Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 26, 2022
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 Commentary
It comes up repeatedly in our conversations with our Jewish friends and acquaintances. “How can you live without God’s law to guide your life?” The observant Jews we know and love can’t imagine living without the structure Torah gives them. “Doesn’t it lead to some kind of anarchy?” is one form of the questions they often ask us.
Those aren’t easy questions to answer with just one or two sentences or people with whom we’re not in community. But at the heart of Christians’ answers to questions about the potential anarchy of life lived outside God’s law is our profession that one law does structure our lives: the law of love. After all, as Paul writes, the entire law, the Torah, is, according to verse 14, “summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is a veritable goldmine of themes for proclamation, including that of Christian freedom, slavery to the sinful nature, and the fruit of the Spirit. Preachers and teachers might also, however, prayerfully organize our proclamation of it around how love for neighbor (and God) are at Galatians 5’s heart.
In Galatians 4, Paul uses Hagar and Sarah’s story as an allegory for freedom as an inheritance. Jesus’ followers are, he concludes in verse 31, children not of the slave who is Hagar, but of the free woman who is Sarah. We have, Paul implies there, inherited Christian freedom from her.
The apostle continues that theme in chapter 5 in which his second word is eleutheria (“freedom”). Freedom is, in fact, so central to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson that he uses its root, eleutheros, twice in its first five words alone. Paul begs his readers not to surrender our freedom by returning to the slavery that is the assumption that people must obey the law in order to be in relationship with God. He urges them to live, instead, in the freedom that comes from a faithful reception of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Verse 1b’s imagery of a voluntary return to slavery reminds me of a horrific scene I witnessed while pastoring a rural congregation in northeastern Iowa. Lightning struck and set ablaze a barn in which a member of our church housed his pigs. Ed risked his life by going into his burning barn to chase his pigs out of it to safety.
I watched him succeed in rescuing most of them. But even as Ed did his best to prevent them from returning to the still-burning barn, a number did race right back into the barn and their sure death. Those pigs traded life for death, freedom for a kind of yoke of slavery.
Of course, since pigs don’t seem to be the brightest lights in God’s constellation of creatures, we’re not surprised that they might trade their freedom for slavery and life for death. Yet by saying, “Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” (13b), Paul at least implies that those whom God has freed to be God’s adopted sons and daughters are also at least tempted to be like swine. We’re tempted to foolishly surrender our God-given freedom to return to slavery to sin, Satan, and death.
In the verses the RCL omits from this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul describes the high cost of remaining slaves to God’s law. It forces people to try to keep the law perfectly. Paul also essentially claims that slavery to God’s law renders Christ and his work worthless to such slaves.
In Galatians 5, the apostle insists that keeping that law by, for example, being circumcised is actually worthless in terms of being able to redeem people. What is valuable, he adds, is faith that produces love (6). Such love is one of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s main themes. Agape is the root of three words that Paul uses in it. A failure to love is at the root of the vices he mentions. What’s more, love is the root of the virtues he lists. To follow Jesus is to love our neighbor. To be truly free in Christ is to love each other.
Yet as N.T. Wright (Galatians, Eerdmans, 2021) points out, just as Paul qualifies 1 Corinthians 6:12’s “all things are permissible” with “not everything is beneficial,” so in Galatians 5 he also qualifies the freedom Christ Jesus’s friends enjoy. The apostle reminds his Galatian readers not to use that freedom to satisfy our sinful nature. Christ has, after all, graciously set Christians free — but only to live out our faith in love for each other (and, by extension, God).
In fact, we might argue that Paul is claiming that Christ has freed us from slavery to sin in order to make us slaves to our neighbors. Of course, most English translations largely obscure any hints of that “trade.” While they refer to “slavery” in verse 1, they speak of servanthood in verse 13.
However, the root of both words is doulos, that’s generally rendered as “slave” in English. That at least suggests that Paul is claiming that while Christ has freed his adopted siblings from slavery to sin and slavish obedience to the law, Christ has freed us in order to enslave us to each other.
Of course, such language carries heavy historical baggage, particularly in an American culture whose white ancestors assumed they could enslave Africans and others. So Galatians 5’s proclaimers will want to very carefully present what Paul is actually saying about the nature of Christian “slavery.”
