The Freedom of a Christian

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 13), July 7, 2013

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

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.

Last week we took a break from our study of Galatians to celebrate Augustana’s 100th anniversary.  It was kind of appropriate, because it means that we study this part of the letter—in which Paul talks about Christian freedom—on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, when we celebrate America’s political freedom.

Now, there are basically two kinds of freedom.  One, which is where freedom starts, is freedom-from.  Freedom from slavery.  Freedom from oppression.  Freedom from sin.  Freedom from foreign domination.  It’s about breaking away from what holds you back.  It’s a negation of what came before, a break with the past.  It’s about cutting away bad things.  So, for example, on July 4th, 1776, America declared its freedom from Great Britain.  That didn’t say much about what America was going to become, what they were going to do once they were free.  The Declaration of Independence is a simple statement that England couldn’t order America around any longer.  Freedom from.

Most political freedoms are like that.  So, for example, the Bill of Rights establishes a whole set of freedoms for American citizens by saying what the government can’t do.  The government can’t establish a state religion.  The government can’t search your property without a warrant and probable cause.  And so on and so forth.  Nothing is said about what citizens should do with the freedom granted them; nothing is said about how society should be organized to help people live free and good lives.  It’s about freedom from tyranny, even the tyranny of our own government.  Negative freedom, freedom from, is about stopping bad things.

But once the old chains have been broken, that’s where positive freedom starts.  Freedom for something.  Freedom to do something.  For example, the freedom to marry the person you choose.  Freedom to come together without fear.  Freedom to build a better life.  Once you’re not being held back, what new thing becomes possible?

Christian freedom is ultimately freedom for something.  Christ’s death and resurrection has broken the chains of sin and death, but our freedom is not merely about no longer being slaves.  Christian freedom means that we don’t have to worry about going to hell for our sins, but that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse to go out and do bad things just because we can.  Christian freedom isn’t just freedom from punishment.  It’s freedom to build a better life.  Once we are free, then we are free to become the body of Christ.  We are free to follow the spirit.  We are free to love God and one another.

In fact, love is one of the hallmarks of being free in Christ.  We don’t have to be bound by fear and jealousy and anger and hate and all the other things that trap us and hold us down.  We don’t have to give in to a world that tells us it’s all about climbing the ladder even if it means stabbing people in the back to get ahead.  We don’t have to give in to a world that says that your worth depends on how much money you have in your pocket, how cool your smartphone is, how many people follow you on Facebook and Twitter.  We don’t have to give in to a world that says what you look like is more important than who you are.

We have a better option.  We have something to move towards.  And we have the Holy Spirit to help us grow in the freedom of Christ.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  We live in a world where too often people use their freedoms to do bad things.  They use their freedom of speech to attack and defame.  They use their freedom of religion to turn Jesus into a weapon against their enemies.  They use their freedom to bear arms to murder people.  But what would the world be like if we all used our freedom to be guided by the Spirit?  What would the world be like if we used our freedom to love God and love our neighbor, rather than as an excuse for selfishness?

Christians aren’t always very good at using the freedom God has given us.  The disciples give a perfect example of this in today’s Gospel lesson.  Now, Jews and Samaritans were enemies, who didn’t even talk to one another if they could help it.  They didn’t live in the same towns or drink from the same wells.  There were ethnic and religious differences.  Jews and Samaritans worshipped the same God, but Samaritans worshipped at Mount Samaria instead of in Jerusalem, and Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Bible.  And anyone who’s watched the news of places torn by such division knows the kinds of violent actions and retaliations that can erupt in places with such dislike across ethnic and religious boundaries.  Jesus, however, had broken that barrier: he was just as welcoming to the Samaritans as he was to his fellow Jews.  For Jesus, the ethnicity of his followers didn’t matter.  He loved them all, and he had come to save all of them from their sins, whether Jewish or Samaritan or Greek or anything else.  He broke the walls of hate, so that they could establish new relationships.  He broke the cycle of discrimination and retaliation.  He loved them all, and taught them to love each other.  The disciples—all Jews—had grumbled about it, but gone along.  And then, in today’s reading, they came to a Samaritan village.  And because they were heading to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, the Samaritans weren’t willing to welcome them.  And you can see what the disciples really thought about all those Samaritans Jesus had taught.

