July 6, 2011

Sermons I am Proud Of-Pt4

This blog marks the last of the sermon 're-runs.' This sermon is that I delivered on Sunday July 3rd 2011. It is based on the text Galatians 5:1-15.

This passage in Galatians marks Paul’s biggest frustration. He simply cannot stand anyone who tries to mingle faith in Christ with the required observance of the law. The gloves are off, the rational scriptural argument has ended and now he is shooting from the hip. Paul is telling us what he really thinks and feels about this issue. He lays out two paths for us to walk and he tells us to choose; to choose now, and to choose right.

The first path is observance of the law, with special focus on circumcision. Put in the positive this path is all about doing the right things, going to the right places, and being with right people. Putting it in the negative this path is all about avoiding the wrong behaviours, staying away from the wrong places and avoiding the wrong people. It is as Nolan aptly put last week, all about the check list.

Now at first glance this path seems at least possible all be it difficult. Think about it with me for a moment would you. Let’s do a quick thought exercise. Raise your hand if you agree with this statement; ‘when faced with a temptation it is possible for you to not act on it, and therefore not sin’. Let’s try another raise your hand if you agree with this statement; ‘all temptation leads to sin, thus it is not possible to avoid sinning when tempted’. Now it turns out we are more or less in agreement. Most of us seem to have the understanding that we will not sin every time we are tempted, we recognize that there is some level of choice involved. Therefore we believe that in any given moment we can through effort, and will power avoid sinning.

And that is the baseline for the path of the law. Once you decide through your own effort you can avoid sinning once, what is to say that you cannot avoid it twice, or three time times, or for your entire life? It sounds at least plausible, all be it very difficult.

However when we move from what is theoretically possible to what is actual a different story is produced. We find that while we have our good days none of us only has good days. We all at one time or another are something less than perfect. We mess up, we fall short, we sin.

He lays out two paths for us to walk and he tells us to choose; to choose now, and to choose right

This was Paul’s point. The person who tried to follow the path of the law would fail. The law did not lead to rightness, nor did it lead to holiness, it just led to sin and disappointment. Rules do not change hearts. Rules do not clean souls. Rules do not fix relationships. You see as far as Paul is concerned this path is not just hard it is impossible. No one can perfectly observe the law everyday of their lives. Paul is making the point that the law cannot save us, it can only convict us. The law is a path that only ends in death.

Paul end’s his discourse on the path of the law with a dark, almost frighteningly graphic wish, ‘As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves’. We may get caught up in the almost surprizing level of anger here. But let’s not allow the surprise or our squeamishness blind us from the point Paul is making.

When it comes to following the law, you are either all in, or all out. There is no part way. Think about it, if perfection is what is needed, there is no room for error. Therefore if the debate comes down to a few millimeters of skin, why risk it? Those who have made this the crux of their faith ought to make sure they eliminate all the guess work, and make sure they leave no room for error.

That was the negative, the path of the law; why don’t we move on and talk about the positive; the path of faith in Christ.

This is what Paul says about the path of faith, “But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’

The path of faith is a partnership between us and the Holy Spirit, which produces an internal change that causes external action. The Holy Spirit produces within us righteousness, which is expressed through us doing acts of love.

And these faith produced acts of love are the only things that count. Let that phrase really sink in. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Do our lives reflect that truth? Do our families reflect that truth? Do our small groups reflect that truth? Does our church reflect that truth? Is the number one question that we ask of ourselves and of each other, how can we love more? If it isn’t, then we need to ask ourselves; are we missing the point? To borrow Paul’s terminology, are we focusing on things that don’t count?

It is an important question to answer. But it is also a hard question to answer. We all know that as Christians we are supposed to love one another, and love our neighbours as ourselves. And I have never met a Christian that has said otherwise. No one here would say that love is unimportant. No one here would argue against loving people.

However I think the temptation is to always love less. The temptation that we all face knowingly or unknowingly is to treat rules as important and people as things. So when people inevitably fail to conform we don’t have to love them anymore. Now to be clear these rules don’t have to be a matter of sin. They can just be a matter of decorum, or they can be our own personal set of secondary rules. These are the things that allow us to avoid people. These secondary rules can take a lot of different forms. They can be behaviours, or manners of speaking, held opinions, habits, hobbies, life situations, and on and on we can go.

But whether they are sins or our own pet peeves they have one thing in common, we treat them like they give us licence to love people less. But they do not. That is the idea that Paul pushing against with his finishing thoughts in verses 13-15. In those verses Paul says, ‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

Paul is forcing us to ask the questions; can we maintain love in the face of sin? Can we maintain love in the face of error? Can we maintain love when people do things we dislike? Paul says the only answer available to us is yes. Yes in the face of sin, and error and annoyance we still have to love. In fact if in the face of sin, error and annoyance we cannot love, we just may never have loved at all.

Recently I heard this line, ‘Christian communities should be incredibly easy to join and incredibly difficult to leave’. I think it is profound.

We should be so saturated with Christ’s love that anyone and everyone who interacts with us can feel it. That love should go beyond a warm welcome, and a cup of coffee. As the old saying goes a person who walks through our doors ought to be only a stranger once. Because by the time they come back a second time they already have the makings of friends, extended family, and a group of people who love them dearly.

Likewise no one should just disappear from our communities, forgotten about. No one should be made to feel unwelcomed, unloved, or unworthy of Christ’s love. Yet I fear that can be the case far too often. Far too often it is difficult for a person to transition from stranger, to guest, to known community member. For some it takes years. For others they never seem to be able to fully make the transition. And sadder still it can be very easy to slip out of Christian communities. Simple arguments quickly turn into departure points. As Paul said we can bite and devour one another stomping out love altogether.

You see the path of faith in Christ, that express’ itself in love is not a choice, it is a series of choices. It is the choice we make when we ask Christ to be our savour and Lord. But it is also a choice we make with every word we speak. It is also a choice we make with every interaction we have. It is a choice we make daily, hourly, and moment by moment. Paul is asking the Galatians to choose. He is asking them to choose between the law and faith in Christ. And he is asking them to choose now.

Make no mistake the choice is not between the law which is hard, and Christianity which is easy. The choice is between the law which is hard but ineffective, and Christianity which is hard but effective. The law asks us to follow rules, faith in Christ required us to be transformed so that we can love. Love is harder than rule keeping. But only love counts.

So let me borrow Paul’s platform a little longer and allow me to ask you as well to choose. Choose today, choose right now before we go enjoy our coffee, before we leave this room, before we partake in communion, choose the path of faith in Christ. Forsake whatever law you are clinging too, and choose faith, choose love, choose Christ.