(Sermon preached at Cromer, 25/2/18, at 9am. Click here for the 10.45am adaptation.)
I recently read about some dolphins which had been kept in captivity and taught to do tricks. They’d been illegally caught in the open sea, and when this was discovered the courts ordered that they be returned to the wild. This was not easy. They had become used to captivity, and needed to get fit, and to learn how to hunt live fish underwater. The process took several months, but in due course they were returned to the wild and satellite tracking showed that they were surviving very well.
This morning we continue looking at Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The letter was written to counter teaching they’d received from someone from Jerusalem, who had arrived after Paul had left, and had persuaded them that they needed more than faith in Jesus. They needed to become Jews as well, and keep the Jewish laws, all of them, starting with the one about circumcision. When Paul heard about it, he exploded! That’s not the good news about Jesus! That’s captivity, slavery even! Jesus came to set us free!
The problem Paul was writing about is a problem that still troubles the church today, though not in quite the same form. We aren’t debating whether or not we should take on a Jewish identity and customs. But many people think that the Christian life is all about doing the right thing, and avoiding what is wrong – we’ve got to do this, we mustn’t do that, we must keep to the rules. And that, to many, sounds more like slavery than freedom. How on earth can Paul say that Jesus sets us free? Are we free to do whatever we feel like? Surely not! So what is this freedom that Paul is talking about?
Interestingly, the Jews of Paul’s day did not keep the law in order to be accepted by God. They believed that they were acceptable to God simply because they were descendants of Abraham, to whom God had promised, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” The sign of that covenant was circumcision; the males were circumcised to show that God was their God. The laws that God gave them later through Moses told them how to live as God’s people; if they stopped keeping the law they were rejecting God as their God. They knew that they could not live a perfect life; but God had told them what to do when they fell short: offer sacrifices as an offering to him, so that they would be forgiven. Above all, they knew that God loved them, and the laws also told them how to celebrate God’s goodness – especially his liberation of the nation from slavery in Egypt. So it was only natural for the Jews of Paul’s day to assume that if anyone else wanted to join God’s people they would have to become Jews and take on the Jewish laws and customs.
Many Jews in Paul’s day had become Christians. They believed in Jesus; they believed his teaching, which went to the heart of what the law was about; they believed that his death on the cross was the true sacrifice that bought them forgiveness, that he was the suffering servant who had borne their sins in his body, and died for them. But Jesus had lived and died a Jew, and they saw no reason not to require Gentiles who believed in Jesus to become Jews like him, and identify themselves with Abraham’s descendants. Logical! So why was Paul so furious with this teaching? The passage we’ve just read was written in the strongest possible terms: to our ears, Paul was way out of order. Why was he so angry?
The passage itself shows us why – and why it is important for us to avoid making similar mistakes. First, Paul saw that submitting to the law was a form of slavery – the law made a person pay for every failing, so that those to whom the law applied had to obey all the law or face the penalty – law is all about compulsion, what we must do or else. We too can easily start living under a false sense of compulsion: we’ve got to keep Christian rules or else. We may argue about what exactly those rules are; but it is sense of compulsion, that fear of not being good enough, that enslaves us. Now Jesus has set us free from the law, so that it no longer applies to us as rules that have to be obeyed or else. Jesus has taken responsibility for our sins and failures, and there is no condemnation now for us who believe in him and follow him. We’re free!
That’s doesn’t mean I can do just what I want. True freedom is not the same as lawlessness. Lawlessness is another kind of slavery – slavery to sin, according to Jesus. If my aim in life is to do whatever I feel like doing, or choose to do, then I’ve lost the plot. Harvey Weinstein seems to have been motivated that way, and thought he had the power to get away with it. He is not the only one, as the the news shows. True freedom consists in the freedom to live life in all its fullness. And what could be fuller than life with God, knowing his love for us, enjoying his presence with us, trusting his care for us, and letting him be our God? We now obey God, not because we are afraid of punishment, but because we love him and want to obey him. It is by our own free choice. If we love Jesus, we want to do what he says, and his Spirit living in us helps us to do so. It doesn’t matter to Jesus whether we keep Lent by giving things up or being more generous or whether we keep Lent at all – as long as whatever we do is motivated by love for him.
Second, Paul saw that submitting to the law was a rejection of Christ – Christ would be of no value. What did he mean? Simply this: Christ died and rose again to bring us to God.But if we then say that we also need to become Jews, then we are saying that Christ didn’t do enough. Likewise today: if we say that we are put right with God by believing in Jesus and by behaving in certain ways, we are devaluing Jesus. Can Jesus unlock the gate of heaven and let us in? Or do we have to make up for his short-coming by adding something extra? Paul’s point is that if we devalue Jesus, he is of no value to us. Is he our Saviour, or merely our helper? If we look on him only as helper, he cannot be our Saviour.
Third, Paul saw that submitting to the law was falling away from grace. If we start thinking that God accepts us because we are being good, then we are being self-righteous. We are to trust in Jesus to make us acceptable to God – not because of anything we have done, but simply because of his grace. Grace is love to those who do not deserve it. And that’s us! Jesus has freed us from all condemnation, freed us to live with God, freed us to live in love. Is that the freedom you are living in?
If those captive dolphins had just been set free without being trained to eat live fish, their freedom would have been their death warrant. We too need to learn from Jesus how to live in the freedom he has given us. Paul tells us how, in the passage that follows this one. So don’t miss next week’s exciting instalment!
