June 30, 2019
Good morning! I know we are getting ready for the big Fourth of July celebration and like a new resident in Kansas, I’m trying to imagine the oncoming storm but can’t quite grasp the magnitude of it. As instructed, I did go to the grocery store to stock up, and I am planning to be inconvenienced — but that is a small price to pay for such a grand celebration. Another new experience on Lopez Island!
The lovely thing about the timing of the Fourth and the lectionary cycle is that some of the most significant passages regarding our life together in Christ, align each year at this time. The language of freedom, the call for liberty and justice echo over the centuries, sometimes only faintly and other times with a great clarion call. Paul is at his very best today in this passage from the letter to the Galatians. The challenge of his message and the impact on me is this: I love my country but my true citizenship is in the realm of God through Christ Jesus — I am a citizen of heaven.
This is a vantage point that makes me a resident alien of sorts and gives my life a perspective that is set apart — set apart to be of use to God, to see as God sees. The word we use for those who are “set apart” is holy. We are God’s holy people, called out for the sake of the whole world. Our perspective is that Christ’s people practice this new way of seeing and being, liberated and linked together with the very mind of Christ. Paul says: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. It is this line that is on my mind today, but first I want to share an image that embodies this statement. In a funny way, it is an icon, a window into the heart of Paul’s words.
Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from sermon writing and gathered my trio of Tibetan Spaniels for a walk. The three tibbies — Gracie, Teddy and St. Pierre were ready to go out and because the weather was spectacular, I was looking forward to a little time to ruminate on the sermon in the sun. All three dogs stood still for the leashes, patient and reconciled to the fact that I’m in control. I opened the door and in a tangle of puppies, leads, and the excitement of going for a walk, we started our adventure. First, a brief stop for potties and then up to the pond. As I looked out over the expanse of lawn and fields, a beautiful rolling countrywide scene, I let go of the leashes.
Like a shot, Teddy ran — the gait of the Tibetan Spaniel is like a rabbit, front legs together driving forward, back legs together, pushing off. He was free and knew it. Gracie, the tiny, shy girl looked up at me first and then, she too, started to run, following her brother. St. Pierre is the elegant black and white old gentleman. He is fifteen and a half, sweet and docile, the most obedient of the three. He paused and looked across the field at his two companions and at me, and then he ran. For freedom, they ran and the pure joy of it, for them and for me. It is that moment I hold today as we enter into this remarkable epistle from Paul. For freedom Christ has set us free. As I watched the three, I saw freedom incarnated in the trinity of tibbies. They were living fully into their canine identity — and I was aware that Paul is offering a glimpse into our identity as human beings, created in the image of God. For freedom we are set free to be as God intended, living manifestations of love.
Today we hear Paul’s passionate voice in the Letter to the Church in Galatia. After sharing his credentials as an apostle of Christ, Paul writes: O foolish Galatians! Who bewitched you? Again and again, Paul’s words ring out as he reminds us of these words: For freedom Christ has set us free. This letter was written in the early to mid-fifties CE and Paul plants the flag for a community that finds its identity “in Christ.” He offers us a vision for our life together, a vision that has often been distorted, diverting the radical gospel message into a dead end of virtue and vice. I sometimes think that Paul’s letters are not for young children or fundamentalists but we are ready, for there is much good news and a reminder of the great gift we have received — freedom in Christ.
In our gospel today, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and in the next nine chapters that follow, we must choose: to whom do we belong? This is the question before us today and always. To whom do we belong? Are we citizens of this world or agents of Christ’s love?
From the unfolding events following Holy Week, to the words of Paul to the Galatians, we are looking at a timeframe of perhaps twenty-five years. Luke’s gospel will not be written for another twenty years. Paul’s conversion, early in the life of the movement of the followers of the Way of Jesus has been tested and seasoned. I note these things so that we might realize that Paul is the first voice, the organizing agent of this new movement and these letters, these epistles show the shape of his thinking and the form of the early church.
This letter is both a corrective to those early followers but also a brilliant reminder to us today — we are citizens in the realm of Paradise where Christ enfolds us into a body, a living community of love. Christ Jesus is now the realm of the believer — it is to the eternal Word, we belong. The realm of the flesh is unredeemed humanity turned in and upon itself. Paul’s use of flesh is the part of our human nature that is self-seeking and self-serving without regard for one’s neighbor.
To state it simply, life in the flesh is an egocentric way of living, especially a reality in this current culture of narcissism. It is important to note that life in the flesh is not about the body and life in the Spirit is not about the soul. We do not split our humanity in half. For Paul, Christian morality is a matter of living in the correct realm — the realm of Christ Jesus. It is not about correct behavior, it is about an orientation. Richard Rohr reminds us: “We believe that God’s heart be made available and active on this earth.” And that is our mission in the world – to be the heart of God.
In this curious epistle as Paul chastises the hapless Galatians because they either cling to the law or think they have license to do anything. Fundamentalists have a field day with Paul’s list of works of the flesh and in their own way, create a new Law of right behavior.
All too often, we Episcopalians generally recoil and try to avoid the topic altogether — we are uncomfortable with these lists of works fo the flesh and may misread or misjudge what Paul is saying. To recover his point, the categories regarding works of the flesh may be little easier to understand: sensuality, idolatry, community dissension and self-indulgence. These categories resonate with much in our world today, a time not unlike Paul’s own reality. But the point is not a new Law regarding behavior, but a new orientation of life.
Life in the Spirit is life outwardly focused for the sake of others. We fulfill the law of love, agape, as we turn outward. The discipline of such a life cannot be attained through the will but as a gift received and it cannot be maintained in isolation. That is why we gather here and to remember who we are, to confess when we fall short, to feed and be fed by the love of Christ. It is what we offer as Christian people, a gift of profound grace and love, channeled through this body — the body of Christ. The works of the Spirit reflect the many manifestations of the single fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, and peace; patience, kindness, and goodness; and faith, gentleness and self-control. Christ Jesus is the sphere in which the believer belongs; faith of Jesus working through love is our gift. We can’t earn it, for it has been given to us and that is the freedom we celebrate today as citizens of the realm of God.
Paul proclaims: For freedom Christ has set us free. We have been liberated from the Law, written and recited, in order to be witnesses to another realm, another way. This freedom from the Law does not mean license to do whatever we please. This freedom comes with a price and we cannot have it both ways — the realm of freedom is the very Kingdom of God — we cannot live in the realm of a self-centered world and live in the realm of God. As Richard Rohr says, “Paul intended that this new people ‘live in the church,’ as it were — and from that solid base go out to the world. We still have it all backward, living fully in the worldly systems and occasionally going to church.”
I want you to think about this verse, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” and imagine my little puppies liberated and free. Imagine the moment, short little legs driving up the field of grass, not stopping until they reached the fence. For freedom Christ has set us free and it is this gift, this incredible liberation from the law, the constraining leash of external control, is gone. For now, we are given the Spirit, a new heart, an internal guide, and together we are linked, clothed in Christ Jesus.
Remember the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, and peace; patience, kindness, and goodness; and faith, gentleness and self-control. Those are the signs that the reign of God has come and you are free! So run, run into the arms of love and rejoice!