We are still here with our friend, Paul, in the very last chapter of his letter to the new church in Galatia. Still here, still working hard to understand Paul’s fiery and sometimes convoluted preaching. We’ve spent the last few weeks listening to Paul instruct the Galatians in their newfound freedom in Christ. He’s disrupting their entire worldview, talking about how the law is no longer the only way to relationship with God and one another, how the Spirit has led them, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to a new way of living in God’s light.
The law was good. It kept the people safe and in order and offered really, really clear guidance for what not to do and what ought to happen when someone DID any of those things that were not allowed.
The law made things – if not exactly easy – very, very clear. And the law was good: it aimed the whole community toward safety and justice. Do not underpay your workers. Make sure you welcome the stranger. Take care of those who have no way to do it themselves. But the law was also very strict: Do not eat seafood. Do not mix kinds of fabrics. Only the priest can go into the holiest places of the temple. If you happen to accidentally touch a dead body or a woman at a certain time of the month or, for instance, a dog then you would have to go through an intricate process of purification described in the Law in great detail. If you commit adultery or idolatry or talk sass to your parents, the punishment is, without trial or mitigation: stoning.
There are certain people you can marry and certain people that you cannot. Men are held to one standard of law and women to another. Slaves are bound to their masters, and masters receive particular instruction for owning other people. If you are under the law, you belong. If you do not follow the law, then you do not.
Paul has been arguing – for this whole letter to the Galatians and for our last month here in worship together – for the setting aside of the clarity, detail and exclusiveness of the entire law. Jesus, he says, has fulfilled it all. And we are no longer bound to it in order to have a relationship with God or with one another.
Here, in the final chapter, Paul seems to suddenly realize the depth of his argument’s implications. “Oh,” I can hear him startling, “that’s gonna be REALLY hard for these people! I’ve just kicked their entire ethical system and religious worldview out from under them. Okay. Well, I don’t want them to go completely crazy, anything-goes, antinomian up in here. They’re gonna need SOME guidance on how to live together in this new world. I better stop with the negative preaching and give them some positive direction.”
Actually, Paul has been doing this all along, but it really seems to me that he comes to a massive internal recognition and his writing switches, all of a sudden, to positive reinforcement. The revelation began in the last chapter, where he listed the fruits of the spirit that ought to be governing all behavior – don’t fall prey to the sins of the flesh, he says, but stick to the paths carved out by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Paul, having deconstructed an entire ethical and religious system, is now beginning to move into the realm of constructive theology. If not that, then what?
We Brethren know a little bit about this move from critical deconstruction into the constructive decisions of how, exactly, we are going to live with one another outside the strict confines of a prescribed, oppressive, outlived system of religious practice.
In 1708, eight young adults left the confines of the law-filled, government-sponsored, forced-belonging state churches of Germany. They’d been overwhelmed with the lack of openness, the inability to choose a relationship with God for themselves, the ways the church lived on excess and power structure, the difficulty of simply reading scripture together in community. In response, they broke laws and baptized one another in a river near Schwarzenau. It is hard for us to imagine that baptizing one another and reading scripture together in one another’s homes were illegal acts that carried dire consequences, but they were and they did. It was the law of the land.
After their considered decision to live outside the law, after their act of personal conscience borne of a critical deconstruction of the prevailing system, those eight Brethren began to articulate what life would look like outside the law. Just like Paul realized the Galatians would need a positive foundation to build themselves up into a community, these Brethren knew that they would need to start someplace.
You remember the place where they started: unlike the forced faith and legal insistence that each and every person assent to a particular set of creedal statements about God, Christ and the Church; unlike the state that persecuted, oppressed and killed any and all who refused to sign on to the list of statements about these things, they were going to begin their life together by immersing themselves in scripture, together. They would have no creed, they decided; no creed EXCEPT the entirety of the New Testament, as they understood it when they sat together and discerned the Word of God found there in community.
Paul’s move here in the last chapter of Galatians is familiar to us because his move – away from deconstruction and toward a positive foundation for life together – is the same pivot embedded in our own genesis.
I can imagine that the Galatians were a bit appalled. The law, you see, may not be easy to keep, but it is very easy to understand. If this, the law says, then that. Do this. Do not do that. Simple. Not easy – actually, pretty impossible to keep it all, and pretty harsh when anyone fails to do so – but simple.
