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A New Creation

A Homily from Galatians 6:1-16

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

July 4, 2004 (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

For the past six weeks our Epistle Reading has come from Paul’s letter to the Church at Galatia. That letter, which is considered by many to be the “Epistle of Freedom” is a stunning and powerful testimony to the unique and absolute power of God’s grace. Not only does God’s grace liberate us from our sin, it liberates us from the compulsive paranoia of legalism.

Paul spends a great deal of time on the topics of freedom and legalism because he is very worried about the churches in Galatia – churches that he started. After he had left the region, other Christian missionaries had come, and – in Paul’s own words – they had “perverted the gospel.” We cannot be sure exactly what those missionaries said, and we should probably give them the benefit of the doubt regarding their motives; but we can get some idea of the content of their “gospel” from reading Paul’s responses in the letter.

Apparently, they preached the gospel and the Law. “Yes” they said, “Christ has liberated you from the consequences of your sins; but you are still living with a desire to sin. The only way to know if you are sinning or not, the only way to be really right with God, is to follow the Law of Moses.” Since the converts in Galatia were almost certainly Gentiles, they would have needed instruction as to what that meant.

I suspect that the missionaries who came to them would have been more than happy to provide them copies. It saves so much work when you can simply provide people with a list of what’s right and what’s wrong. “Want to be a Christian? Believe in Jesus and do everything on pages 1 through 374 – paying attention to the footnotes please. Thank you very much, I’ll be going now.”

The book of Galatians is Paul’s response to that kind of preaching. It is, in its entirety one long, pent-up scream of “No!” Being a Christian, Paul says over and over in the epistle, is one thing and one thing only: accepting our sinfulness and fully surrendering to the grace of God through the person of Jesus Christ.

As one commentator points out [Hays NIB], to add anything to that, to tack on a single additional requirement or standard is to minimize the power of God and to minimize the importance of the cross. We cannot say, “You are forgiven, but…” or “Christ died for you and that paid for your sins, but…” (Incidentally, the hospital where I went last month is trying to do just that. Every person who made eye contact with me that day seems to have sent me a separate bill. When I pay one, it seems like two more show up.)

God doesn’t work that way. The sum total of all Christianity is at Golgotha.

So, having admitted our sins and accepted the grace of Christ, are we free to do anything? Can we make up our own rules? Can we do whatever we want and say that it’s not a sin? I’m going to get to the answer in detail; but if you want the Cliff Notes version here it is: Absolutely, Unequivocally – No!

Reminding us of that is one of the purposes of our text for today. After five chapters of reminding us that we are not under the Law in any way; Paul recognizes that there might be some danger that we will consequently take that as a blank check to sin all we want. Consequently, he closes his letter with specific advice to those of us who wish to live out the grace of God.

He begins by reminding us that we are “brothers and sisters.” Our NRSV’s translate it “friends”, but the word in Greek means “siblings”. If I may again quote Paul Duke on the subject, “brothers and sisters” is a much better translation/ We get to choose our friends; but we don’t get to pick our family. By accepting the freedom of the gospel, we have also accepted certain obligations; and one of those obligations is to be family to each other.

So Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, when one of you makes a mistake, gently correct them.” Paul knows that, the fact that we’re trying to do the right thing doesn’t mean that we always will. Knowing that, we have two sets of obligations regarding our fellow Christians. The first is to be willing to gently – and Paul emphasizes that – gently correct our brothers and sisters.

I don’t have any brothers or sisters, but I do have cousins; and I don’t remember them ever doing anything to me “gently” – which may be why Paul takes the time to clarify just how we are to correct one another. With family, after a while, we tend to think it’s OK to step on each other’s toes a bit; but that doesn’t really accomplish much when we want to help someone change. However we can manage it, part of being freed from the penalties of our own sin is the expectation that we will help our neighbors, our family, lead lives that follow the path of Christ.

The twin to that expectation is our obligation to listen when our brothers or sisters come to us and let us know that we are the ones who are messing up. Personally, I think Paul should have put something about responding to that gently as well; because my natural response to someone telling me that I’m doing something wrong is anything but “gentle”.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t need to hear it; and the only way I’m going to hear it is if I’m around other Christians, and if they have the courage to speak up to me. That’s why we can’t be faithful Christians in a vacuum. Being a Christian is, by definition, being an active part of a community of faith.

This isn’t an issue of salvation; Jesus took care of that and Paul spent 5 chapters reminding us that Jesus took care of our salvation completely. The issue is, having been saved, how do we do the right thing? We do the right thing by living and worshiping as part of a community; by listening to that community; and speaking to it.

There’s only one problem with that, one gaping hole in Paul’s advice. If we no longer have the Law, if we no longer have the detailed list of what’s right and what’s wrong; how are we supposed to know when our brothers and sisters are doing the right thing? How are we supposed to know if our family members are right when they say that we are doing the wrong thing? Should we just make it up as we go along?