Freedom! What’s your idea of freedom? ‘I wish I could be free.’ What from? Responsibility at home or at work? A particular relationship? Free from this illness or disability? We all have some restraints that we wish we could be free from. But free for what? What is the freedom we would like to live in? Freedom to do whatever we liked without worrying about other people? Freedom to be selfish? Is that the freedom we want?
We’ve just had Sienna’s baptism. She has been born free – she’s not a captive or a slave. We want her to be free. But what do we want her to be free from? And what do we want her to be free to do?
After the baptism we had a reading from a letter written about 20 years after Jesus was crucified. It was written by a guy called Paul, to people he had met in what is now Turkey. He had told them the amazing good news about Jesus, that he was sent by God to put the world to rights, removing all traces of evil and bringing into existence a new order where love and life and beauty and freedom reigned. No more war, no more illness, no more suffering of any kind. Imagine! Jesus would be in charge, under God, and there would be perfect harmony and happiness in earth and heaven. That is God’s plan. When Jesus was crucified, he was taking responsibility for all his people, and for all their wrong doing and failures. But his death was not the end: he rose from the dead, and now he is putting God’s plan into effect, preparing the world for that day when everything will be put right. The good news that Paul told those people in Turkey was that they could become God’s people right now, by putting their trust in Jesus, believing his teaching and accepting his authority. Jesus was no ordinary bloke. He is the Son of God, who loved them and died for them, to give them the freedom to live and work with God, both now and in the perfect world to come.
That was the good news Paul gave those people. But after he’d left them someone came and told them that believing in Jesus wasn’t enough. They had to get religion too! More precisely, they had to get the Jewish religion, with its rules and regulations, including circumcision and eating kosher food. So Paul wrote this letter, telling his friends in the strongest possible terms, ‘No! Don’t put your hope in religion! You have Jesus! He is all you need! For freedom Jesus Christ has set you free! Don’t become slaves to religious laws!’
Now Paul himself was a Jew, and belonged to the Jewish religion. He had nothing against it as a religion – indeed, he thought it was the best. But following religious rules and lifestyles does not give us a life of freedom with God. Don’t get me wrong – God’s laws are great: love God, love your neighbour, love one another, do to others what you want them to do to you – all that is great stuff. But we don’t obey those rules in order to get to God. We are already living with God, if we’re living with Jesus. Nor do we keep those rules to stay in God’s good books. Our relationship with Jesus puts and keeps us in God’s good books. We are free from all the ‘must’s and ‘ought to’s that were given to force people to behave themselves. Circumcision, uncircumcision – that’s no longer relevant. Baptism – we don’t do that to put people in God’s good books. It is the mark of being one of Jesus’ people, a sign of our dependence on him – that’s why Jesus tells us to baptise. But our relationship with God does not depend on when or how we were baptised, any more than it depends on how good we are at doing what God says. Our relationship with God depends on our relationship with Jesus. Sienna’s baptism is a declaration by her parents and godparents that they will bring her up in a close relationship with Jesus. And it is that relationship which brings us true freedom.
True freedom is not lawlessness. If my aim in life is to do whatever I feel like doing, or choose to do, then I’ve lost the plot. Harvey Weinstein seems to have been motivated that way, and thought he had the power to do whatever he wanted and get away with it. He is not the only one, as the the news shows. And if Sienna is brought up without any sense of boundaries, she’ll be in trouble!
True freedom consists not just in liberation from constraints, but in the freedom for life in all its fullness. That’s what Jesus gives us. Life in all its fullness is not life without God. It is life with him, knowing his love for us, enjoying his presence with us, trusting his care for us, and letting him be our God, the one we obey because we love him and trust him to do what is right and good. That’s the freedom Jesus has bought us. Not just freedom from condemnation and a whole host of other things we haven’t time to look at just now. It is freedom for love – the love of the creator of the universe, a love that overflows from us to those around us. We are called to be free, says Paul. We must not misuse our freedom; we have been set free in order to live in love.
I recently read about some dolphins which had been kept in captivity and taught to do tricks. They’d been illegally caught in the open sea, and when this was discovered the courts ordered that they be returned to the wild. This was not easy. They had become used to captivity, and needed to get fit, and to learn how to hunt live fish underwater. The process took several months, but in due course they were returned to the wild and satellite tracking showed that they were surviving very well. If those captive dolphins had just been set free without being trained to eat live fish, their freedom might have been their death warrant.
We too need to learn from Jesus how to live in the freedom he has given us. We look at that next week, in the passage that follows this one. So don’t miss next week’s exciting instalment! But let me finish with the questions I began with. What is your idea of freedom? What do you want to be free from? What do you want to be free for? Do you want to be free to live with God? Do you want to be part of his purposes? If so, what are you relying on? Your own philosophy of life? Your relatively good character? Your religious observance? Or are you relying wholly on Jesus? If you are relying on anything in addition to Jesus, or instead of Jesus, then you’re saying that Jesus death and resurrection were not enough. But the truth is that Jesus is enough – more than enough! Believe in him! He came to set us truly free! Let us pray.
This prayer is a declaration of trust in Jesus. If you haven’t taken that step, now is a good time to do so. Just echo this prayer in your heart, silently.
Lord Jesus, you died and rose again so that we could be totally forgiven, and free to live with God for now and for ever. I put my trust in you, Jesus. Please set me free from everything that holds me back. Help me to live the full life you want me to live. Thank you for all you have done. Thank you for loving me. Amen.