They’ve rejected Jesus!  The disciples’ first response is unlike any other time someone rejected Jesus.  When one of their fellow Jews didn’t like Jesus, they shrugged and went on.  Now, however, it’s a Samaritan village that’s rejected Jesus!  You can practically see them chortling with glee and rubbing their hands.  “Lord,” they say, “obviously, this love stuff isn’t working.  Can we smite them now?  Can we?  Can we?  Hellfire and brimstone Jesus, and we’ll make them pay for turning us away!”  But Jesus rebuked them, and so they left in peace and went somewhere else.  I’ve often wondered what Jesus said to them.  I imagine it was something along the lines of “Way to miss the point, guys!  I’m trying to break the chains of hate, fear, jealousy, and strife, not make them stronger!”

The early Christian communities misused their freedom, too.  Paul warned both the Galatians and the Corinthians about not letting their freedom be used as an excuse for bad behavior and infighting.  And Christians today often misuse that freedom, as well.  Some Christians today, like the Corinthians and Galatians, use the freedom given to us in Christ to justify all kinds of self-indulgence and wrongdoing, ignoring the way such behavior hurts themselves and others.  Others follow the example of the disciples, and use their faith as an excuse to attack people they don’t like, people who are different than them.

Loving people can be hard, particularly when you don’t like them.  Loving people can be especially hard when you don’t agree with them.  And the more you focus on your own wants, your own fears, your own hates, the harder it is.  In fact, there are some types of love that we simply can’t come up with on our own.  There are some types of love that can’t be achieved without the help of the Spirit.  I don’t know anyone who’s ever been able to love their enemies, without the Spirit’s help.

But if we open ourselves up to the Spirit, anything becomes possible.  If we open ourselves up to the Spirit, and allow ourselves to love God and our neighbors, joy follows.  Peace follows, the kind of peace that the world doesn’t understand and can’t take away no matter what.  Patience and kindness, the generosity that opens the way for growth and new life, faithfulness that builds relationships, gentleness, and the kind of self-control that says “Sure, I could do that—but my own personal gain is not worth the harm that it would do to others.”

Christ frees us from sin and death, but that’s only the beginning of what it means to be a Christian.  The freedom that Christ gives opens us up, and gives us possibilities we could never have dreamt of when we were slaves to sin.  The Spirit brings gifts that lead to life and hope and love, for us and for all people.  May we use the freedom God gives us to grow in faith towards God and in fervent love to one another.

Amen.

Putting On Christ

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.

Amen.

What difference does the cross make?

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 11), Year C, June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21:1-21, Psalm 32, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

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.

In the last two weeks, we’ve looked at the opening chapter of Galatians.  Paul was upset with the Galatians because they were starting to use human traditions to run their church and determine who was faithful to God, instead of depending on God’s grace and love.  They were looking for salvation in their own works, rather than in God’s grace.  Paul then talked about how God’s Word had come to him, and how it had changed him and sent him out to tell people about God’s love.  Now we come to one of the core parts of Paul’s theology: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

For Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ was at the heart of the Christian experience.  The death and resurrection of Christ was what made it possible—what made it necessary—for people of all backgrounds to come together in a community of faith.  The death and resurrection of Christ is the central event when binds all God’s children together.  We have all been crucified with Christ.  The old ways of doing things—the old ways of looking at the world—have all been superseded by the work of Christ in the world.  We have been changed right down to the very core of our being by Christ’s faithfulness in dying on the cross.

Have you ever seen the movie Pay It Forward?  It’s a very good movie, about a little boy named Trevor, his mother, and his teacher.  The teacher gives all his students an assignment for extra credit: to think up ways to make the world a better place.  Trevor’s idea is to do trying to make the world a better place by doing good deeds, and then challenging each person he helps to do something good for someone else.  Now, it would be really easy for such a movie to be saccharine, overly sweet, showing everything becoming miraculously better.  Pay It Forward doesn’t do that; instead, it confronts the brokenness of the world head-on, showing the ugly realities of addiction, abuse, poverty, bullying, all the many ways in which the world is a broken, sinful place.  It shows all the many ways people hurt one another and fall back into old, bad habits even when they try to do their very best to be better people.  And it does it without becoming overly cynical, either.  The world is still as broken at the end of the movie as it was in the beginning—and yet, Trevor’s actions and his words, his trust and his hope have had a deep and profound impact on the people around him.  The world may be the same, but they are not the same.  They have been transformed, and are better people for having known Trevor.  They’ve seen the world differently; they’ve learned to see themselves and everyone around them differently.  They have learned to open themselves up to possibilities, to step beyond the fears that cripple them.

