September 1, 2013

Living God’s Way

This morning at long last brings to the end of our series Living Free.  For the last eight weeks we have been working through and unpacking Paul’s words on freedom in his letter to friends of his in the ancient Roman province of Galatia.  With the help of his words we have been setting out a vision for how to live truly free.  Perhaps some of you are looking forward to being truly free from this series.  Have I got a deal for you today.  This morning we are going to see how Paul concludes this great declaration of freedom.  This is going to come in two parts.  The first part will be focused on wrapping up the applications he has been making for us for the last couple of weeks.  The second part will focus in on Paul’s final thoughts on how to be free.

Before getting to all of that, though, let’s take a minute to remember the path we have walked to get here.  When we opened Paul’s letter eight weeks ago we were reminded right out of the gate that there is no gospel save the grace of Christ.  This reminder provided a fitting foundation stone on which to rest the remainder of Paul’s words for indeed the conflict which provoked Paul to write in the first place was over whether the Gospel was rooted in grace or in some combination of grace and works, namely, rule-keeping.  Paul’s initial and urgent insistence was that this is emphatically not the case.  There is no gospel save the grace of Christ.  Immediately, though, we encountered a challenge to this assertion.  There may be no gospel save the grace of Christ and the freedom such grace brings, but freedom in Christ is unnatural.  It goes against the grain of what we pursue when left to our own devices.  If we are to walk in freedom with any kind of consistency this demands that we set all of our natural inclinations to the side and utterly ignore them.  The reason for this, found in the third week of our series, is that when we live according to what we do naturally we must rely on a whole host of rules to keep us from flying off the moral deep end.  And, when we rely on these rules to preserve us in holiness to be able to stand in the presence of our holy God, Christ Himself is rendered meaningless.  Living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless.  Not only that, but as we saw the in following week, we are not made right with God by rule-keeping.  No amount of rule-keeping, no matter how thorough our system of rules happens to be, will ever put us in a right standing with God.  The enslaving power of sin, driven by our own rebellious desires, is simply too strong for simple (or complex for that matter) rules to contain.  Instead, we must rely on a more potent substance: faith.  Because of what Christ accomplished on our behalf on the cross, the way to be made right with God is found in placing our trust in Him and allowing ourselves to be covered by His garment of good such that when God looks at us, He sees Jesus and reckons us righteous to stand in presence.  In other words, we get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.

Well, at that point in the series a question had been building in our hearts and minds that demanded an answer: if the rules are powerless to accomplish what we always thought they were intended to accomplish, then what is their point?  With the help of an ancient cultural illustration Paul revealed that the rules had two purposes: to show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like.  Now, I have been saying that the rules themselves are powerless to make us right with God.  That’s not quite the whole truth.  The rules could save us if we kept them perfectly as Jesus did.  But, because of sin, we are powerless to do that.  The truth is that the rules—at least the Law of Moses—established what God’s expectations for His people are.  In doing this, the rules reveal the contours of the righteousness of God.  They show us when we are within those lines as well as when we are not.  They set out a standard for which to aim.  We can only achieve this standard, however, by faith.  We receive open-handedly what God desires through Christ to give us.  Putting on a grand show of behaving won’t do it.  To become free we don’t perform, we receive.

Having finally made the case for living by faith instead of living by the rules, two weeks ago we started looking at Paul’s thoughts on what to do with all of this information.  Now that we knew what freedom was, it was time to see what freedom looked like in practice.  The banner for all of this is that freedom is found in loving service.  Serving others with an intention to see them become fully who God designed them to be is the only way to be truly free.  Such actions are the only ones which cannot be forced in some way.  Living virtuously is the only way to be free from the constraints of laws and rules.  Even when we live in a society with many laws, living virtuously will put us in a place of freedom—even if perhaps some of those laws are unjust and legislate against virtue.  Vice, on the other hand, will make us subject to those laws and controlled by them, perhaps not at first, but eventually if we don’t keep it in check.  Or to put it as we did last week: a free life is marked by virtue, not vice.

