Grace and Peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians in the hopes of resolving a problem that had come up in the churches in the old Roman province of Galatia, which is part of Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. A group of new believers took hold of the gospel of salvation in Christ when they heard it from Paul, but then some visitors from Jerusalem questioned his authority. They introduced an idea that doesn’t belong in the gospel – that in order to be true Christians, the Galatians first needed to submit to the laws and customs set down in the Old Testament.
Paul argued back that God’s promises to his people were more important than the law. Salvation and life with God comes through faith in Christ. The Heavenly Father declares that all believers are his sons and daughters. The Christian people are children of promise, not slaves to the law. Paul knew that the Christians in Galatia were passing through a spell of deep conflict, but he foresaw a happy outcome. “I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine.” This is an important reassurance. God’s Word has the power to build faith and instill the truth. The words of the Bible plant God’s promises in our hearts – trust that heaven has adopted us, that God has a plan for us and that he will make good out of every evil, that the death of Christ opens the way to a new and better life, both now and in days to come.
Paul affirms in our reading from the 5th chapter that Christians are free. He discusses the consequences of our liberty; he draws a picture of Christian freedom in action.
To lighten things up, let’s imagine that two members of one of the Galatian churches are talking with each of other. The conversation is strained at first, because they have been on opposite sides of the great debate about law and promise, faith and works. But a copy of Paul’s letter arrived a few days before. They have had a chance to read it, and the persuasiveness of Paul’s arguments has inspired them to mend the breach that came between them.
“I wouldn’t have imagined that arguments so fierce could take place in the church,” said the first of the two Christians, who had supported the ideas Paul opposed. “I thought for sure the congregation would explode and then drift away to nothing. Good-bye church.”
“A lot of us felt that way,” the other said, “but the church is still here and stronger than ever. If you come back to worship, you’ll see a new spirit among us. We’re actually quite vibrant. New people are coming in. Everything starts with forgiveness. Jesus forgave his enemies; his death for our sake heals. The Heavenly Father smiles on us. He turns evil into good. Did you have a chance to read the copy of Paul’s letter I sent you? I’ll try to answer any questions you might have. My goal is to see you and your family back worshiping with us. I know that remarks were made during the debates that hurt your feelings. Whenever people feel pressured, especially if we’re debating what to believe about God – it’s easy to get carried away. We’re sorry about that part now. We hope you’ll forgive us. We believe the argument’s settled.”
“I’m not so sure it’s settled,” the first person says. “I read Paul’s letter a few times; I still have some questions. I know something about life and how people behave. I’ve raised four children. We need the law to restrain us. God won’t have anything to do with us unless we’re good. We need the threat of punishment.”
“I’ve felt that way myself at times,” the second Christian says. “The law is good. It comes from God. A lot depends, though, on how we approach it. No one keeps the law perfectly, and the Lord demands perfection. The longer we live, the more sins we pile up. Only one Person kept the law perfectly. What are you and I to do then? If we search our lives, we see that we don’t deserve anything from God. We’re doomed. But Jesus kept the law where we failed. His perfect obedience when he died guarantees God’s favor toward us. That’s what Paul means when he says that we’re free. Jesus frees us from having to please God on our own. If we think we can win God’s favor by our attempts to live righteously, we end up with uncertainty. We haven’t helped anyone, only deceived ourselves.. Jesus frees us from a fruitless struggle. Our Heavenly Father declares us righteous for his Son’s sake. We wait by faith now for the great declaration of righteousness that will come on Judgment Day.
“Jesus lifts a great burden from our shoulders,” the second person goes on. “Especially true in my case. I lived wildly in my younger days. I roamed around quite a bit and missed hundreds of chances to do the right thing. My memory sometimes rages like a bonfire. I used to think my future would be exactly like my past, that I was trapped in a cycle of frustration. Jesus rescued me from a bad destiny. I know I’ll have many good days ahead, thanks be to God.”
The first person thought for a moment. “I’ll never believe that God sets us free from sin. It’s not his plan for us to take the easy road.”
“You’re right about that,” the second person says. “Our Lord frees us from the reproach of the law, the chains of legalism that tie us down. He empowers us to carry out the law willingly and cheerfully. We’re not slaves to a rule-book. Instead, we live by the Spirit.”
