Sunday, March 3, 2013

Something More Than Rules

Galatians 3 (3:23-39)
March 3, 2013
Lent 3
William G. Carter

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Poor Stephen Colbert! The late night comic was in a dither on Thursday night. As he reviewed the day’s news on his nightly Colbert Report, he noted, “The world is now in uncharted territory. As of 8:00 p.m., Central Vatican Time, we are officially Pope-Less.”

It is an awkward time for the Roman Catholic church, of which Colbert is a member. Pope Benedict has retired at age eighty-five. For whatever reason, he has decided to hang up the robe and put the big hat back on the shelf. He’s an old man leaving an impossible job. Let him kick back and catch his breath! But it is an awkward time for the Roman Church. As one Catholic friend wondered out loud, “Who’s going to tell us what to do?”

Faith would be so much easier if we could reduce it to a central authority, whether a person or a checklist, and let the authority tell us what to do and what to believe. A lot of people see the Bible as that kind of authority: as the Protestants began to say in the mid-1500’s, “We don’t need a Pope, for we have the Bible. The Bible is our rule of faith and practice.” Maybe you were taught to say those words.

But the more we read the Bible, the slipperier it becomes. There are more stories than rules in Bible, and only a handful of the stories come with punch lines. So you have to chew on them for a while to get to the caramel center. Once upon a time, God told Abraham, a man as old and childless as the former Pope, that he was going to be the father of a great multitude, and Abraham believed the Lord. So what is that story telling us to do? On the face of it, nothing. It’s a story about Abraham.

A lot of people look to the Bible for direction, but not only are there a lot of stories in the Bible, there are also a lot of poems. Poems may make a statement, like “God is king” or “Sing a New Song,” but they resist reduction. A poem refuses to be boiled down to a principle. Do you recall today’s Psalm? The poet says, “I thirst for God, the living God.” He thirsts; notice that never does he declare that God is a glass of milk; that would be silly.

And then, as I am sure you noticed, the rules that the Bible teaches can be of varying weight and importance. Here’s a big one: “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18) – that is heavy! How about this: “Don’t eat the lizard or a crocodile” (Lev. 11:30). Thanks, Moses; but we have no intention of doing so. It is a lightweight commandment. It is never intended to be as important as loving the neighbor, and the thoughtful person knows this.

Now I am not saying that the commandments, the rules, the precepts and the statutes are not necessary. Oh no! Even if we don’t know the reason, every rule comes for a reason. “Thou shalt not eat pork” – that’s a Bible rule that I find easy to keep, having been forced-fed ham on many childhood occasions. When Moses gives that rule, it was understood that pigs are unclean and disgusting, and people that eat them are not holy. That was the reason for the rule.

In my first church, at the very first wedding where I presided, there were no rules. I met with the bride and groom to hear about the bride’s plans and to offer twenty minutes of pre-marital counseling to a couple that had lived together for fifteen years. There were no other rules. And on the day of the wedding, the groom showed up forty-five minutes late, so intoxicated he could hardly stand. As I stood by helplessly, his bride screamed at him and whacked him with her bouquet.

Meanwhile the ushers were so busy handing bottles of Miller Lite in the narthex that they forget to distribute the worship bulletins to the congregation. As the bridesmaids convened to march down the aisle to “Here Comes the Bride,” all the groomsmen put on dark sunglasses and hummed along loudly and out of tune. (I wish I was making all of this up!) Needless to say, the next time the church elders met, we nailed together a policy about what would never again happen at a Presbyterian wedding . . . because some people need to have the rules!

As the apostle Paul writes to the congregations that he began in central Turkey, we overhear him talking about the rules – the Bible rules. He knows the commandments. Paul was trained as a Pharisee, so he was trained to memorize all six-hundred-thirteen Old Testament commandments. And he knows that, generally speaking, the Jewish commandments were first given to help the human race flourish. “Don’t murder. Don’t tell lies in law court. Don’t cheat on your spouse. Stop wanting what other people have. And for God’s sake, take one day out of seven to rest and to welcome God’s replenishment.” Do these things and you will live abundantly.

But after he started those small churches, and after he moved on, some Antagonistic Missionaries stepped in. They made oppressive demands. They insisted that those Turks, those Galatians, most of them Gentiles, had to become Jews before they could become Christians. They said, “You people who have no covenant have to be brought into the Jewish covenant before you can profess faith in Jesus.”

