30 June 2013
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa
You may have noticed that the Galatians reading this morning was more than what was printed in the bulletin. That was a mistake on my part, and though it was longer than it was supposed to be, I’m glad it happened because we had the chance to hear what surely sounds weird to our modern sensibilities. If you’ll bear with me and embrace confusion for a while, it’s my hope that there might be something gained by diving headfirst into the weird. The language the apostle Paul uses from the start is familiar enough to us: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Freedom—check. That’s a word that resonates in the context of our revolutionary, democratic history. But then Paul starts talking about circumcision, and what to us is quite an odd discussion takes off: “Listen! [Paul knew that people would be falling asleep in the pews.] Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”
You know how people say that you should never bring up religion or politics in conversation? Well maybe we should add genitalia to that list because circumcision seems a strange, uncomfortable topic for polite company. And yet, this was an important and serious issue for the earliest communities in Christ. From the time of Abraham, circumcision was taken as a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. For the Jewish followers of Jesus, this would have been standard practice. But here Paul is addressing people from the Roman province of Galatia in Asia Minor, which is in modern-day Turkey. For non-Jews in the audience, perhaps the majority, the males would not typically have been circumcised and the idea of being required to do so might have been a deal breaker.
It sounds funny, but when we get nervous about having to stand up in front of the church and speak or make cookies or join a committee or whatever it is that a “good member” should do, we might remember our Galatian friends who were understandably nervous about whether a surgical procedure would be required to join the community. Some insisted upon the circumcision of all male believers (yes, this is one of those male-only issues, but in this case, that might not be such a bad thing for women!). “It’s in the rules,” such people surely argued. Others didn’t think circumcision should be a barrier to inclusion in the community of faith. That’s the assertion Paul makes, and his retort is especially awesome. Yes, Paul shares some profound insights, but we know he’s really serious when he declares, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Well okay then! Talk about a flare for dramatics!
I’m giving you this lighthearted history lesson for a few reasons. At the most basic level, it’s helpful to understand the historical context more fully in order to grasp what kind of teaching is being put forward. But more than that, I want us to allow ourselves to be surprised by the bible, to be confused, amused, annoyed, astounded, inspired—whatever arises when we really pay attention. It’s not all stuffy and impenetrable. The bible offers us glimpses of real-world issues with which people of faith have wrestled over the centuries. And, as we can find within the pages of our sacred texts themselves, the questions and concerns shift over time. Circumcision was one of the major topics of debate for the earliest followers of Christ. But if someone were to raise the same issue at a United Methodist conference today, I imagine there would be many dumbfounded, even irritated looks. We have our own sets of concerns about bodies and practices of faith that arise out of the multifarious ways people experience God and the world today.
If there is to be value in finding ourselves strangers to these ancient debates, it’s in learning from the processes by which earnest people of faith have been wrangling with vexing questions—sometimes the same, sometimes changing—for millennia. What wisdom might we glean from voices across the ages? Paul offers an elegant response that is at once clear and challenging: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision—[we might insert a contemporary issue]—counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” The only thing that counts is faith working through love.
For you wise ones, these words probably ring true in your soul without need for explication. If you’re like me, though, you might be wondering, “What is the content of that faith? And what does it mean for faith to work through love? What does that look like?” Unfortunately you have me up here, so I’m going to ask you to think about these things with me, maybe harder than we should. I’ll try not to get too bogged down, but I do want to start by addressing one sort of technical issue.
We find in the bible and might even notice today a lively debate over whether we ought to live by faith or works. Is it enough simply just to believe, or are there certain things we need to do in order to be acceptable in God’s sight? If this piques your curiosity at all, you might want to compare the letter to the Galatians with the book of James. Galatians is said to argue for faith and James for works. But hear again that wonderful line in Galatians: “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.” The Greek verb translated ‘working’ is ἐνεργέω, which means ‘to be in action’; it’s where we get the word ‘energy.’ So the only thing that counts is faith being actively carried out through love.
I don’t bring up this seemingly small point just to be wonky but to highlight how things are always more complicated than we might originally think or than we might wish to admit. Faith versus works is a false dichotomy. How we ought to live our lives and how we actually live our lives are endlessly complex, interconnected questions. To realize that this reality of complexity is reflected within sacred scripture and our traditions of interpretation can be encouraging and perhaps even exciting because once we can be honest about the depth and breadth of the issues and concerns at stake, as well as the variety of positions staked out, we might be able to wade more confidently through the troubled waters of life.
