“For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything. As for those who follow this rule – peace be upon them.”
Several years ago I had dinner for the first time with the man who is now my father-in-law. Jackie, as he is known, lives in northern Scotland, was a spitfire pilot during WWII and continued to serve in the Royal Air Force for more than a decade. He has a breadth of stories to tell of his service, and for him July 4th marks the anniversary of shooting down a flying bomb. He is retired from a career as an engineer and entrepreneur.
That night Jackie had all kinds of questions about my call to ministry and the Presbyterian Church, demonstrating knowledge of church governance typically unknown by laity. The Church of Scotland descends from the same Calvinist tradition as the Presbyterian Church, with tightly coupled theology and governance by the people, so he was exploring the nuanced similarities and differences.
I was curious. How would he know such mundane and intricate details? They are not secrets, but he’d not been an elder or involved in church affairs, so I could not imagine why he would have been exposed to these church dynamics.
Presbyterian meetings are devoted to process, bureaucracy, and as with other democratic organizations, the real work ii accomplished in committees and more often hallways. With a firm belief in the spirit guiding our work through people, we labor on together.
(That is the part of the sermon that will be published. What I may not put into writing is my frustration that, honestly, these are some of the most boring meetings I’ve ever attended. I cannot imagine anyone electing to observe such tedious and verbose, hour upon hour, meetings.)
I elect to participate as a part of my commitment to upholding precious traditions and in hopes of continually reforming us to more faithfully proclaim the gospel. I have personal commitments to this work, but practically know I will not attend them without my knitting and lots of coffee.
When I asked how he had been exposed, he patiently described the necessity of a representative from the Royal Air Force or a military unit to accompany the queen’s representative to all assemblies of the church. “Why?” I asked.
“To ensure the gathered ministers do not conspire to preach sedition against the monarchy.”
I was speechless. Part of me wanted to chuckle at the notion our presbytery meetings would conspire against the constitution. Thankfully, I did not since my reaction quickly turned more visceral.
From his simple statement, I was reminded of the blood-soaked ground in Scotland, and elsewhere, fighting for freedoms – religious, economic, social, and political or defending freedom. Throughout history, people have risked their lives for the inherent desires to grow and flourish without oppression from others.
Of course, our gospel message, the power of scripture and the word proclaimed in the pulpit, are meant to inspire us to hold all life as sacred, to strive for freedom and hold God as the single ruler of life.
Of course, the monarchy has experience with those who would seek change and independence from Britain. It inspired our war for independence.
On July 4th, The New York Times published an image and text from the Declaration of Independence. Since I could not recall the last time I read it and I was pondering this sermon and the meaning of freedom, I tried to read it with fresh eyes.
Grievances against Britain and the oppressive laws consume so much of the document with seemingly endless limitations on human life and livelihood. But the words that continue to shine above all else are the provocative declaration we are “endowed by our creator with inalienable rights…”all men are created equal”…and it was signed by those who “relied upon the protection of divine providence” by those who pledged their “sacred honor.”
As much as the debate rages of the religious views of those who committed their lives to this declaration, what cannot be dismissed is the underlying passion for human liberty and freedom which we can trace back to our Judeo-Christian heritage. Our scripture is steeped with radicals, prophets, and those who seek to subvert current culture based upon a devotion to life given, sustained and governed by God.
For many institutions, including the church, the gospel message is meant to disrupt us so we can claim a new life.
Thomas Merton wrote: “There is, in a word, nothing comfortable about the Bible — until we manage to get so used to it that we make it comfortable for ourselves. But then we are perhaps too used to it and too at home in it. Let us not be too sure we know the Bible … just because we have learned not to have problems with it. Have we perhaps learned … not to really pay attention to it? Have we ceased to question the book and be questioned by it (Opening the Bible)?”
Paul’s letters, and particularly our reading for today, reveal him as an extreme radical follower of Jesus. For that matter, Jesus was a radical of the greatest impact in our western culture. Paul’s letter to the Galatians was the cornerstone text to inspire Martin Luther, another radical, to protest 500 years ago against the established church and to spark the great Reformation.
So let’s go back again to Paul and his letter to the people of Galatia. As a review, prior to becoming an apostle of Jesus, Paul had not only defended Judaism, all the laws and customs handed down through the Torah, but actively persecuted new followers of Christ, fearing their misguided faith would corrupt the status quo. In a blinding revelation by Jesus, he received the gospel and completely changed course to proclaim the saving grace of Jesus, a gift freely given to each one of us, and an expression of God’s love for us.
