Sunday, June 30, 2013

No Turning Back

The old "Just Say No" is powerless to bring righteousness; only the Spirit of Love can conquer the flesh...

Proper 8c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

We continue today, on this Sunday before Independence Day, in our walk through Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, and true to form, Paul continues to press his case, in defense of himself and his gospel, deep into the conflict between justification by grace through faith and the idea that one can be justified by means of the law. We find him here once again stressing the point that by freedom from the law he does not mean lawlessness; liberty is not the same thing as anarchy. As I said in previous reflections on this text, to be free does not mean entirely to come loose. Freedom comes with its own responsibilities and disciplines. A driver’s license gives you freedom to drive, but the responsibility to drive safely. And just as there are traffic laws designed to help people drive safely — for example, the rules that one drives on the right side of the street, that one drives with the flow of traffic instead of against it, and observes the speed limit — so too there is a basic rule that assists Christians in living a righteous life in freedom: and that is the rule of love. Saint Paul even quotes it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This one law sums up and distills all that is valuable in the rest of the law.

This was the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Saint Paul, and if you want to get a little bit more modern about it, I will remind you that it was summarized in the last century by that unlikely quartet of evangelists, John, Paul, George, and Ringo in that memorable phrase, “All you need is love.”

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So, you might well ask, What’s the problem? It seems that the Galatians wanted more — they wanted more like the annoying little girl in the commercial: “We want more we want more!” In this case what they want more of is more rules, more laws; they can’t seem to accept the wisdom of “all you need is love.” Paul gets exasperated with them — no surprise, as he is throughout this letter — reminding them that “for freedom Christ has set us free… Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!” Jesus has shown you the way of love; do that, and you will live!

I can well sympathize with Paul’s exasperation. A few years ago I wrote an essay on this very subject, highlighting the fact that Jesus has given us the law of love as a guide to right behavior. Most people seem to understand this, but one respondent in particular kept insisting that there had to be more. In end I said he didn’t have to take my work for it; he could take Jesus’s word for it or Saint Paul! But he still couldn’t believe that they might have meant what they said. Jesus offers us the freedom to live in love — with its joys as well as its responsibilities — but some wish to turn back to a rule-book rather than embracing a guiding principle that will require them to engage in spiritual discernment.

For, let’s face it, the old rule book from four or five thousand years ago has rules in it that no longer apply to us, but also lacks rules for many of the things that we encounter in our daily lives. What are we to do with new things that come along, like cloning, that the Scripture says nothing about? If we approach everything with this law of love in our hearts it will give us the tool to find new answers to new questions, new ways to live righteous lives under the responsibilities, and with the freedom of love.

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Paul urges the Galatians not to get involved in what he calls “the flesh.” He precisely puts this distinction in terms of flesh and spirit. Works of the flesh are the works the law attempts unsuccessfully to suppress — the “thou shalt nots” of the old law; but the leading of the Spirit brings one into doing the positive: loving your neighbor as yourself and bearing the good fruit of joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against these, Paul reminds us, there is no law.

Paul urges the Galatians not to fall back into the law of the flesh. That is the law that attempts to restrain the flesh, but in the long run cannot do so. Yet it is so tempting to think that one can live a virtuous and righteous life just by following the rules of all the “thou shalt nots” — and yet one could never murder, never steal, never cheat on a spouse, and still be a terrible, mean, ungenerous, unloving person. The true liberation of the Spirit brings with it the generosity that moves beyond merely avoiding the bad, to doing the good; that chooses to love others as much as one loves oneself: and that brings duties and responsibilities — not just to refrain from doing things that you would not want done to you, but actively to do those positive things which you would wish to be done to you. To turn back from this balance of spiritual freedom and duty into a life bound only by a set of “thou shalt nots” is to become a slave to the flesh, and turning back from all that God wills for the good of the children of God; who, as I reminded us last week, have grown into their inheritance, with all of its responsibilities.