Of course, I might just be muddying the waters, but hopefully it will bring into greater relief what Paul is saying about how we can get unstuck for a life of faith actively carried out through love. “For you were called to freedom,” Paul writes. Paul sets up a contrast between a life burdened by forces outside of the self to a life of freedom in Christ. He’s clear that the freedom in faith is not a free-for-all, warning the Galatians, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” So it’s a freedom with standards. It’s a faith that is evidenced by appropriate behavior. Do you see why I’m trying to help us be comfortable in a space of being confused? It appears we are getting mixed signals. Paul is telling certain people to calm down with their rules about circumcision; outward bodily signs shouldn’t stand in the way of faith. And yet, there should be outward bodily signs of faith because freedom isn’t for self-indulgence; we aren’t just supposed to do whatever we want. But people who would make others feel unsettled by imposing their unyielding regulations “should be castrated.” Freedom for a life of faith working through love is suddenly less clear. And we’re dangerously close to cultivating of feeling of perpetual guilt over not being perfect. Some kind of freedom!
But this is where it gets exciting. I think Paul is calling us to a state of being that delicately balances the realities of a messy, difficult world with a higher calling, a calling to peace and reconciliation. And I understand this place as the ultimate freedom, not necessarily because I live it at all times, but because I’ve seen it. Have you ever experienced for yourself or witnessed the moment when fear and worry dissolve because nothing anyone can do will deter a person or collective group’s vision and mission? I think of the civil rights movement and all those who withstood the vicious attacks of dogs and the violent sprays of fire hoses in their firm resolve for racial equality. Even the adjective ‘brave’ seems trite to describe an attitude that for so many could simply be no other way. I reflect more recently and closer to home upon those who responded to the bombings at the Boston Marathon by running, not away from, but toward the bloody chaos to bring comfort and care. While these are surely extraordinary acts, I think they are instinctive reactions for the people that carry them out. There will be burdens. The body might be harmed. There might be much to fear. And still, people can be so free from themselves and so unburdened by the challenges ahead as to answer a higher calling, while also being so in touch with the complicated realities and needs of the world as to respond with their whole selves.
Such freedom must surely look and feel different for each of us. It depends upon the circumstances we face. It depends upon the gifts and insights God calls forth from us. But the freedom of faith is a state of knowing ourselves in Christ—as Christ has set us free—of living most fully into the person God has called us to be so that the expectations of the world cannot possibly shake us. It is the freedom of knowing what is right because we are grounded in it at the depths of our being, not because it is enforced upon us from the outside. And yet, we are not called to a freedom that is individualistic and detached from the world. Rather, the only thing that counts is faith actively carried out through love. And how will we know such faith? Because, as Paul writes, it will bear fruits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The measure of faith is not imposed from the outset, as if laws themselves will be sufficient. Sometimes we in the church can cling to what we know as if unchanging structure will save us, as if only a single mold can properly shape our faith. But freedom in Christ is trusting—indeed knowing!—that God works through our lives in dynamic ways to meet the needs and potentials of today. This kind of freedom is firmly grounded, even as it animates a faith that lives, breathes, and moves, a faith known by how it is shown forth in the world, by whether or not it is carried out through love.
Today, we have the wonderful opportunity to affirm our own faith freely as we celebrate together the baptism of MacLane McAlister. The waters of baptism do not magically engender faith, nor do they set unbending limits upon Mac’s life. Instead, water symbolizes the freedom of faith as it moves upon the surfaces of the earth, shaping what it touches—sometimes abruptly, sometimes over many years—while its own form is transformed by the contact it makes, by the winds of the Spirit that blow across it. Likewise, as the essence of water remains the same, so does our faith in Christ, even as we faithfully respond to the shifting circumstances of our lives and the needs of the world.
This is a very special day for Mac and his family, but it is significant for all of us too as we take seriously the baptismal vow to “accept the freedom and power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” We cannot promise for Mac and all our young ones a world without fear and harm. But we can resolve to live out our baptismal vows in faith actively carried out through love. Then might all children be nurtured by the fruits of the Spirit, being comforted by, learning from, and knowing for themselves love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.