Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year C, June 23, 2013
Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Galatians. Next week, we’re going to take a break for Augustana’s 100th anniversary before finishing up this sermon series. To recap what’s happened so far in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: The Galatians had started to value human traditions as the way to prove themselves followers of God, and Paul tries to set them straight. He reminds them that no human tradition, no matter how good, can take the place of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. No amount of following the rules and toeing the line will save us; only Christ can save us through his life, death, and resurrection. Paul reminds us that the true Gospel, the Good News that Jesus came to give us, can change our lives as it changed his; the Good News that Christ called Paul to preach is the same Good News that we hear today. Even in the midst of a world that is broken by sin and death, Christ is with us. The faithfulness of Christ transforms us, gives us hope in the midst of all our brokenness, gives us faith in God and in one another.
Paul expands on that idea in today’s reading. First he goes back to the law. Now, when Paul talks about the law, he’s not just talking about the rules and regulations the government sets up to manage everything from traffic lights to taxes to elementary education to international treaties. Paul is talking about religious laws—or, perhaps teachings would be a better translation—that govern everyday life. He’s talking about everything from the Ten Commandments on down, all the things that faithful followers of God are supposed to do. That’s the law he’s talking about, the law that he says imprisoned us and was our disciplinarian until faith came.
Disciplinarian, imprisoned—those aren’t very nice terms. But the Law that Paul was talking about, that was part of ordinary religious observance! We still teach and hold up some of those laws today as good and beneficial. I just got through teaching the 7th Grade Confirmation students about the Ten Commandments, which is the cornerstone on which the rest of the Law is built. I think we can all agree that following the Ten Commandments and other such religious teachings is a good thing. I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t have such a moral code. So why is Paul so hard on the Law? Why doesn’t he seem to like it?
I think an analogy with secular law is in order here. You see, the legal system can’t make anyone good. All it can do is punish you for being bad. If you step out of line, you are punished. And fear of punishment may stop people from doing evil or immoral things, but it won’t make them a good person. I mean, it’s good to be a law-abiding citizen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person. All it means is that you’re not a criminal. There are a lot of people out there who have never broken a law in their lives who are still thoroughly nasty people and miserable excuses for human beings. I could name some, and I bet you could too. And while the law tries to promote good behavior, all the incentives in the world can’t change a person’s nature. You can donate to charity in order to get the tax write-off, and it still won’t make you a generous person, if all you’re doing is the minimum needed to reduce your tax obligations. Don’t get me wrong, having laws is a good thing. Restraining evil is a good thing. Working together for the common good in the form of roads and schools and other necessities is a good thing. But it can’t save anyone, and it can’t make people better. And, sometimes, bad laws get made, laws that hurt people; sometimes good laws get interpreted in bad ways, to hurt people.
Religious law is the same way. It can restrain evil, and it can regulate our life together for the common good. But following all the traditions and teachings and rules can’t heal anyone’s brokenness or save anyone’s soul. It can’t transform us; it can’t make us children of God; it can’t make us brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we start focusing too much on our laws, when we make our traditions the arbiter and central point of our Christian faith, it’s all too easy to forget about the one thing that really can save and transform us: Jesus Christ. It’s easy to get so focused on what we’re doing, that we can’t see what God has done and is doing for us. And from there it’s a short step to interpreting God’s law through our own prejudices. That was the Galatians’ problem: it wasn’t that the laws they were following were bad in themselves, but they were starting to put more trust in those laws than in Christ.
When we were baptized, we became children of God. When we were baptized, we became united with Christ’s death and resurrection. When we were baptized, we were washed clean. When we were baptized, we were transformed. That’s the core of the Gospel; that’s the core of what it means to be a Christian. All the laws and traditions in the history of the world are less important than that simple fact. Laws and traditions can’t save us; Christ can. Laws and traditions can’t transform us into children of God; Christ can. Laws and traditions can’t heal our brokenness; Christ can.
We have put on Christ. We still live in a world broken by sin and death. We ourselves are broken by sin and death, and will be until Christ comes again. That brokenness divides us, separates us from one another and from God. And yet we are clothed in Christ’s love, forgiveness, and righteousness. And that makes a difference. We are called to see the world through Christ’s eyes. We are called to see one another through Christ’s eyes. We are called to act out of love, not out of fear of punishment. We live in a world that is and always has been fragmented by tribe and race and creed and gender and class and sexuality and age and politics and a thousand other things. We live in a world where people pay attention to the letter of the law, and not the spirit of it. And we often fall short of our calling and fall prey to those divisions and temptations.
In Paul’s day, the most fundamental divisions were cultural divisions between Jews and Greeks, economic and class differences between slaves and free people, and gender divisions between men and women. Those divisions were codified and reinforced by secular laws and customs, and also by the way religious laws and customs were interpreted. And those divisions were getting in the way of spreading the Gospel, because people were paying more attention to those divisions, to the rules that kept people separate, than they were to the Good News that frees us and unites us all as children of God. But as Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, Christ brings all people together—and our baptism in Christ is more important than anything that separates us, more important than any tradition or rule that holds us apart.
It’s easy to be blinded by all of society’s rules and prejudices. It’s easy to use those rules as the basis for our actions, rather than our faith in Christ. And it’s easy to let our understanding of God’s law be twisted and shaped by our prejudices and divisions, rather than by the light of Christ. But the truth is, what we share in Christ is more important than any human division could ever be. When you look at another human being, you see someone for whom Christ died. Even if it’s someone you don’t like; even if it’s someone you think you have nothing in common with. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the basis of our relationship with God, and it is the basis of our relationships with all people.
Through our baptisms we have been saved, redeemed, made children of God and united in Christ. That is who we are. That is more important than any human division. That is more important than any rule or tradition. It is Christ who saves us, all of us, no matter who we are or what we look like or where we come from or what group we belong to. It is Christ, not our ability to follow the laws, not our traditions, not our ability to interpret the teachings. It is Christ who makes us children of God, who forgives us and saves us no matter how many times we fall short of God’s glory. That is the Good News, and it is Good News for all people. Thanks be to God.