Paul Harvey once told a story about a group of scientists who were determined to teach a chimpanzee how to communicate by writing in English. For fourteen years, the scientists labored diligently and patiently with this chimpanzee, providing things in its cage that would enable it to form certain syllables. They believed that by doing this, the primate would eventually learn how to form sentences.
Finally the day arrived when it seemed that the chimpanzee was actually going to be able to construct a sentence from the symbols that it had been learning. The word went out to the scientific community, and a group of scientists crowded into the laboratory and gathered around the cage where the chimpanzee had been caged. The scientists could hardly contain themselves as they gathered around to read the sentence that would make history. The sentence that the chimpanzee wrote was this: “Let me out!”
The chimpanzee’s first words were an expression of its desire to be free. The chimpanzee’s first words were an expression of its desire to be free from the cage. The chimpanzee’s first words were an expression of its desire to be free from the scientists, the people that controlled it. The chimpanzee’s first words were an expression of its desire to be free from its confinements and its desire to live like any other chimpanzee: free among the trees and the wilderness.
Have you ever felt like you were trapped or caged in before? I don’t mean trapped like being stuck in a traffic jam. I don’t mean caged in or confined like when you are standing on a crowded bus. I mean trapped, with nowhere to go and no way to get out. I mean trapped in the sense that you were not in control of your own life or the situation you found yourself in. I mean stuck in such a way that you couldn’t get yourself out of the situation, no matter how hard you tried to free yourself or dreamed of being released. If you ever were, how did you feel while you were trapped?
As a pre-teen, I went to the Magic House on a field trip for school. While there, a group of us decided to climb through a maze. The problem with the maze was that it was small, there was no light, and we had to crawl through it on our hands and knees. When we first began crawling through the maze, I was fine. But my joy quickly turned to fear as we began to have problems navigating the exhibit in total darkness. Eventually, we all began to feel like the walls of the maze were closing in on us even though we couldn’t see them. We eventually had to bang on the maze walls and yell for help so someone could guide us through the maze by their voice.
Do any of you have memories of situations like that? Memories of when you were not necessarily in control of yourself or your future? Memories of not being able to control where you were going or how you were going to get to the end? Memories of being stuck in a situation with no hope of moving forward? Do any of you have memories or experiences where you were dependent upon someone else for your freedom and direction?
Did you know that being trapped is not just a physical phenomenon? You can be physically trapped or stuck. You can also be stuck in a mental cage. But, did you know that you can also be trapped or stuck spiritually.
I believe that this idea of being spiritually trapped is what Paul is addressing in the Galatians passage that is printed in our bulletins today.
The book of Galatians was written by Paul to address the teachings of false leaders that had begun to infiltrate the church as it grew from infancy. As the church began to grow, Judaizers, Jewish Christians, began to teach people that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was not enough to please God. They began to teach that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was not a satisfactory payment for man’s sin. They taught that in order to be justified before God, people would have to still look to Jewish laws and ceremonies as the means for true justification before God.
Overall, they taught that a person was saved partly by faith and partly by works, and that a person grew in Christ partly by faith and partly by their own efforts. In order to be truly and fully saved, a person had to believe in Christ and receive circumcision. Ultimately, they believed that adhering to works of the law was the best way for a person to find favor in God’s eyes.
This teaching, this movement, fostered division within the church. You had one group holding to this set of beliefs and another group teaching that Christ’s sacrifice was satisfactory, and was enough to bring people back into a right relationship with God.
Aside from the fact that a false set of beliefs were being taught, one of the saddest things about this situation was that it wasn’t just common folks who were falling prey to this teaching and way of thinking. Some of the disciples were even treating people that were uncircumcised like they were second class citizens. Peter, the apostle and disciple, was one of the people that fell prey to this kind of thinking.
Earlier in the Galatian epistle, Paul acknowledges that he had to confront Peter face-to-face for doing this when a delegation of disciples were sent from Jerusalem to verify that Gentiles in Antioch had received the Holy Spirit and were exhibiting the same characteristics as they were. When this delegation arrived, Peter stopped spending time with Gentiles. He stopped fellowshipping with them. He stopped eating with them. Why did he do this? Because he was fearful of what his Jewish brethren would think of him for spending time with people who were uncircumcised.
