July 14, 2013

Unnatural Freedom

Growing up, one of my favorite cartoon shows and action figure lines was Hasbro’s Transformers.  These sentient, alien machines from a distant planet had brought their own war here as they sought to discover and control a natural resource called Energon which was for them roughly equivalent to oil for us and which somehow we hadn’t discovered since our technology was not sufficiently advance to get any practical use out of it.  Oh, and they were able to disguise themselves so they could go about their business without having to deal with the local populace by transforming into various kinds of vehicles.  So essentially you had robots and “car-trucks” as Josiah calls them combined into one appealing package.  It made for fun TV and recent movies and awesome toys—because who doesn’t want a car that transforms into a giant robot?  Additionally, since they came out in the 1980s when being pro-American values was still cool, the good-guy robots, the Autobots, allied themselves with the United States and spouted remarkably American-sounding ideas considering they were all from a planet millions of light-years away.  In particular, Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, has had one phrase which has been his motto through all the various versions over the last 30 years: “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.”

That has a really nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  It sounds so American.  All people have the right to be free.  Such a sentiment, at least in this culture which of all the world’s cultures celebrates freedom as one of its founding principles, rings true somewhere deep in our souls.  I said last week that a person is either free or a slave of some kind.  Let me add this morning that since we were all created for freedom, unless it is forced into hibernation, people who are slaves naturally desire to be free.  Freedom is a right.  It is a natural right.  And yet, freedom itself is not natural.   We may have been created for freedom, but only rarely in the history of the world have people been free for any meaningful length of time.  A survey of the last 250 years makes this abundantly clear.  The French Revolution from the tyranny of the monarchy quickly fell to the tyranny of the Jacobins and then to that of Napoleon.  The Russians over threw the Czars and got Stalin.  Various African nations achieved freedom from their European masters only to fall to the strong men and warlords who have kept that continent’s people starving since.  Only once in the last 250 years has there been a revolution for freedom that lasted a significant amount of time.  We’re living it.  This is why our nation has long been called the “American experiment.”  Freedom, you see, is unnatural.

Well, this morning we are continuing our series, Living Free.  We are continuing our look at Paul’s incredible treatise on freedom written to the churches in Galatia.  These churches, which Paul had planted along with Barnabas on their first missionary journey, were being seduced by folks who were telling them that in order to be really saved they had to keep the Law of Moses.  In other words, they had to become Jewish, or, Jews were really the only people capable of being saved.  This was akin to modern churches averring that people can only be truly saved if they fit themselves to this or that set of behavioral restrictions—don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t watch R-rated movies, don’t this, don’t that.  Paul viewed all of this as a false gospel that was going to lead the believers straight back into the slavery they had known before coming to Christ.  Paul had to remind them that there’s no gospel save the grace of Christ.  And, extrapolating from this, because the Gospel brings freedom, there’s no real and lasting freedom apart from Christ.  That was all in Paul’s opening words.

This morning as we move forward in the letter, Paul finally hints at the topic which will form the real heart of the letter.  He does this, though, through the context of a story: his own story.  Through his own story of redemption from the slavery of sin Paul draws the attention of the Galatian believers to the problem of accepting a false “gospel”: it eliminates freedom.  Find your Bible, Bible app, or the insert in your bulletin and we’ll take a look at Paul’s story together.

As we get into the story let me confess something to you: I broke off the text last week at kind of an unnatural spot.  Verse 10 is really a transitional verse which simultaneously completed Paul’s introductory indictment of the Galatian believers while leading into his testimony.  Starting at v. 11, Paul further defends the fact that he’s not on his Gospel mission because someone put him up to it.  He didn’t go to school to learn what he was teaching.  He’s not simply blowing hopeful smoke in their eyes.  He’s proclaiming the real, honest-to-God Gospel to them.  The name-brand version.  Look how he puts this starting there at v. 11: “Know this—I am most emphatic here, friends—this great Message I delivered to you is not mere human optimism.  I didn’t receive it through the traditions, and I wasn’t taught it in some school.  I got it straight from God, received the Message directly from Jesus Christ.”

