Monday, May 29, 2017

5-28-17 Galatians Sermon Series - “Flesh v. Spirit”

5-28-17 Galatians Sermon Series  “Flesh v. Spirit”

   I have seen the 1983 film “The Big Chill,” maybe 20 times. It’s not a hugely successful film in the sense of having won lots of awards or of being a huge money-maker, but it’s a film that has touched me deeply, has resonated with me on an almost spiritual level, and that I could watch over and over again and never grow weary. There are other films I’ve watched repeatedly that I have really enjoyed, or that kept me on the edge of my seat even though I knew how the storyline went, like “The Godfather” or “The Dirty Dozen,” but none of them have gripped me in the same way or to the same degree, as “The Big Chill.” 
   Have you ever had an experience that was so good, so wonderful, so intoxicating, that you couldn’t wait to do it again? 
Maybe it was somewhere you visited that so enthralled you that you couldn’t wait to go back again. 
Maybe it was a movie you saw or a book you read that impacted you so deeply that you just had to watch or read it again and again. Or maybe it was a food that, the first time you ate it the taste was so powerful, so overwhelming, that it nearly brought tears to your eyes, it was so good! Or maybe it was just a moment in time, a moment of intimacy or of joy that you long to experience again. If you’ve experienced anything like that in any way at any time, then you might begin to understand a little more clearly, the apostle Paul. In a moment you’ll see what I mean.

   Morgan Guyton is the Director of the Wesley Foundation at Tulane and Loyola Universities in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in a recent blog post published on a Christian website, offered up that “Christianity is a religion of clergy trials.” And he makes that statement in the context of the recent trial of United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian clergy person elected as a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and points out that this is just another in a seemingly never-ending series of clergy trials that have taken place within Christianity over the past two thousand years, beginning with the trial of Jesus himself. 
   And he says, “It’s how we measure in each generation how far we’ve strayed from Jesus. Most of our clergy trials are the product of a fierce underlying debate within the Judeo-Christian tradition that has never been resolved over the course of thousands of years.” And it’s a debate that he sees as being between moral legalism and pragmatic mysticism.”

   We talked about “legalism” in religion last week, if you remember, as the idea that the only way to please God, and to find salvation, is to follow all the rules and laws in Scripture. And Guyton says the question comes down to whether “the laws of God are ends unto themselves as opaque, that is, difficult to understand expressions of God’s authority or are they more pragmatic or practical guides whose purpose is to accomplish a deeper goal such as mystical union with God?”
   And he goes on to say that for legalists, their primary concern is to respect and enforce the authority of God, and that the only reason to study the Bible is to figure out exactly what God said so that it can be obeyed “perfectly.”  
“Perfect obedience” to the law is what Paul claimed to have accomplished as Saul, the Pharisee. He tells us in Philippians 3, that he was a perfect law-abiding Pharisee: “As far as the Law can make you perfect, I was faultless,” he says. Saul was an exacting moral legalist.
   Legalists, Guyton suggests, don’t ask why questions of Scripture because trying to get “behind” the purpose, that is to get to the spirit of the law instead of looking only at the letter of the law, somehow subverts God’s authority. The bumper sticker version of this approach is familiar: “The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And to a legalist the measure of a person’s respect for God’s authority is tied directly to the cost of obedience. In other words, obedience should not be practical or in any way related to self-interest because if your will coincides with God’s will then you’re not really choosing God’s will over your own. It’s a kind of “no pain - no gain” approach that makes pragmatism deeply suspect to a legalist. Now, that idea may not make sense to you in that context, but here’s a story in another context that might help make it “perfectly” clear.

   One Christmas during my Kmart years, it was a very busy time, as you can well imagine, and I had little time to do other things like, say, go Christmas shopping. 
Well, my then wife had told me something that she really wanted for Christmas, so I picked it up for her at my Kmart store because we happened to sell that very item. When, however, she learned after Christmas that I had bought that gift for her at my store instead of going elsewhere to make the purchase, she became irritated, shall we say. 
Buying it there, she complained, was “too easy” for me, there wasn’t enough effort put into it for the gift to have any true meaning. Mind you, it was exactly what she asked for and buying it elsewhere would have cost 10-20% more. Maybe this example can help you see how this idea of pragmatism, or logical practicality, is kind of repugnant to a legalist, and perhaps also provide some insight as to why she was my wife then, but not my wife now. 

    The idea of mysticism and pragmatism are not usually thought of together in every day life, but they go well together in the arena of spirituality in this way: a mystic is one who has experienced a deep union with God in a very realistic, practical, or pragmatic way, and will do whatever it takes to experience that union again. 
It’s like those experiences I invited you to remember at the beginning, the one that was so intoxicating that you would do anything to experience it again, only better. 
So, unlike the approach to scripture taken by a legalist, 
a mystic uses biblical teaching not as an authority to be obeyed but as a practical tool or means for connecting more deeply with God, to get that divine fix once more - what John Wesley meant when he said reading scripture was a “means of grace.” And using the Bible in this way, as a means for deepening one’s intimacy with God, to the legalist, would be disrespectful, because as Guyton puts it,  “if the Bible is a tool for deepening my intimacy with God, then I’m going to focus on the verses that prove helpful to me in that journey and set aside the verses that don’t, even if I trust that some day under different circumstances, the verses that seem unhelpful now might well be indispensable later.”

