Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Galatians: Grace and Trust, Not a New Law

A Friends (Quaker) Perspective on Romans and Galatians
Provided several years ago for Illuminate, an adult Sunday School curriculum published by Barclay Press, a Friends publishing house

Lesson 11
Galatians 1:6-9; 2:11-16, 19-21

I resonate with Paul’s frustration here in Galatians. George Fox taught from the beginning that God calls both men and women as ministers and gifts them to do the work. The second preacher in the Quaker movement was Elizabeth Hooten. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, Quakers in a number of churches preached that women were not allowed by Paul to be preachers (or pastors or elders). Just imagine what Paul thought when he heard that! NO, he shouted from beyond the grave, NOT A NEW LAW!  I said you are set right BY TRUSTING IN JESUS, and you are now free to listen to God and obey what God tells you to do. If God says preach, DO IT!

Just try and pry people loose from a rule that makes them feel competent and comfortable. It’s nearly major surgery. Yet Paul has a similar problem here. He has taught, as he always did, that we are saved through confidence in the work of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, and what that tells us about the character and will of God. This saves us into freedom from rules and laws and freedom to hear and obey the lively and living Spirit; and yet, the Galatians are yearning for something safer and more obvious—circumcision. So much easier, really, a few minutes of excruciating pain and then recognition by others that one is “in.”

I can see Paul tearing his hair out. Live by faith, he says; you were included in Jesus’s death, and now your daily life is lived through and by Jesus. The death of Jesus proves that the law was not doing the job of setting people right. Don’t start trying to use the law for that purpose now.

And don’t be like Peter, says Paul, who talks out of both sides of his mouth—acting like someone without the law one minute and then trying to fit in with those who insist on the law the next. Act consistently with the truth of the gospel. How often do we compromise the free air of the good news because we are afraid of those who insist on following rules?

Lesson 12
Galatians 3:1-14

The measuring stick Paul introduces here is the presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of the Galatians. Just as Abraham’s faith was what set him right, so also the Galatians’ faith set them right so that God’s Spirit now dwells in them. This Spirit is the guide for living.

Paul points out some things about trying to live by the law that I wish we would listen to as we apply some part of the law today and ignore the rest. Paul says that those who rely on the works of the law to be right with God are cursed unless they do EVERYTHING written in the law. Paul says that relying on the law is the opposite of living by faith. This is true even with regard to advice Paul gave to churches in his time. Paul is not instituting a new set of laws that set us right with God. He must still be frustrated with us.

What does it mean to live by faith?  We believe the good news about God that Jesus came to tell us and illustrated by the way he lived; he identified with us as human beings doomed to die and brings us along with him into the resurrection. Now, identified with Christ, we have died to the law in order to be free to live to God.

The last part of Galatians 3 celebrates the equality of all in Jesus Christ. When we trust our oneness with Jesus Christ, we are all children of God. We are wearing Jesus. We don’t have lines drawn between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. We are one in Jesus and we are one with Jesus.

Lesson 13
Galatians 5:1-6, 13-18, 22-25

I remember seeing a Gordon setter walking itself around the track at a local middle school. The owner was ahead by ten feet or so, and the dog followed, carrying its own leash in its mouth. A 1000-lb. horse wearing a halter can be led by a tiny person. In both cases, the animal still wears the “clothing” of intimidation or domination. But Jesus has let us off the leash, out of the halter, and has set us up as freeborn human beings.

George Fox wrote of being renewed to the innocence of Eden before the fall. This is a good picture of the eternal truth of what Jesus has accomplished for us. Implicit in it is the truth that each day we make the choice between listening to and obeying what God says and acting on our own advice or as we are dominated by voices other than God.

Paul particularly warns against attempting to bring Judaic practices into the life of freedom in Jesus. His own experience of living under the law made clear to him that he wasn’t going to be able to please God that way; only his face-to-face blinding encounter with the resurrected Jesus made it possible for him to live at peace with God.

