July 4, 2010

“Trying to Fit In”

Galatians 6:7-16


The God of the Old Testament did not distance Himself from His chosen people; He participated in their struggles and made Israel’s enemies His own. Israel’s own transgressions grieved Him and incited Him to a terrible wrath. Ours is no aloof Lord–no Buddha beyond it all or Zeus making light of mortal travail. Among the world religions Christianity is unique in presenting a suffering God, a God who took human suffering upon Himself and in His agony gave birth to mankind’s salvation.

JOHN UPDIKE, In the Beauty of the Lilies


By a coincidence of the calendar, the 4th of July falls on a Sunday. So while Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on our sacred holy day, American citizens will celebrate the birth of their nation on its secular holiday. 

By divine providence, all four readings this week emphasize how our identity before God and the relationship it has to the world around us.

I find great joy in both of these celebrations, but confess that giving my allegiance first to the Kingdom of God makes it difficult to fit into what some describe as ‘nationalism.’  Paul’s letter to the Galatians does not make this dual citizenship easy for me.

Let me explain.

The hymn we just sang is a great one.  I particularly love that last stanza, “In the beauty of the lilies…”  The hymn as a whole captures the great struggle of the civil war, a time of great horror to many.  Some might say that that conflict was born out of our own unique sense of freedom.  Within this idea of freedom, we have cultivated a fierce individualism that is part of our American nature. It is a blessing in many ways, it was what allowed us to forge a constitution that allows for a wealth of individual freedoms.  It was the fuel that powered our willingness to settle the continent, it motivated thousands of people to strike out on their own in business.  It is the stuff of self-sufficiency.  It has its place.

There is a down side to every up side, of course.  This same rugged individualism also fosters a certain sense that we are better than others and that we expect others to be like us, to accept certain ways of being American.  And, on a more personal level, make it on their own, as many of us believe we have.  There is a certain legalism, ironically, to this characteristic.  Last week president Obama spoke about immigration reform.  I do not want to get into the whole matter.  But there was one line that the press gravitated toward that caught my ear also,  he said we are “A nation of immigrants, and a nation of laws.”  This caught my attention because this week I’ve been listening to another voice, an ancient voice, speaking to a group of people regarding this idea of freedom.  This phrase could very well have come to us on the lips of St. Paul as he speaks to the people of the Galatian church.

See, the nature of the “Galatian problem” is just that.  The problem lies in the relationship between those who are new to the community and those who have been ‘born’ into it, keeping its customs and its rules for their whole life.  There are those whose interpretation of their identity requires strict attention to a particular way of being ‘Christian.’

Paul has been addressing this problem, week after week, not only to the Galatians, but to us.  Using a slightly different argument, he speaks of the problems of living out the Christian faith under the banner of law.  In civil matters, as well as spiritual matters, there is a difference between the spirit or intent of the law, and demanding the adherence to the letter of the law by others.

Legalism has no interest in reducing the burdens which others must bear. Instead, it produces burdens and then refuses to assist those on whom they are imposed. Jesus contrasted Himself with the scribes and Pharisees with respect to burdens:

“And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Matt. 23:4).

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

The intent of the law, the scripture, is to form a particular, and peculiar people.  It is to shape them so that they fit into a particular kingdom and have a peculiar allegiance.  It is thus altogether appropriate for Paul to address the subject of burden-bearing, with respect to the “Galatian problem” and in view of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Galatian Christians, in emphasizing legalism, had become harsh and judgmental, attacking others for their offenses.  The remedy for the Galatians is to extend mercy. As we consider the matter of our response to sin in the lives of fellow believers, let us remember that this is only one of the texts dealing with the subject, and that it may or may not relate directly to any specific situation which we face.  Paul is not pointing toward any transgression that is uniquely awful.  What he is doing is bringing the emphasis back to its rightful owner, anyone who seeks to implement a strict line of demarcation in the community; and, having made this distinction, exclude and ignore those on the other side of the line.  The point is that we are our brother’s keeper.  If you want to be a Christian, you have a responsibility to assist others, to work at reconciliation and restoration, gently, sharing the grace of God in concrete ways.

The policy has been made: “Do good to all, especially to those of the family of faith.” The Holy Spirit has been given that we might be empowered to enforce the policy of love, the policy of the right-side up Church, in an upside-down world. It requires the power of the Holy Spirit to go against our nature and do the Christian thing! It requires the power of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and see the needs all around us; to respond to the non-verbal cries for help and to offer the little that we have, trusting God to do the rest.