   Now, before anyone suggests that that’s a “buffet” approach to scripture, remember that in 1 Timothy it says that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful,” a pretty pragmatic approach to scripture if ever there was one, right? It would never occur to a pragmatic mystic to think of scripture as “authoritative” in the same way that a legalist would. In fact, when most people talk about scripture as being authoritative, Guyton says, he wonders if they’re “[giving irrational reverence to] the idea of scripture in general” as opposed to engaging any particular passages of scripture. 

   For a true legalist, though, it’s an all or nothing proposition; either all scriptures are authoritative or none are. 
I would suggest, however, that it’s relatively easy to show that someone who professes this position takes a “buffet” approach to scriptural authority as well. 
For example, and in the spirit of comedian Jeff Foxworthy…

(DEUTERONOMY 21:20-21)
   If you have a child who was ever stubborn or rebellious toward you at some point in their life, which ALL children do, if you did not stone your child to death at that very moment, as scripture commands, then scripture may not be authoritative in your life.

(LEVITICUS 11:9-12)
   If you have ever enjoyed shrimp, crab, lobster, or oysters at home or at your neighborhood Red Lobster, contrary to what scripture commands, then scripture may not be authoritative in your life. 

   If you are right now, or have at anytime, worn clothing made of two different materials, wool, cotton, polyester, whatever, contrary to the law given in scripture, then scripture may not be authoritative in your life.
   If you grow a garden with two different kinds of plants in the same bed or pot in violation of what the law in scripture requires, then scripture may not be authoritative in your life. 

   And I think you get the point.   

   In John’s gospel, (14:15) Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments;” an oft-quoted verse by legalists because it seems pretty straightforward. The problem is, Jesus doesn’t give any specific commandments in John other than “love one another,” which is about as abstract as you can get. 
John’s gospel, often referred to as the “mystical gospel,” provides incredible mystical imagery and shaped the imagination and deepened the divine intimacy of many Christians, more, some offer, than any of the other gospels. But there just isn’t much to “obey” in the clear sense of a thou shalt or thou shalt not. Outside of the Sermon on the Mount, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus gives few concrete commands, which is what makes the statement in John 14:15 seem inherently mystical. Maybe the legalists get the flow of cause and effect backwards and it’s by loving Jesus that we’re made capable of keeping his commandments rather than proving our love for Jesus by following rules that aren’t anywhere near that verse.

   And I say all of that to get us to here: Like Guyton in his blog post, and like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and others before him, I think that Jesus and Paul are both pragmatic mystics and that their Pharisee opponents are moral legalists. Jesus and Paul are both doing whatever is necessary, including taking a non-traditional approach to scripture and the religious practice of their day, in order to be in union with God, while the Pharisees and those who follow them are doing whatever they can to insist that the only way to get to God is by following all of the rules and laws as laid out in scripture. But even a cursory reading of their interactions in the New Testament makes it hard to believe that anyone could read these stories and adopt the legalistic position of the Pharisees who are continually repudiated by both Jesus and Paul. 
What’s not surprising is to see Paul’s pragmatic mysticism perverted into moral a legalism that attempt to correct or challenge the genuine Paul, divorcing his teachings from their original context.

 But legalistic interpreters today make Paul’s words into a law which they use in precisely the way Paul teaches us not to use “the law”: to justify themselves as a means of asserting control, authority, or moral superiority over others.
    Those whom Paul battles most consistently throughout his letters are not anything-goes free love hippies, but dour authoritarians who teach that the way to get right with God is to follow the rules they choose to enforce - remembering that it was impossible to follow all 613 laws at the same time. 
So Galatians is the battleground between the moral legalism of Paul’s opponents and his pragmatic mysticism. 

   Think about the fundamental question Paul asked the Galatians in chapter 3: “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:2) The point for Paul is to receive the spirit. 
Following the rules is not an end unto itself and proving your loyalty to God”s authority means nothing if you don’t receive the spirit. What you should be doing is whatever it takes to receive the spirit. For Paul, it’s not about whether your earthly obedience to God somehow punches your ticket to heaven. The question is, “are you doing whatever it takes to experience union with God in this life right now by receiving the Spirit?” Trying to twist Paul’s teaching into a legalistic reward/punishment system is doing exactly what Paul says not to do.
   So let’s look at what is considered to be one of the most important passages and the core of Paul’s virtue ethics: the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:
16 I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. 17 A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. 18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.
25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. 26 Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. (CEB)

   A couple of things to consider here. We should note that even though Paul lists several things here as being pretty big obstacles to someone inheriting the kingdom of God, among them idolatry, fighting, selfishness, and jealousy, no moral legalist has ever tried to make “jealousy” or “selfishness” a chargeable offense in our United Methodist Book of Discipline resulting in a clergy trial, even though that would seem to be required of any who hold scripture as authoritative in the way those who brought charges against Bishop Oliveto have done. 

   Also note that Paul pretty clearly states “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” 
This is not a mere proof-text - that is, plucking a passage of scripture out of context to use it to justify a position held by the “plucker.” No, it actually reveals Paul’s way of thinking about spiritual authority. 
He claims that people can be “led” spiritually in a way that involves intuitive sensibilities that override explicit religious teachings. Notice also that he doesn’t say that if you’re led by the Spirit, you will naturally do everything the law tells you to do anyway. In this letter Paul is trying to free the Galatians from slavery to the law that these legalistic missionaries seek to bind them with, so this statement explicitly takes aim at the authority of the legalists who are trying to control other people. 
Many Jewish rabbis say similar things about the law: namely that it’s subtle enough that honoring its spirit can look like breaking the law to a legalist. 
The law is not the real problem - it can be understood in context. Slavish legalism is the problem. 
As Paul says in 2 Cor. 3, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.”