Among other things, while Americans’ slavery was involuntary, Christians’ slavery to our neighbors is voluntary. We willingly commit ourselves to serving our neighbors. What’s more, Christians’ slavery to each other is not the result of coercion, but is, instead, an act of self-sacrificial love. Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters imitate our elder brother by lovingly serving each other with an almost slavish devotion.
As Wright (ibid) notes, “Part of the ‘freedom’ Paul so cherishes … is freedom from the enclosing, sometimes claustrophobic, inward-looking communities that serve only their own interests. Being set free from those restrictions opens up a wide field in which love can seek out those whom it will serve.”
It’s as if after making that assertion in verse 13, Paul hurries to describe what Spirit-fueled loving slavery to our neighbors is not. Verses’ 19-21 list of failures to love is detailed. Their proclaimers might engage in a fairly detailed study and description of them.
But as the New Testament scholar Amy Peeler notes, Paul’s beginning with hatina (that the NIV omits but might be translated as “whichever) and ending with ta homoia toutois (which the NIV renders, “and the like), implies that he doesn’t think of this list as exhaustive. It, instead, offers examples of the kinds of behavior that fails to show love. Verses 19-21’s vices are examples of unloving behavior that divides rather than unites the new community that Christ’s saving life and death established, and that the Spirit equips for self-sacrificial love and service.
Paul, of course, lists other failures to love in addition to verses 19-21’s vices. In verse 13 he warns the Galatians, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” And in verse 26 the apostle adds, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
The fruit of the Spirit that Paul goes on to list includes, by contrast, characteristics that the Spirit inspires for loving service that unites the community of Jesus’ followers. Wright (ibid), however, points to a striking contrast between the unloving acts of the sinful nature and the fruit of the Spirit that equips Christians to lovingly serve each other. “The [sinful nature] produces a miscellany of bad behaviors, linked only by their destructive tendencies. The ‘fruit,’ singular, comes as a package. One may not plead the necessity of specialization – selecting, say, ‘kindness’ and ‘gentleness’ while leaving faithfulness and self-control to others.”
Proclaimers might point to the unity found not only in the new creation that is the Church of Jesus Christ, but also in the way the Spirit works in God’s dearly beloved people. After all, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male, or female. For Christians are one in Christ Jesus (3:25). In a similar way, the Spirit doesn’t “grow” multiple fruits in God’s adopted children. The Spirit, instead, produces only one fruit.
Sadly, Paul’s emphasis on unity seems largely lost, not only on the culture, but also, sometimes, on the Church. Proclaimers might point out some of those divisions that can serve as a backdrop for Paul’s relentless call to the Christians in the church of Galatia “to celebrate and cherish their unity as the single, messianic family of the one God” (Wright). Just as the members of the Trinity are one, God calls God’s adopted sons and daughters to be one.
Paul basically closes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with military imagery. New Testament scholar Elizabeth Johnson says that stoichomen (“keep in step with”) connotes standing in formation or marching in line. Both connotations reflect the Christian unity for which Paul is begging.
The American television program, “Gomer Pyle, USMC” portrayed a bumbling but lovable Marine from North Carolina’s backwoods. Its opening featured Pyle’s struggles to keep in parade step with other Marines. Yet no matter how much Gomer had struggled to be a good Marine during the show, by the end he’d be keeping in step with other Marines –until the next show.
Christ Jesus’ friends are not truly free when we keep step with a culture that glorifies vice and demeans Christ-like attitudes and actions. Nor are we genuinely free when we march in lockstep with a culture that encourages division. God’s dearly beloved people are genuinely free only when we, instead, keep in step not only with the Holy Spirit, but also, lovingly, with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
It can be tempting to confuse spiritual gifts, such as those about which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, with the fruit of the Spirit that he describes in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. Stephen Windward, in his fine book, The Fruit of the Spirit, helpfully distinguishes the two.
He writes, “Fruits have to do with character, gifts with service. The fruits are a description of what a Christian is meant to be; the gifts are indications of what a Christian is meant to do.” Further, fruits are for all, gifts are for some. And it is quite possible (as in the cases of Samson and Solomon) to have gifts, but lack fruits, to be what Winward refers to as “massively gifted and poorly cultivated.”
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