Monday, July 8, 2013

The Law of Love and Grace: Sermon on Galatians 6:1-16

Sermon: “The Law of Love”
Text: Galatians 6:1-16
Preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Summer Worship
Monday, July 8, 2013

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor's work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads.
6Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
11See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised — only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16As for those who will follow this rule — peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Gal. 6:1-16, NRSV).

It’s been said, “Where love is implemented, there is the Church” (John Caputo). The purpose of the Apostle Paul’s message to the Galatian Christians is to establish the law of Christ, which is the law of love. He does this for a community deterred from the message of Christ – which is freedom by the means of grace. Law is the rule that grace fulfills. Grace is the question that love answers.

The law of Christ is the love of God and the love of others. Jesus said, the greatest commandment was love (Mt. 22:36-40). Paul reminds the Galatians of this because they’re being told by another sect of the church that the laws of old were not fulfilled by Christ. Whereas, the love of Christ put us before his life. The implementation of love is compassionate, merciful, and gracious. The law is in our nature because it makes sense, but grace is our freedom because it is given on account of Christ.

When we love, we put the needs of others before our own. This is what Paul is reminding the Galatians of, both the Jewish Christian sect and the Gentile Christian churches (which Paul started). Jesus laid his life down for us, not because we are righteous, but because we are arrogant. The more we have it, “figured out,” the more grace is foreign to us. The law of love is humble and gentle.

We all break the law of God and correction is better heard with compassion. If a child cries, do they stop crying if one screams at them or do they stop crying through gentle correction? Paul is reminding the Galatian Christians that the law is not our freedom, but the cross of Christ is.

In order to understand what Paul means by his parallels of flesh and Spirit, we have to remember that reading the book of Galatians is like listing to one half of a conversation, or reading the texts of only one sender, it’s easy to misunderstand what Paul is saying to the people.

The churches addressed in Galatians were Gentile Christian churches, started by Paul, confused by Jewish Christians who glorified the law (Bruce Longenecker). On one hand, you have Paul telling these new Christians, who likely didn’t know the torah, that out of mercy, Christ died for us, and we have new life in the Spirit of God. On the other hand, you have a reputable group of Jewish Christians presenting the new Christians with a different gospel message, claiming that if the new believers do as they do, and live by their laws, only then will they be justified.

In contrast, by Paul’s understanding, the law means nothing, especially when it is for show. However, the law of Christ is humble and merciful. The Jewish Christians are elevating themselves above others, forgetting that none of us are without sin or flaw. Our text today, turns the mirror on our own lives and asks, do you think you’re better than others? This is not an easy text to read and it’s not an easy text to preach because it lives in tension with truth and mercy. Jesus came for the sinner, not the righteous (Lk. 5:31-32; Mk. 2:16-17). But, it’s not up to us to decide who’s righteous and who is not.

Martin Luther said, “Our conscience must be trained to fall back on the freedom purchased for us by Christ.” In other words, it is not in our nature to rely on grace nor is it to be gracious. If you’ve ever had to retrain a muscle to move a certain way, it’s kind of like that. A muscle that needs correction naturally moves in the way that it is accustomed to moving. Training the muscle to do something different from its nature cannot be done with force; the training has to meet the muscle where it is at.

Paul and Luther deal in paradox a lot: flesh and Spirit, Law and Gospel, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, sinner and saint. The reason for this is human beings are always challenged by the nature of grace and the nature of law. The Galatians aren’t the only ones confused by the law of love and grace. This is why the Gospel defies our understanding of reality.

This passage reminds me of another story form the 1980’s cult comedy Spaceballs. The hero’s sidekick says, “When you’re right, you’re right; and, well, you, you’re always right.” To borrow from Paul, believing one is always right is in our flesh, it’s natural and easy for a lot of us to do. Knowing when we’re wrong is like the work of the Spirit, it’s outside of our nature.

As I thought about Spaceballs and Galatians, I was reminded of my childhood. I have two older sisters, being the youngest, I often said what I wanted, did what I wanted, and got away with a lot of it. I still do. One of my sisters used to regularly remind me, “Timmy, you think you’re always right.” Naturally, being my older sister she didn’t say this to commend any wisdom I might possess. Rather, she reminded me that I thought I was always right, when in fact I wasn’t and am not. Usually, as with many siblings, this was not the means of gentle correction, but an attempt to put me in my place.

Like Lonestar, in Spaceballs, whenever I “think I’m always right,” I’m usually in for a few surprises.  You see, the people of planet Spaceballs ruled over all the other planets in the galaxy and they ruled with an iron fist. Debts were unfair and if you didn’t play by their rules it was going to be a rough life. It was kind of the wild west of outer space.

In this story, The king of the Drews (yes, you heard me correctly) paid the unreasonable debts of a Spaceballs tyrant, by sending Lonestar to save the day for the captured princess. Initially, Lonestar does this because it’s in his nature to want to get paid and free from his debt. I relate to that every time I pay the bills.