   So with all of that said, there are two major ideas that I believe this passage presents to us. 
The first is that Paul wants us to live by the spirit rather than the flesh, or by what the CEB translates as “selfish motives.” And it’s important to understand when Paul speaks of flesh and spirit he doesn’t mean what has been misconstrued as the physical and the non-physical. 
Paul is not a practitioner of Plato’s Greek philosophy that despises dependency on the physical for meaning or existence. Guyton suggests that a more accurate understanding of what Paul intends can be had by translating the word Paul uses for flesh, sarx, as meat, and the word for spirit, pneuma, as breath. 
So, Guyton writes, “Living according to the flesh is treating the world around you like meat to be consumed.It’s mindless, self-centered consumption in which every appetite must be quenched and every itch must be scratched.” That’s what the CEB calls “selfish motives. “Living in the spirit does not mean that I don’t eat or drink. It doesn’t mean I [give up] all forms of pleasure…It means…that I seek God in all that I do (1 Cor 10:31). In other words, I savor life rather than stumbling through it like a half-dead zombie. When you live according to the spirit, it doesn’t make your life more physically dull. It means that instant oatmeal can taste like an amazing delicacy and a boring Nebraska cornfield can become a glistening cathedral of God’s kingdom. Paul isn’t giving us rules to follow to establish his authority; he’s giving us concepts to contemplate in order to pursue a life that is fully alive.”

   The second idea we should take from this passage is this: Paul says that it’s the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control - that are the true measure of right living, not obedience to laws. If I told you that we had to “obey” this passage we wouldn’t know how because Paul doesn’t give a list of “dos and don’ts,
 he gives us a list of character qualities that show whether we’ve taken a right or wrong turn in how we’re living our lives. It’s not about obeying Paul or anyone else, it’s about examining whether the fruit we produce in our lives is peace and patience or strife and envy. If that examination shows that we’re going the wrong way then a change of direction, that is repentance, is called for.  “The purpose of following biblical teachings,” Guyton suggests, “is not to be able to say, ‘Look God; I did everything you said; so what’s my reward?’ but to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 
The reward is the fruit itself.”

   So then to come full circle, if Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians to rebut the sinful, heretical, moral legalism that these Jewish-Christian missionaries were trying to impose on them, then are our brothers and sisters within the United Methodist Church who bring to trial LGBTQ clergy actually disobeying the scriptural authority of Paul’s teaching when they reject his criteria for determining whether someone is living according to the flesh or the spirit? 

If an LGBTQ Christian is clearly filled with the gifts of the Spirit and exhibits the fruit of the Spirit in their life and their ministry, would Paul want us to prevent that person from obeying God’s call on his or her life simply because they violated a law that scripture gives no more or no less importance to than eating a shrimp cocktail? 
What would Paul say if he took the witness stand at the trial of a gay or lesbian clergy person? Would he speak as he did at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, testifying to the Twelve of all the Holy Spirit-filled work that had been done by these non-circumcised Gentiles - the fruit of the spirit they had exhibited? Or are we to just blindly adhere to the carefully constructed legalisms intended to help us feel like we’re obediently resisting change in our world, as we did with the role of African Americans in the church a century and a half ago, and with women more recently?

   The United Methodist Church is fast approaching a crossroads, if you will, where we will have to decide HOW we are going to be together, or IF we are going to be together. For me personally, I’m of two minds on the issue. It blows my mind that a denomination that’s history is built on the twin ideas of God’s abundant grace and of our connectional nature cannot even “agree to disagree” on the issue of homosexuality when there is so very much more that we agree on. At the same time, I see all the time and energy, all of the enmity, bitterness, strife, fighting, and other things produced by what Paul calls “selfish motives” and wonder if Christ’s mission wouldn’t be better served by our just going our separate ways so that as two churches, we could get back to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

   I have to agree with Morgan Guyton when he says, 
“I understand that we have a discernment process to go through. And I get that the moral legalists are sincerely trying to be faithful to a God they think is being kicked around by moral relativism.” But I also see, as Paul testifies, that as Saul he was himself a man of the law, and he saw that it led him to “breathing threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1). But later he seems to wonder, “How could such perfect religious observance still create hateful and violent men like me?” That was Paul’s utterly honest and humble question, and is one that many folks today would be wise to ask of themselves.

   What moral legalists don’t recognize, is that when I, or others, read Galatians 5 and declare our support for Bishop Oliveto and other LGBTQ clergy, we do so out of obedience to God, however wrong we may be in what we believe we’ve heard God tell us. If we are wrong in our understanding, we will err on the side of grace over legalism, on the side of inclusion over exclusion, on the side of love.  And likewise, if God tells me, or others, to take up my cross and risk my ordination by marrying [LGBTQ] people, I would see it as disobedient and cowardly not to do so. We understand this not only as an issue of interpretation, but as a matter of justice, and we cannot simply cover our ears from hearing whatever the Spirit might say through that process.

   As Christians, our religion started as a movement that exploded after the clergy trial of a young Galilean rabbi that resulted in a horrific execution and a miracle that changed human history. If Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, he would be known merely as an eccentric prophet who went too far, blasphemed God, and was killed for it. Ironically, the clergy trial of Jesus, brought about by the religious moral legalists of that day, also led to both the punishing savagery imposed by those same religious moral legalists and to the miracle by which God categorically and unequivocally rebuked them and what they stood for.

