Lawlessness

Lawlessness

Galatians 5:13-18

by Daniel Harrell

In this season of the Good Neighbor I’ve preached from each of the places the command “love your neighbor as yourself” shows up in the Bible. We’ve looked at the Torah and the Ten Commandments, at Jesus and the Good Samaritan, and now at Paul in two places—Romans and Galatians—concluding next Sunday with James, the brother of Jesus. “Love your neighbor as yourself” originally appears in Leviticus—obscurely nestled amidst prohibitions against mixing seeds and mixing fabrics. Jesus elevates it in the gospels to second place among all the commandments, second only to loving God with all you’ve got, the epitome of worship. Post-resurrection and Pentecost, loving your neighbor moves up to the top spot, summing up the whole law, since now with the Holy Spirit in your heart, there’s no separation between worship and service. Loving your neighbor means loving God too.

Years ago, the matron saint, Mother Teresa spoke to group of diplomats at the United Nations. She took such opportunities to offer simple lessons on moral theology, simple lessons that couldn’t be converted into complicated formulas to let people off the hook. One diplomat approached Mother Teresa and asked, “How do I know that I’m living as a Christian?” She reached out and took his burly hand in hers and spread out his five fingers. She said, “Each night before you sleep, re-examine your day. Think of what you said with your mouth and what you did with your hands. As you pray, before you sleep, as you think about what you did, count out on each finger these words spoken to you by Jesus: “You did this to me.”

Last Sunday in Romans 13, Paul instructed Christians to “owe nobody anything except to love one another, for the one who loves another fulfills the law.” By law, Paul meant the Torah, typically summed up by the Ten Commandments; and by fulfilled he meant accomplished, though not finished, but fully obeyed. “Loving your neighbor as yourself” was how you obeyed the whole law.

Here in Galatians 5, Paul proves more circumspect about the law. On the one hand he still promotes law-keeping as love, but on the other hand, law-keeping, if devoid of the Spirit, sours into self-indulgence. Paul blames “the flesh,” that tendency in human nature to bend in on itself to the exclusion of God and of others. “The flesh desires what is opposed to the Spirit,” he writes, “and the Spirit desires what is opposed to the flesh, for these are hostile toward each other, to prevent you from doing what is right.” The only solution is freedom from the whole convoluted system. “If you are led by the Spirit,” Paul writes, “you are not subject to the law.”

As a lover of wordplay I used to follow a column in The Atlantic magazine inviting readers to submit new terminology for everyday occurrences. For instance, what would you call “that restless feeling that makes a person repeatedly peer into the refrigerator when they’re bored.” Submissions included refrigerator magnetism, expiration dating and Maytag tag. A reader from Texas wrote how he often revisited the same refrigerator he disappointingly left only moments prior as if this time the perfect snack, which he had overlooked before, would suddenly be there waiting for him. He called it, leftoveractive imagination. The winner, from Oakland, offered a neat and uncomplicated term: instead of fidgety, fridgety.

How about a term for Paul’s contention that to be led by the Spirit frees you from the law? What would you call a kind of Christianity for which there were no rules or regulations? Since the Greek word for law is nomo; how about no mo nomo? Or perhaps illegalistic. Maybe just a simple bye-law. For those feeling particularly constricted, you could always put the fun back in fundamentalism. Or for hard-core Calvinists, how about: free-destination? 

“You are called to freedom,” Paul writes. But liberty was not license to do as you pleased. Freedom was not lawlessness. Righteousness still meant doing right. The whole law was summed up in loving your neighbor. So just love your neighbor and the flesh loses the fight.

Specifically in Galatians, the problem was with Jewish converts to Christianity who insisted Gentile converts be Jewish too, which meant getting circumcised and keeping kosher. For comparison, think about the way colonial Christian missionaries forced indigenous peoples to dress and act like Europeans before they could fully enter the kingdom of God. Paul was nonplussed. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” he wrote, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The Galatians had been hoodwinked into a complicated salvation formula of faith plus circumcision, so-called “works of the flesh.” Since Abraham, circumcision had signified the covenant relationship between God and his people—circumcision because of its connection to progeny and inheritance. As an antecedent to baptism, circumcision also enfolded infants into the covenant (which is why we do infant baptism). Baptism superseded circumcision under Jesus (and thereby included women and Gentiles), but neither baptism nor circumcision was ever anything more than symbols of grace. The covenant blessings of God, justification and the Holy Spirit, come solely by way of faith with no ceremonial slicing or dunking required.

“Listen up! (Galatians 5:2) I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Paul loved wordplay too. Getting circumcised according to the law gets you cut off from Jesus! Paul went on in verse 12 to wish that “those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Ouch.

In this morning’s text, Paul word-playfully tells the Galatians to use their freedom in Christ to become slaves to love. “For the whole law is summed up in the single commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.” The law, while defective as a means of grace, remains an authentic expression of God’s moral character, exemplified in Jesus and reflected by followers of Christ led by the Spirit.

Paul learned this the hard way. As a Type-A Pharisee, Paul’s problem had not been insubordination to the law, but overboardination (how’s that for a word?). Paul nursed that holier-than-God arrogance wherein keeping the law makes you a law unto yourself, that sort of fleshy self-righteousness Jesus constantly condemned. Most Pharisees started out as humble, God-fearing men who only wanted to live holy lives. For them this meant an adherence to safeguards and incentives, checklists for obedience. Their problem was not guilt and shame from failing to obey, but pride due to their success. Formerly sinners humbled by grace, the Pharisees warped into do-it-yourself saints who didn’t need grace anymore. And once you stop needing grace, you stop giving it too.