Eventually, the Spaceball law makers were defied because they lacked mercy and their own arrogance toppled the empire. The natural stubbornness of Lonestar nearly cost him his life. The natural selfishness of the Spaceball government caused them to fall. Both the hero and the villain, here, do what is natural to them, and find themselves in a whole heap of trouble. In Galatians, the Jewish Christians obsess over their interpretation of the law and fail to see that it condemns them along with the Gentile Christians. The Gentile Christians are deceived by the law because they don’t know any better. Both parties fail. Both parties need mercy.

 Following the law or not following the law got both groups nowhere. The Jewish Christian sect wanted the Gentile Christians to do as they did, but Paul’s declaration of the Gospel, defied their understanding of reality, by telling them to be Christ-like, and humble themselves in the loving aide of others. Whether we’re the Galatians, the Spaceballs, siblings, friends, husbands, wives, rich, poor, arguing nations, political parties, and so on, we’re always going to live in tension with Law and Gospel. The law fits our natural world; the Gospel crucifies it in the name of love.

In Spaceballs, it didn’t matter if Lonestar was right. Ultimately, what mattered was his love for the princess he came to rescue from captivity. Love is the defining principle for us too. If I think others are wrong all the time and I am always right, then I’m forgetting to love them. If I love people like Christ did, what will matter is how I can love them for who they are and where they are because I’m not always right. No one had to yell at me or remind me that I was wrong according to their criticisms. Instead, I’m reminded of how wrong I can be the more people demonstrate love and compassion.

For the Galatians and us, Luther says, “The Law of Christ is the law of love.” When I started writing this sermon, I was half tempted to just say, “Jesus loves you this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” remind you that Christ died, even, for you, and call it a day. Because the one thing that will always be challenging, that will always be conflicting, that will always be confusing, and the only thing that has ever been redeeming is the law of love and grace.

The Gospel, according to Paul in Galatians, defies our understanding of reality; not for self-fulfilling purposes or for condemnation, but for love and the grace of Christ.

For us, the law is concrete and easy to rationalize because it’s systemic, and built on a logical understanding of cause and effect. The Gospel, on the other hand, is like outer space, so vast in its function and purpose that it leaves us in awe. It’s okay if grace doesn’t make sense to us sometimes, or all the time, as the case may be. Grace isn’t there to make sense. Grace is there for us because Christ gave it to us.

For the Jewish Christian in Galatia, the law is all they knew. For the Gentile Christian in Galatia, the law was not there’s. The law condemns them both justly because its purpose is correction. The Gospel redeems them both equally because its correction is the loving fulfillment of the law.

Everyone gets it wrong sometimes; everyone gets it right sometimes. We’re human and it’s easy to only see half the story; the part we understand, not the part we don’t. Christ died for us out of love and mercy. The law of love is just that, love and grace. It’s the most transformative thing we’ll ever know, but because it is God’s nature, not ours, it defies our understanding of reality.

“Christ’s liberty is given us not by the law, or for our own righteousness, but freely for Christ’s sake” (Luther).

For, it is the grace of the cross that defines the Gospel. Why the son of God would willingly die for the very people that condemned him, is beyond the fullness of my comprehension. Love changes the story for everyone. In Galatians, love for the people of the church is Christ-like and humble. In Spaceballs, love makes Lonestar realize he’s been looking for the wrong thing and gives him new purpose. In my life, the love of God made this the hardest message I’ve ever preached because it doesn’t matter if I’m right; what matters, is that love wins every time, all the time.

“The Law of Christ is the law of love.” Law is the rule that grace fulfills. Grace is the question that love answers.


Monday, July 1, 2013

The Captivity of Control: Sermon on Galatians 5:1, 13-25

“The Captivity of Control”
Summer Worship
Monday, July 01, 2013
Sermon as preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Text: 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. 

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 slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Gal. 5.1, 13-25; NRSV).

As we approach our nation’s Independence Day, it is all too fitting that our lectionary text has to do with freedom. In theory, freedom sounds like something everyone would want, but that does not appear to be the case – particularly with the Gospel. Martin Luther said, “The world bears the Gospel a grudge because the Gospel condemns the religious wisdom of the world.”  Luther said this about Paul’s letter to the Galatians because the people forgot that we are justified by Christ’s free gift of grace through the cross.

The Apostle Paul talks a lot in his letters about the flesh and the Spirit, one is our condemnation by sin and the law, and the other is our freedom through Christ. Paul warns the Galatians not to return to slavery. The very fact that Paul warns the Galatians not to return to the slavery of religious law, illuminates the fear of freedom, and the captivity of control.

I’ve said before in other discussions on my transition into the Lutheran tradition that, “I’m a control freak,” and this whole grace thing messes with my illusion of control. The grace of the Gospel, the grace of Christ, the grace of the cross, and the grace Paul talks about is defiant to “the way of the world.” God’s grace is a constant reminder that I’m not in control, in fact, none of us are.

Maybe what I’m saying is not a revelation to you, but it was, and continues to be a revelation to me. Freedom in Christ is independence from the condemnation of sin and the law and complete and utter dependence on the work of Jesus Christ. This means I’m not in control; it means, we are not in control. 