   It seems that too often this conversation has been an argument about whether or not people who have already made up their minds, on both sides, have to keep listening to others. Defending the right to stop listening doesn’t seem like living into the fruit of the spirit. So all of us should examine our hearts for the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit. Paul would tell us that whoever wins the argument has lost everything if they’ve given their hearts over to enmity, strife, and quarrel. 
Perhaps most importantly, we should try to find the fruits of the spirit in those we consider our enemies. 
The goal is not to validate ourselves and invalidate others; the goal is to find Christ and let him draw us closer. That is where we truly experience mystical union with Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The debate that’s older than Paul’s letter to the Galatians (#NoSuchLaw)”
April 21, 2017 by Morgan Guyton on

Monday, May 22, 2017

Galatians Sermon Series “Heirs of the Kin-dom of God” 5-21-17

5-21-17 Galatians Sermon Series  “Heirs of the Kin-dom of God”

   So how many of you, as children, were cared for at times by babysitters? Maybe it was an older sibling or a neighbor. Maybe it was only an occasional thing or perhaps a regular occurrence. After my father died my younger sister and I were often under the care of any one of a number of sitters when Mom had to work. 
And that was often our older sister until she got to high school and got a job of her own, then our sitters varied. We had various after school sitters over the year, often older women who my mom either knew or found, but sometimes they were teenage girls, daughters of family friends, who would watch us. And I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but I was not always the easiest kid to babysit! I know it’s completely out of character for me now, but as a youngster I could be a bit of a trouble-maker. For example, we had one regular sitter named Betty Dahlem, whose mother worked with Mom at a local factory. Betty would often watch us after school or during the summers.
    Now, not to be unkind here, but Betty wasn’t always the quickest to learn from an experience, even when it was repeated. There were places I liked to go to as a kid to play, like the creek at the end of our block, where she wouldn’t let me go, I assume because Mom had told her that I couldn’t. So instead of arguing about it, or whining or crying to get my way, I would literally rope Betty into playing a game of Cowboys and Indians. And invariably, regardless of which part I played or which role she had, I would tie her to the stake (in this case a chair), and when I was sure she couldn’t easily get free, I’d turn the TV on to her favorite soap opera and I’d take off to go play at the creek with my friends. And when I’d come home she’d be upset with me, but as far as I know she never told my mom because I never heard about it, and this played out time and again.
   Depending on the situation, a babysitter’s role is to take care of, protect, or otherwise keep out of trouble, those for whom they are responsible. Those are usually minor children who, at least in my case, clearly couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be trusted to take care of themselves until they reach what we call the age of majority. In this week’s reading, expanding on what we looked at last week, Paul suggests that the role of the Law is not unlike that of a babysitter, but rather than a babysitter as we know it, he compares it to what was then known as a pedagogue.

   The pedagogue (literally in Greek, "child-guide") in the Greco-Roman culture of Galatia would have been, as I shared last week, a male household staff person (whether slave or free) who was responsible for the education and protection of younger male children. 
He would have accompanied them to school and public events, and perhaps acted as tutor for both schoolwork and etiquette, until the children reached young adulthood, at which point they would be initiated and expected to behave fully as adults in their world.
   So it is, Paul suggests, with the law and the faith of Christ. Paul isn't making this argument simply about the people in Galatia, but rather about Judaism and the whole world. The role of the law for Jews especially, but potentially for anyone who came under its guidance, was to "raise you right," - like the pedagogue - to form in you right practices and behaviors. But that's as far, Paul says, that either the pedagogue (or the Law, he suggests) could ever have taken anyone. It might be helpful up to the point of initiation into the adult world, but after that, once recognized as an adult, the pedagogue had no further authoritative role to play.

   In last week's text, Paul focused on the distinction between what the law could do (identify sinful practices and provide guidance for a deepening relationship with God), what it could not do (reconcile or justify anyone), and what, by contrast, the faith of Jesus Christ offers to all who are in Christ (justification and life).

And the final verses from last week leading into this week read,
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian. 26 You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. 
27 All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

   So, writing to Gentile believers who have been told by outside Jewish-Christian missionaries that they need to adopt circumcision and law observance in order to be fully included in God's people, Paul responds with a forceful scriptural argument. In chapter 3, Paul argues that God's promise to Abraham came earlier, so takes priority over the law. The law served its purpose, serving a custodial/pedagogue function with the authority to identify and restrain sin, but lacking the power to liberate us from sin (3:21-22). The law served as our custodian until Christ came (3:23-24). But now in Christ we are set free from the law. This is true for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female alike; we are all one in Christ and heirs to God's promises (3:27-29).

   So now in chapter 4, Paul expands on what it means to be an heir. While heirs are still minors, they’re "no better than slaves,” he says, because they and the property they’ll inherit remain under the control of guardians and trustees "until the date set by the father" (4:1-2). "So with us," Paul continues, "while we were minors, we were enslaved to this world’s systems.” (4:3). And chief among those world systems that enslave us, offers Paul, is legalism.

   Legalism is the idea that we’re saved by following rules and the laws, and that those who don’t are condemned. So what rules and laws are we talking about here? 
Is Paul throwing out the Ten Commandments? No, not hardly. But consider for a moment, what Jesus said about the Law. When asked what was the greatest commandment, he replied that the greatest is to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength,” and a second, he said, is like it, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, we may or may not be able to recite in order each of the Ten Commandments as given by Moses, but even at that, we recognize that these two given by Jesus are not specified among the ten. So what gives?

