June 24, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
Fred Craddock once delivered a sermon on “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In this message he pointed out that the gospel is loaded with statements that are, on the face of them, ridiculous. We’re told to remove the log-pole from our own eyes before criticizing others. We’re told that if we have even a smidge of faith, we can move mountains into the sea. We’re told a shepherd would abandon 99 sheep in favor of searching for just one that wandered off. We’re told that if everything Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written. We’re told stories like the one about a man who was forgiven a debt of a million gezillion dollars who then turned right around and about choked another man to death for the 50 cents he owed him. Ridiculous. Over the top. Who can take such hyperbole seriously?
But as Craddock went on to point out, it’s all a little less ridiculous once you come to realize that the kingdom of God Jesus came to announce—and whose arrival and presence he calls others and us to likewise announce—really does contain the cosmic power for salvation unto all people and all creatures. If the kingdom of God is anything close to what we think it is, we really cannot overstate its power or beauty. We cannot exaggerate enough to convey the punch of this kingdom and of the God of all grace who through our Lord Jesus Christ has saved us from darkness into light.
So let’s not as preachers take the radical language of Luke 9 and too quickly render it pedestrian after all. No, not all believers are called to leave family and home behind, but some are. William Willimon says that while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke for many years, he received any number of complaints from parents but many of those complaints all boiled down to just one complaint. His phone would ring and the parent on the other end of the line would say, “What did you all do over there at Duke? Our daughter went to school to become a research scientist but now she says she is going to become a medical missionary to Haiti. You ruined her life. Why did you do that!?”
Well, why indeed? But whether we are called to leave behind kith and kin, we are all called to a radical commitment to the gospel. And if in the midst of our lives that sometimes mean turning down a promotion, saying hard things to our children, denying our families the dream vacations taken by others, or any number of other sacrifices both great and small in service to the power and beauty of the gospel . . . well, we ought not be surprised.
In Luke 9:54 Jesus rebukes James and John for their Rambo-esque desire to fry off a few Samaritans. The reason for that was clear enough: Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to save all people (including Samaritans, therefore) and so it made no sense for Jesus to kill in judgment the very people for whom he was soon going to die in mercy and grace.
Given that, it may seem a little odd to see this same Jesus immediately pivot from that to verses 57-62 in which Jesus seems downright off-putting when it comes to the kingdom of God. The same Jesus who was deferentially kind toward rude Samaritans who refused to welcome him now seems a bit rude toward some folks who seem eager to hop onto his kingdom bandwagon. Two people volunteer with earnest zeal to follow Jesus and a third person is directly called at Jesus’ initiation. Their reasons for being rejected—or at least seriously put off—by Jesus vary a little but none of the reasons seems outlandish.
Why would Jesus scare off one man by promising him a homeless existence? Why would Jesus seem so brusque toward a man whom he himself called at the same moment the man was sunk deep in grief over a dead father? Why would Jesus refuse so much as a familial farewell for the final fellow? It all seems rather over the top. Surely we are not to conclude from these verses that followers of Jesus may not sleep in their own beds at night. Surely we are not to take away from Luke 9 the idea that funerals (if not grief over dead loved ones just generally) are forbidden to followers of Christ. Surely we are not to conclude that loving our families and having normal attachments to them count as disqualifying looks back from the plow when it comes to kingdom work.
If the cost of following Jesus is to lead an itinerant life free of family obligations and attachments, it’s fair to wonder just how many believers across the millennia have really, therefore, followed Christ at all. Luke 9:57-62 is, therefore, one of those hyperbolic gospel passages that tempts people to cash out the passage completely, chalking it up to mere metaphor or overstatement that we are free to translate into kinder, gentler ideas. Jesus said to be homeless.
So we take this to mean that, like the Puritan idea of “weaned affections,” we are to have homes but not be too attached to them. Jesus says to let the dead bury their own dead and to not be so attached to loved ones that we feel the need to say good-bye to them before taking a mission trip. So we translate this to mean that we have to love God MORE than spouses and children and parents but we can and will still love spouses and children and parents a very great deal indeed.
Is Luke 9 a reminder of gospel commitment in the midst of our ordinary lives or a call to quit our ordinary lives in favor of a gospel-focused ministry that will shove aside all the usual trappings of life? Because it is historically clear that God can and does work through people who own homes and who love their families and who attend the funerals of their loved ones, we cannot deny that something of the “translation” of this passage mentioned above is inevitable. But let’s not translate it too quickly or too glibly.
