arose.  You would have a hard time finding someone today who would argue that drugs are a way to a higher consciousness that could transform the world.  Or that self-knowledge and self-love are enhanced by sleeping with a lot of different people.  But many people thought so then.”[ii]

When I read those lines last week I could almost hear Paul saying, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”  But that’s what a lot of people were doing in the late sixties.  Sometimes when I hear people trying to compare these days with any other era in American history they end up comparing it to those days: when the war in Vietnam was matched by vocal protests at home; when young people were “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out,” as Timothy Leary advised; when Martin Luther King was assassinated and Black America sent up a howl of grief and rage.  Those were tense times, times when we did not seem to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  Some people compare those times to these times, and although the circumstances are different I wonder how much of it comes from the fact that we have used our freedom for self-indulgence?  It’s not sex and drugs these days so much as it is a love affair with our own opinions and contempt for anyone who disagrees with us.  We wallow in our individual rights and dare anyone—sometimes at gunpoint—to take them away from us.

“Don’t do that,” Paul would say.  “Don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence but through love become enslaved to one another.”  And that sounds contradictory.  “Wait, Paul.  You want us to use our freedom to become slaves?  How does that even work?”  “Well,” he might say, “you stop listening to the selfish demands of the flesh and start listening for the whispered voice of the Spirit.  It’s not easy, but it’s possible.  One way will lead you down the road to ruin but the other way will lead you to eternal life.”  So, if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, we will need to learn how to follow the Spirit, not only in that moment when we are set free from the law, but also in everyday life.  How will we do that?

Often in Paul’s letters there are several chapters of theological instruction, because these are new Christians he’s writing to: they’re still learning what it means to follow Jesus.  But then he concludes his letters with a chapter or two of ethical exhortation: that is, he not only tells these new Christians what to believe, he tells them how to behave.  His letter to the Galatians is a good example.  In chapter 5 he writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence but through love become enslaved to one another.”  You can see that he’s already turning from theological instruction to ethical exhortation, and then, in chapter 6, he gives some examples:

  1.  In verse 1 he writes, “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”  Did you hear that?  This is how people who are led by the Spirit behave.  They don’t judge or condemn, they don’t point fingers and wag their heads; they seek to restore their brothers and sisters, and they do it gently.  “But be careful that you yourselves are not tempted,” Paul adds.  It’s like when someone falls through the ice.  You want to make sure that in pulling them out you don’t fall in, too.  It’s the same when someone falls into sin.
  2.  In verse 2 Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  I don’t know if you caught it, but Paul, the one who is celebrating his freedom from the Law of Moses, is now talking about fulfilling the law of Jesus, and the law of Jesus is simple: it’s the Law of Love.  So that when you see a brother or sister struggling under a heavy load you say, “What if that were me?”  You love them enough to help them carry it.
  3.  In verses 3-5 Paul talks about doing our own work and carrying our own loads with humility, not pointing out the faults in other people’s work, and not whining about the loads we have to carry.  It’s interesting to me that the same one who said we should bear one another’s burdens now instructs us to bear our own.  Yes.  Until we can’t do it anymore, until we begin to stagger under the weight.  Then we will need some help, and if it works the way it’s supposed to some of those same brothers and sisters we have helped along the way will help us.
  4.  In verse 6 Paul continues, “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher,” and I don’t think that needs much explanation.  It might need some appreciation, and this might be a good time for me to say to you thank you for providing for my material needs so that I can spend my time studying the word in order to share it with you.  Thank you.
  5.  In verses 7-9 Paul writes, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked; for you reap whatever you sow.  If you sow to your own flesh you will reap corruption from the flesh, but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.”  Maybe you could think of it like this: How are you using your time?  To indulge the flesh or to follow the Spirit?  If you thought of minutes as seeds that you could scatter in one kind of soil or another, where are you scattering them?  What’s coming up?  And when the time for harvest comes, what will you reap?
  6.  And finally, in verse 10, Paul writes, “So then, whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially those of the family of faith.”  Especially the family of faith, he says, but not only the family of faith.  Our freedom in Christ has set us free from the kind of divisions that turn the world into us and them.  From now on we can look at others—all others—as people who are made in the image of God, and for that reason we can treat them like family.