To live outside the law and under God’s grace, though…well, that is a lot more complicated. There is no longer a system of what to do when, or what not to do where. There is no longer a straight line from “if this” toward “then that.” Instead, living outside the law and under God’s wide umbrella of grace requires a deeper investment of mind, heart, time and relationship. We do not receive ready answers. We are required, instead, to encounter and engage difficult people, difficult situations, difficult ideas. We are required to show up, fully present, with our whole selves in tow, required to wade – together – through the mess.
This is how I understand our Brethren insistence on non-creedalism. Since we do not have an already–determined list of doctrine to which we are expected to ascribe, we are required to interact with all of scripture, to read each book and chapter with an ear toward listening for the gospel in each bit. Since we do not have a handed-down list of beliefs that ancient authorities created, we are required to do this reading and listening in community with those brothers and sisters who happen to be gathered around us. Without a given law or creed, the onus is on us to encounter each situation, each scripture, each person, secure in the knowledge of God’s grace and bold in our attempt to live faithfully to the gospel.
You might be beginning to see why Paul’s words to the Galatians sound pretty familiar to us Brethren. Under the law, there were prescribed consequences for inappropriate behavior, but under God’s grace, each situation requires conversation, compassion and discernment. Paul begins this last chapter of his sermon by admonishing these newly freed followers of Christ: My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. This is not transgression under the law, where stoning was a common consequence. This is the gentle restoration of the Spirit. And it requires attention, compassion, and presence to the people and the dynamics involved.
Paul goes on to remind the Galatians that, unlike life together under the law, the holiness of others does not determine our own holiness. We are to be responsible for ourselves: 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads. And, by the way, other people’s holiness is not what makes us able to relate to God: 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
The law requires all of us to be holy in the same ways. But life under the grace of Christ allows us the freedom to bear one another’s burdens without requiring a holiness test for their actions. In a spirit of gentleness, Paul says, restore the other to fellowship.
A lot of the conversation this week at Annual Conference was about very controversial topics. We had queries about climate change, the viability of On Earth Peace as an agency because of their openness to things like #blacklivesmatter, female pronouns for God and LGBTQ rights, and a question about how we should respond to ministers who perform same-gender marriages. Standing Committee proposed that we answer this last query by punishing any minister who chose to perform a marriage by terminating their credential for one year – without exception, without conversation, without trial or mitigation.
I have pretty strong opinions about each of these queries, and found myself questioning the holiness of sisters and brothers proposing these punitive responses. But as I listened to my sisters and brothers around my table and at the microphones and in other conversations in hallways and facebook comments, I began to think more about how we might take Paul’s advice to the Galatians to heart. In what ways was I trying to boast in another’s flesh, trying to pin my holiness and pride on the work of my neighbor instead of my own? A sister at my table summed it up for me when she said, during a particularly tense time of discussion: “I don’t want to be right in order to be right. I want to be right because we’ve DONE this right, together.”
The answers to the queries this week – just like the answers to the particular and equally divisive questions that were dividing the Galatian community – are less important than the ways in which we engage the questions, the ways in which we engage one another.
I know that even here, in our congregation, we are not of one mind regarding each of the queries and questions that were brought to Annual Conference. But I’ll be bluntly honest about that and tell you that being not of one mind does not scare me, especially here with you all. I’ve had, even in these last few weeks, some of the most gracious, humble, and engaged conversations with some of you all about these things. Those conversations could so, so easily devolve into what Paul warns against: chewing one another out, biting one another’s heads off, consuming each other with hatred and vitriol. They have not. I chalk that up to the gifts of grace and trust present here among us in this fellowship.
It will be okay if we think differently.
It will be okay if we relate to God differently.
It will be okay if we practice our faith differently.
It will be okay if we understand scripture differently.
It will be okay if we interact with the church differently.
It will be okay, because as Paul reminds us over and over, our freedom is already won, our unity is already given.
What will not be okay, what Paul will not stand for, what Christ did not die for and what God will have no part in is our deep human tendency to resurrect the law that Jesus has already fulfilled once and for all, our desire for punishment and revenge. What will not be okay is if we turn on one another, refusing the gentle grace of Jesus, casting one another into outer darkness and blaspheming the reality of the unity already given us in the power of the cross.
Paul ends his letter this way: 14May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
May it be so. Amen.