He goes on now to relate his background to them to further make this point.  Verse 13: “I’m sure that you’ve heard the story of my earlier life when I lived in the Jewish way.”  Do you remember my little pantomime of the approach of the Judaizers last week?  This is Paul saying, “Yep, some of what they told you about me is true.”  Continuing at v. 13: “In those days I went all out in persecuting God’s church.  I was systematically destroying it.  I was so enthusiastic about the traditions of my ancestors that I advanced head and shoulders above my peers in my career.”  Essentially, Paul was a super Jew.  He was super committed, super smart, super talented, super everything.  Paul was “the Man” as far as the Jewish community was concerned.  He had Roman citizenship through his father so he could ably defend Jewish interests there, but his heart fully belonged to the Law.  He could offer apologetics against the paganism of the Empire, but this Jesus movement was bad enough it needed to be totally stamped out.  Paul saw himself as the instrument to make this happen.  But, there was more going on than he realized.

Stay with me at v. 15: “Even then God had designs on me.  Why, when I was still in my mother’s womb he chose and called me out of sheer generosity!  Now he has intervened and revealed his Son to me so that I might joyfully tell non-Jews about him.”  Having covered his conversion, he now moves on to tell the Galatians what happened next.  Verse 16: “Immediately after my calling—without consulting anyone around me and without going up to Jerusalem to confer with those who were apostles long before I was—I got away to Arabia.  Later I returned to Damascus, but it was three years before I went up to Jerusalem to compare stories with Peter.”

Well, after making an initial trip to Jerusalem (reported by Luke in Acts 9:26 and following) and taking some time in Tarsus, Paul began his ministry in Antioch (Luke tells about this in Acts 11:25-26).  Almost a decade and a half later, Paul finally made another trip to Jerusalem (Acts 11:30).  He tells the Galatians about this trip at the beginning of chapter 2.  Look at how he describes it: “Fourteen years after that first visit, Barnabas and I went up to Jerusalem and took Titus with us.  I went to clarify with them what had been revealed to me.  At that time I placed before them exactly what I was preaching to the non-Jews.  I did this in private with the leaders, those held in esteem by the church, so that our concern would not become a controversial public issue, marred by ethnic tensions, exposing my years of work to denigration and endangering my present ministry.”  This doesn’t need much explanation but, suffice to say that Paul wisely recognized the issue of Gentile believers keeping the Law was a potentially significant in-house issue.  He wanted to keep it in-house, though, so that the debate was not able to be used by critics of the church against her as well as by critics within the church against him.  Verse 3: “Significantly, Titus, non-Jewish though he was, was not required to be circumcised.” So even at this pre-Jerusalem Council point, the church leaders, Jewish though they were, were more concerned with simplicity than tradition.

What comes next, though, is incredibly significant.  Don’t miss this.  Verse 4: “While we were in conference we were infiltrated by spies pretending to be Christians, who slipped in to find out just how free true Christians are.  Their ulterior motive was to reduce us to their brand of servitude.”  Okay, a couple of things here.  These “spies pretending to be Christians” were probably confessed Jesus followers in the Pharisee party who would later speak up in favor of commanding law-keeping for Gentile believers at the Jerusalem Council.  One of the reasons Paul probably mentions this group is to show the Galatian believers how nefarious the folks who had been whispering in their ears about the necessity of keeping the law really were.  They were sinking to spying on Paul and the other church leaders in order to find the best ways to counter their teaching.  They were baffled by the freedom Paul and his companions were exhibiting and they didn’t like it.

This leads to the second observation on this part of Paul’s story.  It demonstrates that freedom is not natural.  Real freedom is not the natural state of people.  It may be our right as Optimus Prime has been declaring for thirty years, but it is not natural.  Had Paul been defending a way of life that was natural, this other group would not have spied on them in order to counter it.  The Jewish law was the best system there had ever been for pointing people in the direction of the lifestyle necessary to be in a relationship with the One True God, but the Law was never intended to make us totally free.  It didn’t really bring us freedom; it merely replaced slavery to sin with a new kind: slavery to law.  In this sense, the Law for the Jews was different only in form, not in kind, from the various methods the Gentiles had always used to regulate their own behavior.  The only difference was that the Law pointed people in the direction of God (although it didn’t take them all the way there) while the various Gentile approaches did not.  None of these systems, though, achieved for their adherents what they most desired: freedom.  This is because real freedom is only found in Christ.  Real freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want without anyone else telling us no.  Real freedom is living comfortably within the spacious boundaries of who we were designed to be from the beginning.  This is only possible in Christ.  Thus, when the world sees people who are really free it recognizes two things it cannot stand: people who are different, and a power source which is higher than its own.