I think that story gives us a glimpse of what Paul’s getting at here.  The world is a broken, sinful place.  All human beings are broken, sinful people.  Addiction, abuse, poverty, bullying, and injustice affect more of us than we’d like to admit.  And even if you are lucky enough not to directly suffer from any of these, there are so many other ways the brokenness, the sinfulness, of the world can affect us.  There are so many ways our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, can affect others.  No matter how much we try to be good, no matter how much we try to overcome our own faults, no matter how much we try to change the world for the better, we are only a drop in the bucket.  There is pain in the world.  There is pain in us.  And our own ability to do the right thing simply isn’t enough to stop the pain.  And yet.

And yet, we are in Christ and Christ is in us.  Jesus Christ, God who took on human flesh and walked among us.  God who knows our pain, our brokenness, because he shared it.  Jesus spent his time on Earth healing the sick, comforting the brokenhearted.  Jesus never turned away anyone: not the worst sinners, not the self-righteous ones who thought they had no need of forgiveness.  Jesus Christ knows our suffering because he shared it.  And despite our brokenness, despite our sinfulness, despite everything we do to hurt ourselves and one another, Jesus loves us anyways.  Jesus Christ loves us so much that he was willing to die for our sake, to save us and this broken world we live in.  Jesus Christ loves us so much that he was willing to die to heal our brokenness.  And that love, that death, transforms us.

Christ calls us to him on the cross.  He calls us as we are, with all our brokenness, all our faults, all the bad things we have done and all the good things we have failed to do.  We die with him, on the cross; we are crucified with him.  And when we rise with him, we are made new.  We are made whole.  We are redeemed, forgiven, saved, not through any merit of our own but through Christ’s faithfulness and love.

One of the key phrases of Galatians is “faith in Christ.”  Now, that translation is actually somewhat misleading; the Greek phrase that Paul uses doesn’t really have any good way to be translated into English that will capture the whole meaning.  You see, the same words, “πίστεως Χριστοῦ” can be translated in two different ways.  They can mean “faith in Christ,” as in, we have faith in Christ, but they can also mean “the faithfulness of Christ,” as in, we are justified by the faithfulness of Christ—Christ’s faithfulness to us and to the will of the Father.  We are justified—we are made right with God—through Christ’s faithfulness, and through our faith in Christ.  The life we now live comes through faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

The world is still a broken place.  It will not be healed until Christ comes again.  There will continue to be sin in the world; addiction, fear, hate, jealousy, poverty, bullying, all the evils in the world will continue to affect us until Christ comes again.  Being Christian doesn’t mean we are magically free from all the pain in the world; it doesn’t mean we’ll be rich and successful and have everything go our way.  It doesn’t even mean that we will never sin again.  We still have to deal with the reality of the world.

What Christ’s death and resurrection means is that we do not have to face that world alone.  What Christ’s death and resurrection means is that Christ is with us—in us and around us—every step of the way.  We still struggle; we still fall short of what God has called us to be; we still sin.  And yet we have been transformed by Christ.  We have learned to see the world differently; we have learned to see ourselves differently.  We are not just sinners; we are not just people suffering in a world of pain.  We are people loved and chosen by God, who have seen the profound difference that love makes.  We are people who have learned to open ourselves up to the possibilities that God offers, to step beyond our fears and our doubts knowing that we don’t do so alone.

Our actions and words can’t magically fix all that is wrong with the world.  Our actions and words can’t even fix ourselves.  And yet, we have seen the difference that love makes.  We have seen the difference that Christ makes, in ourselves and in our lives.  We know that pain and brokenness don’t get the last word; we know that in the end, God’s love will make all things new.  And we know that while we wait for Christ to come again, we do not wait alone, for Christ lives in us and we live in Christ.  We don’t do good works to try and fix the world or to earn our way into God’s good books.  We help one another, we love one another, because Christ loves us and wants us to spread that love.  We let Christ shine through our words and our actions because we know Christ.  We have faith in Christ’s faithfulness and love for us.  We pay that love forward so that all will know the transforming power of Christ’s love.

Amen.

The Good News We Don’t Expect

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 10), Year C, June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:17-24, Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

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.

Today is the second of our six-week study of Galatians.  Last week, we heard why Paul was so mad at the Galatians: they had started putting their own actions, their own ability to follow the traditions of the faithful, above trusting in God’s Grace.  They were turning away from the true Gospel—the Good News that God has saved us—and turning to a false gospel.  This false gospel focused instead on their own ability to do the right thing.  The false gospel was all about works righteousness: if you do the right thing, you will earn God’s love.

