Sunday, June 20, 2010

Today's Sermon: Galatians 3:23-29 "Gift of the Father"

“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.”

Dramatic words from Paul in our epistle today, written to the church in Galatia. Paul lived in a time when categorizing yourself as Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, was central to how one lived in those days. So what was it that set Paul off so that he felt he had to write this letter to the church in Galatia?

Paul had traveled to Galatia and had converted people, who then formed the core of what was to become the church there. The people who became followers of Christ were pagans, Greek citizens of the area now known as Anatolia. He taught them about Christ, about how Christ had died to free us from our sins, how their faith in Christ was a great gift from God, and all they needed for eternal salvation. Paul had already had his argument with Peter about converting non-Jews to Christ, and whether it was necessary for non-Jews to convert to Judaism first, and at the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles agreed that it was not necessary. This was great news for Paul, since it’s hard to get people excited about becoming Christ-followers if they have to get circumcised first. And this was the way he had taught and converted Gentiles in his travels.

Now, Paul was a traveling sort of pastor, a circuit-rider, if you will, so after he got a group of people converted, he helped them set up an informal church community, and then he was on his way to the next place where he felt the Spirit leading him. But you and I both know that conversion is not a one-time fix. And churches, even though they are of God, are human institutions, and sometimes they can get off-track, can’t they?

Well, after Paul had left Galatia, some other people came in, preaching a different version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they said you had to become a Jew before you could be a Christ-follower. And so someone in Galatia wrote a letter to Paul telling him about these people…you can imagine the letter, can’t you:

“Dear Pastor Paul-

Greetings from sunny Galatia…well, it’s not so sunny because winter is setting in, but we certainly wish you were here. All is well here, except for one little thing. There are these new preachers passing through and they’re preaching all about Jesus, too. That would be just fine and dandy with us, but they’re saying that we have to become Jews first if we really want to be good followers of Christ, because Scripture says that it is the children of Abraham who are the ones who are saved, and that you are wrong about the whole no-circumcision thing. Some of our folks are getting a little worked up, because they really want to be good Christians, and these preachers are saying their baptism isn’t worth a single thin denarius because they didn’t become Jews first. It’s causing all sorts of arguments around here. So could you please write to us and clarify, once and for all, if we need to do the whole circumcision thing if we want to be saved?

Many thanks – yours in faith,

Your disciple, Anatolius.”

Paul gets this letter and is pretty frosted. These strangers, these ones who neither walked with Jesus or had the dramatic conversion experience that Paul did, how dare they teach so wrongly? How dare they say Paul is off-base? Didn’t he go and argue with the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem to get this very matter settled? Didn’t he win that argument? So he sits down and writes Anatolius and the rest of the Galatians a letter in response. And the heart of the letter is this:

“No. They are wrong. Remember what I taught you.

Before Jesus came, we all had to follow the Law of Moses, plus a thousand other little laws that told us everything from what kind of food we could eat to how we would pray. All that stuff about circumcision, the original covenant that God made, all of that was part of the deal between God and Abraham and all Abraham’s descendents. But the whole thing changed when Jesus came. Jesus, God’s son, who died on the cross as part of the new covenant. Suddenly the central point of the whole covenant wasn’t following the law, it was following Jesus, who wasn’t about what kind of food we could eat and what shape the ark would be. Jesus died. We are all God’s children because of that. In the old days, we would have to be children of Abraham by following the law. Now we are children of Abraham by following Jesus. So you don’t have to worry about whether you’re a Jew or a Greek or a slave or a farmer….those categories, and the rules that go with them, are no longer important. Got it?”

Yes, Paul was given to pressing the send button after writing out a dramatic and emotional response, just like we sometimes send out emails a little too quickly. But as dramatic and emotional as this statement is, it is sound theology.

And it’s all about our relationship with our heavenly Father.

Yup, it’s Father’s Day, so how could I not talk about the Father that we all share? God, our Creator. The giver of all good things?

Let’s talk a little bit about fathers, and their relationship with their children.

When you’re tiny, your dad does everything for you. Feeds you, protects you, maybe even changes a diaper now and then, teaches you to ride a bike…and he also is often the person who sets down the rules in the house. Not always – sometimes Mom is the rule-maker in the house – but pretty often. And you know that you’d better follow those rules, rules that your dad made because he loves you and wants to protect you and wants you to grow up to be a good person. If you don’t follow the rules, what happens?

I ran into a friend at the seminary one day. He was with his little daughter, Ella. Ella was four years old. She was looking pretty blue, so I said “Are you having a bad day?” She sighed a long, four-year-old sigh. “Sort of. I pushed Jamey (her baby brother) and Daddy got mad. He yelled at me. I got consequences.” “What?” “Daddy says when I do something bad, I get consequences.”

Consequences. Yes, when we break the rules, there are consequences to our actions, whether it is a speeding ticket or a broken marriage or being put in the time-out corner.

Now, the rules are important for little children, but as we grow, things change. When we become adolescents, we feel constrained by the rules. We want to do what WE want to do. We fight them, and we fight the father who has set the rules. Staying out a little past curfew, smoking a cigarette, hanging out with bad kids…we rebel. And while some fathers try to clamp down even harder, others step back a little bit and say “Okay. You want to get a little more freedom? Let’s test that out and see what happens. Let’s see how it affects your schoolwork, or your participation in the sports team, or your relationships with your friends. And if you make the wrong choice, you will have to bear the consequences. I won’t bail you out.” That father loosens the reins a little, lets the teenager or young adult start to make his own choices, and deal with the consequences of those choices for good or for ill. Eventually, the father hopes that the teen or young adult will figure out for himself what is right and what is wrong. After all, for sixteen years the father has been enforcing the rules and teaching the values behind those rules. Now it is time for the young person to live those values without the highly structured rules that were necessary when he was younger.

And that’s precisely the strategy that God is using when he sends Jesus to earth to teach us a new way of being in relationship with the One True God. Jesus preaches and teaches and heals and blesses, and then gives his life for us, so that we might have a more perfect relationship with God. Jesus takes away the need for the highly structured laws and rules that marked the old relationship. God is treating us as his children who have now matured sufficiently, with Jesus’ help, to be able to make our own choices.

And that means that the rules about the food and the curfew and the type of prayer, all the rules and punishments that were part of the old system, now are set aside, because we are now spiritually mature enough to be in relationship with God without them. The parent of the young adult says “you’re going to college now. I won’t be there to watch everything you do. I’ve taught you well, so make wise choices.” God says, “You’ve learned more about me through Jesus, and he has sacrificed himself for you to make sure you will be in good relationship with me. He has taught you well, so make wise choices.”

In the same way, Paul tells the folks in Galatia that they don’t have to revert back to the old rules and categories – don’t we love to categorize ourselves and others – they are now free. He reminds them of the gift that their heavenly father has given them, the freedom to love God not out of compulsion, but because we cannot help but respond to God’s love when we as mature spiritual creatures sense that love in our lives.

And in a few minutes, when we celebrate the sacrament of baptism with little G.G. , we acknowledge that even she, as young as she is, is set on a path shaped by God’s love, a path that will give her the tools she needs as she grows to love God and to love all of God’s world around her, and to make the choices that God would have us all make. She is a child of the heavenly Father who loves her boundlessly, as we are all that Father’s children.

Fathers, whether they be the earthly fathers who have taught us so well that we have matured and learned to make our own wise choices, or the heavenly Father who sent his son to teach us, deserve our gratitude and thanks. We no longer have to be bound by strict laws and rules to know how to live rightly. They have given us the knowledge and the freedom to grow in spiritual knowledge, and we owe them our deepest thanks.

Amen.