No Turning Back

The old "Just Say No" is powerless to bring righteousness; only the Spirit of Love can conquer the flesh...

Proper 8c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

We continue today, on this Sunday before Independence Day, in our walk through Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, and true to form, Paul continues to press his case, in defense of himself and his gospel, deep into the conflict between justification by grace through faith and the idea that one can be justified by means of the law. We find him here once again stressing the point that by freedom from the law he does not mean lawlessness; liberty is not the same thing as anarchy. As I said in previous reflections on this text, to be free does not mean entirely to come loose. Freedom comes with its own responsibilities and disciplines. A driver’s license gives you freedom to drive, but the responsibility to drive safely. And just as there are traffic laws designed to help people drive safely — for example, the rules that one drives on the right side of the street, that one drives with the flow of traffic instead of against it, and observes the speed limit — so too there is a basic rule that assists Christians in living a righteous life in freedom: and that is the rule of love. Saint Paul even quotes it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This one law sums up and distills all that is valuable in the rest of the law.

This was the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Saint Paul, and if you want to get a little bit more modern about it, I will remind you that it was summarized in the last century by that unlikely quartet of evangelists, John, Paul, George, and Ringo in that memorable phrase, “All you need is love.”

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So, you might well ask, What’s the problem? It seems that the Galatians wanted more — they wanted more like the annoying little girl in the commercial: “We want more we want more!” In this case what they want more of is more rules, more laws; they can’t seem to accept the wisdom of “all you need is love.” Paul gets exasperated with them — no surprise, as he is throughout this letter — reminding them that “for freedom Christ has set us freeā€¦ Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!” Jesus has shown you the way of love; do that, and you will live!

I can well sympathize with Paul’s exasperation. A few years ago I wrote an essay on this very subject, highlighting the fact that Jesus has given us the law of love as a guide to right behavior. Most people seem to understand this, but one respondent in particular kept insisting that there had to be more. In end I said he didn’t have to take my work for it; he could take Jesus’s word for it or Saint Paul! But he still couldn’t believe that they might have meant what they said. Jesus offers us the freedom to live in love — with its joys as well as its responsibilities — but some wish to turn back to a rule-book rather than embracing a guiding principle that will require them to engage in spiritual discernment.

For, let’s face it, the old rule book from four or five thousand years ago has rules in it that no longer apply to us, but also lacks rules for many of the things that we encounter in our daily lives. What are we to do with new things that come along, like cloning, that the Scripture says nothing about? If we approach everything with this law of love in our hearts it will give us the tool to find new answers to new questions, new ways to live righteous lives under the responsibilities, and with the freedom of love.

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Paul urges the Galatians not to get involved in what he calls “the flesh.” He precisely puts this distinction in terms of flesh and spirit. Works of the flesh are the works the law attempts unsuccessfully to suppress — the “thou shalt nots” of the old law; but the leading of the Spirit brings one into doing the positive: loving your neighbor as yourself and bearing the good fruit of joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against these, Paul reminds us, there is no law.

Paul urges the Galatians not to fall back into the law of the flesh. That is the law that attempts to restrain the flesh, but in the long run cannot do so. Yet it is so tempting to think that one can live a virtuous and righteous life just by following the rules of all the “thou shalt nots” — and yet one could never murder, never steal, never cheat on a spouse, and still be a terrible, mean, ungenerous, unloving person. The true liberation of the Spirit brings with it the generosity that moves beyond merely avoiding the bad, to doing the good; that chooses to love others as much as one loves oneself: and that brings duties and responsibilities — not just to refrain from doing things that you would not want done to you, but actively to do those positive things which you would wish to be done to you. To turn back from this balance of spiritual freedom and duty into a life bound only by a set of “thou shalt nots” is to become a slave to the flesh, and turning back from all that God wills for the good of the children of God; who, as I reminded us last week, have grown into their inheritance, with all of its responsibilities.

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With freedom comes uncertainty, with exploration comes risk. Some would rather remain in what they imagine to be the safe harbor of the familiar “thou shalt nots” of childhood — and yes, with children you sometimes have to say “No” first before they can learn the law of love. That is why Saint Paul analogizes the life of the Christian to the life that moves from childhood to adulthood. But God in Christ wants more for us, and calls and challenges us to follow him, even to places he himself knows will offer him no welcome, to places where he will find nowhere to lay his head. In today’s gospel we see that he has set his face towards Jerusalem, where he will face so many challenges. Many, from the Samaritans to Saint Peter himself, will be obstacles in his path. Some whom he calls to follow him will turn back or offer excuses as to why they cannot follow him. Those who were ready to delay following Jesus, or to turn back from following him, had reasons that were good in themselves — burying the dead and bidding their families farewell. But Jesus gently rebukes even such well-meaning turning back. To be fit, to be ready, for the kingdom of God means letting go of what lies behind and pressing forward to what lies ahead.

This letting go is well symbolized in the story of the call of Elisha that we heard as our Old Testament reading this morning. Elijah follows God’s instructions to choose Elisha as his successor, and Elisha initially offers an excuse not unlike that of the man in the gospel, that he wants to say goodbye to his family. Elijah then offers what I can’t help but see as one of those wonderful New York Jewish expressions, such as Jon Stewart might say, “So what’s stopping you?” In response, Elisha makes a powerful symbolic end to his whole past life: he slaughters the oxen and burns his plow and its equipment to cook their flesh, a gesture far more dramatic than that of the apostles who left their boats and their nets behind when they were called to follow Jesus.

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Paul challenges the Galatians to let go of things that hold them back from living truly free and loving lives. He recited for them all of the works of the flesh, all of those things that they thought by keeping away from they were being righteous; but he reminded them how powerless the law was to prevent anyone from doing such things — as he would say to the Romans, the law ironically often provokes such things, tempting us to commit the very sins the law forbids, tempting us into disobedience! (For example, how many people insist on touching the wall marked “Wet Paint”? If it weren’t for the sign they wouldn’t be touching that wall! But put up the sign that says “Wet Paint” and you watch — people will go up and touch it.) The law tempts us into doing the very thing it seems to oppose. The old law is as powerless as it is negative, but the leading of the Spirit overcomes sin not by overruling it the way the law did, but by overwhelming it by means of the superior exercise of the power of love. As another old saying has it, “Love conquers all” and that includes sin, too. The old law was like gasoline poured on a fire as far as the flesh is concerned; the new law of love in the spirit drowns the fire of the sinful flesh like a cleansing waterfall or fountain — to which we have access in Christ through the waters of baptism: a new life, heading onward, not looking back, free to take on all of the new responsibilities that love provides and demands.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, in Jesus Christ your Son you have opened for us the way to salvation: Strengthen our hearts that we may follow where he leads and never turn back, loving our neighbors as ourselves, with the love with which he first loved us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit we give unending praise, now and forever.