In fact, the only thing that should be surprising is the presence of all those people in the pews each week who seem to think that being a Christian makes so little dent in their lives at all.
For folks such as this the Lord has a word from Luke 9.
Will we speak it?
Note the wider context of the Lectionary reading from Luke 9:51-62. There are so many crosscurrents here. This lection is preceded by the story of Jesus’ welcoming a little child as well as by the brief coda to that of John saying they saw a non-disciple driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus there says that if they are not against Jesus, they are for him. Kingdom workers are, apparently, everywhere whether they formally associate with Jesus’ band of disciples or not—even little children get special mention! This lection is then followed by Jesus’ sending out 72 people to do more work. So there are workers all around, both known and unknown. In the midst of all that, we can see the Samaritan opposition—as well as Jesus’ radical words on the cost of discipleship—in a different light. Yes, some oppose Jesus. Yes, the true depths of following Jesus require radical sacrifice. But hope abounds, too. The work goes forward both in ways predictable and in ways totally unpredictable.
Do we understand the radical, quite total demands of the gospel? Sometimes a sideways illustration reveals how neatly we are able to sequester some parts of life after all. Barbara Brown Taylor once said that if a man in the church loses his job, the pastor may well call this person to offer sympathy and prayer.
But suppose that a pastor one day got wind of the fact that a certain member of his congregation had gotten a big promotion at work along with significantly more pay. And suppose the pastor then called this person and said, “Charlie, I’ve heard your news and so was wondering if it would be OK if I came by sometime to pray with you about this. I’m concerned about the temptations this new venture may throw your way as well as what it may do to your ability to serve here at church. So I’d like to pray for God’s strength for you in the face of this new success.”
Probably we’d be taken aback. But as Brown Taylor notes, that is only because we do cordon off parts of our lives from the total claims Jesus makes on us. We act as though we are our own after all and so why would the church have anything to say to us so long as life is chugging along smoothly? If we ask that, however, we reveal that we, too, quietly resist the same self-denying sacrifice that seems so offensive to some outside the church.
It looks as though the only way you will ever see this self-denial as a source of comfort is if you die and are reborn. You need to kill off ordinary ways of defining value and bring to life a whole new set of values. The place to start is by admitting that without God, you are lost in sin’s wilderness and unable to find your own way out. Once you know that, you are wide open to the call of the one who hopefully says, “Follow me.”
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Author: Stan Mast
What a way to go! That’s my first reaction upon reading this story. People my age often talk about the end of life. Many want to live as long as they possibly can, to, say, a hundred, and then die peacefully in their sleep. Others want to go in their prime, after hitting a three hundred yard drive and then keeling over on the tee. Yeehaw! But this story presents a tantalizing alternative—not to die at all, just fly off to heaven in a fiery chariot carried by a whirlwind. What a way to go! What a story!
But how shall we preach it? Well, we could do what I did in my opening paragraph—pick up a dramatic detail in the story and run with it. Elisha’s refusal to leave Elijah could be the theme of a sermon on determination and commitment in our calling. Elijah’s answer to Elisha’s request for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit could be the occasion for a sermon on the importance of seeing God work. Or we could focus on Elisha’s seemingly frustrated question in verse 14, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah? It’s a question we often ask. Such an approach might yield sermons that are “biblical” and practical, but I wonder if they would capture the point of the text and lead to the kind of Christ centered sermon people really need?
I suggest another approach, an approach that pays more attention to the context of the text– not only the immediate context, but also the wider context, not only the chapters before and after this story, but the whole story of redemption. We need to see how this story connects with the story of how God redeemed his people from the powers of darkness, the powers of sin and suffering and Satan. How does this story relate to the story of Jesus and his love?
This story of Elijah and Elisha is set in the larger story of the Kings of Israel, who for the most part led Israel away from their covenant Lord. II Kings 1, for example, recounts how King Ahaziah responded to a health crisis in the midst of war. Instead of seeking a word from Yahweh in his time of need, he sent messengers to inquire of the Canaanite god, Baal-Zebub. Elijah, as he always did, opposed such Baal worship, because it was a violation of the First Commandment and a sure recipe for ruin. II Kings 3 picks up the disheartening story of the Kings of Israel again.