This false gospel sounds very logical, very believable.  There’s just one problem with it: that’s not God’s message.  That’s not the Good News that Jesus was sent to bring.  That false gospel is not the Word of God that turned Paul’s life upside down and inside out, and it’s not the Word of God that is still active in our midst today.

Paul grew up in a very faithful family.  He’d spent a lot of time studying the Bible, the Scriptures.  He knew all the things God had asked of his people in the past.  Paul knew all the right things to do to be a faithful follower of God.  He knew all the right prayers, he knew how difficult passages of Scripture should be interpreted.  Paul could probably quote the Bible backwards and forwards.  In every way that humans could measure, he was as perfect a follower of God as anyone could possibly be.

The problem was, he was so sure that his interpretation of the Bible was right that it never occurred to him that God might not agree with him.  It never occurred to him, as a young man, that God might do something different, something new.  And Paul focused so much on doing all the right things and proving himself righteous, that it never occurred to him that God might not think that Paul’s actions were enough to get him in God’s good books.

And so, when Paul heard about people who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God sent to save God’s people, he was offended.  Jesus had spent time among sinners!  With people who didn’t follow the rules and do everything as good as Paul did, who couldn’t quote Scripture chapter and verse!  Now, any self-righteous person will tell you that obviously God can’t love sinners.  Sinners are people who do things God doesn’t like, so obviously God should spend more time and attention on the righteous people!  It sounds logical, right?  So, if Jesus spent time with sinners, Jesus must not really be from God.  I bet you there are Christians who would think that same thing if Jesus were to come back today.  And, as if that weren’t enough proof that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, Jesus had died.   Obviously, Paul thought, God would never let his chosen king die.  Particularly not in such a horrible, horrible manner as crucifixion.  It just wasn’t possible.  And because Paul was so sure about all that, so sure he knew what God wanted and how God’s Word was to be interpreted, he persecuted the followers of Jesus.  Because God forbid they lead anyone astray!

But as it turned out, Paul didn’t know what God wanted.  He was wrong.  God loves sinners just as much as he loves everyone else—in fact, we’re all sinners.  Everyone, even people who think they’re as righteous as Paul thought he was.  God loves us anyway!  And God could and did send a Messiah who loved sinners so much he was willing to die for them.  And God could and did work through that death, bringing life to all the world!  You see, what God wanted wasn’t self-righteous fanaticism.  God didn’t want people who knew all the right things to do and so never depended on God.  God didn’t want people who could quote the Scriptures and then use that knowledge to confirm what they already believed.  God wanted people who would listen—truly listen—and be open to the redeeming love of God.  God wanted people to trust that he could and would save them.  And God wanted people to be open to the transforming, life-changing love that God has for all the world.

God revealed all that to Paul.  God showed Paul how wrong he had been, by revealing himself to Paul through Jesus.  God loved Paul even though Paul was dead wrong.  God loved Paul even though Paul had paid more attention to his own understanding than to what God was doing around him.  Now, Paul was a pretty stubborn guy, who was so certain he knew best that he went around attacking the followers of Christ, but God was able to get through to him even so.  Paul didn’t come to know Jesus through Paul’s own merit.  Paul didn’t come to Jesus because he found him and decided to follow him.  No, when Paul heard about Jesus he wanted to stop all of Jesus’ followers!  Paul didn’t listen to Jesus’ moral teachings and decide he had it right; Paul didn’t hear about the miracles and decide that Jesus must be powerful and able to help him.  Nothing Paul did brought him to God—and, in fact, the things that he thought God wanted him to do took him further away from God!

Paul came to know Jesus because Jesus came to him and sought him out.  Paul came to know Jesus because of the grace and love of God, which came to him even though he had done nothing to deserve it, nothing to earn it.  And through that grace and love, through the way God revealed God’s self to Paul through the Son, Jesus Christ, Paul realized that he had been totally wrong.  Paul had been working directly against God!  And yet, God loved him anyway.

That changed Paul’s whole life.  Before coming to know Christ, Paul could never have imagined what God would have in store for him.  Paul had had his life planned out, but God had other plans for him.  And those plans were to spread the story of God’s grace and love—the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ—to all people.  The Good News is that God loves you no matter what.  The Good News is that we are tied to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord, and the sin and brokenness of the world don’t get the final say.  We don’t have to worry about being good enough for God; we don’t have to worry about getting all the traditions right.  We don’t have to worry about being perfect.  We don’t have to be afraid of failing.  All we have to do is trust in the grace and mercy of God, the God who created us, who saves us from sin and death, the God who is always working in us and around us.  All we have to do is let God’s love work in us and through us.

