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New Birth Brings Freedom
Winter Quarter: Creation – A Divine Cycle
Unit 3: The Birthing of a New Community
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 12, 2017
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Lesson scripture: Galatians 4:8-20
Background Scripture: Galatians 4
Once again Paul is in pain like unto childbirth with the churches of Galatia. His language can be heard as harsh criticism, however, in verse 19 the tone is one of a loving parent to a wayward child: “My little children, I am going through labor pains for you until Christ is formed in you.” The sting of criticism is removed with the loving words needed in the family of Christ – then and now!
The major issue for Paul is the substitution of religious practices for a living faith. The specifics are the Jewish legalists are insisting the new Gentile Christians adhere strictly to the tenets of the Mosaic Law. For Paul, this leads to a return to a slavery from which Christ has liberated them. In the later verses of Chapter 4 (not included in the lesson scripture), he refers to Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael as a paradigm of free and slave, insisting the promise is for the free, not the slave!
Christ has set them free. One of the remarkable testimonies to this liberation is Paul himself. He has totally identified with the Gentile converts in his lifestyle, as well as his preaching. He practices what he preaches! This example is set by the orthodox Jewish Pharisee who zealously persecuted Christians until meeting Christ on his journey to Damascus.
Let’s look more closely at what the text says about such spiritual slavery. Context is always important, and Paul was writing to people living in a Roman pagan world where life was dominated by Roman law, Roman business, Roman festivals, and Roman religious observances. These Gentile Christians were catching criticism from two sides – their Roman Gentile neighbors and their Jewish Christian sisters and brothers in the Church.
Paul had received love and care from the Galatian people during an unknown illness, which he later would call “my thorn in the flesh.” That encounter enabled him to present Christ to them as if he were “an angel of God.” Receiving this message freed them from bondage to the many gods of the Greek-Roman pantheon.
Paul declares in their conversion “they had come to know God.” A most important parenthetical comment is made when he injects: “rather, they had come to be known by God.” We United Methodists understand God’s grace in three powerful dimensions – prevenient, saving, and sanctifying. Prevenient grace focuses on how God pursues us from birth and woos us to Him. Salvation is not something we do! It is totally the action of God.
If anyone wants scripture relating to the on-going argument of “Once saved – always saved,” here is a good one! Paul asks “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless world system?” Elsewhere Paul identifies these world systems as “principalities and powers.” In other words, they are being seduced to revert to their life before Christ.
The Galatians are being seduced by the two-edged sword of the culture in which they live and their Jewish brothers saying they can’t be real Christians without observing the Jewish law in full. Have you ever heard anyone declare, “You can’t be a Christian unless . . . .?” Fill in the blanks!
The culture’s seductive influence is still with us, and there are many Christian voices declaring there is only one right way. From types of worship, to political positions, to theological doctrines, to lifestyles, and many more – there are voices saying, “You can’t be a real Christian if you don’t do it our way.”
Obviously, Christians will always disagree over many major and minor issues. We are all different. We have all been reared in different environments of family, region, and nation. We come from different ethnicities, genders, financial resources, and educational background. Even identical twins have differences! We have seen them in our own family! Differences are an integral part of our humanity – and we say “Viva la difference!”
In verse 17 of today’s scripture, Paul refers to the actions of those who would divide the Christian community as “shutting out” the believers who don’t conform to the standard set. Anytime a group or an individual excludes or “shuts out” they are playing the role reserved for God alone. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is pure unconditional, unrestricted, and universal love. Any changes in the human condition are God’s work, the God Who created each and every one of us. The changes may take time – a long time – as in the case of Paul himself. The human tendency to have only those around who look like us, who act like us, and who believe like us is part of the original sin of pride – our attempt to be like God!
The Lesson Annual gives an example of the very beloved and effective Youth Minister who was fired from the church for organizing a softball game on a Sunday afternoon. An unhealthy religiosity can leave damaging impressions on untold numbers of people. How would history have been different if the Anglican Church in South Africa had accepted Mahatma Gandhi in worship?
In Macon in Sam’s time as a pastor, a Baptist church near the Mercer campus refused admittance to an African student who had come to Mercer as a result of Baptist missionary work.
Where today is this work of exclusion continuing its deadly work in the life of the Church? Our beloved United Methodist Church is being pulled into camps over serious issues, but we submit the universal, unrestricted, and unconditional love of Christ must transcend even the hardest of issues.
Paul says it best in Romans 8: 38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither principalities nor powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.