   Well, if we look closely we see that the Ten Commandments can be broken into two groups; the first four dealing with our relationship with God while the last six are about our relationship with one another. That is, they deal exclusively with how we love God and how we love our neighbor. So, Jesus wasn’t dismissing or editing the Ten Commandments, he was distilling them down to their core, their essence, in two easy to remember commandments. 
   That said, what Jesus referred to when he said that he had come to “fulfill” the Law, that is to bring it to completion, was the  assortment of 613 laws that had spun out of those original ten; 613 laws, most commonly known as the “holiness code” and found primarily in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that could not all be followed at the same time because following some meant violating others. That’s what is meant by the burden, the hardship, or the curse imposed by the Law, according to both Jesus and Paul, that the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking and that the Jewish-Christian missionaries demanded that the Galatians must comply with as well. In the case of the Galatians specifically, laws requiring circumcision of males. 
   But “the Law” was the enemy of grace in the New Testament, and it was Paul’s target in the letter to the Galatians. Paul's gospel of grace, received directly from Jesus Christ, proclaimed that everything necessary for our salvation had already been done by Jesus, and that all we have to do is to accept it by faith as trust, or, as Borg and Crossan define faith, “by making a total commitment” to Jesus. For many, though, then and now, the offer of grace seems too risky. They want something more tangible, something to seemingly control with their own hands, so they add to, or cling to, some legalistic requirements. This is the kind of thing we see happening in the non-Pauline and pseudo-Pauline letters as well that seek to cling to legalism at the expense of grace. But when anything is added to faith, the result is not grace, but only more legalism.

   Legalism has returned in our day with a vengeance. 
We need look no further than when a person of faith seeks to judge the beliefs, practices, or behavior of another by citing what they refer to as biblical, Old Testament, or God’s Law. 
And often when citing that law, they conveniently forget a couple things: First, that they themselves treat the same law as a buffet from which they, too, pick and choose what to follow and what to ignore. And second, Jesus declared plainly that he had come to fulfill the Law, that is to bring to conclusion, the role of Torah Law. And Paul tells us that the end of the Law comes in grace by faith in Jesus Christ.Despite these teachings by both Jesus and Paul, though, legalistic requirements about how to be saved, about who can and cannot be married, ordained, adopt children, and other things are being suggested, even demanded by many legalistic Christians.

   As I was returning from lunch one day a couple of weeks ago, one of the churches I drove past had on their sign the question, “will you be saved before it’s too late?” With all due respect, I think they’re asking the wrong question. If we take seriously what Paul teaches us about God’s grace, then the sign should more properly read, “will you realize you’ve already been saved before it’s too late?” Too late for what? Too late to live your life - here and now - in the joy, peace, hope, and love of knowing that God’s grace has already embraced you…and not worrying about whether you’ve adhered to every jot and tittle of the Law that Jesus has already replaced with his commandments: love God and love one another. If our only way of thinking about or understanding salvation has to do with the afterlife, a concept by the way, that didn’t even exist when the Law was created, then we’re missing out on the blessing God offers to us in this life.
   Understanding the biblical concept of grace will help us move beyond legalism and our tendency as humans to always try to divide ourselves into “us” and “them,” or as I heard it phrased on the radio not long ago, our tendency to “other one another.” Paul says that the redemption provided by Jesus stands in contrast to the bondage experienced under the law. Redemption, or to redeem, in this context, means "to purchase a slave with a view to his freedom." The law provided not freedom but bondage. What the law couldn't do, God did in Jesus Christ.
    And Paul goes on to say that we are heirs, along 
with Christ, of God’s loving and freedom-giving grace. The word heir refers to "a person who will receive an inheritance." And we understand that an inheritance is not earned or necessarily deserved. It’s a gift to be received, to be handed down. Any benefits received through the law are determined solely by our ability to keep or maintain the law; the benefits of grace, on the other hand, are determined by God's abundance. 
So how do we become heirs of God? Paul explains that through Jesus Christ, we’ve been adopted into God's forever family. This adoption is not determined by our merit, but is a gift of grace, given by the hands of God.
  And Paul reminds the Galatians that formerly, when they did not know God, they "were enslaved to beings or systems that by nature are not gods.”  
He then pleads: "Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the worldly systems? 
How can you want to be enslaved by them again?"
   And Paul makes the astonishing claim that for the Galatians to adopt the Jewish law is the equivalent of returning to their former pagan practices. 
Being "imprisoned and guarded under the law,” or being like minors, means being "no better than slaves" (4:1). It’s the same as being "enslaved to the systems the world" (4:3). But there’s no need for that, because the "date set by the father” for the heirs to receive the inheritance has arrived in Jesus Christ!