That is Good News, the best news the world has ever had.  That’s the message that God gave Paul to tell the whole world, and it’s the message that God gives us to tell the whole world.  That message sent Paul out through the Roman Empire, telling people about Jesus Christ.  Instead of staying close to home, Paul found himself traveling far and near, talking with people he would never have dreamed of talking to, people who looked differently and dressed differently and spoke a different language and ate different foods.

The message of salvation—the Good News that God had revealed to Paul through Christ Jesus—was a message that resonated with everyone.  It spoke to them.  And it wasn’t Paul’s own gifts for preaching and teaching that did it, either.  The message God gave Paul was greater than he was, greater than I am or you are, greater than anyone who’s ever told it.  That message is something you can’t reason out logically, or prove in a court of law.  It doesn’t depend on anyone’s skill at preaching, and it doesn’t depend on an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.  Sometimes I hear people say, “I can’t come to Bible study!  I don’t know enough.”  Or, “I can’t share my faith with anyone, I don’t know enough.  Christianity is too big and complex for me to share with my neighbor.”

The Reverend Doctor Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, wrote a thirteen-volume work about theology.  It’s pretty intimidating to think about.  But when someone asked him what the core of the Christian faith was, it didn’t take him long to reply: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  You know that message, and I know it.  The children in our pews today know it, too.  It’s not hard.  Jesus loves me.  That is the core of the message that God revealed to Paul, which changed Paul’s life.  It’s the core of the message Paul told the Galatians and all those to whom he brought the Gospel.  And it’s the core of the message that God has given to us, the message we are called to share with the world.  That message—that Gospel—is the power of God coming to be with us.  That Gospel is the true glory of God.  But like all love, to have any worth it must be shared.  So, like Paul, we are called to share God’s love and grace with the world.  To trust that God’s love will guide us, even if it leads us to places and people we would never have imagined.  May we feel the power of God’s love revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and may we share that love with the world.

Amen.

The Rules We Make

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 9), Year C, June 2, 2013

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96:1-9, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

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 next six weeks, we’ll be hearing a lot from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  It’s one of the more important books of the Bible, for it proclaims the heart of the Good News.  There are few other places in the Bible where the Gospel is laid out so clearly.  While many books tell the Good News, Galatians explores what this means for us, and for our journey of faith, in clear and compelling words.  We won’t be reading the whole letter in church, but I highly recommend you read the book for yourselves, and consider what Paul’s words mean for you as we explore the highlights together in worship.  Today we start with the beginning of the letter.

In ancient times, people customarily began letters with a section of thanksgiving.  People from Egypt to Palestine to Greece regularly started out their letters by thanking whatever God they believed in for the person they were writing to.  Paul was no exception.  No matter how messed up the congregation he was writing to was, he found something positive to say about them, some way to lift up what God was doing in their midst.  All of his letters start out by thanking God for the congregation … except his letter to the Galatians.

You can imagine what it was like for the Galatians.  They gather to hear a letter from the man of God who brought them to Christ.  They expect that, even if things are happening that he doesn’t like, he will start off by giving thanks for everything they’re doing right.  Instead, Paul starts by scolding them: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ!”

What had they done to deserve such censure, such attack?  I highly doubt that they thought they were doing anything wrong!  Some new teachers had come, fellow Christians, with a lot of new rules to add to what Paul had given them.  The new teachers were Jewish Christians, who had grown up following the Jewish laws such as circumcision and dietary laws, and wanted the Galatians to do the same.  After all, both Jesus whom they worshipped and Paul who had brought them to the faith were themselves Jews, who were circumcised and kept the Jewish Laws.  Circumcision was a physical symbol that you belonged to God.  If a man was circumcised, he was a faithful follower of God.  If he wasn’t circumcised, he was an outsider, not a true follower of God.  Circumcision was the mark of a Jew—it had been for centuries the thing that set followers of the One True God apart from all the other so-called gods out there.  So shouldn’t these new followers of God do the same?  It all sounds so nice and logical.  A good way to prove that even though they started off as outsiders, non-Jews, they are now on the inside track to faithfulness.

