Proper 7c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
In his 1935 play, The Shoemakers, Polish playwright Stanisław Witkiewicz portrays a curmudgeonly old shoemaker complaining about the young folk and their fancy new “free school.” He grumbles, “Yeah, it’s a free school all right — so free it comes loose!” In those few words the old shoemaker says a great deal about the nature of freedom — and its limits.
We’ve been reading from Galatians the last few weeks, with a few more weeks to go. One of the themes Saint Paul raises is the nature of freedom, and he struggles — as the Galatians struggle — to find the balance between liberty and license; whether freedom is limitless or is bound by some restraint — is it grounded in a foundation of some basic principles, or like a house built on sand, does it “come loose?”
In the passage before us, Paul pictures the law of Moses as a disciplinarian, with a definitely “educational” overtone. Education then was not as it is today, so a word of explanation will be helpful. Most education for the lower and middle classes consisted of apprenticeship or joining in the family business — learning a trade was the main thing about getting ahead in life. For the upper classes, young children were usually tutored at home by a governor or governess or instructor — which is the word used in our text this morning although the translators have chosen to translate it simply as“disciplinarian.” And once again I have a beef with the translators of the New Revised Standard Version — for in the interest of removing gender-specific language, they use the word children for two different expressions — where Paul uses two different words; in this case they use the word children where Paul has the word for sons, as distinguished from children. And the difference that Paul is making is the distinction between being a young child who is under a tutor’s care, and a young adult capable of inheriting and managing one’s own affairs — what Paul calls “a son.” This translation misses the point that in Christ we are indeed children, but children who have come of age, who have come into our inheritance — in Christ we are all, as Paul says, “sons of God.” “Sons” in this sense are not just men — which is also why Paul is able say that the categories “male and female” do not apply to those who are “in Christ.”
So with that clarification, the freedom spoken of here is a kind of graduation — not into utter freedom but into new responsibilities, those of an adult Christian faith. I am reminded of a verse from one of the great “national songs” in our hymnal. (We’ll sing it next week in keeping both with Galatians and the Fourth of July). It’s second verse ends: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” Freedom, whether of a nation or a person, does not mean the unlimited ability to do anything that takes your fancy, but carries with it its own responsibilities and duties. As another hymn puts it, “New occasions teach new duties.”
To pick up the educational analogy: when you graduate and you get your degree, the freedom it gives you is the freedom to practice the discipline you have taken up — whether it is in the arts or the sciences, social work or medicine — or even the ministry! And the word discipline is not to be missed. Everything bears it own rules, its own ways of working — even freedom. There are still rules and structures that guide the free exercise of new skills, when you graduate.
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We see a particular kind of graduation into ministry in today’s Gospel. It may seem strange at first, but bear with me. It tells the story of a man imprisoned, not by a tutor or disciplinarian, but by a legion of demons. These demons have controlled his life so much that he even fell under the sway of human imprisonment as well, guarded and bound with chains and shackles. The demons gave him the power to escape, but they kept him in their own possession, living a naked and homeless and miserable life out among the tombs, among the dead. Jesus sets him free from this captivity, allowing the demons to enter a herd of pigs, who rush into the lake and are drowned. (I wonder if the demons are perhaps spiteful and angry because they’ve been dispossessed, and they want to do as much harem as possible to the local economy by depriving the swineherds of their livelihood.)
Whatever the case, the man they held captive is now free — but his freedom is not absolute, it is not “loose.” For he is given a task by Jesus, the one who has liberated him: “Return to your home and tell how much God has done for you.” And so he sets off — and you’ll notice that he proclaims how much Jesus has done for him — rightly identifying Jesus with the power of God. This is the one thing that he learned from his demon instructors, for they too recognized that Jesus was and is “the son of the Most High God.” I said a few weeks ago that Jesus does not need or even want the testimony of demons — but he does accept the testimony of this man who has been freed from demons. He is freed to take up a ministry, a new discipline, to become an evangelist. And if it isn’t a sign of grace to transform someone whose life was spent homeless and naked among the dead, to one bearing witness to God in Christ, I don’t know what is.
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This is the same power of grace that is at work in all who put their hope and faith and trust in Jesus Christ. We have been adopted by God in Christ and become children of God through faith: the faith of Christ, as well as our own faith “in” Christ, in him because we are members of his body. This liberating faith sets us free from all sorts of limitations, though it brings new responsibilities.
Saint Paul itemizes some of the categories from which faith liberates us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Those who are reborn in Christ are not limited by nationality or race — but are free to love and serve all their many sisters and brothers in the human family, God’s children, our graduation class.
Those who are reborn in Christ are not limited by their economic or social standing — but are free to mix and mingle with rich and poor alike, bearing witness to the newfound faith of the inheritance of the saints in light.
Those who are reborn in Christ are not limited by their sex or marital status — but are free to take up the discipline of love under the blessing of God, who is love, and in whom all loving souls abide.
All of the things that formerly both limited people and gave them things to boast about, are no longer of any significance in Christ.
This was a tough sell for the Galatians — it may be a tough sell for us — for all who took pride in their national, social, and even sexual status. Perhaps some of those Galatians were under the sway of those who wanted to impose the whole of the Jewish law upon them, and had heard the words of the Jewish prayer that a Jewish man would say each morning: “I thank God that I am not a Gentile; I thank God that I am not a slave; I thank God that I am not a woman.” Paul confronts that prayer by boldly proclaiming that God is the God not just of Jews but of Gentiles too, not just the God of the free but of all people regardless of their social status, not just of men but of women too.
In his effort to explain this to the Galatians, caught up in their preconceptions and misled by false teachers, Paul tries one more analogy, and I’ll try it out on you too, to help all of us understand what has happened to us in Christ. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” It is as if we have enlisted in God’s army — and been given new uniforms, uniforms that cover over any of our differences: social status, economic history, even gender or marital status. In the early days of the church, at baptism each of the candidates was given a white garment to wear over whatever else they had on — and we still wear these garments today as part of the vestments of those who serve at the altar. This white robe that is known in Latin as an alb (think albino!), is the white robe of baptism. And it lets us all know, that all of us here as ministers are among the baptized — as are all of you. This is the baptismal garment, the graduation gown into the new life of faith now that the old schoolmaster of the law has retired. This uniform covers over our personal peculiarities — you could be wearing discount jeans or a custom-made suit underneath, a JCPenney house dress or Dior haute couture.
None of that matters to Jesus — who liberates us from all of this legion of categories that we might wrongly take pride in, or feel ashamed of, but which in the long run bind us in chains of judgment and prejudice and despair. Graduation day has come, and the freedom that comes with it: freedom with a purpose. For freedom Christ has set us free — a freedom to love and serve one another as he loved and served us, by his grace and for his glory.+