Now, some of you are looking at me rather serenely, because the implications of what I just said have not yet sunken in. Specifically if I might speak to those of you who are Galatian men: “If you wish to profess that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, we will usher you into another room. A rabbi will meet you with a sharp instrument. He will ask you to loosen your tunic and then perform a small surgery on you. This will make you Jewish.” This is what the Antagonistic Missionaries were saying. Before a non-Jewish man can affirm Christ as Lord, he has to be circumcised as a Jew. Apparently a lot of Galatian men were falling for it, because the authorities told them, “A rule is a rule.”

So the apostle Paul writes in chapter three, “You stupid Galatians! You idiots! Who has cast a spell on you? A sucker is born every minute! Who has conned you into doing something with your flesh?”

Then he reminds them of his sermons: “I preached Christ crucified to you. He was crucified by the same evil age that has enslaved us all. He was crucified by people who insisted they were doing the right thing, and I was one of them! And try as I did to live by all God’s commandments, I was never good enough. God may have spoke the Torah, but I’ve never been able to keep it. None of us are good enough; only Jesus was that good. And let me tell you what the Jewish Law says about him: “Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree!”

“So here are two things that I am thinking,” says Paul. “According to the commandment, Jesus because cursed because he hangs on a cross. He takes all the curses of our lives, all our imperfections, all our anger and evil, all our inadequacies and ineffectiveness – he takes it all to the cross. When he dies, he takes it all away. And when the Father raises him from the dead, he raises us from all that deadness and gives us a new life. That’s the first thing.”

“And the second thing,” says Paul, “is as old as old Abraham. God made promises to Father Abraham, and Abraham trusted the promises. The Torah says, ‘God reckoned this as righteousness.’ Trust is the same thing as faith. Trust and faith are all we need. Trust and faith are the gifts that rectify our lives before God.[1] God says, ‘Your old life was crucified with Jesus, your new life is raised with Christ.’ Just trust this as the truth!”

But Paul, what about the rules? What about the commandments, the statutes, and the precepts? Doesn’t the Torah say, “Thou shalt be circumcised”?

Paul says, “Listen. I love the Bible. The Bible speaks a living word from a living God to a living people, and we are alive in Christ. All the old laws of Scripture – it was like having a babysitter.” (That’s his word: pedagaigos – instructor, custodian, guardian of children; I like “babysitter.”)

Paul says, “The rules of Scripture guarded us, but they never could save us. We are saved by Jesus, who welcomes all of us as children of God through our trust that this Gospel is true. And the news really is for all of us – it doesn’t matter if you are Jew or not a Jew. It doesn’t matter if you are enslaved to something or if you are not. It does not matter if you are a man or a woman, especially since circumcision is now a non-issue. All that matters is that you belong to God. Faith is your ticket, and Christ’s faith is sufficient for you. Mercy is your gate pass. Forgiveness is your free entitlement. Grace is the final expression of God’s justice.”

I wonder sometimes what it was like to open this letter and read it to the church. I bet some people were confused, because they wanted a Bible, or a Pope, or somebody in charge to tell them what to do. They wanted to get right with God; tell us what to do!

Paul says, “We tried that. It didn’t always work so well. The rules kept a lot of people in line, but they also created people who stopped thinking. The rules guarded us from a lot of evil, but we still did a good bit of evil anyway. We had holy commandments yet we killed the Son of God. Worst of all, we discovered you can put together a checklist of all the things to do, and all the things not to do, and then you really don’t need God. You don’t need a living, forgiving God – because you have a list, and your list can become far more important than God.”

I think he’s right. Not just because he is the apostle Paul. Not just because his rant to the Galatians helps to qualify all those Old Testament laws that strike us as odd, quaint, and distant.

I think he is right because we need something more than rules to direct our lives. We need a relationship. We need more than anything else to feel that God loves us so much that God adopts us into the family, that God welcomes every single one of us with the words, “The past is finished and gone; behold the new!”

More than mere rules, we need a relationship. We have that relationship already, and next Sunday we will hear about it in Galatians, chapter four.

© William G. Carter

[1] Thanks to Richard Hayes, who believes “rectify” is a better contemporary verb than “justify” (New Interpreters Bible).

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