Thus, our story in II Kings 2 is set in the context of a bad time in the history of God’s people, a time of spiritual warfare that threatened the very existence of God’s kingdom on earth. Such a time required a strong prophetic ministry to call God’s people back to Yahweh alone. It was a time for the likes of Elijah. But now that Elijah’s ministry was coming to an end, there needed to be a prophet as strong as Elijah to take his place. That’s what our story is all about. In the midst of the stories of the Kings, we have this story of prophetic succession, on which the future of God’s Kingdom on earth depended. Who will speak for Yahweh in this time of national decline?
The story opens with a promising scenario. The famous Elijah is walking with the relatively unknown Elisha. The last time we heard about Elisha was back in I Kings 19 when Elijah, without a word, cast his prophetic cloak over farmer Elisha’s shoulders and walked away. Elisha dropped the reigns of his plowing oxen and followed Elijah. There is not another word about Elisha until he appears here, doing what he has presumably been doing all along, walking with Elijah, who somehow knows he is about to be taken up to heaven.
Is Elisha the One to take Elijah’s place on the front line of the battle with Baal? That is the question this story answers. First, we see Elisha’s commitment to Elijah and his mission. Three times Elijah tries to lose Elisha. “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel (and then Jericho and then the Jordan River).” What’s up with that? Why would Elijah ditch Elisha? Well, maybe he’s only testing Elisha’s determination. The battle with Baal requires a prophet who won’t quit when the going gets tough (as Elijah notoriously tried to do). Elisha passes the tests with flying colors. Three times he replies, “As surely as the Lord lives and as I live, I will not leave you.”
But, second, it takes more than human grit and determination to serve the Lord in hard times. It takes the Spirit of God. That’s what Elisha asks for. Impressed with Elisha’s commitment (or maybe weary of his dogged following), Elijah asks, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken away?” Without missing a beat, Elisha replies, “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” He knows that he doesn’t have what it will take to persevere in the battle ahead. He needs the spirit that has empowered and emboldened Elijah.
Two things need noting. First, we cannot prove that Elisha is asking for the Holy Spirit. Nothing in the Hebrew is Trinitarian. But knowing what we know this side of Pentecost, it is clear that the spirit that moved in Elijah was the Spirit that transforms all believers into prophets (and priests and kings). Elisha may not have known that, but he knew that he needed what Elijah had.
Second, his request for a “double portion” wasn’t greed. It was a request in keeping with ancient Israeli inheritance laws. He was asking to be treated as the elder son, who received twice as much as the rest of the family. I’ve followed you faithfully; now treat me as your favored son. Give me the most precious thing you have—your spirit, what makes you the prophet for this hour in history. There is a company of prophets over there (verse 7), but I don’t want to be one of them. I want to be the One, like you.
Elijah knows that he cannot give what Elisha asks; “you have asked a difficult thing.” Only God can give this. All I can do is tell you to keep your eyes open, pay attention, so that “you see me when I am taken from you….” If you do that, if you keep walking by faith, which is able to see the unseen (cf. Heb. 11:1 and 27 and II Cor. 4:18), “it will be yours.”
As you preach on this text, you will have to decide how much you want to make of this connection between seeing and believing. Some scholars make much of it, not only because of the kind of texts I’ve just listed, but also because it is obvious that we cannot be prophets of the one true God unless we truly believe in the work of that invisible God. One scholar insists that the 50 prophets who stood on the other side of the Jordan did not witness the assumption of Elijah. “To senses dulled by passion or blinded by materialism, the space occupied by the flaming seraphim would have seemed devoid of special interest and as bare as the rest of the surrounding scenery.” (F.B. Meyer) Only faith could see what Elisha saw. Only faith that saw the work of God could sustain a prophet in the upcoming battles.
So, is Elisha the God-ordained successor of Elijah? He has commitment. He has faith. But has God given him a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit? Here’s comes the big test. After grieving the loss of Elijah, Elisha picks up Elisha’s cloak and strikes the water of the Jordan with it, as Elijah had done moments before. The waters parted for Elijah. Would they part for Elisha? He has the same cloak, the same instrument, but the power is not in the instrument. It is in God. Is God with Elisha?