As always, freedom is not the same as a license to kill or harm. As the Spirit fills more and more of the corners of our lives, our actions can be characterized not by competitiveness, egotism, or envy, but instead by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This shows that Jesus is working in us to bring about in our bodies what we hope for—our complete redemption.

One word about aging: it seems to me that aging requires us to lean entirely on what Jesus has done for us. I know many older folks who are more rather than less anxious, more rather than less querulous, more rather than less self-absorbed. I encourage the elderly to remember that it is not our own good behavior that earns us God’s love. It comes freely as we trust in what Jesus reveals about God and accomplishes for us through his life, death, and resurrection.

Romans 12 and 14: No Judgment in a Heart at Peace

A Friends (Quaker) Perspective on Romans and Galatians

Provided several years ago for Illuminate, an adult Sunday School curriculum published by Barclay Press, a Friends publishing house

Lesson 9
Romans 12:1-8, 14, 17-21

In Romans 9-11, Paul revisits the comparison between Jews and Gentiles in relation to the faith in God that sets people right with God, each other, and themselves. Most notable is the cautionary example of the Jews, the chosen people through whom came the law, the worship, the promises, and the Messiah (Romans 9:4-5). The Jews, says Paul, look for righteousness based on fulfilling the law and fail, and are thus outside the life of faith and caught in a life of works. We in the church are often in the same place as these folks. It is so human to prefer the known, the law, to the unknown, God’s grace and God’s Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus that the wind blows where it chooses and humans do not understand where it comes from or where it goes, and that this is the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

Romans 12 helps us recognize the Spirit’s work, but it is not a new set of laws. Instead, because of what Jesus has already accomplished through identifying with our humanity, our sin, and our death, and through prefiguring the resurrection we all hope for, we are free to offer our whole selves, body and soul, to the service of God. We don’t have to be pawns of the forces that dominate our social world. As we obey God with our bodies, we worship God in spirit and in truth. God renews our minds so we can see clearly the good, acceptable, complete actions that are the will of God for us.

We use the gifts God gives us, as Jesus illustrated in the parable of the stewards. We treasure and care for the gifts of others. We aren’t tied up in the knots of competitiveness and self-sufficiency. We can lay down our sword and shield and study war no more.

The most important practical faith lesson I’ve learned recently is the importance of having a heart at peace toward those who I believe need to change. This is a spiritual discipline for me and involves praying blessing on them and for God to judge between us. And this prayer is frequent, just as frequent as the thought of conflict arises.

Lesson 10
Romans 14:1, 5-17

Underlying Romans 14 is this principle from Romans 13:8-10: all the interpersonal laws are summed up in “love your neighbor as yourself,” just as Jesus said. This means that we live honorably as if under a spotlight, which is where we are (John 3:21).

What about other believers who hold the wrong opinions?  Paul says, welcome them, but don’t argue with them. God has welcomed them. It is before God they stand or fall, not before us. Like us, whether they live or die, they are the Lord’s because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is one practical application of the law of love. Surely we can imagine that as we are judging them for wrong opinions, they are returning that judgment on us, unless we obey the law of love.

The advice not to judge repeats Romans 2. After the list of sins in Romans 1, therefore, Paul says, do not judge, since all have sinned. Here he says, do not judge, since you are no one’s boss, and all believers are accountable to God for how they obey. If a person hears from God that some behavior is unholy, that person must obey. The Gentiles and Jews to whom Paul wrote had different boundaries, and all still had to treat others with tenderness and love.

Another practical application of the law of love is that we don’t push people to violate their sense of what God wants from them. We respect the boundaries people believe God has given them. We don’t think we are better because God allows us different boundaries. Romans 12:3 tells us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought and to respect the fact that not all members of the body of Christ will function exactly like us.

Many times, I think, what causes our brother or sister to stumble is not a freedom in Christ we live into with joy and gratitude but rather the judgment that we pass on that brother and sister who does things differently from us, whether with more or less freedom. When we judge, we place ourselves as superior to the one being judged. Instead, we who are Spirit-led must be humble and obey God ourselves.