December 26, 2021
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Psalm 147:13-21 Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 John 1:1-18
Our reading from Galatians is evidence that Paul was a theologian. A theologian can be defined as one who specializes in the critical study of concepts of God and faith. It could be said that my theology professors in seminary were theologians, or just lost in the circular thoughts of people trying to explain that which is beyond our comprehension.
This reading reminds me of some of the theological pontification that sadly leads many of us wanting nothing more than to sleep in on Sunday morning. “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed,” Paul writes. He goes on to say, “Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.”
What does all of this mean, and why would Paul write it? Let’s start with the why. Paul was not attempting to overwhelm us with his brilliance, as I think some of my professors were doing – no Paul was responding to people in the church who were too caught up in keeping Jewish law and thus unable to understand the reason behind the laws. Jewish Law may have begun with the Ten Commandments, but it was expanded to the point that it was nearly impossible to keep. The obsession among the leaders of the Jewish faith with adhering to the law was preventing the Jewish people from hearing what God wants of us. Jesus came to help them understand God’s desire for us is to love God and one another.
So Paul makes a distinction between faith in Jesus and the law. The law, he says, was given to the people of Israel to help them live according to God’s will – but faith in Jesus is transforming and creates in us a desire to follow the way of Christ. Paul says that God has sent the Spirit of Christ into our hearts, so that we will no longer be a slave to the law, but a child of God who cries out in love to God our Father.
Jesus, himself, does not dispute the law, but he does challenge placing the law, which is to say the practices of our religion, over the needs of others. The scriptures are full of examples of this. Jesus heals the sick on the Sabbath; he challenges those who have gathered to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery by saying, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7).” Jesus does not dispute that she had acted wrongly; he challenges how the people apply the law to their lives.
Paul writes to the people who are insisting on following the law rather than listening, truly listening to the message of Christ – the message of Christ which can be found in the opening verses of the Gospel of John. After saying that only the Word was in the beginning, and that the Word with God and was God, John says that all things came into being through God. He then says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
This is how John introduces Jesus to us. It is not a story of his birth, for Jesus was the Word that existed before the world was created. Thus, the Gospel of John begins with its own creation story to make it clear that Jesus is one with God. He also wants us to understand that God created us AND offers us light and life through Jesus. John uses lots of wonderful images. And, like Paul’s letter to the Galatians, John addresses the law saying, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Clearly the adherence to Jewish Law, the law given to Moses, was problematic for early Christians. Both Paul and John had to make it clear that the law was a guide to living; faith in Jesus is what offers us true life. The prophets of old spoke of the time when God would give us a new heart – a heart that would naturally want to do the will of God.
Paul talks of being freed from the law because his heart has been transformed – he has a new heart that wants to do God’s will. He does not need the law because his faith in Christ has made his heart one with that of Christ. Through Christ, John writes, we can know God, and that is what Paul means by what he has written. We know God, through Christ, and this makes us want to do what is right – thus we don’t need the law.
Paul’s message may be on living by faith rather than Jewish Law, but to make it more relevant to us today, we can think of the law as societal norms. In our society, there are a number of expectations placed upon us. We should dress a certain way on certain occasions, we should spend time with certain people, attend certain functions, shop in certain stores – all according to our place in society. These norms may include giving to certain causes, but we may not feel free to help the people we want to help, to spend time with the people who need us, and to address the concerns we have.
So, Paul would say, live according to your faith and you will be free to do what you know needs to be done, to respond to the people God calls you to serve. No job is below us and no need too great, when we join with others who live by faith and serve God’s children we can accomplish more than we imagine.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, we give you thanks for the light of Christ which shines in the darkness and shows us the way to freedom and peace. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.