For some time now, and not only as I’ve contemplated this sermon series, I’ve been wondering why Christians couldn’t simply be the best people we know, the best people anyone knows, the kind of people you would want to move in next door.  It’s not always like that, is it?

  • Christians can be judgmental to the point that their neighbors no longer feel free to enjoy a cold beer on the back deck at the end of a long day, knowing that the Christians might be over there peeking through the blinds, casting judgment.
  • Christians can also be so sweet that nobody wants them to move in next door. We used to call this “saccharine sweet.”  Saccharin was the first of the artificial sweeteners, before Splenda or Equal, and that’s what we meant: that it was the kind of sweetness that seemed artificial.  I don’t think anybody wants that kind of neighbor either.
  • But, worse than that, Christians can keep completely to themselves, not even bothering to get to know their neighbors. I’ve been saying for years now that instead of trying to “reach” our neighbors here in the Fan we should just try to love them, but I’ve also said that we can’t love what we don’t know.  We begin to love our neighbors by getting to know them.

That seems unusually relevant in my case because right now, even as I speak, I have some new neighbors moving in next door.  I stopped to talk to one of them yesterday as he was carrying empty cardboard boxes out of the house.  I said, “Hey, I’m Jim.  I’m your next door neighbor!”  We talked for a few minutes and found out that we have a lot of things in common, including two grown daughters who live in Richmond, and then I said goodbye and let him get back to his recycling.  But now he knows: he knows his next-door neighbor is named Jim.  And he may be watching me to see what kind of neighbor I am.

There’s a well-known quote from Tertullian, a North African Christian from the Second Century AD, who described the customs of the early church, the church we are trying to learn from as we build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of.  Tertullian marveled at the way they “supported and buried poor people, and supplied the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and cared for old persons now confined to the house.”  In other words they cared for the poor, the orphaned, and the elderly.  And they cared for one another so beautifully, so selflessly, that their pagan neighbors exclaimed, “See how these Christians love one another!”[iii]  I don’t hear many people saying that about Christians today.  But they could.  Why can’t we be the best people anybody knows?  Why can’t we learn to follow the whispered voice of the Spirit instead of the urgent demands of the flesh?  Why can’t we open our hearts to the hearts of others, and open our minds to different points of view, and open our hands to those in need, and make our feet swift to share the Good News?  Why can’t I live in such a way that the guy next door would say, “That Jim Somerville is the best neighbor I’ve ever had, except for his wife, Christy: she’s even better.”

If we’re going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we will need to build it like that.  We will need to use our freedom not for self-indulgence, but through love to become servants to one another.  So that we develop this kind of reputation in the world.  So that our neighbors and people we don’t even know will say, “See how those Christians love one another!  See how they love all kinds of others.  See how they love us!

Yes.  That’s the kind of church I want to be part of.  How about you?

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, The Sewing Room (New York: Viking, 1993).

[ii] Ibid., pp. 30-32.

[iii] Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 39.

What Does It Mean to Be Free?

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

We’ve been talking about building a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, and maybe we should just admit that we are not nearly as post-pandemic as we would like to be.  Three members of my immediate family tested positive for COVID last week, and while I’m still negative I’m trying not to get too close to anyone this morning.  But at some point the pandemic will be fully behind us, and anything we can do now to prepare for that day will be to our advantage.  So, we’ve been looking at the founders of the early church to see what lessons we can learn from them.  We’ve looked at Peter on the Day of Pentecost, at Paul on the Road to Damascus, and then afterward, when he was out there in the desert, trying to reconcile his long relationship with the Law of Moses and this new experience of being baptized into Christ Jesus.  If I could sum up what we’ve learned in three bullet points I might say:

  • We’ve got to go where the wind is (meaning the Holy Spirit),
  • We’ve got to know who Jesus is (that is, who is he to us), and finally,
  • We’ve got to know that we are his (for we are all one in Christ Jesus).