Paul preached to and founded churches in a region called Galatia and then moved to new cities to continue his ministry. After he left, other, novice, preachers of Christianity arrived who insisted the followers must first adhere to all the laws of the Torah, which included male circumcision, being able to prove their faith, and only then would the people be worthy of Jesus’ grace.
In other words, they were being fed a corrupt idea that if they focused on self-centered rituals, they could earn God’s favor.
Paul fought back with this letter, he wrote, “you foolish Galatians…did you receive the spirit by observing the law…are you trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Then he proceeds to remind them God’s love for them is so great, God took on human flesh, and became like us in the man we know of as Jesus, to walk with us, and to overcome our inability to live in perfect obedience.
Freedom in Christ means that we are free from the law and free for new life now and in the life to come.
This is where our text picks up for today. Paul has written we are set free in Christ, but now introduces a paradox. We are not able to earn favor by following the rules, but we do have responsibilities toward one another. Our freedom through grace does not give us a free pass toward immoral or reckless behavior. We have obligations to be obedient to Jesus’s call to love one another.
Paul’s letter concludes by describing what this accountability looks like and implores the Galatians to “bear each other’s burdens…carry your own loads… do not boast.”
Paul tells them to take responsibility for themselves for as Paul said “God is not mocked and you will reap whatever you sow.” Your values are lived out in actions, which have consequences, and will shape the course of one’s life – including economic well-being, spiritual growth, family relationships, all the ways people can express love in a community. Simply put, values and actions have consequences – they draw you closer or push you further away from God.
For Paul, God’s focus is not rules but relationships. People matter most – God proved this by sending Christ to be one with us and the Holy Spirit to remain forever with us. Freedom in life is obtained by honoring the lives of others.
Somehow our human and national experience does not indicate living these two freedoms; freedom from oppressive rules and freedom to live fully, are simple, commonly interpreted or honored by all people.
“We have a fascination with freedom.” Rev Dr Samuel Wells, formerly of Duke Divinity School and currently serving as rector at St. Martin in the Fields in London, his native soil observes; “The strangest thing about freedom in America is not how invisible it is to a foreigner or how cherished it is by those who live there, but how frequently it is portrayed as being under threat.”
As one who stands outside of our culture, he sees what has become so mainstream for us we may be immune to how unique we are. In a recent essay, he observed one feature of American life that fascinates him is the degree to which the law in general and the constitution in particular have become the focal point of culture. He cites all the reality TV shows of courtroom contests, the intense arguing of varying constitutional interpretations, the media’s celebration of litigators, the daily review of court proceedings and the long list of police dramas on network television. He wonders if we have come to believe the best place to discover right and wrong, to identify good and bad, and to resolve ambiguity is in the law court.
Wells perceives we seem to hope diverse cultures can function harmoniously through rules that govern how and who will flourish. He writes: “the risk is that the attention given to getting the rules right can distract from the fact that a healthy society is always primarily about relationships and only secondarily about rules (Wells “Forgiving Ahab”. The Christian Century 4/17/2013).”
Paul named it long ago. Don’t get fixated with the Law of Torah as a means of right relationship with God and others. Laws can identify the transgression, laws are equated with penalties, laws can prevent wrongdoings, laws can keep order within a society, but they are only prohibitions. Laws do not ask you to strive for your best, Christ does. Laws do not heal, reconcile or forgive, but Christ’s mercy guides us. We have responsibilities toward the life we are given and the community in which we live. We have the freedom to live through a gift of grace and a love for all people that is bigger than we can imagine. All we are asked to do is to open our hearts to this love and to love one another in actions and with our lives.
As we celebrate our nation’s independence, we are to wave flags at military parades, hold dear those principles of governance which were won with costly lives. We are to hold our veterans and soldiers who serve our country with reverence and rehabilitation and respect.
We have more, though. One of the most patriotic acts we can do today, and every day to honor those who fought for freedom, is to embrace each other, families and communities in potlucks, parades and campfires. We celebrate freedom by living with a focus on the other and not self-righteous rights. Live with freedom that recognizes the rights endowed by our creator in each individual human. It is more than our declaration of independence; it is a blessing we received from God and a blessing we are to be for others.