July 7, 2013

The Real Thing

When I was in junior high I first became really conscious of brand name clothing.  The first brand I remember really wanting was JNCO jeans.  I fancied myself an alternative rebel and the super wide-leg—but not bell-bottoms—skater jeans with humongous pockets and JNCO sewed in big letters down one leg fit the image I wanted to project.  Perhaps since I really wasn’t rebelling in any other part of life—with the possible exception of wearing my hair longer than my dad liked—my parents patiently endured my phase and bought me three or four pairs of the expensive jeans before I gave up on them in favor of something else.  Now, that doesn’t mean my mom didn’t try to talk me into one of the other slightly less desirable brands of jeans which looked the same, wore the same, and cost a whole lot less, but I wasn’t having it.  I was prepared to accept no imitations.  I wanted the real thing.

Today, while not quite so brand-conscious as I was then, there are still some things for which I will accept no imitations.  I have it fixed in my mind that one brand is objectively better than another.  For example, I only wear Saucony tennis shoes.  This has been the case since high school.  No other brand will do.  This brand fascination, though, is really something we all deal with in one way or another.  For some folks, the brand status itself is desirable enough that they will accept imitations, thus the hot market for fake Rolex watches and Gucci handbags.  The reality, though, is that for some things, the name brand version really is better.  The name brand may be costlier than the imitation, but you get what you pay for.  For example, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to store-bought cookies, toilet paper, and cereal the name brand products really are better than their alternatives.  Those are products for which no imitations should be accepted.  When we walk down the path toward imitations we find ourselves in a place worse off than if we had never used the product in the first place!  I remember once purchasing a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch that was 75% reduced sugar.  While the thought of taking 75% of the sugar out of a sugary cereal should have immediately tipped me off, I persisted…and found myself held hostage to a box of lightly sweetened cardboard.  The freedom of the real thing is worth the costs.  Finding ourselves enslaved to an imitation is not a good place to be.

Well, this morning brings us to the cusp of a new journey.  We have finished our walk through the greatest story ever told and it’s time for another.  And, somewhat appropriately given that we have just celebrated the 237th anniversary of our nation’s declaration of independence and, ultimately, freedom from British rule, this new journey is going to be all about freedom.  In fact, the title for this new series is, Living Free.  We are going to spend the next several weeks wrestling with the question of what exactly it means to be free.  Not only what it means to be free, though, but also, how we rightly live as free people.  Being truly free, you see, requires not merely keeping away from chains (including those we would put on ourselves), it requires actively pursuing what is right.  There’s actually a paradox for modern minds here.  On the one hand, we primarily think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we want without outside interference.  The clear witness of Scripture, though, is that such a perspective on freedom will only lead us to take up a different set of chains.  Real freedom actually comes preloaded with some limitations: the limitations of righteousness.  They are broad, but we must learn to live within them because every other path of life comes with a much tighter set.

We’ll explore all of this and more over the next nine weeks.  We’ll do all of this with the help of an ancient document that gives us what is perhaps the most remarkable picture of freedom ever painted.  This best and truest picture of freedom was set out for us about 2,000 years ago by a man who understood in a meaningful way what it meant to be a slave and what it takes to be truly free.  The man’s name was Paul and he wrote these thoughts for us in a letter to some churches he planted along the southern coast of modern-day Turkey in a region then called Galatia.  The letter, which became known as Galatians, was aimed at calling the believers there back to the path of freedom in the face of both powerful temptation and false teaching to leave it in favor of an imitation.  This morning, as we begin this journey to understanding freedom, I want to take a few minutes and tell you the story of what led to this letter being written and then to walk through its powerful opening statement.  If you have a Bible in some form, find your way to Galatians and we’ll get started on this journey.

As you find your way to Galatians, let your mind drift back to the final few parts of our journey through the story of the church.  After Stephen’s martyrdom and the disciples fled Jerusalem, they began taking the message of the Gospel with them.  Saul, the chief opponent of the church, was converted and became Paul and he started taking the Gospel to even more new places.  Up to that point, the church was entirely homogenous: everybody was Jewish.  They all bore the marks of being Jews.  No Gentiles had even been the subject of Gospel preaching.  Folks “not like us,” just weren’t there.  But then, the apostle Peter got the call from God to preach the Gospel to the Gentile Cornelius.  And as I said then, the whole world changed in that room.  The genie was let completely out of the lamp and the lamp was melted down for scrap.  There was no going back.  Now the Gospel was opened to all the world.  But all the world is a pretty diverse group.  How does a group of people that all look the same and pretty much only know one way to think about things and process the world around them handle a blast of heterogeneity?  The simplest answer, I suppose, is not very well.

