March 10, 2013
William G. Carter
C.S. Lewis wrote a fable about heaven and hell. He called it The Great Divorce, and it’s a story about the huge separation between both patches of real estate. The poor souls in hell ride a bus on a day that is perpetually dreary. It’s a flying bus and climbs into the sky, increasing in size as it moves upward. Hell is a small place, it seems, full of small, insubstantial people who snarl at each other. And as they move toward heaven, everything gets bigger, thicker, and brighter. These small Hell-dwellers are exposed as shadowy beings who complain that the green grass of heaven is too hard for their feet.
Nevertheless, they are free to visit, perhaps in the hidden hope that something might happen to give more substance to their lives. They can go to heaven whenever they want. They can stay there if they choose to do so. But aye, there’s the problem.
One of the visitors is described as an ugly old dwarf. He snarls, but never speaks. And he comes dragging a battered old actor on a chain. The actor is old school, a melodramatic man who speaks the King’s English in self-important tones. Maybe he has been in a number of Shakespearean dramas. He certainly talks that way whenever the dwarf pulls his chain.
A woman approaches them. She shines so brightly that somebody mistakes her for Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is radiant and serene, simply aglow with the peace of heaven. She greets the twosome. The dwarf tugs the chain, and the tragic actor returns the greeting, albeit grimly. Her name is Sarah, and on earth, she was married to the man who has become the dwarf. She died before he did, and now he has come from Hell to see her – hopefully to make her miserable, just as he is.
Each time, she speaks with grace and shines all the brighter. The dwarf snarls, pulls the chain, and the tired old actor responds with self-pity. He tries to make her feel guilty that he is miserable and she is not. She reminds him that misery and self-pity are choices that we make.
She invites him to give up that old actor, to send him away, to enjoy the beauty of heaven. He almost gives in, but then pulls the chain and the old actor howls for him. Sarah says, “Please give up this nonsense.” Once again, he yanks the chain, the actor bellows, “And now, you need me no more?” Each time the small man pulls the chain, he gets even smaller. The actor moans, “Woe is me!” as the small man nearly shrinks away.
I have always been taken by that scene. It’s a picture of someone in captivity. He can drop the chain anytime he chooses. But it might as well be shackled to his wrist. He is a captive to his own natural whims. He is a slave to his long-established customs. It is not necessary – but being half of a human who nurses his own anguish is more familiar than being free and full of light. It’s a picture that I would lay down beside the fourth chapter of Galatians.
Paul wants to talk about freedom. That is the overwhelming theme of this letter: freedom! Jesus Christ comes in freedom, and he comes to set us free. In this sprawling chapter four, he hurls Christian freedom in the backdrop of human slavery. Twelve times in this chapter, the word “slave” shows up as a noun or a verb. Twelve times, he reminds the Christians of Galatia about the human experience of slavery.
Now, I realize there is some distance between our experience and his. Slavery was a current reality in the Roman Empire. Slaves were bought and sold, mostly among the wealthy, as a way of buying laborers to do the things that the wealthy did not want to do. In the American empire, slavery was abolished in 1863. Or so our history teachers told us.
Truth is, there is plenty of slavery in our own world. There is human trafficking going on all the time. Runaway teens fall into it at truck stops or drop-in shelters. Somebody owns them, uses them, profits from them. And that’s only a small slice of what happens in our nation. Around the world, human slavery is alive and well. You can read all about it, if your stomach lets you.
And there are other kinds of slavery, too. C. S. Lewis tells that story of that small man imprisoned by his own resentment. We know those people. They are captives to anger, prisoners of bitterness, slaves to the very emotions that they keep stoked.
Others are slaves to their work. It bolts them to their desks. Or they take it wherever they go. Wherever they work, they are consumed. They are afraid of letting it rest. Or it feeds them with adrenaline and they are fearful of not getting the emotional rush.
Still others are slaves to their technology. Have you noticed that? Maybe it’s that thumb-exerciser that some many people have, that I have. I checked the household cell phone bill. One of the denizens in our home made forty-five hundred text messages last month. Four thousand five hundred. No talking with the tongue, just the thumbs. This is the addiction.