Let me explain.  Again, because the systems of the Jews and the Gentiles both failed on the point of freedom, while their approaches differed wildly (one God versus many gods—there’s no middle ground there), their outcome was largely the same.  It’s like looking at the surface of a road.  Up close there is obviously a great deal of variety and contour to it.  But from a distance, everything looks basically the same.  The world is happy with this.  When we find ourselves in the freedom of Christ, though, we look different.  It’s like tracing your eyes along a smooth stretch of road and suddenly hitting a field of grass.  Same.  Same.  Same.  Whoa!  Yes, there’s a sameness to the grass when you put a lot of it together, but there’s a very great deal of difference between the grass and the road.  In Christ we are the grass.  In the world everything else is the road.  Let’s take our metaphor to the second thing.  The road is poured by people.  Yes, they take what God has made, but they manipulate it into something else.  Something hard and lifeless.  But the grass, that runs on a different power source.  We might be able to plant it.  But we can’t make it grow.  Now, in a biological sense, the grass is natural and the road is unnatural, but as far as people are concerned, the road is natural for us.  Naturally humans manipulate and change nature, and ultimately, because of the effects of sin, deaden it.  We take what’s alive and make it lifeless.  We build things that are dead because we can’t make life.  Let me see if I can push our metaphor just a bit further (and remember, I’m using natural and unnatural in ways opposite of how we normally think).  When we see things that are unnatural to us we tend toward making them natural because we don’t like when things don’t reflect us.  Or perhaps I could put it like this: we like to see unnatural things from the safety and comfort of a controlled, natural setting where our power is pulling the strings.

And so, when word slipped out that Paul was talking about introducing something unnatural into the world, the world rose up to first investigate and then destroy.  Thus the spies.  What are these people with real freedom like and how can we stop them?  All of this simply goes to illustrate our point that freedom is not natural.  Actually, let me add two words to that to make what I’m saying even clearer: freedom in Christ is not natural.  This entire story of Paul’s has been leading to this one thing: freedom in Christ is not natural.  Let that stay in your minds even when everything from today has left: freedom in Christ is not natural.

The rest of Paul’s story through v. 14 helps to illustrate this point.  The outcome of his meeting with the church leaders is that they agree with his theology and commission him to be the main outreach guy to the Gentiles.  Sometime later, though, when Peter had made a trip up to Antioch to check in on Paul, he was living fully out of his freedom in Christ and eating along with the Gentiles—a big no-no for the Jews if you’ll remember; perhaps it would be not so different from a mature believer going to a bar or maybe hanging out with gay friends who are somewhat interested in Jesus after a gay pride event with the intention of building redemptive relationships.  He was eating with the Gentiles, that is, until some Jewish believers arrived who were representing James.  When they walked into the room it was like a different Peter show up with them.  He wouldn’t have anything to do with the Gentile believers anymore.  Following the apostle’s lead even Barnabas started acting differently.  Paul had to call Peter out to his face.  Look at v. 14: “But when I saw that they were not maintaining a steady, straight course according to the Message, I spoke up to Peter in front of them all: ‘If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?”

Think about this.  Freedom in Christ is so unnatural that even Peter was seduced away from it for a time.  I don’t think Paul includes this little bit to embarrass Peter or show that he’s better than Peter.  Rather, in context, it serves to demonstrate to the Galatian believers just how seductive the mindset of the Judaizers was.  If even Peter can buy back into it for a time, this really serves to demonstrate that freedom in Christ is not natural.  Without constant attention and good strong guardrails, we will always drift back in the direction of some form of slavery to sin.  I think part of the reason for this is that sin, by its very nature, mimics what is good and right.  It presents a false picture that’s just convincing enough to fool us.  It’s like the old Roadrunner cartoons when Wiley E. Coyote would paint a wall to look like a road to try and get the Roadrunner to smash into it.  (I know the analogy breaks down because the Roadrunner always ran through the wall onto the painted road, but you know what I mean.)  We see the deceptions of sin, think they are something familiar, something we need in order to have the freedom we desire, and run for them.  In the end, though, the thing that seemed good proves to be merely the treat on the barb.  We take it into our mouths and are hooked.  Unless someone comes to remove the barb from our mouths, our fates are sealed.  Freedom in Christ is not natural.  Whether or law or license it does not matter.  Slavery is slavery.  Yet we want to be free.