That’s what Elisha asks in verse 14. “Where now is the Yahweh, the God of Elijah?” One commentator claims that the Hebrew of verse 14 suggests that Elisha had to strike the water twice; the first time didn’t work. That’s why he asked the question, as though to say, “I watched, I saw, as Elijah said, but now where is Yahweh?” It’s the question we ask when we have been faithful and committed, but God doesn’t show up as he has promised.
But then God does show up. The water “divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over,” as Elijah had, as Joshua had, as Moses had. Elisha is the successor of Elijah, God’s person for that hour, as the 50 prophets announce in verse 15.
The reason I mentioned Joshua and Moses above is that the narrator has taken great pains to connect Elisha to that larger story of redemption. Both Elijah and Elisha are prophets like Moses (Deut. 18), who will lead God’s people to victory in the battle with the gods of the nations. That is obvious in the striking and parting of the water. What isn’t so obvious is the significance of the locations that the two prophets visited—Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan. Those are the places Israel visited first when they invaded the Promised Land, but in reverse order. Further, Elijah’s end, like Moses’ death, occurred outside the Promised Land, on the other side of the Jordan.
Finally, the enigmatic mourning cry of Elisha in verse 12 is a confession of faith about the heart of the battle for the Kingdom. Elisha is not only mourning the loss of his newly adoptive father, but he is also claiming that Elijah is the “chariots and horses of Israel.” The battle will be won, not by the kings and their armies, but by the prophets who speak the Word of God. It is God who won the battles over Egypt and its gods and over Canaan and its gods. And it will be God who will defeat Baal and his cohorts, though the work of prophets like Elijah and Elisha.
Elisha stands in the line of Moses and Joshua and Elijah. Indeed, Elisha is Elijah’s Joshua, who crossed the Jordan after Moses death. Elisha means “God saves,” while Joshua means, “Yahweh saves.” All of those great prophets were the forerunners for Jesus who was the fulfillment of that line. He actually was Yahweh saving his people (Matt. 1:21). He and he alone can defeat “the powers of darkness grim.” He alone was faithful unto death, even death on the cross. He alone was filled with the Spirit so that he could withstand the temptation of the devil and sustain the tests of his faith. He alone did the work of the invisible God, not only as the chief prophet, but also as the perfect priest and the victorious king. And he alone was taken up to God after his death and resurrection. To which the law and the prophets bear witness, most notably on the Mount of Transfiguration, where in the presence of Moses and Elijah God said, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
In the end, this story calls us to be prophets like Elisha, because only such men and women can stand in the Battle against Baal. That’s what Jesus was saying at the end of that dramatic conversation with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” When Jesus asked what they thought, “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” Perhaps alluding to the likes of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus spoke those earthshaking words about the church; “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:13-18)
In my referring to Elisha as “the One,” movie buffs will hear echoes from the classic movies about “The Matrix.” In a world dominated by computers that produce the virtual matrix in which humans live, there is a group of rebels whose mission is to destroy the computers and liberate people from the matrix. The rebels are brave and ingenious and committed, but their victory depends on some as yet unknown hero. They call him “the One.” He finally comes in the person of Keanu Reeves. Endowed with special powers and an indomitable spirit, he battles the powers that be. Though the Baals are powerful and the battle is long and hard, the One finally prevails, even though it costs him his life.
In the second to last paragraph above, I’ve borrowed words from a wonderful old Reformed confession. In case you’d like to use them in your liturgy for this Sunday, here’s the whole quote. “Why is Jesus called ‘Christ’ meaning ‘anointed?’ Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed by the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our deliverance; our only high priest who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.” (Q and A 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Psalm 16 presents the words of a person whose life appears to be going swimmingly. Everything is working for this poet. These look to be the words of a winner, of a person who was born sunny-side up as a confirmed optimist. And I suspect we’ve all met people like this. I also suspect that at least some of us have come to quietly despise these same people!
We know the type. They are the parents of golden children–offspring who never gave their parents any trouble, who did well in school, made profession of faith as teenagers already, succeeded in college, married well, and now have their own golden children. We know the type. They’ve succeeded in everything to which they’ve turned their hands. Their businesses have bloomed, even during recessions. On a lark they bought Microsoft stock when it was still in single digits. Their snazzy cars never break down, their bodies seem incapable of gaining weight, their skin is perennially tan, their golf came is shockingly good.