   And he says, ”But when the fullness of time had come" (4:4) -- at the end of one age and the beginning of another, at the time God deemed just right -- "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children" (4:4-5).
   The coming of God’s Son ends the reign of the law as our babysitter and inaugurates a new age. The Son is "born of a woman," fully human, and "born under the law." That last phrase rather than emphasizing Jesus' Jewish lineage, considered in context seems to identify him with all of humanity. Paul suggests that all are born under the law in one form or another -- whether the law of Moses or the law of the “world systems.”
 Jesus is born under the law in order to redeem us who are under the law (cf. 3:13), "so that we might receive adoption as God’s children."
   And here Paul shifts metaphors, from a child growing 
to maturity and receiving the inheritance at the time set by the father, to a child being adopted. Under Roman law, adopted children had the same legal status and inheritance rights as biological children. It’s important to recognize that Paul doesn’t identify Jews with biological children and Gentiles with adopted children. Rather, he suggests that we’re all adopted children. None of us have any prior claim on God as parent. Our adoption as God's children is pure gift, pure grace. Jesus alone is Son of God from birth, but he shares his kinship and inheritance with all.
   Paul continues: "And because you are children, God sent has sent the Spirit of the Son into our hearts. (4:6). The Spirit links us with God's Son as fellow children of God, and enables us to call upon God with the same intimate language that Jesus used. 
(Mk 14:36; cf. Rom 8:15-17) 
So our adoption as God's children means that there is absolutely no reason to return to a life of slavery under the Law. We are children of God and full heirs with Christ to all that God has promised. (4:7; cf. 3:18, 29).
   And I want you to understand the difference it makes in daily life to know that we are children of God purely by God's grace and not by our adherence to the law, whatever form that law may take. Don't go back to that life of slavery, Paul tells us. The fullness of time has come! God redeems us from being under the law, so that we might receive adoption as God's children. God's gift to us will not be revoked, regardless of whether, or how well, we live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others. We do have a fresh start -- not by our own will power, but by the gracious initiative of God in sending God’s Son, claiming us as God's children, and sending the Spirit into our hearts. Thus, as Paul makes the argument here, the law was always pointing toward but awaiting its fulfillment in Christ. So submitting again to the law is the same as never being initiated into or achieving "real adulthood" in God. Submitting to the Law, he suggests, is not unlike denying Christ.

   It is the faith in, the trust in, the total commitment to Christ that represents "real maturity" or "real adulthood" in God. Initiation into Christ through baptism is where we take on his faith (and so his practices and teaching). And by the power of the Spirit, we’re empowered to begin to live them out, which puts us into a place and way of being spiritually mature with God where the law can no longer lay claim to us. It is Christ himself, to whom we are joined and whom we put on, who lays claim to us now. This is a pure gift given by God; we cannot earn or deserve it. We can only give thanks and share this gift with others.

   To think about this idea in a more practical way, Brian Harbour tells the story that at the turn of the last century, a young man named Billy accompanied his dad into town on Saturday to pick up the necessary supplies at the dry goods store. He stood patiently at the door as his father gathered the supplies. As his dad paid the bill, the store owner said to Billy, "Son, I ‘m impressed with your patience while your dad did the shopping. 
As a reward, why don't you reach your hand into this candy jar and get a handful of candy." Billy didn't move. After a minute, the proprietor reached his hand into the jar and gave Billy more candy than he could hold in both hands. As they boarded the wagon to head back home, Billy's father expressed surprise at his son's hesitancy. "I've never known you to be bashful," the father said. Billy explained, "I wasn't being bashful, Dad. I just knew that his hands were bigger than my hands!"

   When we follow the pathway of legalism, we have only what we can hold in our own hands. By contrast, when we follow Jesus’ Way of grace, we receive what God can hold in God’s hands. And God's hands are so much bigger than ours!

   So may you open both your hands and your hearts, that you might live by grace and receive the inheritance of grace that has been given to you and all God’s children. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Galatians Series “One in Christ” 5-14-16

5-14-17 Galatians Sermon Series  “One in Christ”

   In the Scripture reading from the book of Acts that Tracy Temple preached two weeks ago on the stoning of Stephen, we were introduced ever so briefly to a young man named Saul of Tarsus, who it was said, held the cloaks of the those who stoned Stephen to death. Saul, it said, approved of their actions in condemnation of this subversive sect following the crucified radical rabbi Jesus, called “The Way.” Later in Acts, we read that Saul, while on the road to Damascus, Syria purportedly to arrest other followers of Jesus, encountered the risen Christ in the form of a bright light and a powerful voice that knocked him to the ground, struck him blind, and challenged him as to why Paul was persecuting him and his followers. 
It’s a powerful story that’s told three different times in the new Testament and that leads eventually to Saul’s becoming the Apostle Paul, no longer a persecutor of Jesus but one of his foremost evangelists.

   And the Book of Acts reveals that over the next couple of decades Paul would travel throughout the Middle East, Asia Minor, and other parts of the Roman Empire, creating -  in a Johnny Appleseed sort of way - communities of Christ followers. Sometimes traveling with companions, other times alone, Paul’s three missionary journeys by land and sea enabled him to plant seeds of faith in Jesus Christ throughout the region, eventually ending up in Rome where he would be martyred around 64 CE. 
   After birthing these communities Paul would maintain contact with them by way of letters. We assume that there were likely many more letters between Paul and these communities than what we have now in Scripture, in part because that would have been the primary means by which people communicated in those times and Paul expresses great personal affection for many people in many communities, and also because in some letters he alludes to other letters that we don’t have. Therefore it would be a fair assumption that they remained in contact even if we don’t have access to all of their communications. 

   And as we shared last week, we have thirteen letters within the New Testament that are attributed to Paul. I say attributed because we know that only seven of the thirteen are considered genuine, having with certainty been written by Paul. Another three letters are believed with certainty to have not been written by the Apostle himself, but to have been written by one of his later followers in his name - a common practice in that time - in order to “correct” or even challenge what Paul wrote in one or more of his genuine letters.Then there are another three letters, called the “disputed letters,” about which there is uncertainty by biblical scholars as to authorship, but that a majority believe were not actually written by Paul either. So the nature of letters can be described as being Pauline (or genuine), non-Pauline (not genuine), or pseudo-Pauline (maybe, maybe not Paul). 