Peter’s news that the Gospel had come to Gentiles was greeted with skepticism, but given his position, no one really wanted to argue with him so they said, “Great, let them on in…”  Then word came that Gentiles were flooding into the church up in Antioch to the extent that the Jesus followers had to be given a new, non-Jewish, identity in order to properly describe them.  So, they were called “Christians” because they mimicked Christ in their attitude of inclusivity toward people who weren’t like them.  The leaders in Jerusalem sent Barnabas the encourager up to investigate.  Barnabas thought the whole thing was great and went to get Paul to join him in spreading the Gospel to even more Gentiles.  Then, after a visit to Jerusalem, the two men were called by God to go spread the Gospel in even more places.  They stopped in Barnabas’s home on the island of Cyprus, then headed for the cost of Asia, and traveled from there to a group of cities which were all in a region known as Galatia, planting churches as they went.  Eventually they went back home to Antioch and shared the story of what God had done through them, much as the Georges did with us a couple of weeks ago at the Kitchen Table.  If you’ll remember, though, the tension over the Gentile believers not looking sufficiently like the Jewish believers began to boil over and they had to have a church meeting to resolve the issue which they did in favor of continued simplicity.   That’s the story of the church in Acts.

But, there was another side of the story.  We have to piece this together secondhand, but piece it together we can.  And what we find is really interesting.  You see, even though Peter spoke up and endorsed the mission to the Gentiles and everybody said, “Yay, God!” not everybody was happy about it.  As we talked about, there were some folks who were sufficiently upset that they did something about it.  They weren’t willing to abide this level of change from how they had always known things to be and so they started whispering and murmuring.  They started to quietly go from place to place teaching these new Gentile converts that while they had come most of the way, there was still one teensy-weensy step they had to take before they could really be counted as saved.  That had to keep the law and, for the men, get circumcised.  Now, I don’t want to be crass about this, but think about it.  If I’m a guy, maybe 40 years old, living in a day before…you know…painkillers, and I’m starting to get intrigued about this whole Jesus thing, and a group of folks comes up and says, “Well, you may have bought into it, but before you can really be counted as a Jesus person you have to have some minor surgery.  It’s a little personal, but it’s your only real ticket from the periphery to the center of the action.”  All of a sudden I’m thinking the periphery sounds pretty good.

And when this same group of folks heard about Paul and his work, they were furious.  Here they were working themselves to the bone in order to plug the leaks in the ship before it sank to the bottom, and this guy was running around with a shotgun blasting more holes in the keel.  And so they took it upon themselves to follow after him in order to…correct…the holes in his theology by teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised before they could be really and truly saved.  They’d wait until just after he got kicked out of town, roll up into the new body of believers, and start teaching.  Their methods were slick too.  They would come in and say something like, “Oh wow!  You guys are Jesus followers too?  So are we.  What a coincidence.  Praise the Lord to find brothers and sisters all the way out here in Galatia!  By the way, who told you about Jesus?  Oh…Paul.  Well, there’re a few things you need to know about Paul.  First of all, he’s not really an apostle like he claimed.  I mean, he never actually traveled with Jesus.  In fact, he never knew Jesus before having a supposed vision of Him.  Actually, he tried to kill Jesus followers like us before changing sides.  And you know what they say, if a guy changes sides once, he might do it again…  Anyway, he may have told you some of the basics of the Gospel, but, well, he’s kind of a loose cannon that the leaders of the church are trying to contain.  In fact, we’re here representing the actual apostles—you know, the ones personally commissioned by Jesus—and Jesus’ own brother, James the Just.  And so here’s the thing, having faith and trusting in Jesus are really important.  But, in order to experience the full weight of the salvation of God you need to start keeping the Jewish law.  I know, I know, that sounds pretty tough, but here’s the thing: Jesus was Jewish.  And so if you’re going to be like Jesus—just like Paul talked about I’ll wager—you have to be Jewish too.  You have to keep the law and, guys, you have to be circumcised.  I know that all sounds pretty difficult, but hey, nobody said this was going to be easy.  Right things are often hard things.  I’ll bet not even that rogue, Paul, said anything about it being easy.  And again, we’re representing the church in Jerusalem.  This is the gospel.”

