February 19 lesson: Freedom in Christ
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Freedom in Christ
Winter Quarter: Creation – A Divine Cycle
Unit 3: The Birthing of a New Community
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 19, 2017
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Lesson scripture: Galatians 5: 1-17
The first verse of today’s scripture is truly the theme of the Book of Galatians. A good question to ask is: What constitutes the “bottom line” in Christ? Don’t answer quickly – ponder deeply and long! Is it formulas of creed or scriptural authority? Is it moral or ethical behaviors? Is it found in spiritual disciplines, or liturgical practices, or communal allegiances? In other words, as John Indermark writes in the Lesson Annual, what counts most for you as a reliable indicator of a life grounded in Christ?
Today’s lesson, and truly all of these from Galatians, hinges on that question. We have already learned a group of Jewish-Christians was creating a major disturbance in the new-born churches of Galatia by insisting all male believers be circumcised. Circumcision was their “bottom line!”
For Paul, his “bottom line” was the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ. Grace is a divine gift, totally unmerited and unearned by any human action. To require any specific action or behavior would be to deny the gift, and denying the gift made the life and work of Jesus meaningless. In fact, Paul uses the same word in verse two that he uses in I Corinthians 13 when he is describing all actions made without love as worthless and meaningless.
To require circumcision, Paul explicitly argues, would mean the Galatians must observe all of the Jewish Law. (See Deuteronomy 27:26) His counter argument is “being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.” (vs.6) (Italics ours.)
The faith vs. works paradigm has been carried to extremes, with the obliteration of works playing any role in the Christian life. Paul’s assertion, quoted above, clearly means our faith is expressed in works motivated by love. Some translations of this passage say exactly that – “faith energizes love.” (CEB)
In verse 4, Paul once again speaks of “falling from grace.” The result of that fall is to become spiritual slaves again! His use of the metaphor of a yoke in verse 1 is profound. A yoke was to harness draft animals for work, and the image of Christians bonded to the yoke of legal slavery is very different from the yoke offered by Jesus in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Another powerful use of words is in this same verse 4, where Paul states if they give in to the argument of the necessity of circumcision for salvation, they will be “cut off” from Christ. The physical surgery of circumcision embodies a more serious spiritual surgery – being “cut off” from Jesus!
Another argument of Paul’s opposition is: to remove the constraints of the Law would lead to “an anything goes” life-style. The question of the meaning of freedom now comes to the fore. There is a “freedom from” and a “freedom for.” When we were growing up in the 1940s there was a popular song: “Don’t Fence Me In.” We Americans are quick to latch onto “the freedom from” side of this dualism, but to talk about “being freed for” moves us in the direction of responsibilities and opportunities made possible by freedom. The dismantling of the segregation laws in the South is a case in point. Some chose being “freed from” and others chose “being freed for.”
Those of the circumcision party were stripping the Galatian Christians of their freedom to live Spirit-led lives by placing them under obligation to keep the Law. A Spirit-led life is not merely freedom from the Law, but a freedom for a Christ-like life of unconditional love. In fact, Paul declares we are really fulfilling the purpose of the Law when “we love our neighbors as ourselves” (verse 14).
The key verse is 13. Read it carefully! “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” (NRSV) Now we have a slavery of love – and in loving this way, we are fulfilling why God gave the Law in the first place.
Of course, this life-style goes against the grain of our human nature – Paul’s point! We have been gifted with the freedom to have a new nature implanted within us. Paul’s paradigm of “flesh” and “Spirit” become the ultimate choice of the freedom Christ gives. The word translated “self-indulgence” in the memory verse is the word often translated “flesh” elsewhere. Flesh is more than physical hungers and desires. For Paul, the word encompasses the whole of human nature – self-centered, self-reliant, and focused only on the immediacy of life now, with little or no awareness of consequences on others or the future.
All sin began this way! From Adam and Eve to us, we are born for self-preservation and gratification. As physical, earthy creatures, we have legitimate needs which must be met. The problem comes in our relationship to the Creator, when those needs dominate our life – and they will dominate until a new creation is put in place.
For Paul, this transformation occurs when we accept Christ’s gift of grace in His life, death and resurrection. This acceptance of the gift opens the door to another incarnation – the incarnation of the Holy Spirit living and dwelling both with us and within us. Jesus promised this gift to His disciples, and all subsequent disciples, in the Upper Room. (John 14:15ff)
We can live by our “selfish impulses” (flesh) or by the Spirit – we are free to choose! The divine goal is to free us for the service of others through love. To be empowered for a self-sacrificing love is a miraculous work of God in us by the Spirit. Paul has trumped the false teachers. They were attempting to seduce the Galatians to live under the Law. Paul declared in Christ, not only are Christians freed from the requirements of the Law, but they are freed for living is such a way they actually fulfill the Law. God is good – all the time – what a mighty God we serve!
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.