June 19, 2022 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Galatians 3:23-29 The Federated Church, UCC
In the neighborhood where I live and walk in the mornings, I tend to wave at the cars that go by. It seems like a civil and communal thing to do. Plus, I realized some time ago that, when people switched cars, as they regularly do, I would no longer recognize the people I knew as they drove by, and would stop waving at someone at whom I used to wave. And I certainly didn’t want to be snubbing anybody. So it’s wave at everybody or wave at nobody, and I knew what felt right to me.
In any case, a few years ago, I ran into a neighbor I didn’t know in town one day, and he said, “I see you every morning when I drive by you as you’re walking. I’m in the A5.” I confess I had no idea what an A5 was. So I Googled it, and found it was an Audi. If he’d said “Camry” or “Accord” I would have known what he was talking about. But not A5.
Just this week, a man I know told me in passing that he worked for PwC. And while it didn’t immediately click, my wheels started turning and I figured out that it must be the firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers.
These conversations reminded me that we so often talk in shorthand about the areas of life that are familiar to us. In the notes I take in my church world, it’s NT and OT for New Testament and Old Testament. It’s J for Jesus, G for God, and HS for Holy Spirit. It’s Mt, Mk, and Lk for the first three gospels. Oddly, it’s F/G for the gospel of John, meaning “Fourth Gospel.” It’s YDS and BTS for the seminaries I attended. And it’s the UCC for our beloved denomination—all of which, in many circles, would be totally incomprehensible.
And in the same way that I needed A5 and PwC translated, and so many others might need my abbreviations translated, so also, when we read scripture, it is so often the case that the words and images prevalent there need to be filled out in order to be understandable.
Nowhere is that need for fleshing out more true than it is in the letters of the apostle Paul. Occasionally his thoughts are so crystalline that they need no explanation: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” (I Corinthians 13:4-5): that speaks for itself.
When we immerse ourselves in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, though, the words and images may seem considerably murkier. It’s fair to say that that’s particularly true in the passage we read a few moments ago. If your eyes glazed over and your mind drifted as we read those words, it would hardly be surprising. There aren’t the same sort of captivating words and images in that passage we encounter in stories about Jesus. There’s no angel stunning Mary with news of her impending pregnancy. There’s no prodigal son returning home with his tail between his legs. There’s no Mary and Martha trying to figure out how to be in the presence of Jesus.
In that letter to the Galatian church, there are no compelling narrative images. There are only words and concepts that may seem entirely foreign to us. People of faith, says the passage, have been, until Christ, “guarded under the law,” with the promise that they will be “justified by faith” as they are now “clothed . . . with Christ.” And then, after a succinct verse about the world no longer being divided into binaries, a final verse about being “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:23-29). And all of it may just sound totally inscrutable—an impenetrable shorthand.
And we could all be forgiven if we chose to focus our attention on the Bible’s parables and stories and dramatic scenes and just skipped over passages like this, verses that are frankly so much more difficult to understand. We could do that. The loss, though, would be immeasurable. Because embedded in this shorthand are gems of good news that we brush aside to our spiritual poverty. So today we do a little unpacking of Paul’s abbreviated words, as we listen for the truth beneath the shorthand, the somewhat muffled melody that aches to be sung. And the tune we listen for today revolves around three key concepts: law, faith, and binaries. This is shorthand that deserves to be heard. It’s shorthand that radiates the heart of God. So our sermon today is perhaps more difficult than some, as it is, of necessity, less narrative and more theological.
First bit of shorthand: law. Paul lives in a world in which law is paramount. For him, it’s religious law. The 613 laws at the heart of the Torah, the Jewish law, were at the center of life in the communities in which Paul traveled. An obedient Jew—which is what Paul was—was to honor the law. People of faith respect the law that prioritizes God and orders their life together.
And this is all fine and good. Except that this doesn’t seem particularly relevant to us in the twenty-first century. This is not a debate that we have any more. Nobody in our wing of the Christian church talks about whether or not to obey religious law. Nobody. So when Paul says it is no longer religious law that should guide a life of faith, that it’s now Christ that’s at the heart of a faithful life, we yawn and think, “OK, what else you got?” So because religious law is no longer the way we organize our lives, we likely fail to get Paul’s shorthand here.
