The new year is a time when we reflect. Thinking back on what happened, we try and decide how to make the next year better. I routinely make promises to myself like, I’ll eat better, exercise more, watch less TV, and read more books.
As I’ve been thinking on 2017 and all that’s happened in my life and in the world, I would like to make the case to you and myself for a different resolution.
In 2018, be free.
To make this case, I’m going to walk through Galatians 5; but before we get into the text, there are two things we need to know.
First, the Galatians have a problem.
When Paul first came to town, several of them decided to follow Jesus, a community formed, they began to live differently, and everything seemed great. But then, the “good Christians” came to town. The good Christians had amazing reputations as pillars of the faith. They were from Jerusalem (where the movement had started) and many of them had interacted with Jesus. These “good Christians” told the Galatians that they were doing it wrong, that there were all kinds of rituals and rules good Christians followed because those rituals and rules made them more like Jesus. Chief among these rituals good Christian men did was get circumcised.
The second thing we need to know is that Paul has a strong opinion about these good Christians and their rules.
Paul calls the rituals and rules of these good Christians “living by the law.” He contrasts the law with “living in freedom” or “living by the Spirit.”
For Paul, the law is a system of rituals and rules we follow because we think they make us more like Jesus.
In today’s language, we would call “the law,” religion.
I’m sure right now you are thinking back on an experience you had with a system of ritual and rules. When I was young, I was taught the Baptist standards: don’t kill anybody, don’t steal, don’t want things that aren’t yours, don’t lie, don’t cuss, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance with members of the opposite sex (dancing by yourself is okay), go to church on Sundays, be nice, and tell people about Jesus when you get the chance. Do this stuff if you want to be like Jesus.
The Galatians were being told the same kinds of things by the good Christians, just add to the list, “get circumcised.”
Paul also refers to “living by the law” as “living by the flesh.” This may surprise you if you grew up in the church like I did. When I was young, the phrase “sins of the flesh” was reserved for rule breaking of a sexual nature, but that isn’t how Paul is using the term in Galatians.
For Paul, pursuing Jesus through a system of rules and rituals is depending on your own strength – on your flesh.
So, to recap, the Galatians were following Jesus, then some good Christians showed up and told them there were rituals and rules they weren’t following, and that Jesus would be happier with them if they followed these rituals and rules.
Paul passionately disagreed.
Now we can dive into the case for freedom in 2018.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
This is Paul’s thesis statement. He’s going to spend the rest of the chapter unpacking it. We’ll come back to it at the end.
Behold, I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we, through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
Paul’s opens the section with a warning. “If you are going to try and please God by following rituals and rules, you can’t mess up, because the moment you miss one, you fail.” For Paul, depending upon religion isn’t graded on a curve. You can’t look at the guy next to you and say, “At least I’m doing better than him.” It’s a pass/fail test. You either get it all right, or you fail.
In this section, we can also parse out Paul’s definition of “freedom” and begin contrasting it with religion. If we look at the final two sentences, a few words stick out.
Through the Spirit
Waiting for the Hope of Righteousness
Working Through Love
Let’s unpack each one.
Righteousness – this is living in right relationship with God. In a sense, fully loving and knowing God’s love without distraction; and, it is what we hope for.
Through the Spirit – we don’t hope passively because God is alive and active. Our hope is based on our ever-evolving relationship with God. We engage with him on a daily basis.
While having dynamic relationship with the living God, we are hoping for that day when we are perfectly in tune with God’s love…
By Faith – faith is believing in something even though we can’t see it now.
While living in an ever-evolving relationship with God, we are hoping for that day when we are perfectly in tune with His love. Our hope is expressed as faith working through love.
This is the opposite of the law.
This is freedom from religion.
You probably noticed I left out that “working through love” bit. We’ll get to it in a second.
You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear the judgment, whoever he is. But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.
There is a lot here, and it is really rich, but it doesn’t further the case I’m making about freedom, so I’m gonna skip it for now.
I do want us to pause for a second and appreciate the fact that Paul just said, “I wish those guys telling you to circumcise yourselves would just go all the way and cut it off.” #NewTestamentShade
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things your please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
How do we live in freedom? How do we pursue this dynamic relationship with God while we hope for righteousness?
We don’t set up a system of rules and rituals to follow, because if we do that, then we have to be perfect. The second we get one rule wrong or we mess up a ritual, we’ve failed to follow Jesus. Instead, we pursue a relationship with God by loving other people.
But if you need a rule to follow, Paul is willing to give you one.
Love other people.
That’s it. That is the only rule or ritual Paul will give us. If you want to chase a full understanding of God’s love for you and love Him without distraction, then love other people.