So then, what does this mean for us?  Well, let me say it again: on our own, we will naturally drift in a direction away from freedom.  We always take the bait and get caught because we think with our stomachs.  This applies both personally and nationally.  Nationally, our nation was founded to be a free nation.  The Founding Fathers understood that freedom requires both limited government and personal virtue which itself requires faith. Without both of these elements firmly in place, the American experiment would eventually end and they all knew it.  The end would come not from outside incursion, but from inner decay.  Add to this the fact that Christ provides the only sufficient foundation for the virtue freedom requires.  So while our nation may be officially secular, an active church proclaiming the Gospel and working hard to see it played out in national politics and policies is the only thing that will ultimately succeed in pulling us back from the cliff toward which we are currently hurdling.  Public virtue of this kind, though, must come from somewhere.  And that somewhere is personal virtue.  On our own, again, we will naturally drift in the direction of slavery of some fashion.  It may be a slavery to law as the Jews had long had and were in fact trying to foist in the Galatian believers.  Or, it may be a slavery to vice of some kind.  Either way, slavery is what it will be.  This is because freedom in Christ is not natural.

Now, let’s put all of this in the context of our community and our efforts to minister the Gospel to the community around us.  One of the hard truths of this life that the guys who wrote the various manuscripts in the Bible did not shy away from facing is the fact that in this life we will never totally escape the pull of our natural, world-defined selves.  It just won’t happen.  This means that it does not matter how long you’ve been professing to be a follower of Jesus, if you leave your freedom in Christ unattended for long you will naturally drift in the direction of some kind of slavery.  It may be slavery to a vice of some kind: pornography, bitterness, gossip, alcohol, self-reliance, unforgiveness, busyness, and the like.  It may be a slavery to a law of some kind: we start feeling like we have to do more in order to prove ourselves good enough, efforts which almost always quickly devolve into some form of legalism in which we stop relying on grace to be free and start relying instead on our own set of limits which are rarely in line with those of Christ.  Whichever path our walk into slavery happens to take, though, the results are the same.  We either start to pull out of community—whether physically, emotionally, or both—which removes the one critical element to helping us work through whatever our issue is, or we wave our issue around like a banner and cause disunity among the body.  Either way, we remain slaves longing to be free when freedom is within our reach.  We need only place ourselves once again in submission to Christ.  But, because freedom in Christ is not natural, we must make that handoff on a daily basis.  Over time it will get easier to make, but we must still make it each day.

Looking outward just a bit, we can’t very well invite people into a freedom that we do not ourselves fully enjoy.  In other words, if we have chained ourselves to law or vice our witness to the community is greatly hampered.  They hear our invitation to freedom, come and witness that we are not in fact much freer than they are, and walk away to keep looking in other places.  In his later letter to the house churches in the city of Corinth, Paul professed that he made it his goal to be all things to all people in order to save some.  Such a feat is only possible if we are free enough to be all things.  You see, when we aren’t free, we’re locked into one thing.  Slaves don’t have the option of being this or that.  They are slaves and that’s it.  It takes real freedom to be able to put on different hats and interact with and build relationships with different people with the goal of seeing them drawn out of their own slavery and into freedom themselves.  This unnatural freedom, though, is only found in Christ.  Freedom in Christ is not natural.  We naturally put up roadblocks.  We embrace slavery every time unless we actively keep ourselves from it.  Not only that but the world around us constantly calls us back into its varied forms of slavery because it hates our freedom.  So think this morning.   What roadblocks are in the way of your being completely free?  Are they from the world or have you put them there yourself?  Whatever they are, tear them down.  It’s enough trouble to walk the path of freedom as it is.  Don’t stand for roadblocks.  Freedom in Christ is unnatural.  Go against the grain and be free.  Stand as one capable of becoming fully who God designed you to be.  Be vigilant against the calls to return to slavery.  Freedom in Christ is unnatural.  Dare, then, to be unnatural.