Or there are other forms of enslavement, other addictions. I saw it yesterday afternoon about 3:00. It took me almost an hour to drive home from visiting someone in Geisinger-CMC. All the way down Mulberry Street, I saw college students with green shirts, red eyes, and fuzzy tongues. It looked like they began preparing for St. Patty’s Day about two days ago. One of them gave me a descriptive gesture, weaved a bit, and yelled, “Who do you think you are, driving down the middle of our street?” I smiled in return, and prayed that when he goes back to religion class on Monday, Professor Pinches might have him write a paper on the fourth chapter of Galatians.
Human animals fall into some kind of slavery or another. Something or someone is always yanking at our chains. The season of Lent is a good time to survey our own slavery. What are the bad habits that shackle us? That prevent us from joy and grace? And where are the injustices where somebody holds unnecessary power over somebody else? Where are people exploited by the forces of destructiveness? These are important questions for the apostle Paul. Christ comes to make us free. Whatever that means, wherever it matters most, Jesus is our liberation.
It is important to keep in mind that Paul is writing this letter to two entirely different groups of people at the same time. In his energy of his fury, he seems to shift quickly from addressing one group and then another. We have heard him speak of some “antagonistic missionaries.” Those were the Super Jews who insisted that the Gentile men in Galatia had circumcised, that they had to become Jews before they could become Christians. Paul says to them, “Knock it off!” The Jewish Law was for the Jewish people. If you remember from last week, it was our “babysitter,” our custodian, until Christian faith could come to direct our lives. Rather than follow a checklist of virtues, we are led by God’s Spirit to follow Jesus Christ. All are forgiven in cross of Jesus. All can live free from the sin that killed our Savior. That is his word to the Jews.
But he pivots and turns to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles. “You aren’t slaves to the Jewish Law,” he says, “but you are slaves to something else.” What is it? In chapter one, he says we are slaves to “the present evil age.” That is, to the whole system of abuse, destruction, anger, fury, and selfishness that gets manufactured and rebuilt in every generation.
Here in chapter four, he says it another way, “We were slaves to the elemental spirits of the world.” The elemental spirits – at their most primitive he means earth, water, fire, and air – the four primary elements of the created world.
In other words, we are creatures made from the same stuff of our planet. Earth is same stuff as skin and bones, water courses through our bodies, fire burns in our hearts and minds, and we live as long as there is air in our lungs. That’s all we are – a delicate system of chemicals. That’s all we can ever be – unless the Breath of Christ becomes our breath, unless the mind of Christ possesses our minds, unless the fire of grace consumes us and sets us free from merely existing as God’s temporary chemistry experiments.
There is a dignity to claim as God’s own children. We are adopted as God’s own offspring, thanks to the self-giving love of God’s own Son. We are not abandoned to ourselves and our whims, a theme that Paul will unpack in chapter five. Oh no, God puts Holy Breath right into our lungs, the Holy Spirit. And when we exhale our prayers and say, “Abba! Daddy! Father God,” it is the echo of saving grace that seals our inheritance.
Just take a moment and catch yourself breathing. Listen to the wind entering your lungs. Watch your chest rise and fall with each breath. Picture in your imagination that this is the Breath of God, entering you freely, giving you life to be sure; but also giving your freedom. You are Somebody’s child, regardless of whether if you are ninety-three years old, forty-two, or seven. Your life matters because it is God-in-Christ who enters to possess you, to make you his own. We are bound to Christ, we are free in Christ, all at the same time.
What does this look like? Well, that’s what chapter five will be about, when we get to it next week.
But to prime the pump, let me tell you a quick story. Up at Boston University, there is a school of theology. The day came when the development office announced that the oldest living graduate would return for homecoming. Not only that, he was invited to speak for a mandatory worship service in the chapel. The students groaned. They were young and hip, and this old guy was going to be rolled in to preach to them.
Well, he walked with a cane, and didn’t need to be rolled in. But he was old. Really old. When Noah landed the ark, this guy was already eight hundred years old. On the appointed day, he appeared. He hobbled in. They were waiting for him, and had to wait a little longer. He was in no hurry. The wrinkles in his face were like deep canyons. His steps were slow and measured. He was taking his time, and needed to.
Finally he stood in the pulpit, cleared his throat. Paused, looked at the crowd. Cleared his throat again, adjusted the microphone, gazed out at the students through his cataracts and said, “I would like to thank my alma mater for setting me free without setting me adrift.” Then he sat down.
That’s what Jesus does for us, in the power of his Holy Spirit. Sets us free, never sets us adrift.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.