Galatians 5: 1, 13-25
I have a beef this morning with the way our lectionary butchers the 5th chapter of Galatians, leaving out the heart of the passage. The epistle begins with the first verse of chapter 5 and then skips to verse 13 leaving out the core theology of Paul’s message. What you’re missing is Paul saying, “Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5: 2, 4-6). Did you get that last part? The only thing that counts for us is faith working through love.
Paul is telling the Gentiles that to become a Christian, one does not first need to be circumcised (meaning: one doesn’t not have to become a Jew before becoming a Christian). This covenant was first established by God with Abraham and recorded in the book of Genesis: “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen. 17: 10b-11). In the new covenant with Christ, we are saved by faith alone—and not our failed attempts at keeping Mosaic Law. We are warned against making ourselves slaves to the law, and thereby failing to comprehend the spirit of the law.
Paul is chiding those Christians who are looking for easy answers, who approach salvation as if it were a recipe in a cookbook. “If you only observe the laws, if you are only are circumcised, if you are only willing to eat in certain ways,” Paul says almost mockingly, “you might measure up to be a follower of Jesus.” Anyone who thinks this way—who throws in two cupfuls of this and a tablespoon of that because that’s what the text says to do…without pausing to consider why the author of the book originally valued these ingredients in such measures—is missing the entire point. And that point, of course, is the freedom Christ offers. “For freedom,” Paul says, “Christ has set us free.” (5:1) By Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we are saved by grace and by grace alone.
Now, by “freedom,” Paul does not mean “license.” God’s gift of grace doesn’t mean we’re now free to do anything we please. No, this freedom that is born of grace is a softer, subtler freedom than the civil liberties and interpersonal permissions we often associate with the word. And deeper. It is the kind of freedom that leads to more questions than answers. St. Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please.”
Such a tantalizing thing to say. And haunting. “Love God and do as you please.” Your heart leaps to embrace that simple prescription, doesn’t it? Then your head enters the equation and says, “Nah, it’s too good to be true. There’s gotta be strings attached.” Love God and do as you please. Perhaps Bob Dylan had Augustine’s words in mind when he sang, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”
To be honest—honest not just in the way you respond to the world by what you say and do, but honest in what you ask of the world and of the people in it. I had lunch this past week with a parishioner who described her seven-year-old son’s take on this dilemma. He said that knowing what is “good” and what is “bad” is the easy part. It is all the gray in between that gets him into trouble.
Ah, the gray! Like some chronic affliction. It boggles the mind and weighs on the heart. Frankly, this is why more fundamentalist forms of faith, regardless of religion, attract so many people. The rules are spelled out. An act, a thought, a feeling, a person is either/or. Either right or wrong. What one reads in the Bible or the Koran is always true—and not in some poetic or metaphorical way, either, but true in the most factual, literal sense. Not open to discussion. Not open to interpretation.
The problem is that Scripture, like life itself, often contradicts itself, and can be interpreted in different ways. There is a lot of “gray” in the Good Book. And while there are certain absolute not up for debate, the various Gospel accounts of the life and ministry and death of Jesus often don’t match up with another. And it is this gray that gets us in trouble—almost always when we debate the law over and above the spirit of the law.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit priest and scientist, put it well: “Avoiding the risk of a transgression has become more important to us than carrying a difficult position for God. And it is this that is killing us” (The Evolution of Chastity). If we are to use our faith when navigating the gray of our lives, we ought to think of God’s grace not as a checklist of dos and don’ts but as a compass. And we should think of Jesus not as a teacher grading a test but as a teacher who shows us the way through. What we have to accept is that the way may be rigorous and uncomfortable and not a path we would choose on our own as evidenced by our Gospel this morning.
If we follow this direction, we follow it with the knowledge that we are welcome to die to our sins and rise to new life through forgiveness. We will stumble. We will fail ourselves and those we love most. But we will be stumbling in the right direction, towards that place where people love their neighbors as themselves, and where, in Paul’s words, they “no longer bite and devour one another.”
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14). This is one of the most radically transforming concepts in all of scripture—and also one of the most dangerous. It requires first the proper stance toward oneself, neither inordinate pride nor selfishness, nor false humility. Honesty, in other words. But it also means that the love and care of oneself is not to be taken for granted.
This is where the Spirit comes in. The freedom we are given opens two doors before us. One is the path of self-indulgence, which Paul calls the “desires of the flesh.” It must be understood that for Paul, “the flesh” encompasses more than the wants and weaknesses of the human body. And when renouncing the way of the flesh, Paul is not advocating asceticism. He is inviting us to a rich and abundant life in the Spirit, full of mutually enriching human companionship, happiness, and joy—the good life.
What Paul renounces is self-indulgence—the sin of separation and alienation, of believing that one’s own human and spiritual bounty is unrelated to the human and spiritual bounty of one’s neighbors. More to the point this sin is the refusal to exchange—either to receive or to give back. And in that light, self-indulgence is the belief that salvation is somehow one’s own private property, to be marked off and jealously guarded. This is what Paul means when he speaks of “the way of the flesh.” The sin of self-indulgence always separates and risks abuse—physical and emotional—of oneself and others. The Spirit always unites in total and full reconciliation, as in: “Love they neighbor as thyself.”
The second door that freedom opens leads us to community: to lives centered on the three things that last: faith, hope, and love—with the greatest of these being love (1 Corinthians 13).
Let me give you an example of this community of mutuality and love that I witnessed on our mission trip in the Sudan in early June. One afternoon as we were having a celebration for the community of Akot, a group of young boys, probably between the ages of 8 and 12, gathered around us under an overhang as we waited for a rain the pass. In Akot, children under the age of five do not wear any clothing, because it is hot, because they are poor, and—I believe—because no one has ever told them that they are naked.
These slightly older kids waiting out the rain with us were wearing the most threadbare, ill-fitting and dirty hand-me-down clothing I had ever seen. One boy was wearing a woman’s sheer nightgown top that was in tatters. He tugged on my shirt and pointed to it to communicate that he would like a new shirt. Judy Philpott took one look at him and said she had a t-shirt to give him and she ran off to get it. My first reaction was to stop her because we didn’t have t-shirts for the other five kids hanging out with us and it would be unfair to show partiality. It made me feel uncomfortable to give him a gift and not the others.
Well, when Judy came back with the t-shirt, the boy put it on and began to show it off proudly. I thought, Oh, no, this is not good. But then I looked again and saw that the other boys were elated at their friend’s good fortune. They took turns touching the shirt and admiring their friend as he posed for them. No jealousy. No covetousness. Not one of the others turned and asked us for a T-shirt. Imagine that. I felt humbled by this generosity of spirit. But there they were, poor Dinka children who spoke a language I could not understand, reaping the fruits that Paul says come when neighbors love one another as themselves: “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” (5:22-23). This was just one of many stories I could tell you from that trip in which I witnessed my neighbor’s faith working through love.