Some of you perhaps have sirens going off in your head over this kind of language, but that just means you’ve been exposed to Paul’s teachings for a while.  For these new believers who didn’t even have a cultural context from which to make some basic sense out of the Gospel message, this was incredibly convincing.  I mean, as far as they knew religion was supposed to be complex.  Higher authority always trumped lower authority.  Fancy speeches were more convincing than simple ones.  This is just how things worked.  But, this wasn’t the Gospel.  This was an off-brand.  This was an imitation.  It was a cleverly designed imitation, but it was an imitation all the same.  So when Paul finally heard about this, you can imagine that he was a little on the perturbed side.  Sometime around the year 49 AD-=-before the Jerusalem council we talked about a couple of weeks ago which means this was all taking place before it, it  was all leading up to that—Paul wrote a letter to the churches he had planted in Galatia in order to correct the correction of these false teachers who were proclaiming essentially a salvation by law.   You see, Paul had been proclaiming a message of freedom to the believers in the Galatian cities of Antioch, Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe.  But, freedom requires a certain foundation in order to last.  Imitations just won’t do.  These Judaizers, as Paul would call his opponents, were tearing up the foundation he had laid and putting another in its place.  Yet freedom absent the proper foundation always devolves into a slavery of some kind eventually.

And so with all of this in mind, check out how Paul begins this letter.  I’ll start reading right there at the beginning.  And I should note that I’m going to be reading today and for most of this series from The Message because I really like its translation of Galatians.  There’s a little insert in your bulletins with the text so you can follow along that way if you’d like.  From v. 1: “I, Paul, and my companions in faith here, send greetings to the Galatian churches.”  That was a pretty standard greeting from Paul.  But now, again, with everything we just talked about in mind, listen to what comes next in v. 2: “My authority for writing to you does not come from any popular vote of the people, nor does it come through the appointment of some human higher-up.  It comes directly from Jesus the Messiah and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.  I’m God-commissioned.”  In other words, “these guys who are challenging my authority are merely representing another person—they said so themselves!  I, however, am representing God.  I got my commission directly from him.”  And if Paul had been a sassy fourth grader he might have added, “So there!”

Paul goes on to finish his standard greeting: “So I greet you with the great words, grace and peace!”  But then he adds a little something extra.  He adds in a few words the whole message of the true Gospel, the name-brand version: “We know the meaning of those words because Jesus Christ rescued us from this evil world we’re in by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins.  God’s plan is that we all experience that rescue.  Glory to God forever!  Oh, yes!”  This is the whole Gospel in summary form: the historical person of Jesus was the anointed one sent by God for the salvation of the world (Jesus Christ); this Jesus rescued us (meaning we weren’t capable of rescuing ourselves); He rescued us from a world totally broken by sin and opposed to God at every point (this evil world); He did this by sacrificing Himself in our place; He had to do this because we are equally broken by sin as the world (our sins); and, this salvation is available for everyone who is interested.

So in these opening words, Paul is essentially giving a summary answer to the words his critics had planted in the minds of the Galatian believers.  From here, though, he goes on to get a lot more specific.  He does this by really opening up and blasting the Galatian believers for flirting with an imitation of this message.  Yes, his opponents are dead wrong, but the folks at the churches he planted should never have run off with the neighbor in the first place.  Listen to how he does this starting there at v. 6: “I can’t believe your fickleness—how easily you have turned traitor to him who called you by the grace of Christ by embracing a variant message!”  Can you feel Paul’s raw emotion, his frustration, his incredulousness here?  Now some of his feelings are personal since they have rejected the message he proclaimed to them, but his biggest problem is that they’ve run out on God.  You see, the true Gospel as Paul has just laid out is one of those products that you really have to go with the name brand version over the alternatives.  Imitations won’t cut it.  Some of those name brand products that really are the best have alternatives that, while not as good, are in fact pretty close to the original.  My mom bought a package of Hydrox cookies for us one time when we were little.  They weren’t terrible, I’ll admit.  They were a reasonably close approximation of Oreos.  Now, the real thing was better—let me not be mistaken here—but the Hydroxes weren’t terrible.  It’s not like that with the Gospel.  There are no close second alternatives.  There’s the Gospel and there’s everything else.  And there are a lot of “everything elses” around today.  Friends, don’t be fooled. There’s no gospel save the grace of Christ.  Don’t forget that idea: there’s no gospel save the grace of Christ.  That’s it.  Nothing else will do.  These Judaizers were professing to be proclaiming the whole Gospel, but they weren’t.  By adding the requirement of law-keeping, they were turning salvation by grace into salvation by law or by works.  That’s not the Gospel at all, though.  There’s no gospel save the grace of Christ.