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With freedom comes uncertainty, with exploration comes risk. Some would rather remain in what they imagine to be the safe harbor of the familiar “thou shalt nots” of childhood — and yes, with children you sometimes have to say “No” first before they can learn the law of love. That is why Saint Paul analogizes the life of the Christian to the life that moves from childhood to adulthood. But God in Christ wants more for us, and calls and challenges us to follow him, even to places he himself knows will offer him no welcome, to places where he will find nowhere to lay his head. In today’s gospel we see that he has set his face towards Jerusalem, where he will face so many challenges. Many, from the Samaritans to Saint Peter himself, will be obstacles in his path. Some whom he calls to follow him will turn back or offer excuses as to why they cannot follow him. Those who were ready to delay following Jesus, or to turn back from following him, had reasons that were good in themselves — burying the dead and bidding their families farewell. But Jesus gently rebukes even such well-meaning turning back. To be fit, to be ready, for the kingdom of God means letting go of what lies behind and pressing forward to what lies ahead.

This letting go is well symbolized in the story of the call of Elisha that we heard as our Old Testament reading this morning. Elijah follows God’s instructions to choose Elisha as his successor, and Elisha initially offers an excuse not unlike that of the man in the gospel, that he wants to say goodbye to his family. Elijah then offers what I can’t help but see as one of those wonderful New York Jewish expressions, such as Jon Stewart might say, “So what’s stopping you?” In response, Elisha makes a powerful symbolic end to his whole past life: he slaughters the oxen and burns his plow and its equipment to cook their flesh, a gesture far more dramatic than that of the apostles who left their boats and their nets behind when they were called to follow Jesus.

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Paul challenges the Galatians to let go of things that hold them back from living truly free and loving lives. He recited for them all of the works of the flesh, all of those things that they thought by keeping away from they were being righteous; but he reminded them how powerless the law was to prevent anyone from doing such things — as he would say to the Romans, the law ironically often provokes such things, tempting us to commit the very sins the law forbids, tempting us into disobedience! (For example, how many people insist on touching the wall marked “Wet Paint”? If it weren’t for the sign they wouldn’t be touching that wall! But put up the sign that says “Wet Paint” and you watch — people will go up and touch it.) The law tempts us into doing the very thing it seems to oppose. The old law is as powerless as it is negative, but the leading of the Spirit overcomes sin not by overruling it the way the law did, but by overwhelming it by means of the superior exercise of the power of love. As another old saying has it, “Love conquers all” and that includes sin, too. The old law was like gasoline poured on a fire as far as the flesh is concerned; the new law of love in the spirit drowns the fire of the sinful flesh like a cleansing waterfall or fountain — to which we have access in Christ through the waters of baptism: a new life, heading onward, not looking back, free to take on all of the new responsibilities that love provides and demands.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, in Jesus Christ your Son you have opened for us the way to salvation: Strengthen our hearts that we may follow where he leads and never turn back, loving our neighbors as ourselves, with the love with which he first loved us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit we give unending praise, now and forever.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Free or Loose?

Freedom in Christ is like graduation... we even get a gown!

Proper 7c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.

In his 1935 play, The Shoemakers, Polish playwright StanisÅ‚aw Witkiewicz portrays a curmudgeonly old shoemaker complaining about the young folk and their fancy new “free school.” He grumbles, “Yeah, it’s a free school all right — so free it comes loose!” In those few words the old shoemaker says a great deal about the nature of freedom — and its limits.

We’ve been reading from Galatians the last few weeks, with a few more weeks to go. One of the themes Saint Paul raises is the nature of freedom, and he struggles — as the Galatians struggle — to find the balance between liberty and license; whether freedom is limitless or is bound by some restraint — is it grounded in a foundation of some basic principles, or like a house built on sand, does it “come loose?”

