To Trinity Church:
The Lord be with you! Though we are briefly apart we are not separated, for we are one body in Christ. When my family breaks bread and lifts the cup this day, we will do so with you – in our hearts – no matter where we are.
While away, I do not want to weary you with words, but neither do I wish to leave you without a word. Indulge me, then, I ask, as I continue with Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Perhaps you will gather on Sunday and read this aloud. If so, I will be with you in Spirit.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let’s begin with a summary of Paul’s letter to this point, written in a paraphrase of his own voice.
Paul, to the churches in Galatia province: Greetings.
I have always spoken the truth to you, a truth revealed to me not by word of man but by revelation of God through the vision I was granted of our resurrected Lord. It was he who appointed me an apostle to the Gentiles. It was he who established my right and authority to speak the gospel, so that I take no second place to the “pillars of the Church” in Jerusalem: Peter, James, and the rest.
Some have come to you preaching a gospel different from that which I delivered to you, a gospel which will bind you to vain observances of the Law: feasts and fasts and Sabbaths, kosher rules, and circumcision. Theirs is a false gospel and the punishment for their lies awaits them at the proper time. Think back: Did you receive the Holy Spirit – the seal of your acceptance by God – by observing the Law as they insist? Or did you receive the Holy Spirit through your faith in the gospel I preached to you? By faith, of course! Why then step backward into bondage to the law? It is “damned” foolishness. Those who preach it are anathema – accursed.
It is not the Law but the faithfulness of Christ that matters. He did what we could not: he fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law in his life and bore the curse of it in his death. Then – thanks be to God! – he established his freedom from it –his and ours – through the power of his resurrection. It is his faithfulness to the will of God – his life, death, and resurrection – that sets us free from bondage to sin and death and the Law. We need nothing but the faithfulness of Christ and nothing else will do.
And all this is true for Jews and Gentiles alike: there is no difference – no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no man and woman. All are one in Christ. In fact – and this is a great mystery now revealed in Christ – God always intended to make for himself one holy people in Christ, one people from every tribe and tongue and nation, a people marked out not by Torah observance but by their faith in Jesus Christ. And you are among that people. You were “brought into the fold” by your baptism. Before that time you were strangers and aliens; now you are citizens of God’s kingdom, members of God’s household of faith.
Do not, then, let these messengers of the Law confuse or trap you. You have been set free from the Law by grace – the free gift of God through Christ Jesus. Do not submit to its bondage, but instead live in freedom as God’s holy people.
So, Paul has proclaimed freedom from the Law. But there is a great danger of being misunderstood here; after all, the Galatian Christians have shown themselves easily sidetracked and led astray. Freedom from the Law – and by the Law Paul really means those aspects of the Law that marked one out as a faithful Jew (Sabbath, diet, and circumcision) – freedom from the Law must not be confused with moral license, Paul insists. To be free from the Law does not mean that one may indulge sin. If, through Christ, you have become God’s holy people, then you must live as God’s holy people – not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. (When Paul speaks of the flesh he does not mean the physical body; instead he means that constellation of desires that are contrary to the will of God and war against us. Of course, many of these desires concern an indulgence of the physical body – inappropriate sexuality, drunkenness, etc. – so Paul reasonably summarizes and personifies them as the flesh.)
As surely as faith leads to freedom, faith must also lead to holiness. Our true freedom is freedom from the flesh – from everything that wars against God. Our true freedom is freedom to live by the Spirit – to live as the holy people of our holy God. As with many aspects of our faith there is paradox here: we are truly free only when we submit ourselves to obedient lives empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Let’s let Paul speak for himself now.
A reading from the letter of the apostle and our brother Paul to the churches in Galatia:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
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 neighbour 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. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another (Gal 5, NRSV).
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Live in freedom to the flesh but in blessed bondage to the Spirit. Submit yourselves as slaves to righteousness. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and that same Spirit will empower you for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Set you minds on these things and through love fulfill the whole law of God.
This is Paul’s message to the Galatians and, of course, to us.
Sometime between the 2nd and 4th centuries Mathetes, a Christian, penned a letter to a non-Christian acquaintance, Diognetus, answering questions about Christian faith and practice. His description of a life lived in the Spirit shows a firm grasp of Paul’s words to the Galatians. I close with an excerpt from The Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus.
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body's hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.
Live in the freedom of the Spirit as the holy people of God.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and for ever. Amen.
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