You may be wondering why circumcision was such a hot button issue for them. Genesis 17 gives the history of God’s promise to fulfill God’s agreement with Abraham. God promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation. All Abraham had to do was to believe in God’s promise and…be circumcised as an outward sign of that inward agreement.
Circumcision would be the sign that Abraham and his descendants were willingly entering into a covenant with God for present relationship and future blessings. Circumcision would serve as a sign that Abraham and his descendants belonged to God. It would serve as a sign that they were in a special relationship with God. Circumcision would serve as a badge of honor for any Jewish person that claimed to be of Abraham’s lineage and who expected to participate in Abraham’s blessing.
So, these false teachers taught that Jesus was not the only true sign of restored relationship with God. For them, it was Jesus plus cutting off the foreskin. This sounds painful and overly complicated.
Paul could not stand by and let this teaching gain a foothold in the church. He vigorously defended the superiority of justification by faith in Christ Jesus alone. William Loader says that Paul is issuing the Galatian church a call to freedom. This is “a call to freedom from a certain style of religion which he believes misses the point and does harm rather than good.”
In the book of Galatians, Paul seeks to defend the grace of God in Christ against the works of the law that had already been fulfilled through Christ. Paul wants his readers to know that they are free. Paul wants them to know that they are no longer constrained by anyone or anything. They are free to trust in Christ as the mediator of their faith. They are free to become who God wants them to be.
The International Standard Version quotes Paul as saying, “The Messiah has set us free so that we may enjoy the benefits of freedom. So keep on standing firm in it, and stop putting yourselves under the yoke of slavery again.” The Message Bible says, “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.” You have been made free. The Terrell Carter version would say, “You are free as a bird. Don’t ever let someone put you back into a cage and into a state of bondage.”
Paul spends verses 2-12 of Galatians 5 stressing the importance of ignoring people who would make you feel like you need to go back to the law or the old way of doing things. He says, “If you decide to obey one part of the law, then you are obligated to follow all of the law. You don’t get to pick and choose what’s good for you. Instead of worrying about that, celebrate the fact that Christ came, because in Christ, it doesn’t matter if you have or have not been circumcised (or follow the letter of the law). And why are you all worried about this anyway? You were doing so well in growing in faith. Don’t let someone else cause you to question yourself or your faith.”
Instead of listening to the naysayers, ignore them or tell them to go kick rocks. Vs. 12 of the CEV says, “I wish that everyone who is upsetting you would not only get circumcised, but would cut off much more!” Wow! Those are harsh words that we probably would never expect to hear from Paul.
I can imagine that Paul’s frustration stems from the fact that he had worked very hard to teach them diligently about God’s grace found in Christ. Yet, when someone came along and told them that they were not doing things like they had always been done, it seems like they were more than willing to jump ship to this line of thinking.
Elisabeth Johnson writes, “The rabbis used the image of the law as a “yoke” with positive connotations, but Paul equates it with a yoke of slavery. In the ancient world, war captives were sometimes marched beneath an ox yoke as a symbol of their entry into slavery. Paul now claims that by accepting circumcision and law observance (all over again), the Galatians would return to a state of slavery.”
I imagine Paul would say, “I have shown you how Christ is the fulfillment and perfection of the law. Why would you let someone trick you into believing something other than that? You have tasted the freedom of not living under guilt and shame. Why would you let someone put you back into a state of shame all over again?”
Instead of following one specific peripheral law that someone personally decides is most important, Paul has a better idea. Follow the foundation of the law. Follow the starting point of the law, which is love. Love for God and love for others.
Paul tells them that they are free. But, just because they are free doesn’t mean they are free to do anything they want. With great freedom comes great responsibility. Don’t view your freedom as an opportunity to serve your flesh and do whatever you feel like. Instead, your freedom is the foundation and opportunity to serve one another. Elisabeth Johnson goes on to say, “Life in Christ means that we trust in God’s gift of righteousness, and that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”
Paul says that all of the law is summed up in the command to love. Follow that command before you follow the one to get circumcised. Love and serve others like you would yourself. Protect and cherish others as you do yourself. Provide for others as you do yourself. Dr. Johnson continues by saying, “To serve “through love” means that serving is done not to meet the demands of the law or even to feel good about ourselves. It is completely focused on the needs of the neighbor.”
I think that Paul would say that the most important “law” was the law of love.
