Text: Galatians 5:1,13-26
Speaker: Joel Miller
This week our nation celebrates its birthday. There’s fireworks, there’s food, there’s commentary on where we’re at as a country, now 243 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Freedom is a big word for us, from a big idea. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That’s worked out pretty well for white, male, property owners. The struggle for equal freedoms and opportunities is a major part of the history of our country.
Also this week is the biennial national convention of Mennonite Church USA – in Kansas City this year – in which we exercise our collective freedom-to-be-frugal by having the event during one of the cheapest convention weeks of the year. But it’s still not cheap. This year we’ll send 13 people to convention, with strong financial support from the congregation. Thank you.
Many, many years ago – almost 2000 – the Apostle Paul had freedom on his mind. It’s a central theme in his epistle, which is a fancy name for a letter, to the Galatians.
The letter is actually addressed to the “churches of Galatia,” plural. Nobody’s quite sure how many churches this included or even where they were located.
The most common understanding of what’s going on behind this letter goes something like this: In his missionary travels, the Apostle Paul helped found a group of small congregations of the Galatians. They were primarily Gentiles, meaning they weren’t Jews, meaning they had never followed Jewish practices like male circumcision and Sabbath keeping and dietary guidelines. They’d been pagans who had joined with everybody else in honoring the Roman imperial gods.
But now they’re Christians.
Although the early Christians weren’t even called Christians yet. They were just an emergent group within the many Judaisms of the time. And most of the early Jesus followers – Paul among them – still identified as Jews.
After Paul initiates these little worshiping communities, some other apostles come through and tell the Galatians – Hey, if you’re going to be a part of this Jewish movement that recognizes Jesus as Messiah – like us – you’ve got to undergo the basic mark of Jewish identity – male circumcision, the outward sign of being a part of the people of God ever since the days of Abraham.
And that becomes a major point of contention within this emergent Jesus-inspired faith. Church controversy is nothing new.
It’s not exactly parallel, but a similar kind of question in our time might be Do people of other faiths need to become Christian in order to be a part of the people of God? I don’t think I even agree with how that question is set up, but you can start to imagine how there could be some heated debate around this these days. It’s probably best this will not be a topic delegates with be voting on at the Kansas City Mennonite convention next week.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his literary counter-punch to those other apostles. His argument isn’t so much that male circumcision is a bad thing, it’s just not necessary for these Gentiles, and comes with a host of other obligations Paul sees as non-essential to faith in the God Jesus illuminated. Circumcision obligates one to the law, and that is a load that Gentiles need not bear. Paul promotes a gospel of freedom – there’s that key word. “It is for freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul writes. Freedom guided by the Holy Spirit, whose law is love.
Just in case there’s any doubt about Paul’s antagonism toward the pro-circumcision crowd, he puts out this doozy right before our reading began. Regarding those outsiders who came through and promoted circumcision he says, “I wish they would go all the way and castrate themselves.” To paraphrase: Hey guys, while you’re down there with the knife why don’t you go ahead and just keep cutting – on yourself. BOOM.
Who says Paul is dry reading? This is high drama folks.
A more recent angle on what’s going on with this letter connects these Galatians with the people of Gaul, Celtic folks, who had migrated east across to the Roman empire. These Gauls were the vanquished, those barbarians who had fought against Rome all those centuries prior and were finally defeated and incorporated under Roman rule. They were subjugated people, who, like slaves and women, and even Jews, bore the brunt of living at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
These scattered Gauls, the Galatians, through Paul, had been presented with good news about one who looked very much like them – one who identified with the lowly, who suffered death under the crushing arm of Rome, who was resurrected to life through Divine power. Who was alive in the people who honored his story and turned their allegiance toward his Way.
“To the churches of Galatia…” Paul writes.
The law, spoken of so often in this letter, is just as much about Roman law, imperial law, this overarching structure that ordered the relationships and practices within the empire -that pointed people toward the imperial gods, who were to be honored and worshiped because of their conquering and ruling power, which was a social fact. The only group officially exempt from worshiping the imperial gods was the Jews, who had permission from Caesar to follow their own practices. Male circumcision being a central sign of being a part of this community.
So these Galatians have converted their allegiance to the Jesus way. They no longer feign worship of the Roman gods which crushed them. They pledge allegiance Christ over Caesar. They are in the world, but not of the world, to quote another part of Scripture.
They are putting their lot with the Jesus people, who affirm as Paul writes in this letter, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” All those hierarchies of power and control collapse. They are no longer. In Christ their relationships have been re-ordered. Paul writes, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But, some of the apostles start teaching the Galatians they should still be circumcised so they can get some official status within the empire. It’s OK to shift your allegiance to the one true God, but you’re definitely going to want to cover yourself by getting the official exemption as outlined by Caesar. You must be circumcised.
Paul will have none of it. He writes: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters…if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”
This, as you can imagine, is a more radical interpretation of Paul. It certainly poses important questions about how and where we give our allegiances within this powerful nation whose birthday we celebrate this week. Mennonites and other Anabaptists originated as a movement of folks who recognized that their commitment to the way of Jesus sometimes put them at odds with the laws of the land. They suffered for this. This gets more nuanced in a democracy when we have increased responsibility as citizens and hopefully a bit of influence, for the formation of the laws that govern us. All the more nuanced if you’re a white, landholding male who has benefited from the way the laws are written and implemented.
Perhaps a modern day parallel with this reading of Galatians challenges us to let go of certain unearned protections, and enter into solidarity with vulnerable and targeted people.
All that to say that freedom comes with responsibilities, which is the direction Paul takes it for the Galatians.
The kind of freedom being talked about here reaches all the way into our interior world. Like, what we do with our anger. What we do with conflict. What we do with our sexuality, which Paul seems to be especially concerned with, perhaps because sexuality is such a powerful force for harm or for healing.
Freedom in the Spirit is so very different than a distorted individualism which does whatever it wants. The freedom of the individual always takes place within a network of relationships which make us who we are. If you’ve ever tried to declare freedom from breathing, you recognize pretty quickly. Just how how tied up our freedom is in relationship. Sooner or later, we’ve got to come up for air, and we share this air with each other. My freedom to breathe is dependent on our collective commitment to share and protect this good, clean, God-given air.
But it’s tricky to hold this the tremendous gift of freedom with our tendency to let ourselves get bound up with things that make us less free.
The purpose of freedom, this letter says, is to free us up to love, and love is an inherently relational act. And an inherently political act.
Freedom in the Spirit has outward signs. These signs are different than the sign of circumcision. Paul calls the signs fruits, which I like, because that makes us a tree, and anytime we identify with the trees, we’re onto something good. When the Spirit of freedom, which is the Spirit of Christ, is having its way, this is what it looks like, going right down Paul’s list:
It looks like love, which is more like the sap the feeds the whole tree.
It looks like joy, which is so rare it takes our breath away when we actually experience it.
It looks like peace. Peace with ourselves, peace with our neighbors, even waging peace on our enemies.
It is patience, which is our right relationship with time.
It is kindness and generosity none of these things are limited resources. Generosity
And faithfulness, sticking with our commitments.
And gentleness in a world that often mocks gentleness as weakness. Gentleness arises from an inner strength that need not control or dominate. Rome knew nothing of gentleness. Jesus exuded gentle strength.
And self-control which we’ve already mentioned, because there are so many other things that can gain control of the self besides our truest, deepest self, which is Christ, the source of freedom.
This is the delicious fruit we crave.
This is the freedom which binds us to one another.
This is our declaration of inter-dependence. This we celebrate and give our lives for.