   In the book I referenced last week, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe what they call “three Pauls” that are found in these three different categories of letters. The first they call the “Radical Paul.” This is the Paul represented in the seven genuine letters, whose writings and teachings most closely reflect the radical teachings of Jesus. Their second Paul they call the “Reactionary Paul,” and as represented in the non-Pauline letters this writer is reacting to or seeking to counter something Paul has proposed or proclaimed in the genuine letters. Then finally, is what they call the “Conservative Paul.” Don’t think of “conservative” in the sense of politically conservative versus liberal, but rather as seeking to conserve existing power structures and systems of authority within the Roman Empire, Roman imperial theology, and within the Pharisee-led Judaism of that time.  As for timing, the genuine letters were all written by the 50s of the first decade of the first century, while the others were written decades, even generations later - well after Paul’s death. 

   And we talked last week about how, when reading Paul’s letters, it’s absolutely vital to understand the context in which they were written, and we presented that as a series of concentric circles. The innermost circle or context is what specifically is happening in the community to which Paul writes, in this case, Galatia. The second ring represents what is going on within the slowly expanding Jesus movement elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. The next ring considers what is happening within Judaism, because remember, Jesus, Paul, and all of the apostles and followers were all Jews and the Jesus movement was a sect within Judaism, not yet the separate religion it would later become. And finally, the outer and all-encompassing ring of context is the Roman Empire and Roman imperial theology. Everything that happens in this time must be understood in relation to Empire and both Jesus and Paul’s reaction to and rejection of Empire and imperial thinking and theology.

   Now, I’ve mentioned Roman Imperial Theology a couple of times, so let’s look at what is meant by this term.  Borg and Crossan offer this basic understanding for us.
“Before Jesus was born - or even if he had never existed - another human being was already proclaimed Son of God, and indeed, God Incarnate within the same first common era century and within the same Mediterranean world. In fact, almost all the sacred terms and solemn titles that we might think of as Christian creations or even Pauline inventions were already associated with Caesar Augustus, the first undisputed rule of the Roman Empire, from 31 BCE to 14 CE.”

“Augustus was Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God. He was Lord, Liberator, Redeemer, and Savior of the World - not just of Italy or the Mediterranean, mind you, but the entire inhabited earth. Words like ‘justice’ and ‘peace,’ ‘epiphany’ and ‘gospel.’ ‘grace’ and ‘salvation’ were already associated with him. Even ‘sin’ and ‘atonement’ were connected to him as well.”

   And so the basic structure of Roman imperial theology looked something like this:
Religion —> War —> Victory —> Peace

And as Borg and Crossan describe it, 
“You must first worship and sacrifice to the gods; with them on your side, you can go to war; from that, of course, comes victory, then, and only then, do you obtain peace… So at its core,” they write, “Roman imperial theology proclaims peace through victory…” (106)

   How Caesar Augustus was elevated to this level is far more than what we can cover in a sermon, but for our purposes, we must understand that this is the world into which Jesus was born, and the world in which Paul is writing.  “Failure to understand how Rome’s imperial theology was incarnated in Caesar will result inevitably in failure to understand how Paul’s Christian theology was incarnated in Jesus the Christ,” they offer. (101)

   So we must understand that when Paul and Jesus’ other earlier followers proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” they were making not only a religious statement, but a political statement as well, that “Caesar is not” Lord, as imperial theology maintained. When they proclaimed Jesus as “Son of God,” it would be impossible to not understand the conflict and, as Borg calls it, “the confrontational echo” with that title being used for the emperor. Much of the language that was adopted to describe Jesus’ divinity, kingship, etc. was done so to directly counter what was said about the Roman Emperor. So as in the gospels, in Paul’s genuine letters, he is not seeking accommodation with the powers-that-be in Rome and throughout the empire, he is challenging them and their power structures directly in the message of Jesus Christ. That is the context in which the entire New Testament takes place.

   So as we move into Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the identity of the specific Galatians to which he writes and the date of the letter are uncertain. If Paul wrote to the congregations he and Barnabas established on their first missionary journey, what you see here in blue, (Acts 13-14), he may have written Galatians as early as 49CE. According to this scenario, Paul was writing to congregations in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia (part of modern day Turkey): Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. But if Paul was writing to the Celtic tribes that had settled in the northern part of the province of Galatia (also part of modern day Turkey), he was writing in the mid 50s to congregations around Ancyra, which he established on his second missionary journey, shown here in pink. (Acts 16).

   And I’ll remind that you he wrote to the Galatians because his teaching and his authority had been challenged by Jewish-Christian missionaries from Jerusalem, who claimed that before these Galatian Gentiles could become part of the Jesus movement they must first be circumcised as the law of Moses dictated, which, if he were not Jewish, Paul might have called so much “hogwash.” And our message last week on the first couple of chapters of Galatians went into Paul’s teaching about our being saved by grace through faith and not by adherence to the Law. If we are saved by works or the Law, Paul says, then Christ died for nothing. 
And we made the point that in much of the church, we’ve taken the idea of faith and its original meaning of “trust” in Jesus, or as Borg and Crossan define it, “total commitment,” in this case to Jesus’ program, and changed it into a different form of works righteousness as “belief.” That is, our work is to “believe” or give mental agreement to a certain set of beliefs about God, Jesus, and the Bible. And this goes against everything Paul has to say in this letter. 

   So a clearly frustrated Paul writes, 
You irrational Galatians! Who put a spell on you? Jesus Christ was put on display as crucified before your eyes! I just want to know this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by believing [that is, committing to or trusting] what you heard? Are you so irrational? After you started with the Spirit, are you now finishing up with your own human effort? Did you experience so much for nothing? I wonder if it really was for nothing. So does the one providing you with the Spirit and working miracles among you do this by you doing the works of the Law or by you [trusting] what you heard?