Those are three foundational principles, three things that need to be in place before we can even begin to build.  But then what?  What’s the next step?

It’s been fun to read back through the Book of Acts, and see how the early church got started.  Luke tells us that in those days after Pentecost, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”[i]  That’s a beautiful picture of the church, and one we would do well to emulate, but it is a picture of the church in Jerusalem, made up mostly of Jews who had come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah.  Outside of Jerusalem things were a little different.

For example: when Paul started out on his first mission trip he may have imagined that he would go to the synagogues in every town, convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, and just like that the synagogue would become a church, with the same, sweet fellowship enjoyed by the believers in Acts, chapter 2.  But as you know it didn’t happen exactly that way.  In Acts 13 we find Paul and Barnabus in Antioch of Pisidia, a city in the region of Galatia, and on the Sabbath day they went to the synagogue, as was their custom.[ii]  After the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the officials of the synagogue said, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.”  So Paul stood up and began to speak.  He recounted a good bit of Israel’s history but when he got to King David he said, “Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.”  But then he had to explain the embarrassing fact of Jesus’ crucifixion, which he did by saying, “Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him.  And even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed.  When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.  But God raised him from the dead.”

Now you may remember that in one of Paul’s other speeches from the Book of Acts this was when people stopped listening to him, when he started to talk about the Resurrection.[iii]  But these people in Antioch listened, and as Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next Sabbath.  When they did, “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.  But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.  Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the gentiles.  For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

And that’s when it happened: that’s when Paul’s mission, which had been primarily to the Jews, became a mission to the Gentiles.  And here’s the problem: Paul knew what to say to the Jews; all he had to do was share with them the good news that the Messiah they had been waiting for all their lives had finally arrived.  But what do you say to Gentiles, who haven’t been waiting for the Messiah?  What would be good news for them?

This is not unlike the problem we face today when we think about how to reach people.  In the old days the street corner evangelist might have said, “You people are sinners, and if you don’t change your ways you’re going to hell!”  Which doesn’t exactly sound like good news.  The good news, as the evangelist would have made clear, was the fact that they didn’t have to go to hell, that they could go to heaven instead, and all they had to do was believe in Jesus.  For many reasons, that message is having trouble finding an audience these days, and one of the reasons is that there aren’t a lot of people out there who still believe in hell.  Some don’t even believe in God.  I read an article just last week that claimed the number of all US adults who believe in God has dropped six percent since 2017: it’s down to 81 percent.  But the number of young adults who believe in God is at 68 percent.  It’s not that none of them believe; we have some young, strong, beautiful believers in this congregation.  But out there in the world only 1 in 3 people between the ages of 18 and 29 would identify as believers.  And so we’re kind of where Paul was, trying to figure out what to say to people who don’t share our religious beliefs.

What Paul said to them was something like this: that for the longest time the Jews had been God’s chosen people.  But now, through Jesus, God had opened the door to the Gentiles as well.  And if they were willing to come in through that door—that is, if they were willing to put their faith and trust in Christ—then they too would become children of God and stand to inherit every good thing God could give.  In Galatians 2:16 Paul says it like this: “We know that a person is justified (which may be another way of saying “made right with God” or “welcomed into his family”) not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ.”

And this was huge.

For most of his life Paul had believed that the only way to be right with God was to be a “Hebrew born of Hebrews, a member of the people of Israel,”[iv] and if you were male to be circumcised on the eighth day.  When it came to the Law Paul said that he used to keep it like a Pharisee, which meant knowing all 613 commandments, keeping every one every day, and taking great pride in the accomplishment.  If you had asked him in those days if it was a burden he would have forced a smile and quoted Psalm 119, saying, “Oh, how I love your law!  It is my meditation all day long!”  But after he met Christ, and after he learned that there was another way to find peace with God, he said, “Before faith came we were imprisoned and guarded under the law.”  That’s Galatians 3:23, and it sounds burdensome.  But in Galatians 5:1 he writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!”  Whatever else you might want to say about that, it seems clear that from his newly liberated perspective Paul can look back on his earlier life and see that he was enslaved by the law, he was imprisoned and guarded.  Getting free of the law was the best thing that ever happened to him.  Which is why he can’t understand why the Galatians would now willingly submit to a yoke of slavery.