We know the type. Not only can they afford to take a Caribbean cruise, they also end up being the one-millionth passenger and so win another cruise free of charge. Oh yes, we know the type. Call them lucky, call them charmed, call them blessed. But if you are not such a person yourself–if you feel like you’ve had to struggle and scrape for what little you’ve got–if that’s you, then life’s winners drive you a little nuts.
So we don’t really want to read these folks’ autobiographies. We don’t want to be subjected to a litany of how life’s boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places, about how the one time they did get sick they were suddenly cured, about how full their cup is with expensive Cabernet. We don’t want to hear about all the flashes of insight God keeps pouring into their hearts seeing as we feel like we’ve not heard from God in months. We don’t want to hear the Jeff Bezos types of this world say, as this psalmist says in verse 1, “Protect me, O God! Keep me safe!” “Yeah right,” we are tempted to sneer. “Like the successful really need any more help! What do they have to worry about?!”
Then again, maybe we need to take another look at this psalm. Life is full of variety. There are some people whose lives have been charmed from the get-go. There are also some whose lives have seemed nearly cursed from the get-go. There are Psalm 88 folks and Psalm 16 folks. But in truth, most of us have experienced a little of both.
The Book of Psalms is designed to help us through all those different times. Psalm 16 fits the happy times. Psalm 16 reminds us that life does have a lot of pleasures, benefits, and delights. That’s true for some people all the time and it’s true for most of us at least some of the time. But this psalmist is not arrogantly saying, “Hey, everybody! Look at me! Look how good I’ve got it!” This psalmist is not trying to show off. Instead the point of this psalm is to suggest that particularly in prosperous times, we need to work hard to keep God the bright center to everything. And that’s more difficult than you might think. After all, when are we more likely to forget God: when we are beaten up by life’s heartaches or when we’re fluffed up by life’s joys? When do we find ourselves more prone to pray? When we’re in trouble or when we’re doing just fine? I think we know the answer.
Of course, if you are yourself in a wilderness period right now, you’re not much moved to hear about how perilous it is to be rich. Sometime back I was visiting someone who is quite well-off financially and I noticed a book on his shelf entitled The Agony of Affluence. And I thought, “Uh-huh, must be really rough to have so much money! You may as well write a book about The Heartache of Good Health or The Misery of a Meaningful Marriage!”
My cynicism aside, however, the fact is that the good times of life do present spiritual dangers. That’s why we should not read the opening verse of Psalm 16 and snort at how we don’t want to hear a well-off person pleading for safety. Because that opening verse sets the stage for the rest of the psalm. Verse 1 declares that the challenge of trusting God is to keep God at the center as the supreme reality of our lives.
Samuel Johnson once said that a death sentence has a marvelous way of concentrating the mind. True enough. If you are waiting for some lab results and the doctor calls you up and says, “I think maybe you’d better come in to the office so we can talk,” well, you can be assured that your thoughts will start getting very serious very fast. It’s not hard to think about the ultimate things of life and of God when a sword is dangling by a thread right over your head! The “trick” is to have a well-concentrated mind when there is no death sentence but only a full life of blessings and abundance. That’s why every single verse of this brief psalm drips with words of gratitude to God. Ten times in just 11 verses this psalmist uses the word “you” in addressing Yahweh. In every line of this psalm the psalmist is essentially declaring, “The Lord is everything to me.”
No matter who you are or what your particular lot in life, keeping God always before your eyes is your proper vocation. For this psalmist that means locating God in the midst of a life awash in blessings. Again, this psalmist is not bragging about his life but is instead taking proper stock in what he has and then locating God at every turn. God is the author of all this person’s blessings.
Now we know full well that those sunny preachers who guarantee material success to anyone who has enough faith are patently wrong. There are no such guarantees in the Bible. All those psalms of lament, all Jesus’ predictions of persecution for his followers, demonstrate that the simple equation “Faith = Success” represents nothing short of a heresy.
However, if your life has blessings in it, then you must assume the stance of Psalm 16 and attribute those blessings to God. Because the bottom line of this psalm is that God alone is the One who can show us the path of life. And when verse 11 talks about that path, the psalmist is not referring to the road that leads to Wall Street successes. No, this “path of life” is the road that leads to God’s kingdom. It’s the road home, to the place from which we came in God’s good creation and the place to which we need to return.