In the passage before us, Paul pictures the law of Moses as a disciplinarian, with a definitely “educational” overtone. Education then was not as it is today, so a word of explanation will be helpful. Most education for the lower and middle classes consisted of apprenticeship or joining in the family business — learning a trade was the main thing about getting ahead in life. For the upper classes, young children were usually tutored at home by a governor or governess or instructor — which is the word used in our text this morning although the translators have chosen to translate it simply as“disciplinarian.” And once again I have a beef with the translators of the New Revised Standard Version — for in the interest of removing gender-specific language, they use the word children for two different expressions — where Paul uses two different words; in this case they use the word children where Paul has the word for sons, as distinguished from children. And the difference that Paul is making is the distinction between being a young child who is under a tutor’s care, and a young adult capable of inheriting and managing one’s own affairs — what Paul calls “a son.” This translation misses the point that in Christ we are indeed children, but children who have come of age, who have come into our inheritance — in Christ we are all, as Paul says, “sons of God.” “Sons” in this sense are not just men — which is also why Paul is able say that the categories “male and female” do not apply to those who are “in Christ.”

So with that clarification, the freedom spoken of here is a kind of graduation — not into utter freedom but into new responsibilities, those of an adult Christian faith. I am reminded of a verse from one of the great “national songs” in our hymnal. (We’ll sing it next week in keeping both with Galatians and the Fourth of July). It’s second verse ends: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” Freedom, whether of a nation or a person, does not mean the unlimited ability to do anything that takes your fancy, but carries with it its own responsibilities and duties. As another hymn puts it, “New occasions teach new duties.”

To pick up the educational analogy: when you graduate and you get your degree, the freedom it gives you is the freedom to practice the discipline you have taken up — whether it is in the arts or the sciences, social work or medicine — or even the ministry! And the word discipline is not to be missed. Everything bears it own rules, its own ways of working — even freedom. There are still rules and structures that guide the free exercise of new skills, when you graduate.

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We see a particular kind of graduation into ministry in today’s Gospel. It may seem strange at first, but bear with me. It tells the story of a man imprisoned, not by a tutor or disciplinarian, but by a legion of demons. These demons have controlled his life so much that he even fell under the sway of human imprisonment as well, guarded and bound with chains and shackles. The demons gave him the power to escape, but they kept him in their own possession, living a naked and homeless and miserable life out among the tombs, among the dead. Jesus sets him free from this captivity, allowing the demons to enter a herd of pigs, who rush into the lake and are drowned. (I wonder if the demons are perhaps spiteful and angry because they’ve been dispossessed, and they want to do as much harem as possible to the local economy by depriving the swineherds of their livelihood.)

Whatever the case, the man they held captive is now free — but his freedom is not absolute, it is not “loose.” For he is given a task by Jesus, the one who has liberated him: “Return to your home and tell how much God has done for you.” And so he sets off — and you’ll notice that he proclaims how much Jesus has done for him — rightly identifying Jesus with the power of God. This is the one thing that he learned from his demon instructors, for they too recognized that Jesus was and is “the son of the Most High God.” I said a few weeks ago that Jesus does not need or even want the testimony of demons — but he does accept the testimony of this man who has been freed from demons. He is freed to take up a ministry, a new discipline, to become an evangelist. And if it isn’t a sign of grace to transform someone whose life was spent homeless and naked among the dead, to one bearing witness to God in Christ, I don’t know what is.

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This is the same power of grace that is at work in all who put their hope and faith and trust in Jesus Christ. We have been adopted by God in Christ and become children of God through faith: the faith of Christ, as well as our own faith “in” Christ, in him because we are members of his body. This liberating faith sets us free from all sorts of limitations, though it brings new responsibilities.

Saint Paul itemizes some of the categories from which faith liberates us: “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.” Those who are reborn in Christ are not limited by nationality or race — but are free to love and serve all their many sisters and brothers in the human family, God’s children, our graduation class.

Those who are reborn in Christ are not limited by their economic or social standing — but are free to mix and mingle with rich and poor alike, bearing witness to the newfound faith of the inheritance of the saints in light.

Those who are reborn in Christ are not limited by their sex or marital status — but are free to take up the discipline of love under the blessing of God, who is love, and in whom all loving souls abide.

All of the things that formerly both limited people and gave them things to boast about, are no longer of any significance in Christ.