Let me give you a little bit of the backstory.  In Acts 15, after Peter has been to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, after he has preached the gospel to him and baptized his entire household, Luke tells us that “certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”  Well!  Paul and Barnabus had “no small discussion and debate with them,” and even went up to Jerusalem to see if they could set the record straight.  This was the occasion of the famous Jerusalem council, in which the early church tried to answer the question of whether Gentile converts had to follow the Law of Moses in order to become Christians.  Paul said no.  He said it forcefully.  And in his letter to the Galatians he reiterated that argument because the same thing was happening to them.  “Certain individuals” had come to them and were telling them that in order to be saved they had to be circumcised.  Some of them had been gullible enough to do it, and when Paul found out about it he was horrified.  Here are a few excerpts from his letter: He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1:6).  He says, “O, foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?” (3:1).  He says, “Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that, if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2).  He says, “You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?” (5:7).  He says, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12).  Strong words!

And that brings us to this morning’s Epistle reading from Galatians, chapter 5, which begins with verse 1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!”  And then the lectionary skips down to verse 13, where Paul says, “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 enslaved to one another.”  And then in verse 14 he says one of the most remarkable things in the Bible, something very close to what Jesus once said, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Paul would insist that this is the proper use of freedom: to look out for one another, to care for one another, to love one another.

But not everybody does that.

Some people think that being free means having the freedom to do whatever they want.  Paul knows where that road leads.  He has seen it too many times—we all have!  Listen to the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases verses 19-21 in The Message.  He says:  “It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.”  And then he writes, “I could go on.”  Because Paul could go on.  This is not a complete list: it is merely a few choice examples of what happens when you start down the road of self-indulgence.  As Paul makes plain, this is not the road that leads to the Kingdom.

No, that road is the road less traveled.  It is the one where the Spirit leads the way and the people of God faithfully follow.  In verses 22 and 23 Eugene Peterson asks, “What happens when we live God’s way?  He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity.  We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.  We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”  Isn’t that the kind of people we want to be?  Peterson concludes by saying, “Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way.”

Which is just what Paul has been saying.  Getting yourself circumcised and slavishly obeying the Law of Moses will not make you into this kind of person.  But neither will using your freedom to follow the path of self-indulgence: you end up being a slave to your own desires.  No, the only way that works is using the freedom you have found in Christ to follow the gentle leading of God’s Holy Spirit.  That’s what brings you to a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  And as Paul reminds us, there is no law against such things.

So, here are two takeaways from today’s sermon, things I’ve been thinking about all week.

  1.  In the post-pandemic church, freedom from the Law may mean freedom from tradition, freedom from having to do things the way we have always done them before.  If Christ has truly set us free we may be free enough to do something new.  And,
  2.  I keep thinking about this growing category of people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  They may be just the ones we are looking for: people who don’t have much interest in the rules of religion, but rather have a deep sensitivity to the Spirit.

Suppose it is for just this kind of freedom that Christ has set us free?

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Acts 2:44-47.

[ii] This section of the sermon is taken from Acts 13:13-52.

[iii] Cf. Acts 17:32.

[iv] From Philippians 3:5-6.

What Becomes of the Law?

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The author of Psalm 119 says, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.”  There may have been a time in his life when the Apostle Paul recited those words while standing in a synagogue, hugging a Torah scroll to his chest, his eyes squinted shut, ready to burst with joy.  But after he met Jesus that changed.  It wasn’t that he no longer loved the law; it was just that he loved Jesus more.  In Philippians 3 he reminds his readers that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  But then he writes, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish,[i] in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but one that comes through faith in Christ.”[ii]  So today I’m wondering what happened: how did a law-loving Pharisee like Paul come to the place where he was willing to give it all up for the sake of Jesus?