   Throughout his letters, Paul uses the term "law" (nomos) to refer both to Moses’ law and to the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. 
This post-Damascus Road Paul now reads the Torah primarily as narrative leading to fulfillment in the Messiah and views the legal code within the Torah in a new perspective in light of the larger story culminating in Christ. Now in Galatians 3, Paul turns to the narrative of the Torah to make his argument.
   In Genesis 15:6, after God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." In Genesis 12:3 and 22:18, God promised Abraham that "all the Gentiles shall be blessed in you." Paul views these verses as evidence that God planned from the beginning to justify the Gentiles by grace through faith, and "declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham." "For this reason," Paul asserts, "those who believe are justified with Abraham who believed" (3:6-9).
   In 3:10-20, Paul makes a number of scriptural points to show that the law is provisional, or temporary, in nature and function:

1.The law cannot justify or bring blessing, for it declares cursed everyone who doesn’t observe all that is written in it. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law in his death on the cross as he died as a result of the law taken to its ultimate conclusion (3:10-14).

2.The promise to Abraham has chronological priority, having been given 430 years before the giving of the law to Moses. The later law cannot alter or annul the original promise, received in faith by Abraham on behalf of all of his descendants (3:15-18).

3.The law was given through angels by a mediator (Moses). It is a third-hand revelation from God, while the promise was spoken directly by God to Abraham (3:19-20).

   "Why then the law?" Paul asks rhetorically. It was added "because of transgressions" but was only a provisional measure, "until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made,” the “offspring,” in this case, referring to Christ. While sin has been in the world since humanity gained moral consciousness, the law defined sin and made it known as such. The law served a custodial function with the authority to restrain and even define sin, yet it lacked the power to liberate us from sin (3:20-22), that is, it couldn’t transform us in such a way that we could keep from sinning. So Paul writes that "before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our custodian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith." (3:23-24).

   The word translated “custodian” in the CEB and as "disciplinarian" in the NRSV is paidagōgosIn wealthy Greek and Roman families, a pedagogue was a slave entrusted with the care and discipline of a child when the child was not in school, until the child reached the age of adulthood. The metaphor suggests that the authority of the law is like a pedagogue, transitory, lasting only until the fruition of the promise -- "until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.”

   "But now that faith has come," Paul continues, "we are no longer subject to a custodian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (3:25-26). The word translated "children" in the NRSV is "sons" (huioi). Sons would enjoy full rights of inheritance from their fathers. Yet it’s clear that Paul intends a gender-inclusive meaning by what comes next.

   Now that Christ has come, the rite of entry into the community of Christ followers is no longer circumcision (available only to males) but baptism, available to all. "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (3:27). Here Paul uses language from early baptismal liturgy, in which the newly baptized were clothed in a white garment, symbolic of the righteousness of Christ. All who have been baptized into Christ are clothed with him, wrapped up in him, and incorporated into him so that Christ becomes their primary identity marker. 
All other identifiers are negated, for "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" (3:28).
   The Babylonian Talmud (or Teachings) includes a morning blessing to be recited by every Jewish man, thanking God for not creating him a gentile, a slave, or a woman (Menahoth 43b). While it’s not certain that this prayer pre-dates Paul, it demonstrates the power these three categories held in the ancient world. Paul's declaration that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, is a radical dismantling of these primary identity and boundary markers. Differences in ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status don’t magically disappear, of course, but Paul declares them to be irrelevant in the body of Christ. For one to be baptized into Christ means being clothed with Christ and finding one's primary identity and value in Christ. And being “in Christ, we are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise. All who belong to Christ share fully and equally in the inheritance of God's promises and the call to live as God's children and heirs.
   The precise categories that divide us today may differ from those in Paul's day, but divisions persist in congregations and in the broader church -- divisions that run along lines of ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, political affiliation, and any number of other factors. 
Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ.

   Yet, both in the world at large as well as in the church we continue to categorize and label one another, and to diminish one another on the basis of those human categories and labels. These are signs of our spiritual immaturity. Paul reminds us that since Christ has come, we’re no longer enslaved to those old divisions. All are justified solely by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. In our Christian way of understanding the work of God, it’s through baptism into Christ that we belong to him and to one another. All share fully and equally in the inheritance of God's promises and in the mission to which God has called us, regardless of any social or cultural divisions or labels we seek to impose on another.

   Do you suppose that this perspective could help us deal with contentious issues, which often have to do with interpretation of the law - both the law of Moses and denominational or church law? Paul reminds us that the law is provisional and can never justify or save us. In fact, it can only imprison us. It is Christ, Paul says, who frees us from what he calls “the curse of the law” and makes us children and heirs of God.

   This doesn’t mean that "anything goes" in terms of how we live. Paul has plenty to say about how we’re to live out our freedom in Christ, as we will see in Galatians 5 and 6. Yet Paul's message to the Galatians, and to us, cautions us against allowing the law to annul the promise and destroy the freedom, unity, and mission to which God has called those we would label as Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, rich or poor, gay or straight, black, white, or brown, in and through Christ. God's mission to bless "all the families of the earth," begun with the promise to Abraham and passed on to us as children and heirs, takes priority over all human agendas, divisions, and laws - whether from civil authorities or church Judicial Councils. 

  Understand this truth if nothing else: there is no such law that can negate God’s promised blessing for all God’s children. And there is no such law that can limit how God chooses to work through the Holy Spirit in any person, male or female, gay or straight, who hears and respond to God’s call. Those divisions are gone, we are one in Christ Jesus. The law, Paul said, is a prison, but the truth of God’s grace given freely to all, well that shall set us free. Amen.