That probably wouldn’t be a good idea. Paul says, “God is not mocked! You will reap what you sow. Sow flesh, reap rotten flesh. Sow the Spirit, reap the life of the Spirit.” Our bodies are dangerous and treacherous things. They tell us that we want certain things: food, sex, sleep, money, leisure; power; revenge…and in so doing they distract us from the things that will really bring us joy and peace: sharing, sacrifice, meaningful work, compassion, mercy…

Paul reminds us that Jesus lead a life that was centered on the Spirit…such a life, ironically, lead to physical death and life everlasting. That’s where our priorities belong, and constantly staying on that path takes effort. Paul says, “Don’t get tired…keep persevering…remind each other…listen when others remind you…because in the long run, giving up the things that feel good for the things that really matter will be worth it.”

This then, is – as Paul calls it – “The Law of Christ”. It is a Law that doesn’t tell us a specific rule for every situation. It is a Law that instead trusts us to – together – share the burden of seeking out what is right and what is good.

That’s a much more messy and dangerous kind of Law; and to this day many of us aren’t comfortable with it. It is so much easier to be able to say, “Do this, don’t do that, and you’re a Christian.” Easy doesn’t mean right. Paul says, “Accept the gospel and you’re a Christian. If you want to be a better one, trust the Spirit and trust your family in the faith.”

For the final few verses, Paul picks up the quill himself (most of the epistle would have been dictated to a scribe). By writing the last few sentences in his own hand, Paul puts a special emphasis on them. You can almost picture him baring down on the scroll, trying to hammer his words into it, and thereby into the heads of his beloved church of new Christians – all of whom have been told that they’re not real Christians because they’re not following a specific moral code.

“Listen up!” Paul says, “These people who want to take on their rules to the gospel, they’re doing it because they can’t understand a faithful believer who doesn’t look like a faithful believer.” They are so caught up in their own “flesh”, their own superficial standards and materialism that they can’t recognize the gospel unless it’s packaged in a way that’s familiar.

I think we’ve all been in churches like that. You walk in and realize that everyone in the sanctuary dresses a certain way, and talks a certain way. In Southern Baptist Churches; it’s usually suits and pastel dresses; and you’re expected to use “Jesus” “saved” “witness” or “sin” in every other sentence. Show up in blue jeans and forget to drop the buzz words, and you must not be a Christian.

Even here in the land of liberal inclusivism, we have our own codes. Show up to worship with a Ryrie Study Bible, or come to Sunday School with a Charles Stanley study guide, or – goodness forbid – put a Republican bumper sticker on your car; and you’ll have a lot of raised eyebrows here about whether or not you’re a “real” Christian.

Paul says when we think like that, we’re not getting the point. All of those things that make it easy for us to label people and make ourselves feel good are products of giving in to our fleshly, sinful desire to see the world in terms of “us” and “them”. They are products of our need to have concrete proof of things, and physical, tangible demonstrations of our faithfulness.

Paul says, it doesn’t work that way. We don’t get to determine who’s in the family and who is not. To make matters worse, Paul says, “In fact, all of those who want to make other people follow the Law don’t even fully keep to it themselves.” That also hasn’t changed a bit in two thousand years. For every person who throws a quote from Leviticus at me about why I’m encouraging this sin or that sin, I can throw another quote at them for a part of the Levitical code they are ignoring in their own lives.

Ironically, doing so ignores the fact that I’m also skipping part of the Levitical Code myself. Of course, they have their complicated explanations and I have mine; and we can sit around all day prooftexting and quoting theologians.

If we do, however, then we’re missing the whole point. What is the point, then? Paul says, and I think I’ll paraphrase here, “It’s the cross, stupid.” I’ve never been fond of the W.W.J.D.? bracelets and paraphernalia; but I think I’d be willing to buy something that said, “I.T.C.S.!” It’s the CROSS stupid.

Paul says, if we’re going to boast about anything, if we want to feel good about anything, if anything is to make us feel superior – the only thing that we as Christians can brag about is the cross.

As commentator Richard Hays points out, the thing about the cross is – we had nothing to do with it. From start to finish, it’s the work of God. Personally, I’d add to that that we don’t even fully understand it. God, innocent of all sin, was brutally murdered; and in that sacrifice God bore all of the sins of a broken world. It’s the one thing we can brag about, and it’s not about us.

And so, one by one, we come to that cross and individually lay down our sins, our fears, our weaknesses, our brokenness, our guilt, our addictions, and our pain. There’s nothing to brag about there, only a sense of relief and of forgiveness.

In so doing we surrender to the mercy of God, and we become – as Paul writes – “a new creation”. The old rules and standards no longer apply. We aren’t male or female, straight or gay, Jew or Gentile, boss or worker, Republican or Democrat – we are something totally different. We are people who live for the Law of Christ, a Law of mercy that places our priorities solely on those things that are eternal – the work of the Spirit.

A newborn baby, however, cannot raise itself. And so, as we toddle forward from the cross, we are not alone. We are reborn into a new family, a large and sometimes conflicted family that nevertheless shares our goal of learning just what it means to live in the Spirit of Christ.

As any parent will tell you, kids don’t come with manuals; and all the books on raising them are wrong as often as they are right. Nevertheless, Paul reminds us that we are called to raise each other – not to save each other, because Jesus took care of that; but to guide each other as best we can following the example of Jesus; and to likewise trust in each others guidance along the way.

There’s very little practical advice in that. I can’t offer you a “Law: for discovering how to live life without the Law; but Paul trusted the churches he founded. More importantly, he trusted the power of the Holy Spirit and strength of the gospel. We could do much worse than to do the same.