The text from the Epistles suggested for today is Galatians 5:1, 13-25. It is a beautiful passage. It begins: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Starting at the 13th verse Paul waxes eloquent in talking about freedom – not license to anything anyone wants to do – but how through love people within the community become slaves to one another. Like Jesus before him, Paul quotes Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. He ends the passage with a listing of the fruit of the Spirit. He writes: the fruit of the Spirit There is no law against such things.
And, he makes it clear that exhibiting these attributes can’t be manufactured, fabricated. The text reads 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Well, he says it better than can I: 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Obviously I’ve turned the passage around abit because earlier he wrote: 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. It’s interesting that these are the very things the Law was supposed to help us avoid –And he had just said: 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. You could imagine that being free of the law we are free to live unbridled lives. No longer is the Law our chaperone – it is by belonging to Christ, having, as Paul wrote: crucified the flesh with its passions and desires that our lives will exhibit the Spirit’s fruit and that we will know in ourselves love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,23gentleness, and self-control.
In verse two through twelve Paul loses some of the ‘self control’ of which he had just spoken. There was a real issue– one group within the churches of Galatia were adamant that Jewish rites of initiation were required of Gentiles. Paul thought that in his discussion with the leaders of the Jerusalem church issue had been resolved but here it was again, legalism, raising its ugly head, confusing, frustrating and dividing the Galatians. His words to those who demanded following the Law rather than following the Spirit were, well, cutting. 2Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything 7You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? 8Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. 10I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. 11But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.12I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
Now that is pretty rough, to say the least. But there, beneath Paul’s broadside against those who demand compliance to their set of rules we find an absolute jewel. Paul writes: “…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” It is almost breath taking. “…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”
From our perspective, 2,000 years into the age of the church, does that still apply? What about things like the Apostle’s Creed, which legend holds, on the day of Pentecost the 12 Apostles contributed one line each to this statement of faith. Scholarship asserts that it was a confessional statement from the second half of the 5th century in southern Gaul. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that it wasn’t in Gaul but in Rome that the creed assumed its final shape.
What about the Creed from the Council of Nicea? On the 19th of June in the year 325, Emperor Constantine opened the first Ecumenical Council making his entry into this gathering of Bishops wearing a gold oriental robe covered with precious stones, made an address expressing his will that religious peace should be established and the theological rancor cease and took his place in a golden chair. Politically driven the church devised a new creedal statement, exiled the Bishops who wouldn’t agree, resolved the controversy over the date of Easter, and burned the books of Arius.
Well, for Quakers, would Paul’s sentence cover the Richmond Declaration of Faith? What about George Fox’s letter to Barbados, the list of our Yearly Meeting’s core values or what Britain Yearly Meeting considers the essentials of Quakerism? It seems that Paul encouraged the Christians of Galatia to set aside things which by their very nature divide. His line was “…the only things that counts is faith working through love.”
It reminds me of the movie City Slicker. Curly the quintessential cowboy asks: Do you know what the secret of life is? The city slicker Mitch answers “No. What”. “This” Curly replies simply holding up his index finger. To which Mitch responds “Your finger?” Then Curly says: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything don’t mean ‘nuthen’.” “That’s great” Mitch replies. “But what’s the one thing?” Curly says “That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.”
Paul figured it out for the church. It is faith working through love.
Last week we discussed what Paul meant by faith. Faith is not mental assent to a set of beliefs. Faith is not being a strong spiritual warrior resisting the darts of temptation, that’s Old Testament faithfulness. For Paul ‘the faith’ of Christ means trusting God in a very radical and absolute way. When we are tempted to trust anything other than God that’s idolatry. That means placing our trust in the political process or free enterprise or even in our own efforts because we know that no one will do what ever needs to be done right, at least according to Paul, we have stepped outside of our relationship with God. But even this faith, the faith, this trusting God can’t exist in the abstract. Paul actually addresses two distinct graces. There may be intense faith without love.
Paul says the one thing that is important is that our trusting God becomes real through love. For Paul a good understanding of love was crucial for a Christian life. Love is the atmosphere within which faith should be exhibited. Paul rarely spoke of a believer giving love to God, but a concrete response toward others is significantly mentioned. In Paul’s writings loving God means loving others. Paul wrote that the command of God was to love others. Paul wrote that a theology of love was faith in Christ and love for others. The very source of love is a believer’s faith in Christ, so Christ was the source of believer’s love. Love is not an attained virtue in itself, but is part of a life transformed, filled with the spirit of God and united with the body of Christ.
In Paul’s day some within the faith community had determined that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus meant that God had done all that was necessary for their salvation. That meant that no one had to try to earn their salvation by any kind of works—how freeing. But as in most cases where people get a taste of freedom for the first time, they have a hard time figuring out what it means to be truly free. I’ve got stories from my family about after emancipation when people who had been slaves were released from their bondage. Violence and the economy had left the plantation in ruins. After a few weeks of freedom, when those who had title to the land could hardly feed themselves, those who had been slaves returned seeking shelter, food and work. Under the rules of reconstruction they had to be turned away. Freedom makes great demands.
The true meaning of love is found in the freedom to give yourself away. True freedom is what you get when you live your life in loving service to others. But I would say that it’s not so much a vicious circle as it is a paradox. The only way to truly find freedom is to give yourself away in love, and the only way to truly give yourself away in love is when you are free.. Augustine said it this way: “love, and do what you will.” I think he was saying that if you truly love God and truly love others, then you are free to do whatever you want, because what you want will be—in so far as it is humanly possible—an expression of love toward God and others. And as St. Paul said it, there is no law against that!
What the Apostle Paul wanted the people of his day and ours to know is that it is only our relationship with Christ that enables us to explore what it means to have the freedom to love others in a community of people who are also free to live and to love. That’s the one thing or has Paul puts it “…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”