Paul heard about what they were doing, and he hit the roof.  This was worse than anything any other group had done, even worse than the Corinthians and their divisions and immorality.  Why?  Because in putting their trust in circumcision and belonging to the “in” group, the Christians in Galatia were starting to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in Christ.  They were trusting to tradition rather than to the will of God.  They had been freed by the Gospel, but they went right out and began their new life in Christ by hedging themselves in with new laws.

The Galatians weren’t alone in this tendency, of course.  Humans throughout history have preferred to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in God.  It seems that every time God’s Word comes to us, we celebrate it … and then go right on depending on our own actions rather than on God’s saving grace.  God gives us a precious gift in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That gift is given for the salvation of the world, and it is greater than anything we on our own could possibly do.  Yet still we look for ways to do it ourselves, rules and laws and traditions to follow that will save us, instead of trusting in God’s love.  For the Galatians, and for many of the first Christians who came to Christianity from the Jewish faith, those rules and traditions were centered in circumcision and dietary laws. But it seems like every generation builds up its own lists of things people must do to be saved.

In the 16th Century in Germany, at the height of the Reformation, one of the things that Martin Luther hated most about the Roman Catholic Church was the way it had created so many obligations for the faithful.  In order to get to heaven, you had to pray the right way at the right times, confess your sins and do the proper penance, fast from certain foods at certain times the church specified, and follow many other rules and guidelines set down by the church.  Now, I think we all agree that praying is a good thing!  All Christians should pray.  And confessing your sins and being forgiven is also a good thing, and fasting can be a very effective spiritual discipline.  None of the things the Roman Catholic Church required were bad by themselves: what was bad was that they said you could only be saved if you did all those things the way the Catholic Church told you to.  Instead of relying on the grace and mercy of God, they taught people to rely on their own ability to do the right things.  So, the Reformers—the first Lutherans and Calvinists and Anabaptists—quite rightly told the world that salvation didn’t depend on all the rules and rituals the Roman Catholics required.

But, a generation or two later, some Reformers had started their own lists of things people had to do to earn their salvation.  Different things than the Roman Catholics, of course, but they still drew people away from relying on God’s grace.  So the reformers had to fight the same battle over again, teaching people to rely on God’s grace instead of their own actions.  How’s that for irony?  It seems like we humans would rather do anything rather than rely on God’s promises and love.  We know that there are things that can help us be faithful to God, things that can help us grow in our love for God and our fellow human beings.  Prayer, reading the Bible, acts of fellowship and charity, all can help us grow spiritually.  All can help us follow God more closely.  But our salvation doesn’t depend on them.  What are some of the things we Christians today hold up as essential for salvation?  What things do we tell ourselves we have to do to be saved?

We human beings were created by God to be good, but we became broken by sin and death.  So no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we fall short of the goodness that God created us to be.  We do the wrong things.  We convince ourselves that we know best, and that we’re doing just fine on our own.  We tell ourselves that our sins don’t matter.  We blind ourselves to the suffering of our neighbors, and sometimes we even add to it.  And then we look at a world that has been broken by sin and death just as we have, and think we can fix it all.  We come up with rules and traditions to help us come closer to God, and then we pay more attention to those rules and traditions than to God’s call.  But no matter how helpful our rules and traditions may be, they can never take the place of God’s love.  We cannot be saved by our own actions and words, because our actions and our words are just as flawed as we are ourselves.  No matter how self-sufficient we would like to be, we depend on God’s love and grace for every good thing in our lives.

Our salvation depends on the love of Christ Jesus, who came to this earth and was born as a baby, truly human and truly God, both human and divine in one person.  For God so loved the world that he came to us as one of us, taking on human frailty and weakness.  Jesus taught people about God; he showed them the love of God in word and deed.  He healed the sick and the broken.  He ate with sinners and tax collectors, with the outcasts, the ones society cast out, and he forgave them their sins and loved them.  And when the authorities felt threatened by his radical generosity, he died so that all the world might be saved from their sins.  For God so loved the world that he would let nothing come between us—not sin, not brokenness, and not death.  Jesus Christ was willing to die for us.  And now, because of God’s saving actions, there is nothing in this world—not life, not death, not rules or rulers, not angels or demons, nothing we do or fail to do—can separate us from the love of God.  Salvation is not something we do; the Good News is not just another set of rules.  Salvation is something that God does.  The Good News is that God loves us no matter what, that no matter how much we fail or go astray, God will still keep coming to us with the gift of his precious love.

Amen.  Thanks be to God.