This was a tough sell for the Galatians — it may be a tough sell for us — for all who took pride in their national, social, and even sexual status. Perhaps some of those Galatians were under the sway of those who wanted to impose the whole of the Jewish law upon them, and had heard the words of the Jewish prayer that a Jewish man would say each morning: “I thank God that I am not a Gentile; I thank God that I am not a slave; I thank God that I am not a woman.” Paul confronts that prayer by boldly proclaiming that God is the God not just of Jews but of Gentiles too, not just the God of the free but of all people regardless of their social status, not just of men but of women too.

In his effort to explain this to the Galatians, caught up in their preconceptions and misled by false teachers, Paul tries one more analogy, and I’ll try it out on you too, to help all of us understand what has happened to us in Christ. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” It is as if we have enlisted in God’s army — and been given new uniforms, uniforms that cover over any of our differences: social status, economic history, even gender or marital status. In the early days of the church, at baptism each of the candidates was given a white garment to wear over whatever else they had on — and we still wear these garments today as part of the vestments of those who serve at the altar. This white robe that is known in Latin as an alb (think albino!), is the white robe of baptism. And it lets us all know, that all of us here as ministers are among the baptized — as are all of you. This is the baptismal garment, the graduation gown into the new life of faith now that the old schoolmaster of the law has retired. This uniform covers over our personal peculiarities — you could be wearing discount jeans or a custom-made suit underneath, a JCPenney house dress or Dior haute couture.

None of that matters to Jesus — who liberates us from all of this legion of categories that we might wrongly take pride in, or feel ashamed of, but which in the long run bind us in chains of judgment and prejudice and despair. Graduation day has come, and the freedom that comes with it: freedom with a purpose. For freedom Christ has set us free — a freedom to love and serve one another as he loved and served us, by his grace and for his glory.+


Sunday, June 16, 2013

No Estate Tax

We cannot save ourselves.

Proper 6c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Today we continue our journey through the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians, and I find once again that I have a slight bone to pick with the translators of the New Revised Standard version of the Bible, the version that we use in our readings, because they make a translation choice in common with many of the modern translations, thought not all of them. The bone I have to pick may at first strike you as trivial, but it is an example of how one small, simple word can change the whole meaning of a passage. And I find that in this regard I prefer the translation of what’s know as the Authorized Version. It is probably better known as the King James Bible because King James I was the one who commissioned its translation — which celebrated its 400th anniversary two years ago. Some things stand the test of time.

The word at issue here is the little two-letter word “in” used throughout Galatians as part of the phrase, “faith in Jesus Christ.” Wherever the modern translations, such as the New Revised Version say it that way, say, “in Jesus Christ,” the Authorized Version says, “faith of Jesus Christ.” Yes, I’m giving you prepositions this morning; it’s the difference between two little two-letter words — of and in — but what a difference they make, including how best to make sense of Saint Paul’s theology of grace. I will also add that I also find this translation to be a bit more accurate. The King James translators are closer to the original meaning of the Greek in which Paul wrote — so their reading not only makes better sense, it is more accurate. And when sense and accuracy combine, I have to say I am convinced! Are you? Let me say more about both.

First of all, Galatians is concerned with the contrast between rival sources of justification, different approaches to righteousness: the grace of God versus the works of the law. Make no mistake, Paul comes down squarely on the grace of God — that is, the justification that starts with God and comes from God. We cannot save ourselves — for after all, if we could have we would have, and Christ would have had no need to be born, baptized, suffer, die, and be raised from the dead for our salvation. As Paul says in his punch-line: “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

So justification is not our work — it is Christ’s work, work done for us, on our behalf, work that involved his suffering and death in the full faith that God would raise him from the dead in the ultimate act of justification, the ultimate declaration of his righteousness. So it is that the faith of Christ — his faith in God — that God would vindicate him — vindicates us as well, because we have, through our baptism, shared in his death so that we can share in his life. It is not that we simply have faith in Christ — in the sense that we believe in him — but that through the mystery of God’s grace we have become part of his body the church; we are in him and so are saved by his faith. As Paul argues, just as the faith of Abraham made him the father of many nations, so too the faith of Christ has led to the justification of many — through his life and death — and life again.