This is the third sermon in a series called “Building It as We Fly,” where we are trying to learn some lessons from Peter and Paul about how to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of.  In the first sermon we talked about the birthday of the church on the Day of Pentecost, and concluded that maybe, in the same way the Wright Brothers had to find a place where the wind was blowing, we might have to look for those places where the Spirit is moving (and several of you have volunteered to spend some time at Kitty Hawk, just to check it out).  In the second sermon we talked about Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus and his question, “Who are you, Sir?”  I believe that each of us will need to find the answer to that question before we can build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of.

Paul found it, and I think he found it in his baptism.  Do you remember how he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, and had to be led by the hand into the city?  Do you remember how Ananias was sent to lay hands on him and pray for him so that he could see again?  Luke says that “something like scales” fell from Saul’s eyes, and after that he got up and was baptized.  I don’t know where he was baptized, but in 2 Kings 5 Elisha tells Naaman the Syrian to go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan River, and Naaman says, “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”[iii]  So, maybe that’s where Ananias took Saul: to one of the rivers of Damascus.  And when they were standing waist-deep in the water Ananias may have said to him, “Um, Brother Saul, I’m getting ready to dip you down under the water.  Is that OK?”  And Saul would have said, “Yes, whatever it takes.”  And then Ananias would have said, “And um, usually, before we baptize people, we ask them to say, ‘Jesus is Lord.’  Is that OK?”  And Saul would have had to think about that.  He had been persecuting people for saying that Jesus was Lord.  He had been entering the homes of believers, both men and women, and dragging them off to prison and now here he was, about to become one of them.[iv]  But there could be no denying what had happened to him on the Road to Damascus.  As he would testify later, he “saw” the risen Lord.  How could he deny what he now knew to be true?  So he said it: “Jesus is Lord.”  And when he did Ananias dipped him down into the water like a dry sponge and let him soak for a while, and it was like being immersed in the liquid essence of Christ himself.  Ananias held him under until he was completely saturated and then pulled him up again.  Saul came up sputtering, gasping for breath, the first breath of his new life in Christ, and it may have been Ananias who gave him his new name.  He may have said, “What if we call you Paul from now on?” thinking that his fellow believers would have a hard time accepting Saul, the former persecutor of the church.

I don’t know that it happened in exactly that way, but it happened; at some point Saul became Paul, and started living a whole new life.  Here’s the way he describes it in Galatians 1: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.  You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.  I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.  But when the one who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the gentiles, I did not confer with any human, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterward I returned to Damascus.”

When I look at a map of the ancient world, it looks as if Arabia was east of Damascus, and that it was mostly desert.  I think about Paul going off into the desert after his baptism just as Jesus went into the wilderness after his.  And maybe it was while he was there that he had this “revelation of Jesus Christ” he talks about.  He may have woken up on his first day in the desert and recited the Shema, just as he always did, saying: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” and in that moment remembered what he had said at his baptism: “Jesus is Lord.”  But what if, instead of troubling him (as if he had just committed blasphemy), it gave him peace.  What if he said it again—“Jesus is Lord”—and felt himself sink down into that all-encompassing peace as he had sunk down into the waters of baptism.  Because, whether or not Paul knew it, peace was what he was looking for.

It was what he had always been looking for.

