The Sunday Sermon: April 18, 2021 – Third Sunday of Easter
Scripture: Galatians 5:1, 13-14, 22-25
Easter Life: Called to Freedom
We’re riding the “Easter”tide in these weeks after Easter and before Pentecost, and it’s taking us to a few of the first communities who heard Paul’s proclamation about Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God was among them, is among us … the first communities that gathered around the belief that, since the process of making the world a more just place has begun, they must join the “divine program” of making the world a better place for all to live. We’re exploring what they were doing to realize God’s kingdom and God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” so we can get with the program and the Kingdom may come on earth (as it is in heaven).
Jesus was crucified for the way in which his “revelation” challenged and defied the religious and political establishments of his time: First Century Temple theology and the Roman Empire. He was crucified, but not before some experienced his revelation and were resurrected themselves, given new life. One such person was Paul. What Jesus revealed to those who walked and talked with him, Paul proclaimed to those who listened to him, those far beyond ancient Palestine and the shores of Galilee.
Pray with me …
Last week we were in Thessalonica, the provincial capital of ancient Macedonia. Paul had proclaimed Christ to the small Christian community there and, in the oldest writing we have in our New Testament, he appealed to his new brothers and sisters in Christ to respect … to esteem … to encourage … to help … and to be patient with one another … not to repay evil for evil but to always seek to do good to one another and to all. The Thessalonians were “joining Christ’s program” by striving to do all these things and more.
This week we’re in Galatia, reading from the letter to the Galatians. Listen for the Word of God … Read Galatians 5:1, 13-15, 22-25
Now … unlike Thessalonica, a city in the ancient province of Macedonia, Galatia is an ancient province. It stretched from northeast-to-southwest across central Anatolia, or what is now modern day Turkey. There is no unanimity among scholars (surprise, surprise) as to which specific city, or group, Paul was actually writing. Was he writing to a northern city founded new for Rome, or a southern city re-founded as a Roman colony? Or was he writing a “circular letter” to cover a very large area of both north and south? While we can’t know for sure, what we do know is that both the north and the south of this ancient province were undergoing the steady process of Romanization in the middle of the first century CE. All of the communities in Galatia, north and south – Ancyra, Antioch, Iconium, Derbe, Lystra, Attalia – all were becoming Roman. It was as the Roman Emperor and the Empire were Romanizing all the Galatians that Paul visited the province to Christianize some of them.
In the second verse of the first chapter of this letter, Paul writes to “the Churches of Galatia.” How many “churches of Galatia” there were is unknown. Paul had visited them at least once, and probably twice, before writing this letter. And sometime after these visits “other missionaries” arrived and began to preach a different message. The letter of Paul to the Galatians reflects a critical moment in the early Christian movement’s struggle to define its mission and identity.
The “other missionaries” are unidentified, but Paul calls them “agitators, trouble-makers, who have selfish motives.” From Paul’s point of view they were not interested in the welfare of the Galatian Christians, but in avoiding persecution from the “traditional” Jewish community and from the Romans. The “agitators” advocated circumcision and other elements of Jewish law and ritual. The Galatians, we can imagine, were struggling with how to live out their new calling to Christ in the larger Jewish context as well as the Roman pagan one. Many were responding to the agitators’ messages, if only to fit in. How familiar that inclination is to us even now.
Our Christianity is not often threatened by other religious traditions where we live. Or if it is, it is not their doctrines and rituals we fear, but their fundamentalist believers and the twisted gospels they promote, be these fundamentalist Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Christians. But, if we aren’t threatened because of our particular faith, our faith is confronted daily, even hourly, by the culture all around us … always. The “therapeutic-technological-consumerist-nationalist” culture that Walter Brueggemen described for us a decade ago, and that we live in the midst of, asking as it does for us to choose every day between our discipleship and our citizenship.
Therapeutic: Is there is a product or a treatment or a process that will counteract every ache and pain and discomfort in life, so that our lives may be lived without inconvenience? Or … must we experience some pain and discomfort, some anxiety and unease, about the conditions so many humans live in, physical and emotional, in order that we may offer a hope and a peace that is not “of this world?”
Technological: Can everything be fixed and made right through human ingenuity? Is there no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved by us? Or … might we be better served in letting go of our illusions of power and dominance, and allow ourselves to be a part of something bigger and beyond our individual control?
Consumerist: Is the whole world and all its resources available to us without regard to our neighbor or the world itself? Is “more” better? Or … might we be better served by understanding the interconnectedness of all creation and seek to nurture our natural resources in more sustainable ways?
Nationalist: Do we, like Empires of the past, accept a manifest destiny that authorizes us to control and manage others around the world? Do we accept that violence and war are the only way to protect what we have and to create global peace? Or … might we be better served by proclaiming that violence is not the inevitability of human nature, that violence will never create peace, that only justice can do that? (This last one, that challenges our nationalistic inclinations, is perhaps the most difficult to engage.)
Paul is astonished that this community (or communities) in Galatia that he wasn’t long apart from, are so easily being persuaded by the teaching of these “other missionaries” to “fit in” by finding easy comfort, and he admonishes them in no uncertain terms, making his case for God’s love in Christ – freely given with no requirement to purchase or pay through rites and rituals.
Paul’s teaching about Jesus’ life that revealed God’s grace is radical. Think about it. It is more than a doctrine, more than a teaching. It is an experience. And the experience of God’s grace creates a Faith, a trust in and fidelity to a God that doesn’t require us to do anything! That faith … in God’s grace … leads us to freedom from all those things in our lives that seek to control us – quick fixes, hi-tech, stuff, and violence. That freedom delivers love, loving service to neighbor and to all of creation. The grace of God is an experience. That experience is one of freedom – freedom to love, to serve, or as Paul writes “to become slaves to,” one another.
That is how Paul is calling the Galatians, whoever they were – this week they’re us! – to get with the program! It wasn’t then, and isn’t now, an easy task. The “agitators” message that Paul is so passionately refuting was powerfully appealing to the Galatians. It is to us, as well. It taps into our deep and persistent need for rules and structures. We feel that without firm guidelines we will fall into chaos. Paul, however, reminds the Galatians – and reminds us – that those who belong to Christ now live in freedom, and he urges them – he’s urging us – to trust that we can live freely, allowing the Spirit to guide and shape us. The challenge is to allow the Spirit to guide our freedom, to not use this new freedom for self-indulgence, but through love to use it for others, for one another. The challenge is to discern the real presence and activity of the God’s Spirit in our midst, and not our own.
Paul tells us how we’ll know when that Spirit is leading us. Did you hear it? We will know it because we will then experience “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” We live in a culture that asks us every day to choose fear. But we live with a God who offers us every day our freedom in Christ.
Whose Kingdom are we committed to? Answer that question again this week through your Easter life. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 18, 2021