All of that finally brings us to this morning.  What are Paul’s final thoughts on the nature of freedom?  Grab your Bible or Bible app or bulletin insert, find Galatians 6, and we’ll take a look at this together.  Follow along with me at the beginning of the chapter: “Live creatively, friends.”  Actually let’s pause right here for a second and think about that.  There is a lie that has been floating around in our culture for a long time that living creatively means living on the edge of morality and beyond.  In order to be a really good artist or to even simply have an interesting life you must be willing to break the rules every now then.  Otherwise, where’s the fun in life?  This is pure balderdash.  When we live by the rules—even by a set of rules that is in contradistinction to the rules most of the rest of society follow—we are merely a face in the crowd because everybody lives like that.  That’s not creative.  That’s boring.  But living virtuously?  That’s where the real creativity lies.  That’s where real individualism is found.  It takes a great amount of creativity to be intentional in our efforts to see the people around us become more fully who God designed them to be.  Contrary to popular belief, the life of faith is far richer and varied, creative and fun than the life of rule-keeping…if, that is, we actually bother to live it.

Enough soapbox, let’s keeping rolling in the text: “If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself.  You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out.  Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed.  Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law [love others as He loved us].  If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.  Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that.  Don’t be impressed with yourself.  Don’t compare yourself with others.  Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.  Be very sure now, you who have been trained to a self-sufficient maturity, that you enter into a generous common life with those who have trained you, sharing all the good things that you have and experience.”

So what’s all this saying?  This is what living free in the context of a community looks like.  A community of people pursuing the virtues of the free life of faith is marked by quick and abundant forgiveness and grace.  It’s known as a place where the down-and-outs become the up-and-ins and where people share one another’s burdens.  It’s marked by humility that is neither over- nor under-awed with self.  It’s filled with people who take responsibility for themselves and live up to their commitments.  It’s characterized by a genuine sense of community as the old teach the young and the young share life with the old.  All of these are the marks of a whole community that is free.

But Paul’s not finished.  This kind of community cannot be faked.  It cannot run on externals while the undercurrent is full of the fruits of rule-keeping.  Stay with me at v. 7: “Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God.  What a person plants, he will harvest.”  It is tempting to think that we can let a small amount of vice flourish and still maintain our freedom, or a free community for that matter.  But, every time we pursue any kind of vice we plant a little seed—we sow a tare with the wheat to borrow from Jesus’ parable.  Eventually these seeds are going to grow and bear fruit.  And when they do, we’ll be stuck eating whatever garbage comes out of the ground.  We can only harvest what we plant.  If we sow seeds of rule-keeping, we’re not going to harvest a crop of freedom.  Or better yet, our children are not going to harvest a crop of freedom.  Maybe an example would help.  There are some folks who live by a rule which says: if things are not going my way, it’s okay for me to dissociate myself from the situation.  When we live by this rule though, we plant seeds which will eventually grow to harvest a crop of disunity and lack of commitment to the body.  Things may look good while we plant, but eventually the weeds are going to rise and threaten to choke the life out of the good crops.  Thus Paul encourages us to “not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good.”  Again, freedom is unnatural.  Maintaining freedom is hard.  It takes a lot of hard work.  It takes a world of self-sacrifice.  It is a burden that in this life is always with us and at times it can grow wearisome.  But let us resist the weariness and keep planting good seeds because we know with certainty that—back to the text at v. 9—“at the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit.  Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.”  Paul introduces an important idea here that we don’t have time to develop now, but which we need to take to heart all the same.  Freedom can only exist in community.  Because we were designed to live in community we cannot, will not do what it takes to maintain our freedom when we are living apart from it.  If you aren’t actively a part of this or any other community of faith you won’t have the freedom you desire.  This is no rule.  Simply a reflection on reality.

At this point Paul starts drawing down to his big conclusion.  He begins in vv. 11-13 by firing one more shot across the bow of his opponents.  He sheds some light on their true motives in encouraging the Galatian believers to take up a life of rule-keeping.  He argues that “they want an easy way to look good before others, lacking the courage to live by a faith that shares Christ’s suffering and death. . . .They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast of their success in recruiting you to their side.”  I’ll confess, this hits a little close to home for the church in America.  Why?  Because over the course of the middle part of the last century we became Paul’s opponents in a number of different ways.  We didn’t spend much time talking about the suffering and death of Christ because we weren’t experiencing any suffering here and the message didn’t ring relevant.  We also didn’t have to spend much time encouraging virtue because for the most part the culture still reflected the basic Christian virtues and so many people lived an externally Christian life one their own.  What was left?  Rule-keeping.  We came up with some rules for people to follow, held on to these pretty dogmatically, and declared that if you didn’t keep them you weren’t really one of us.  Now, depending on the church and the exact year the rule fixation has varied but the results have largely been the same.  We proclaimed our diluted message and people came because there was still this cultural sense that you were supposed to go to church.  And we boasted of how well we were doing.  But eventually the fruit we were planting began coming to bear.  Now the church has a fairly cemented reputation of being filled with a bunch of judgmental and narrow-minded busybodies.  The church may be in a period of awakening, but we’re having to cut through the weeds that have grown up as a result of bad planting in the past.  And so people are leaving the church because who wants to be a part of a group that simply tells them what to do anyway?  Paul’s right: “That is contemptible!”