Years ago, I used to look at this passage as a list of does and don’ts, which is easy enough to do at first glance. But, it’s not a matter of choosing the Spirit over the flesh; it’s a matter of being given the Spirit which overcomes the flesh. We’ve been given freedom and we shouldn’t return to the captivity of control. The Gospel message is in contrast to our human logic; cause and effect, if I do this, I get that. And the Gospel defies that human understanding.

 The Gospel is frustrating because we’re not in control; the Gospel is liberating because we are free in our dependence upon the grace of God.

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, “you are not subject to the law” (v. 18). Freedom is a scary thing, especially if we don’t know what it is to be free. The law is a system of control and grace fulfills what that system fails to do.

When I was a child, the world around me made it clear that I was different and I didn’t fit the mold of the way things are “supposed to be.” I was born with the muscle disorder Cerebral Palsy, my brain tells my muscles to work overtime, all the time. I was also born without depth perception and I only see in 2-D. I’ve, actually, never seen the world the way most, if not all, of you have.

I’ve always sought to be in control, but my life keeps reminding me that I am, and will always be dependent. Because the world around us generally perceives dependence as a weakness or somehow a problem, I fought as a child, and I fight as an adult to overcome that perception. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “perception is reality,” well; the Gospel is defiant to perception and presents a different reality to our world. It presents a different reality to our communities, to our families, and to each of our individual contexts.

Dependence upon the work of Christ has set us free, it sets me free, it sets you free, and this changes reality.

One might ask, if I’ve always been dependent upon help outside of my own abilities, whether from CP or 2-D vision, how am I a control freak? I’ve never wanted to be told what I physically could or could not do, so I’ve lived a lot of my life with a “no limits” attitude. When I was little, I would ski at Colorado’s Winter Park Resort without snow gear because I didn’t need the help of a snowsuit – I wasn’t going to fall. When I skied the whole mountain without falling, I knew I could do things my way.

At the age of twenty, I severed most of the muscle tendons for my right hand, when I shattered a window pane that was lucky enough to break my fall, as I tripped going into my house. I was told I may never use my hand again. At the time I was a drummer in a band and at my church, I was also developing a love for the guitar. The last thing I wanted to hear was, “You can’t do that.” Never mind, that the damage was so bad, I couldn’t use my hand to write or feel a pen between my fingertips. I first learned how to text message left handed because of this injury. The professional, the surgeon, told me, “I couldn’t do it.” I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything dictate reality for me. I was in control of my fate.

The illusion that I was in control of my balance on the ski slope or my recovery from the tendon repair, was my perception of reality. Truth be told, to be in control was more self-defining than my dependence upon God or others. However, I couldn’t have skied down a mountain without falling, had I not been given the tools to do so. I couldn’t have surprised the doctors, surgeons, and physical therapists who worked with me to recover; had they not surgically repaired my tendons, or spent countless hours giving my recovery the assistance in needed. Reality, I was dependent upon the work of others to give me the ability to ski or use my hand again. My story is no exception to the independence of dependence.    

The reality of our world claims, that true freedom is our independence to control our own destiny. So we develop systems, laws, methods, and plans to dictate our fate. In one of my favorite films, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, one of the main characters says, “There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves.” By that reasoning, the weight of the world is on our shoulders.

In contrast, our reality, in Christ, is dependent upon grace: something we do not control, something we do not do, something we cannot earn, something we do not accomplish. But, grace is something that has been given to us. The weight of the world has been taken upon God’s shoulders, in Jesus, because Christ died, even, for us.

When the Apostle Paul told the Galatians to, “Live by the Spirit,” it was because they were relying on their own fulfillment of the law and a system that told them,”do this and you will be free.” Like the Galatians, we have things we depend on that give us the perception of freedom and independence: money, power, possessions, morals, answers, plans, and structures. We are slaves to the fulfillment of these things.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery(v.1).

For me, fighting, or more likely ignoring, the fact that I need the help of God’s grace to have faith or that it is okay to allow others to help me do things (like drive or do high-energy activities) is where I am in captivity to control. I can’t do everything by myself, none of us can.

Now, I’m not saying that dependence on anything or anyone leaves me regularly content or joyful about the reality that it’s not about what I do, but about what’s been done for me. There’s a reason that the context in which Paul talks to the Galatians still matters today.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ defies our understanding of reality.

The Gospel didn’t make sense to the people of the church of Galatia, that’s why Paul was writing to them. The Gospel flipped their system upside down; it defied their understanding of reality. The Gospel reminds me that I am dependent upon God’s grace and the help of others. The Gospel turns my illusion of control on its head; it defies my understanding of reality. The Gospel doesn’t fit our action equals results driven culture. The Gospel redefines our independence and freedom; it defies our understanding of reality.

If, in the Gospel, perception is not reality; what is reality?

 In the Gospel, reality is this, we are free in our dependence upon the grace of God because Christ died, even, for us.