“Are you suggesting that God trusts us?”
“Exactly,” the second Christian says. “He doesn’t lead us the way a rider leads a horse. He knows that the faith in Christ he gives us will lead us to do the things that please him. If we fall, he will lift us up. He will free us again from slavery to sin and our flesh.”
“Again, you say,” the first person says. “I’ve tried to lead a moral life; I’ve kept myself from debauchery and great sins. But after reading Paul’s letter I thought about one thing he said – that love of our neighbors is the summary of the law. I admit to being angry at times and selfish, jealous even, though I try to keep these feelings to myself. I ask God to forgive me, but I’m afraid that the same old feelings will return. I can’t help myself.”
“That happens to me, too,” the second person says. “It’s because part of me still walks by the law. I’m learning not to expect perfection – either for myself or other people. I’m getting better at not being full of blame and reproach. I’m sorry for some of the things I said at our meetings. I, too, see that the sinful part of my nature is at war with God’s Spirit. Paul’s letter teaches me that all of us are in conflict. We have a good side and a bad side, and the bad side keeps us from doing the good we want. We’d be crushed if we had only the law to lead us. But there is hope. Paul urges us to walk by the Spirit. As the Spirit leads us, we take hold of God’s pardon and the friendship of Christ. We forgive ourselves. God’s peace becomes our peace. He shares us victory with us. Our sinful natures, with all their passions and desires, have been crucified along with Christ. The Spirit renews us, not the law. The Spirit gives us new life. So Paul encourages us to keep in step with the Spirit.”
“If I thought the church was going that way,” the first person says, “I’d return to worship.”
“Nothing is ever perfect,” the second Christian replies, “but we’re moving in a good direction. We receive pardon and offer it. We’re learning to let go of the past and to welcome the Spirit. We use our freedom to seek a better way of living.
“You probably noticed that Paul listed several qualities in his letter. He doesn’t call them works but fruits of the Spirit, the virtues we show as we walk with God – love, joy, peace, patience, and so on. Love is the most important. Someone called it the most essential product of faith, the mother of all the other Christian qualities. The way Paul uses it, the word “love” doesn’t mean just liking or affection. It means the kind of love that understands what people need and then sets out to provide it. You and I don’t simply give our children candy so we can see their smiles and hear their laughter. We give them the food that’s right for them and shoes and clothes that suit the season. We send them to school and make sure they learn the difference between right and wrong. We discipline them if their sinful nature seems to be getting the best of them. This is love – the love that is intelligent and has a purpose, the kind of love that God has. He understood how terrible the world is and took steps to make it better. He could not show affection toward the evil world, so he sent his Son to rescue it and clean it up. Jesus gave his life to save the world. He asks us to love our enemies, you see, not with affection, but with intelligence and purpose, understanding what is hateful about them and helping God to remove it. This is why Paul wrote to our churches – to encourage us not to slip back under the law, to embrace the gospel, and to walk in the Spirit. I’m glad the enemies of the gospel have left town. I hope you’re glad, too. When we first gathered ourselves into a congregation, we were all on fire for Jesus and his message. God has made it possible for us to walk in the Spirit again.”
“Yes, it would be wonderful if those vibrant early days could be recovered,” says the person who left the congregation, “but you know what people are. We always remember the past. We hate to let go. It takes years for wounds to heal.”
“Did you notice that Paul mentioned joy right after love?” says the second Christian. “It’s one of the great qualities of our faith. Pessimism and cynicism are pretty bad faults. Paul doesn’t mean empty-headed, superficial joy. Christian joy is steady and enduring. It bubbles up from the gift of God’s grace to us. His blessings bring us joy. Arguments and trials and tough days can’t wipe it away. The joy of Christians abounds. That’s what’s going on in our parish these days – an earthly joy that blends with the joy of heaven – the sunshine that always beams for everyone who believes in Christ. The joy will be there for you when you come back. Your return will increase our joy. Joy will be added to joy.”
“That’s something I’d like to see,” says the first Christian. “I believe what you’re saying to me, so I’ll look forward to seeing you next Sunday. A church full of joy. My, oh, my.”
The two Christians go on talking, but we’ll leave them, grateful to the Lord who renews and upholds his church. In Jesus’ Name we rejoice. AMEN
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus, AMEN.