So, what does it mean to live free?
It means chasing a relationship with God by having faith in Him and loving other people.
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
First, noticed that Paul says this list of things are the deeds of the flesh.
If you are living by the flesh, this is what you do.
At first, this text gave me pause.
We’ve said that Paul defines “the flesh” as seeking God through religion.
How does being religious equal this list of things?
When we think of religious people, we think of upstanding members of society who might be accused of “outbursts of anger” or “envying” or causing “factions,” but wouldn’t be caught dead carousing, practicing sorcery, or worshiping idols.
But then I thought about it some more, and I had some realizations.
What if I told you that as a pastor, I practiced sorcery.
I was a pastor for 15 years. There was this one year that the church I worked with set a goal for our Easter Sunday worship service. We wanted to have 500 people attend. This was 200 more than usual; and, we wanted at least 100 of those people give their lives to Jesus. It was a giant, supernatural goal. We were proud of it.
To make this happen, as a staff, we decided to do our very best. The preacher wrote his very best sermon with his most powerful words, the band put together a killer song list with their most moving songs, and I built a team that was going to serve everyone in attendance a free pancake breakfast.
At the time, I thought of this as doing our best for Jesus.
Now, I see it differently.
Powerful words + setting the right environment + adding something special to the mix (pancakes) in order to get a supernatural result = practicing magic.
It was sorcery with the best of intentions. I wasn’t standing over a caldron or anything, but I was still practicing magic.
I think if we really paused and thought through this list, we would find that practicing religion has led to a lot of these things. I bet that if you let me watch you for an hour, I could find a moment when you were elevating something to a position of authority over you, which is also known as worshiping it, which is idolatry.
This section of Galatians 5 has been really helpful in 2017, because it helped me understand what has been happening on the political scene in the United States. This year the Republican party, the party I was raised in and used to be a member of, the party who was in the past was known as the conservative, evangelical, family values, moral majority, religious wing of the country’s leadership (the “good Christians”) suddenly seemed to be filled with leaders who were immoral, and had outbursts of anger, and created factions, and spurred dissension, and worshiped certain issues over all else.
At first, this was surprising.
Then I realized, “Oh wait. Those are the deeds of the flesh. That’s what religion does.”
I’m going to step aside from Galatians 5 for a second and address a question some of you might have.
You may find yourself asking, “If I’m not supposed to be chasing God by practicing rituals and rules, then why am I here. Isn’t coming to church every Sunday a ritual?”
If you are attending church out of a sense of obligation or guilt, or because you think it is “the right thing to do,” then yes, it is a ritual, and I have bad news for you. No one in Heaven is taking attendance. When you meet Jesus face to face, you are not going to get a gold star for sitting in a pew every Sunday. You’re here for the wrong reasons.
For a long time, coming to church was a ritual for me. Now, I come because you are here, and I love you, and I know you love me, and when we are together in here or sit in one of those rooms during small group, we see Jesus in each other.
My favorite moment of Sundays is praying with my small group after service. It’s in the middle of the prayer that I sense the Spirit the most. I think it is what Jesus meant when he said that, “If two or more of you are together, I’ll be there.” It’s not that His presence is somehow portioned out, as if we could have more or less of him. It’s that when we are around each other, we are more focused on Him and what He is doing in the world around us.
Worshiping with you on Sundays isn’t a ritual for me. It’s not something I have to do because it is what I’m supposed to do to be a good Christian. I’m here because I want to be with all of you.
Back to Galatians.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things, there is no law.
If you are like me, you are so conditioned to following rituals and rules that when you first read this, you probably read it as a to-do list. That’s not what this is.
Notice that these things are not “the deeds of the Spirit.” It isn’t a list of rules. These things are the fruit. They are the product. They are what is born from your tree. These things are your reward for living in freedom.
When you hope for righteousness through living by faith and working in love, you get love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
What if I told you that your 2018 could be filled with these things.
That it could be a year defined by patience, and kindness, and goodness.
A year of faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
And that to get that year, you don’t need to follow a bunch of rules or practice a bunch of rituals.
All you have to do is put down the rituals and rules you’ve been following in order to be a good Christian, and be free by walking with the Spirit through having faith and loving others.
And when you come to a moment when you don’t know what to do, when you are in doubt about your next step, love someone sacrificially.
So now, I’m going to go back to that first thesis statement.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
My prayer for you, you amazing Christ followers, is that in 2018, you can be free.
Chase righteousness by having faith and loving others.
Minus the political stuff, this article was a sermon I preached at Valley Baptist Church on December 31st, 2018.