Sometimes in his paraphrase of the Bible The Message, the late Eugene Peterson maybe got a little too colloquial. But there is usually something in his language that can refresh familiar texts for us, including a fairly familiar poem like Psalm 16. Consider his paraphrasing of the final lines of the psalm:
5-6 My choice is you, God, first and only.
And now I find I’m your choice!
You set me up with a house and yard.
And then you made me your heir!
7-8 The wise counsel God gives when I’m awake
is confirmed by my sleeping heart.
Day and night I’ll stick with God;
I’ve got a good thing going and I’m not letting go.
9-10 I’m happy from the inside out,
and from the outside in, I’m firmly formed.
You canceled my ticket to hell—
that’s not my destination!
11 Now you’ve got my feet on the life path,
all radiant from the shining of your face.
Ever since you took my hand,
I’m on the right way.
The last line here of a pathway being lit up by the radiance of God’s face even as God’s hand is holding the hand of the psalmist may speak to what was suggested in this sermon starter: namely, this is not the bragging of some “lucky” winner in life who just never seems able to catch a bad break. This is all a tribute to the God from whom we receive whatever blessings we may have at any given moment and from whom we are promised the ultimate blessing of being in the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Author: Doug Bratt
This week’s national celebrations in North America give Canadians and Americans opportunities to think about freedom. July 1 is, after all, the Canada Day that at least some people think of as Canada’s birthday. July 4 is the day on which Americans celebrate the anniversary of their declaration of independence from Great Britain.
So one can hardly help but wonder if those who constructed the Revised Common Lectionary weren’t at least peeking at their calendars when they put it together. After all, while some people in Great Britain and Australia follow the RCL, it’s likely that most who follow it are North American Christians.
This week those North Americans may be arguing a bit more than usual about what our nations’ independence frees us to do and say. Americans, for example, wonder if our nation’s independence frees us to do things like own guns or kill pre-born children. What are the proper limits on the freedoms so many that write and read these Starters enjoy?
On January 6, 1941 American President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in which he outlined basic principles for peaceful and democratic societies. In a time in which freedom was under near worldwide assault, he gave what’s now known as “The ‘Four Freedoms’ Speech.” Roosevelt insisted that the freedoms of speech and expression, of worship, from want and from fear are essential to human flourishing.
Paul begins this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with talk about freedom. Yet it doesn’t seem to overlap with Roosevelt as well at least some North Americans’ ideas about freedom. Our text begins with verse 1’s bold assertion that it was Christ, not our countries’ founders who freed us. Yet its “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” may seem so redundant and obvious that it’s unnecessary. Isn’t it self-evident that Christ has freed his adopted brothers and sisters to be free?
Yet what the apostle writes in the rest of this Lesson makes it clear that it’s not self-evident that we use the freedom Christ gives us to actually be free. After all, after insisting, “It is for freedom Christ has set us free” (1), Paul quickly adds, “Stand firm, then, and do no let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Verses 2-6 at least imply that the apostle thinks of this return to bondage as re-submission to the rite of circumcision as a requirement for belonging to Jesus Christ. Yet verse 1b’s imagery of a voluntary return to slavery also reminds me of a horrible scene I witnessed while pastoring a rural congregation in Iowa.
Lightning struck and set on fire a barn in which a member of my church housed his pigs. Ed risked his life by going into his burning barn to chase his pigs out of it to safety. He succeeded in rescuing most of them. But even as he worked to prevent them from returning to the still-burning barn, a number raced right back into the barn and their sure death. Those pigs traded life for death, freedom for a kind of yoke of slavery.
Of course, since pigs don’t seem to be the brightest lights in God’s constellation of creatures, we’re not surprised that they might trade their freedom for slavery. Yet by saying, “Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” (13b), Paul at least implies that those whom God has freed to be God’s adopted sons and daughters are also at least tempted to surrender their God-given freedom and return to slavery to sin, Satan and death.
God has, the apostle goes on to writes, graciously freed God’s people to freely love our neighbors as ourselves (14). But by calling Galatian Christians to “stop biting and devouring each other” (15), he’s at least implying that some of his readers are using their God-given freedom to act like wild animals toward their neighbors.
