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.
- 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,
- 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.