Paul continues his message to the Galatians by saying don’t fight each other and attempt to destroy each other. CEV “But if you keep attacking each other like wild animals, you had better watch out or you will destroy yourselves.” Not loving one another, fighting among each other, and seeing each other as enemies will only lead to destruction. It will lead to your destruction and their destruction.
Dr. Johnson says, “Self-centeredness inevitably leads to seeing others as rivals rather than beloved children of God. The resulting behavior is the opposite of loving service and (eventually) destroys life in community.”
I again say that I think that Paul would say that the most important “law” was the law of love. When we see others through this “law”, we will see them as God sees them.
Sherman H. Cox says, “All who are truly made free should use their freedom, not as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but for communal uplifting. Used correctly, freedom should serve the good of others, as through love believers become slaves to one another.”
Instead of fighting and striving to follow the physical laws, we are challenged by God to live by the Spirit, follow the Spirit, and be filled with the Spirit. In doing these things we will do what God desires of us, which begins with loving others.
Timothy George compares following the Spirit or walking in the Spirit to the practice of disciples of Aristotle in ancient times. When Aristotle taught, his disciples would literally follow him from place to place as he spoke. They moved when he moved. They held on to every word or action that he gave. They were consumed with being in his presence. That is how we should be towards the leading of the Holy Spirit.
We should be hungry to experience the Holy Spirit’s movement in our lives. We should seek to be active disciples of the Spirit. When we are thirsty for God’s presence and actively listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice, we don’t have to worry about whether or not we are keeping the law. When we sacrificially move by the prompting of the Spirit, we automatically move towards fulfilling God’s commands.
Paul is saying that they are free in Christ. They are free to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. They are free to love one another and have life in community that can flourish beyond their wildest dreams and please God.
Galatians, you are free to live without condemnation from the law and past practices. You are free to love God and love others. You are free to live in peace with one another. You are free to be God’s children.
So what, Terrell? How does this apply to me in the 21st Century? My words of encouragement are the same as Paul’s. We are free. As God’s children, our lives don’t have to be dictated by following a set of rules or prohibitions. Now, please understand that I am not saying that we can just do whatever we feel any time we feel like it. What I am saying is that as God’s children, we no longer have to live under a cloud of fear based on what we are not doing.
The law and our ability or inability to follow it does not dictate our position before God. Our relationship with Christ dictates our stance before God.
Andrew Prior says, “So much of what people talk about in church circles has seemed to be about the keeping of rules. There is a certain prissiness; a kind of wowserish righteousness, that delineates who is a proper Christian, and whose discipleship is somehow less spiritual. It’s a self-satisfied kind of walling off from the world; an in-group promising a freedom that doesn’t seem very free at all.”
Our freedom in Christ is only about what we are free from. It is as much about, or more about, what we are free to do. We are free to have a restored relationship with God. We are free to have a restored relationship with one another. We are free to live in peace without condemnation.
Yet, we are also free to live in obedience to God. We are free to obey God’s command to love sacrificially. We are free to obey God’s desire for us to be led by the Holy Spirit and exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. Fruits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Okay, Terrell. That sounds fine, but what about WGBC? How does this apply to our church? My encouragement is the same. WGBC is free. WGBC is free to become what God wants this church to become. We don’t have to be bound by other people’s expectations or desires or the limitations that they set for us. What matters is what God says about us. We don’t have to be bound by what other people think about us. What matters is what God thinks about us. We don’t have to be bound by rules that other people have laid out for us. What matters is the freedom that we have in Christ.
As we grow, we don’t have to be bound by our past. During the Centennial Celebration, I read one article that was written about the church, and a former pastor acknowledged that WGBC was originally started for white people. There was one church where blacks could go and WGBC was the church where white people went. Evidently, something changed in the church’s history because that is not how WGBC is now, and for that I celebrate. This is simple evidence that shows that we do not have to be bound by what other people say we should do or what they deem as acceptable.
We are free to do what we want, when we want, and how we want in service for God. We don’t have to do what everyone else has done or what some other church is doing. We are free to not be in bondage to anyone or anything. We are free not to have to follow a particular way of doing things and not feel guilty about blazing a new path that is set by following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
We are free to accept and love and celebrate anyone that God sends our way. We are free to welcome and incorporate anyone that God allows us to enter in to relationship with. We are free to love all of God’s created beings just as they are. We are free to open our doors and proclaim to the world that our God lives. We are free to be the church that God wants to shape us into.
Will you pray with me?