Paul later notes that God has graciously freed God’s beloved children to “live by the Spirit” (16). Yet by listing verses 19ff’s “acts of the sinful nature,” he at least implies that some Galatian Christians are using their God-given freedom to disobey God.
Christians sometimes expend almost endless time and energy arguing about “free will.” But even a cursory reading of Galatians 5 suggests that it’s less interested in the question of whether and when our will is “free” than in what we do with the freedom God gives us – whenever God graciously gives it to us.
While staying sensitive to both the needs and vulnerabilities of those to whom we proclaim Galatians 5, its preachers and teachers will want to spend some time both exploring and appropriately illustrating what Paul calls “the acts of the sinful nature.” Sadly, we probably won’t have to spend much time searching for even Christian examples of those acts.
Yet those who proclaim Galatians 5 don’t want to spend more than about half of our presentation exploring the possible misuses of the freedom God gives us. God has, after all, graciously freed God’s adopted sons and daughters to use our freedom well and wisely. That freedom for which Christ has freed us includes our freedom to love. God has, after all, fully equipped God’s beloved people to “serve one another in love” (13) as well as “love” our “neighbor as” ourselves (14).
What’s more, God has freed God’s people for the freedom that is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” God has graciously freed us for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (22-23). God has, quite simply, freed God’s children to “keep in step with the Spirit” (25).
The old American television program, “Gomer Pyle, USMC” portrayed a bumbling but utterly lovable Marine from North Carolina’s backwoods. Its opening featured Pyle’s struggles to learn to keep in parade step with other Marines. Yet no matter how much Gomer had struggled to be a good Marine during the show, by the end he’d be keeping in step with other Marines – at least until the next show.
Those who proclaim Galatians 5 will want to spend as much time exploring how to “keep in step with the Spirit” and illustrating the truths of “the fruit of the Spirit” as we do the “acts of the sinful nature.” Sadly, however, we may need to spend quite a bit of time hunting for examples of that fruit. It’s not just that we’re personally sometimes more titillated by acts of disobedience. It’s not even just that our culture and media pay less attention to righteousness than unrighteousness. It’s also that even in the Church Christ has freed to be free, we sometimes act more like servants of the evil one than servants of our Savior Jesus Christ.
In doing so, however, we harm the community that is the Church into which God has saved and freed us. The “acts of the sinful nature,” especially sexual immorality, debauchery, hatred, discord, jealousy, dissensions, factions and envy, harm Christian community. What’s more, the “fruit of the Spirit,” particularly love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, enhances the well being of the community into which God saves and frees us to be free.
Cornelius Plantinga notes how the themes of freedom and liberty run throughout Stephen Ambrose’s fine book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. He points out that it shows how Virginia planters at the end of the 18th century were expected to live up to a code. They had to be skilled at riding, hiking, and dancing. They were expected to be adept at the small sword, cards, and fiddle playing. (Thomas Jefferson was pretty skillful on his violin.)
Undaunted Courage shows that Virginia planters also had long political discussions about liberty, and about the combination of liberty and good order — the two treasures always in tension with each other. In it Ambrose writes, “A Virginia gentleman was expected to be hospitable and generous, courteous in his relations with his peers, chivalrous toward women, and kind to his inferiors. There was a high standard of politeness; . . . The unpardonable sins were lying and meanness of spirit.”
Unfortunately, all of these lofty character virtues applied only to and between white men and women. “There was,” writes Ambrose, “a snake in the garden. The glittering social, intellectual, economic, and political life of Virginia rested on the backs of slaves. Those backs were crisscrossed with scars, because slavery relied on the lash . . . Not every master whipped his slaves . . . but every master had to allow his overseers to use the lash whenever the overseer saw fit, or felt like it. Slavery worked through terror and violence—there was no other way to force men to work without compensation.”
Ambrose goes on to note that even the admirable Edmund Burke was bent in his thinking about the matter. He believed that the master, looking at his slaves and comparing their situation with his own, treasured his freedom all the more and became eloquent on the subject: “those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom.” Burke didn’t seem to notice that only free people would be in a position to be proud of their freedom.
“Thus,” says Ambrose, “the sting in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s embarrassing question: ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes’?” It doesn’t take much Spirit-fueled imagination for freed Christians to imagine how some people might ask similar questions about Jesus’ 21st century followers.