Listen to how Paul puts this: “It is not a minor variation, you know; it is completely other, an alien message, a no-message, a lie about God.  Those who are provoking this agitation among you are turning the Message of Christ on its head.”  That’s pretty strong language.  We live in a day in which it’s culturally trendy to be very inclusive of ideas.  In fact this trend is so strong that it leads to a misconception of the Christian identity even among Christians.  “Christian” is an identity that’s inclusive of people, but it is not inclusive of ideas.  In fact elsewhere Paul writes that we war against every idea except those which lay down in submission to Christ.  This does not mean that Christians or Christianity are exclusive, though.  We are particular.  There’s a difference there.  Being exclusive means rejecting people.  We don’t reject anybody—or shouldn’t—we are simply particular about what ideas they allow to guide and direct their lives if they are rightly to be counted among us.  See the difference?  Unfortunately our culture doesn’t draw that distinction very well and we the church are often guilty of buying into the confusion.  In any event, Paul’s not done yet.  Check out what comes next: “Let me be blunt [as if he wasn’t already]: If one of us—even if an angel from heaven!—were to preach something other than what we preached originally, let him be cursed.  I said it once; I’ll say it again: If anyone, regardless of reputation or credentials, preaches something other than what you received originally, let him be cursed.”  And we hear this and want to go, “Whoa, Paul!  Settle down there, Buddy!  You’re not going to make many friends talking like that.”  And as if he were reaching into our brains from 2,000 years ago, look at what comes next: “Do you think I speak this strongly in order to manipulate crowds?  Or curry favor with God?  Or get popular applause?  If my goal was popularity, I wouldn’t bother being Christ’s slave.”  In other words, “There’s no gospel save the grace of Christ and I’m going to jump up and down on this point, being exceptionally particular about it, until I’m blue in the face and if you or anyone else thinks less of me for it, so be it.”  There’s no gospel save the grace of Christ.  Imitations simply won’t do.

So then, what does all this mean?  I thought Paul was talking about freedom.  Well, he is…and he’s going to.  But before he can get there, he has to first lay a foundation on which that freedom can rest.  Because again, freedom absent the right foundation quickly devolves into slavery of some kind.  As for what it means, it means there’s no gospel save the grace of Christ and if we lose that point we lose the whole shebang.  But more directly it means this: in our culture there are numerous gospels being proffered to unsuspecting buyers.  What does this mean?  Well, the word “gospel” means “good news.”  It’s the good news of how we can break free from the restrictive nonsense of this life and live for something way, way better than the mess we face each day.  With this definition in mind, our culture offers us lots and lots and lots of different “gospels.”  You can break free by living healthier, by looking younger, by owning this or that product (name brand, of course), by having this much in the bank, by vacationing at this resort, by treating people this way, by voting for this political party, by doing, doing, doing.  In the church we send the message that if folks attend enough meetings or worship with enough sincerity or serve in enough ministries or give the right amount of money or vote for that political party or jump through hoops to look sufficiently like us then they’ll really be saved.  But whether these “gospels” come from the world or the church they are all false.  There’s no gospel save the grace of Christ.

Here’s the thing: I know you want to be free.  You have something in your life right now that you want freedom from.  We all desire freedom.  We were made for it.  It’s part of who we are as people.  But there’s only one way to have it.  We have to walk the path of the true, name-brand Gospel.  Imitations simply won’t do.  There’s no gospel save the grace of Christ.  Here’s why: the very fact that we desire freedom means that at some point in our lives we aren’t free—you don’t desire something you already have.  And if we’re not free, we’re slaves.  As such, we desire freedom, but if we were capable of attaining it on our own we already would have.  Thus, we can’t save ourselves and need someone to do it for us.  In spite of a great deal of time spent searching and trying, only one thing has ever proved reliable at purchasing our freedom: the grace of Christ.  Everything else simply leads to a different kind of slavery.  It feels good at first because it’s new and new things always feel good at first; but eventually the newness wears off and all we’re left with is the chains.  Thus, there’s no gospel save the grace of Christ whose mercies are new every morning.  It doesn’t matter what anybody else says, if they aren’t selling this brand, all they’re selling is snake oil.  Paul knew this and he wanted the Galatian churches to know it.  And thanks to the Holy Spirit preserving his words for us, we can know it too.  This is what living free is all about.  And in the next few weeks we are going to learn a whole lot more about what it looks like and how to do it.  I hope you’ll be here.