Well then, what’s the alternative?  Very simply put: get the focus off of us and put it on the cross and what God is doing in His world to bring freedom to His people.  This is where real freedom is always going to be found: living on God’s terms.  In fact, if you don’t remember anything else about this sermon or even this series, take this idea to heart and keep it with you all the time: Freedom comes by living God’s way.  Look how Paul describes this starting at v. 14: “For my part, I am going to boast about nothing but the Cross of our Master, Jesus Christ.  Because of that Cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns they dictate.  Can’t you see the central issue in all this?  It is not what you and I do—submit to circumcision, reject circumcision.  It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life!”

Alright, let’s wrap all of this up.  Let’s bring home the whole series here.  What can we say about freedom in the end that is going to be definitive and can give us something to hang on to as we go forward from here?  It’s this: Freedom comes by living God’s way.  But what does that mean?  Isn’t that just asking for another set of rules by which to live?  An exchange of one set for another?  No!  This isn’t about some new set of rules for us to follow.  This is about getting involved with what God is doing in His world.  It’s about living life with an awareness of how He is at work in the world around us.  You see, God cares deeply about this world.  It’s His.  He made it.  He has a vested interested in how it turns out.  And He is constantly at work to bring it to the place where it can be fully what He designed it to be.  The freest we will ever be, then, is when we are on track and involved with what He is doing.  Freedom comes by living God’s way.

The truth is that there are numerous different things to distract us from this free life, to keep us bogged down in one system of rules or another.  There are things like work and school and ball practices and ball games and ball tournaments and vacation planning and vacation enjoying and shopping runs and yard work and TV shows to keep up with and movies to see and books to read and housework to do and committee meetings and service projects and volunteer groups and the list goes on and on and on.  And when we go about all these things with our heads down, just trying to get through them so we can do the things we’ve convinced ourselves we really want to do—a farce, of course, because we’re already doing what we most want to do—we miss out on what God’s doing.  This then is where the trap is sprung.  When we miss out on what God is doing, if we are professed Jesus followers and part of a church, somewhere inside of us a bit of guilt begins to build.  Not enough to affect any changes mind you, but enough to leave us squirming a bit in our seats.  We squirm because when we go about life with our heads down like that, we are necessarily going to be living by the rules since that’s all we can see when we look down like that, which we break, meaning we sin.  And so when this guilt begins to accumulate a bit, rather than redirecting our focus to where it should be, most of us—myself included—try and compensate by being really good in other areas of life.  Do you see what’s happened?  We start making up or following already existing rules and become slaves!  Freedom is gone.

When we’re about what God is doing, though, we can be free.  Indeed, freedom comes by living God’s way.  Because do you want to know what God is doing?  He’s working to make people into their fullest God selves.  He’s working to see people become fully who He designed them to be.  He’s working to serve people in love!  As Emeril might say, “Bam!”  This is why freedom comes by living God’s way.  Don’t try to live your life according to the rules.  It’s just not going to work.  You’ll end up running around trying to please everyone else around you or else keeping up with the growing demands of your own personal desires.  In fact, this is what will happen unless you receive the freedom that comes with faith.  Again, this is why Paul said, “Because of that Cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate.”  Whether it’s other people or your own desires, the life of rule-keeping will have you stuck trying to earn and please your way into the life you long for.  And you’re never going to find it.  It just won’t happen.  There is neither life nor freedom to be found when we live lives of rule-keeping regardless of the form they happen to take.  That’s not life lived God’s way.  Freedom comes by living God’s way.  It comes by placing our faith in Jesus Christ and with the help of the Spirit planting the seeds of righteousness that eventually grow into spiritual fruits which make our lives sweet and fragrant to all those around us.  They make our life a free one lived in the delight of being who God designed us to be.  Freedom comes by living God’s way.  It’s time to start living free.