Paul often uses analogies of life and death . Here he says he has died to the law: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And as the Authorized Version will continue, “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” In his Letter to the Romans, Paul uses the analogy of widowhood, portraying the law as a husband. A woman who has an affair with another man while her husband is alive is an adulterer, but once she is a widow she is free to marry again — and since Christ has come the old law has passed away and we, the church, the bride of Christ, have a new husband.

Later in Galatians he will use yet another image of life and death, that of inheritance: the point being that you don’t earn an inheritance — it comes to you by virtue of what someone else has done. This is precisely what makes it grace, a gift — not something that you earned.

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Our gospel passage today shows us one of the most beautiful examples of grace in all of Scripture. In its own way it presents a vivid contrast between the kind of life that trusts in righteousness through the law, and the kind that trusts not in its own righteousness but in the forgiveness and grace that is a free gift to all who turn their hearts and souls towards the source of all that is good.

There is no doubt that Simon the Pharisee is a righteous man — he has worked hard at it, he has followed the rules laid down by Moses, as his sect has interpreted them, taking care above all that he has observed everything. And there is also no doubt that the woman of the city is a sinner — the text clearly says so right at the beginning, and Jesus says “her sins were many,” and so Simon judges rightly that she is a sinner, even if he judges wrongly concerning how Jesus ought to have reacted to her. From his standpoint, he would have pulled back in horror that this sinful woman had touched him; he would have thrown her out of the house. Jesus doesn’t do that, and the Pharisee is scandalized.

Now we would be as mistaken as Simon the Pharisee if we were to think that Jesus has forgiven this woman because of what she did — that is, because she bathed his feet with her tears and anointed them with costly ointment. Note the explanation that Jesus gives to Simon: he does not describe her actions — contrasted with those of Simon himself, or rather his inactions — he does not describe her actions as the reason her sins have been forgiven, but as her response to the fact that her sins have been forgiven. To use Jesus’ own parable — both the Pharisee and the woman have been forgiven their debts, but the one who owed more is more grateful. The gratitude does not earn the grace, but flows from it, like tears and precious ointment.

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In spite of the clarity of this Jesus’ teaching — here and in many other parables that he taught, and many further explanations from Saint Paul in his other Epistles — there are even still today some who would insist that it is doing good things that makes you a righteous person; that the works of the law are the way to salvation and justification. But as Saint Paul bluntly puts it, if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. What need is there for grace if we can make it on our own? Referring back to that ancient story from Genesis: who needs God to bring us to heaven, if we can build our own tower that will take us there?

The answer, of course, is that even our best efforts cannot and will not bring us to that goal — for there is none righteous, no not one. Any and all righteousness that any of us have does not come from us but from God, Christ working in us, as we live in him, and the life we live in the flesh is lived by the faith of the Son of God — who died and was raised. We live because he died — and rose. It is on his coat-tails, my friends, that we ride, we and the whole saved world. As our Presiding Bishop once said, “Jesus is our vehicle” to salvation — and it is by being in him that we share in that journey, and in the benefit of his faith. His cross is the vehicle on which we get a free ride, for through our baptism, like Paul, we can say that we have been crucified with Christ, and the life we live is no longer our own, but life in him.

The good works that we may be able to do are not the way we earn salvation, but they are signs of gratitude that we have been saved. Like the tears and the ointment of that woman of the city, any good works we do are testimony to the grace we have already received. It is as if we have all received a huge inheritance — and I will tell you we have, even if we don’t know it — we have received an inheritance and been invited to move into the mansion prepared for us, and invited to the banquet set before us. And it is all a gift from a generous God who has forgiven us all of our trespasses just as we have forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Our debts have been forgiven and canceled, nailed to the cross, and there is no estate tax on this inheritance. God is gracious; God is generous: and everything good comes to us as a gift, a justification in righteousness transmitted to us by that incredible act of faith, the faith of Jesus Christ our Lord. And who would not show gratitude for that?+