Jesus knocked Paul off his high horse on his way to Damascus, condemning all that self-righteous goodness as a truckload of crap. We can be good, but never good enough. There’s no fruit of the Spirit without the spirit. And there’s no Spirit without the cross. Paul had to be crucified in Christ to finally live and love like Jesus loved.

“Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions” Paul will write. There’s a little wordplay at play here too: The Greek word for passion is pathos which is a homonym for suffering, as in the passion of Christ. It was Christ’s righteous pathos that atoned for our unrighteous pathos, turning us, as it were, into pathological followers of Christ. Indeed, Christianity can seem a bit morbid. Paul says we must be crucified dead and buried over and over again. This is why we hang huge crosses on the walls of our churches, to remind ourselves over and over again in big letters. Jesus died for us so we can die too. 

As Dawn was dying of her cancer she spoke of never being afraid, she’d been rehearsing for it by faith her whole life.

To die is how we all are like Jesus without ever trying. Paul calls it good news and goes on to say we’ve been crucified already; that as far as God goes we’re as good as dead now. And that dead is good because it means we get raised, something Paul insists has already happened too because of “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead” dwelling inside you and giving life to your mortal bodies through the Holy Spirit. This is how spiritual fruit gets produced which makes loving your neighbor doable.

The Atlantic magazine’s December issue features a gorgeously written and heart-piercing piece by Tom Junod about the upcoming movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks (who else?) as Mister Rogers. The movie’s based on an interview Tom conducted with Fred Rogers and their lovely,  life-changing friendship that lasted until Mister Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003. Tom pays tribute to Mister Rogers as a good man, “revered not because people model their own lives after his, but precisely because nobody does.” It was always easier to make fun that to follow his example. The same might be said about Jesus: too good to be copied, so we crucified him instead.

Mister Rogers was also Reverend Rogers, a seminary-trained, ordained Presbyterian follower of Jesus “so appalled by what he saw on 1950s television—adults trying to entertain children by throwing pies in each other’s faces—that he joined the medium as a reformer.” I guess this made Mister Rogers a televangelist too, only one who actually preached what he practiced.

No doubt the movie will be a holiday smash, just like last year’s biopic on Mister Rogers, “Won’t you Be My Neighbor?”,  became the highest-grossing biographical documentary ever. The documentary became so popular “because it made people cry unashamedly, because it shows what radical kindness actually looks like, because it depicts a man who gave his life to what turned out to be a hopeless cause.” Mister Rogers lost “because the great conceit of the internet—the devouring digitization of all human endeavor—unveiled and unmasked us and shows us as we really are and our neighbors as they really are, and that hate is more viral than love. Twitter is a platform consecrated to the eternal pie fight—to the purposes of protest, complaint, and particularly punishment—where nobody is special and nobody is invulnerable.”

We live in a flesh-indulgent day where “civility has become a luxury we can no longer afford.” The retiring Editor-in-Chief whom I’m replacing at Christianity Today told me this is a reason he’s stepping down. He’s tired of all the the binary fury, the polarizing passions and ensuing vitriol from hypocritical, flesh-eating Christians. It’s as Paul warned in verse 15, “if you bite and devour one another, you will be consumed by each other.” For my part, I’ve had progressive friends be appalled at my going to work for what they see as a right-wing-nut rag. My conservative friends worry I’m not sufficiently orthodox. My predecessor describes himself as “a stake in the ground kind of guy.” Everybody knows where he stands. I joke about being more of “a steak on the grill kind of guy.” I’d rather we sit down over dinner and sort it out between us. 

There somehow persists a certain human longing for goodness and grace, a hunger and thirst for righteousness. How else to explain Mister Rogers’ heightened reputation 16 years after his death? His Neighborhood was known as a place where love mandated civility, where divergence and differing opinions—whether political or cultural or even theological—would be welcomed and explained and understood. The only thing not subject to debate was the nature of persons.

Mister Rogers once enlisted an in-house writer to come up with a doctor’s manual on how to talk to children. The writer worked hard on it, using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed Mister Rogers her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: “You were a child once too.” Mister Rogers firmly believed that if you remembered what it was like to be a child, you would remember that you were a child of God. 

He got it right out of the Bible. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to the adults in the room, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” To the Romans, Paul wrote, “All who are led by the Spirit are children of God.” And then to the Galatians, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God by faith,” with no distinction. Mother Teresa and Mister Rogers, Jew and Gentile, you and me, us and them, we were all children once and are still children now.

Verse 16: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The flesh works on the law, twisting it with a perverse, reverse psychology, enticing us to do the very things the law prohibits. But infused with the Spirit—and this is the key—the law can become our spiritual discipline, yielding that crop of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control Paul celebrates in verse 22. And it’s not a crop for ourselves, but a crop share. Hoarded it rots, but lavished on others it reproduces and grows. , but a crop share, never to be hoarded but lavished on others with love. “There is no law against such things,” Paul writes. In yet another play on words, Paul will call it the “law of Christ.”

And thus from the Puritans: “Blessed Lord Jesus, thou art the gospel, both its messenger and its message, lived out on earth through infinite compassion, applying thy life to insult, injury, death, that I might be redeemed, ransomed, freed. Help me to give up every darling lust, to submit heart and life to its command, to make the gospel my will, controlling my affections, moulding my understanding; to adhere strictly to the law of true grace. Take me to the cross to seek glory from its infamy; strip me of every pleasing pretense of righteousness by my own doings. I thank thee for the patience that has borne with me so long, and for the grace that makes me thy child. O unite me to thyself with inseparable bonds, that nothing may ever sever me from thy love, my Lord and my Saviour.” Amen.