Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
The epistle readings for the past two Sundays have come from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which is very short but full of meaning because it touches on questions that are important for every Christian. What does it mean to be grown up in Christ? What does it mean for a community of Christians to be mature in the Lord? When a Christian or a congregation are mature in faith, they become the blessings to others God wants them to be.
First, some background. Galatia was one of the many provinces of the old Roman Empire. Paul founded several congregations there during his travels. The gospel he preached brought many new Christians to the Lord and at first the people focused on Jesus whole-heartedly. But it wasn’t long before outsiders tried to convince them that in order to be Christians they first needed to adopt Old Testament laws and customs about food and holidays and such like. Paul went into a fury. He urged the people not to go backwards and make themselves slaves to the ceremonial law, which is really like a tutor to children. Paul had something specific in mind when he used the word “tutor”. A wealthy father in the Roman empire assigned his son a guardian who would walk back and forth to school with him, teach him manners, and make sure he behaved himself and didn’t fall in with bad company. The son might have been the future heir of lands and property but as a boy he lived under the supervision of his tutor, who was training him to be a gentleman. The boy’s situation – with a guardian at his side all the time – was a condition to grow out of. It’s a good thing to grow to the scope and freedom of adult living.
Paul compares the ceremonial law – and in fact all laws – with a tutor or guardian. The law comes from God, it is good and necessary, but it hems us in because we aren’t perfect. The law, moreover, terrifies us and accuses. It restrains sinners, and we all need restraint. But the law doesn’t rescue us from sin; it doesn’t save souls; it doesn’t give life or free us from bondage; it is not the final stage of our development to maturity. The law drives us to seek the mercy of God. We don’t look for rigid perfection but for faith in Christ, who is, in fact, looking for us. He claims us in our baptisms as his brothers and sisters. We’re adopted children of the Heavenly Father. He gives us the confidence to act in freedom and take hold of the satisfactions of mature faith – that life will work out, that our actions please the Lord, and that we’re blessings to others.
Paul is an example. He began his public life as a persecutor of Christians, eager to uphold the letter of the law. But the Risen Lord came to him in a dramatic way while he was traveling to Damascus and turned his life around. After years of study of God’s Word, he worked as vigorously as a missionary for the Lord as he had once worked against him. The point is that he acted in faith and freedom. No one forced him to give up the comforts of a settled life and take on hardships and frustrations. Paul was a free man in Christ; he even had the freedom to drop out and follow a more easy-going life. He chose to live as a child of God, however, and spread the message of faith and freedom and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, so he became a blessing to others. Our families, friends and neighbors benefit when they see our confidence in Christ, our trust that we’re God’s children, our joy, our happiness, our freedom in the Lord. To be grown up in the faith means that we rejoice in God’s grace.
Now, the world is always legalistic. It loves to spread guilt and shame – the news, the comments of our neighbors, sometimes, and the spirit of competition – all work to take us away from the gospel. The world tries to push us back under the dominance of the spirit of the law. Souls can shrivel, consciences ache. This is not where God wants us to be. It is slavery, not maturity in Christ. Jesus offers us his friendship; he washes our sins away in his blood. If our memories rise up to taunt us, we have only to say, “Oh, yes, another sin that Christ has forgiven.” The Savior empowers us in his name to defeat Satan’s tricks and cut off the spiral of excessive self-reproach that some brains are susceptible to. The most important part of repentance is to take hold by faith of Jesus’ pardon and his boundless love for us. Jesus is in us. He shares his joy with us.
Paul, as we said, is an example. He zealously followed the old legal tradition in his early days. He must have said and done things that were cruel and mean-spirited. Memories of his early life didn’t incapacitate him, however, when he took up his new life in Christ. He trusted with heart, soul, and mind that God pardoned him and that the Savior knew him and loved him. He was mature in the faith – a blessing to others.
God’s love for his people makes us mature, loving, joyful, patient, kind. We don’t reproach ourselves to excess nor do we find fault with others. Instead, we are blessings to our neighbors. We encourage. We build them up. Correction is sometimes appropriate, of course, as we offer it in a spirit of love, as the Lord did, hopeful that our admonitions bear fruit. We bring good to everyone we come to.
So we are grown-up, then, when we live by faith in Christ, who makes us strong and free and blessings to others. The same principle applies to Christian communities. The congregation that clings to Christ in faith receives God’s rich blessings. It is strong and grown up and full of vitality.
Paul, as we said, urged the Galatian Christians not to go backwards and make themselves slaves to laws, because they do not save or bring life. The people should remember that Christ redeemed them from captivity to the ceremonial law and cling to him. The Heavenly Father had adopted him as their children; the Holy Spirit lived in their hearts. Once they had come to know God and be known by him, how could they ever turn back to weak and beggarly spirits, whose slaves they wanted to be? Paul said that Christ set them for free for freedom. He urged them not to submit again to the yoke of slavery. They were not to cling to the law the way children cling to a tutor. They were to be free and responsible and grown up. They should live by faith working through love.
Although he was confident that they would adopt his point of view, Paul foresaw what would happen if they followed the old legalistic ways – they would begin to quarrel. “If you bite and devour one another,” Paul wrote, “take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” The whole law is fulfilled in one phrase, he reminded them: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ They serve God best by using their freedom for love, acting as servants one to the other.”
We don’t know what happened in Galatia, but we do know that many Christian communities, including the Lutheran Church-Canada, have taken Paul’s guidelines as their own. They live by the faith that creates love. Instead of trying to win God’s favor with good works, we open our hearts to receive his pardon and strengthening. By God’s grace, we make a stand against legalism, we don’t create an atmosphere of blame and reproach, but of forgiveness and encouragement to live according to God’s will. We don’t find stony faces in the church, but God’s love and the friendship of other Christians. Christian maturity of faith honors God, strengthens us, and spreads a good influence in the world around us.
We stand up for Jesus in a legalistic environment, where there are always many spiritual casualties. The church offers a refuge. The Savior reaches out through his Christian people. Paul wrote in another letter that the Lord Jesus Christ comforts us in all our afflictions so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
It’s easy to scold and reproach and carry in our hearts a scrapbook of wrongs done to us, but we Christians offer a better message to our neighbors – words of mercy and consolation from God that raise crushed spirits and heal bruised souls. We live in the radiance of God’s free grace. We may be tempted to fall back into legalistic customs and ways, but we confess our sins, which God washes away. He brings us back to our standing as grown-up Christians. We are forgiven, we forgive others. We have received comfort; we offer comfort to our neighbors. Anyone can cling to customs and traditions and man-made laws. We cling to Jesus, who brings us maturity and freedom. In His Name we give thanks. AMEN
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of..