He writes, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”  He writes, “When it came to the law, I was a Pharisee; when it came to zeal, I was a persecutor of the church; when it came to righteousness under the law, I was blameless.”  But why?  Why was he so zealous?  Why did he work so hard to remain blameless?  Because he was afraid of God’s wrath.  He didn’t want to do anything to upset him.  He wanted to stay on God’s good side.  But somewhere out there in the desert he realized that things had changed, that for some reason he was no longer obsessed with following the Law of Moses, and that he wasn’t always watching himself to make sure that he kept all 613 commandments.  It wasn’t that they didn’t matter anymore—they did!—it was only that he realized that keeping the commandments did not, would not, and could not save him.  That somehow, by the grace of God and the love of the Lord Jesus, he was already saved.  Maybe this was his “revelation of Jesus Christ”—not some mystical vision like John on the Isle of Patmos, but a sense of peace, a quiet assurance, that if Jesus was his Lord then he was, already, right with God.  There was nothing more he needed to do.

In last week’s reading from Romans 5 he said it like this: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  But it must have taken a while to come to that conclusion.  Paul says that after he was baptized he went into Arabia, but at some point returned to Damascus and was there for three years before going up to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James.  If what Luke says about him can be trusted (and I think it can), he spent those years in Damascus arguing with the Jews in the synagogues, telling them that Jesus was the Son of God and proving that he was the Messiah.  He must have shared that message with Peter and James and they must have approved.  Afterward, he says, he “went away into Syria and Cilicia.”  But after fourteen years, he returned to Jerusalem, to share with the mother church the gospel message he had refined among the gentiles, and this was it:  “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”

That’s Galatians 2:16, and it comes a full chapter before today’s reading from chapter 3.  In those intervening verses Paul tries to explain how he came to the conclusion that we are no longer justified by the works of the law, but through our faith in Jesus Christ.  And then he illustrates it like this: he says, “Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed,” and he’s talking about the Jews.  Notice how he uses the personal pronoun “we.”  But it sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it?  “We were imprisoned,” he says, “we were guarded under the law.”  He says, “Therefore the law was our disciplinarian (using a word that referred to the servant whose job it was to take the children back and forth to school; that’s what the law was) until Christ came, so that we might be reckoned as righteous by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.”

And then the pronoun changes.  Instead of saying “we” Paul begins to say “you,” meaning “you gentiles.”  Listen: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”  And we might need to pause there for a moment and realize just how remarkable this is.  Paul is saying that if you have been baptized into Christ Jesus, then you have become a member of God’s family, and there is no longer any distinction between those who were born into it and those who were baptized into it.

Do you know how, when we do baptisms here, the candidates step out into the baptistery wearing white robes?  It goes back to an ancient practice in the early church, where people would leave their old clothes on the riverbank and then enter the waters of baptism, but when they came out they would be given a new white robe to wear, and they would wear it for as long as a week afterward.  But what if they kept on wearing it, and what if we continued that practice?  What if people who had been baptized always wore white robes, wherever they went, so that you could spot them at the shopping mall, on the street corner, and even in church?  What if you knew, right away, that those were your brothers and sisters in Christ?

I think Paul has that kind of thing in mind, not wearing white robes but knowing that those who have been baptized are your brothers and sisters, that you and they are members of the same family.  In this passage Paul starts by using the pronoun “we,” meaning the Jews, but then shifts to the pronoun “you,” meaning the gentiles.  By the end of the passage he has created a whole new category, one we might call “His,” meaning those who belong to Christ.  “For there is no longer Jew or Greek,” he writes, “no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  I can’t think of a more important word for the church to hear in times like these, when our nation is being torn apart by political divisions.  I think Paul would say, “Look, it isn’t about being Republican or Democrat.  It’s about being baptized.  If you’ve been baptized you have sunk down into the waters of forgiveness, and acceptance, and love.  You don’t have anything to prove, or anything to fear.  You have been baptized into Christ Jesus, and if anyone is in Christ that one is a new creation.  You come up out of the water dripping with grace, ready to embrace your brothers and sisters even if they don’t vote the way you do.”  In this age of identity politics, Paul appeals to us to identify not as “us,” not as “them,” but as “his”—as people who belong to Christ.  And if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, we will have to do precisely that.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] The Greek word is skubula, which is much stronger (and probably smellier) than “rubbish.”

[ii] Philippians 3:5-9.

[iii] 2 Kings 5:12

[iv] Acts 8:3