We may, in fact, think we’re so evolved that we no longer need or use laws of any kind to guide our civic or religious life, but if we conclude that we’ve outgrown any and all life laws, any ordering guidelines, I wonder if we haven’t missed something crucial. Because while we may not be following religious laws, we seem, nevertheless, to be in thrall to a significant set of societal expectations that function, in many ways, the way that religious laws did for Paul. Acknowledged or not, we live by a rigorous set of cultural standards, standards we dare not cross. Just try painting your house bright fuchsia and see how the homeowners’ association reacts. Try blaring your music at 2:00 a.m. and see how your neighbor reacts.
More subtly, and more insidiously, there are unspoken cultural expectations that hang over nearly every dimension of life. Pressure squeezes us to make more money, to live in the “best” neighborhood, to rise up the corporate ladder, to have the right body type, to belong to the most prestigious club. “Oh, you’re still in that position?”—with the implication that you’re not much of a success. “Oh, I see you’ve gained a little weight”—with the insinuation that you really haven’t quite measured up. In certain circles, a cheap suit will rule you out. Mary and I once had guests for dinner, and when we were out of the room, we overheard one guest sneering to their spouse that our flatware was only silver plate, not real silver. There are abundant norms that tell us how to behave. And we violate them at our peril. So laws? In many ways, cultural guidelines dictate how we’re to be. We best not disregard them.
Paul knows that, far from having outgrown such standards, we are so often still subject to them. If you dare contravene the accepted, though largely unspoken, rules, you will almost certainly pay some sort of price—dismissed, ridiculed, ignored.
It would be fatuous, of course, not to acknowledge that some standards matter greatly. This is why we have civic laws instituted by governmental authorities. It’s not these laws that Paul is talking about, though. Paul is talking about cultural expectations.
And Paul knows, too, that even these cultural norms have some value. He acknowledges that “the law [has appropriately been] our guide” (3:24). In the same way children need bedtimes and dogs need to know who’s the alpha, we all need to know what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s legitimate and what’s not. The law Paul is talking about tells us how to color inside of the lines, how to stay in our lanes.
Paul knows the gift of law. But he also knows that the law, by itself, is never enough to yield a rich and rewarding life. Your family rules may dictate whose turn it is to cook tonight; they may insist that a child is not to bite or hit Mommy or Daddy; they may delineate when we can be on our phones and when not. But rules and regulations are never what produce belly laughs. They’re never what make for tender listening when the child is cut from the varsity. They’re never what make for peaceful sleep when the boogeyman seems to have set up camp under the bed. Our rules and laws are necessary. But they’re never what make our lives full and joyful. As a philosopher might say, rules are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for fullness of life.
So, in this first bit of shorthand, Paul acknowledges, for us, too, both the importance and, more crucially, the limits of law, in whatever form it may take. Having done that, he then goes on to tell the Galatians what matters most in their life together. His second piece of shorthand is that fullness of life comes from faith in Christ. Or at least that’s what we think he says.
We can’t have gotten far in church life without hearing the admonition that we’re to have faith in Jesus. If you just have faith, the saying seems to imply, then you’ll be alright. Have faith in Jesus, and all will be well. This is bedrock advice for followers of Jesus.
The thing we might well question this morning, though, is this: I’m not sure that’s what Paul is saying. As appropriate as that traditional phrase—“have faith”—may sound, I have a hunch that Paul is saying something else entirely. You see, if the admonition is for us to have faith, then faith just becomes one more accomplishment of ours. It becomes, we might say, just another variety of law. If you don’t have faith, the unstated implication is that you didn’t work hard enough at it. If you don’t have faith, you weren’t disciplined enough about it. If you don’t have faith, you’re something of a spiritual failure. Faith, in this way of thinking, is just one more achievement to check off, one more rule, one more law to obey.
In the verse immediately preceding today’s passage, Paul talks about how crucial faith is for fullness of life. The question is: what does Paul mean by faith? Paul begs the Galatians to do one of two things—either to have faith in Christ—which is the way we typically hear these words—or to be steeped in the faith of Christ (3:22). Faith in Christ, or faith of Christ. It’s not at all clear which, though. The Greek phrasing could mean either. So is it we who are to have faith in Christ? Or is it Christ’s faith—rather than ours—that makes us whole? Are we the primary actors in the faith drama? Or is it instead Christ whose faith makes all the difference?
You may be able to guess where I come down on this. There’s no doubt room for a range of nuanced interpretations. For me, though, the key isn’t to keep striving for some sort of faith perfection. That just imprisons us on the hamster wheel of always having to do more if we want the riches of God. If you don’t feel centered, it’s your fault, because you simply don’t have enough faith. If you don’t have peace, it’s your failing because your faith is anemic. So buck up and do better! That’s the traditional way of thinking: have faith and you’ll be OK. Maybe. We hope.
I think Paul is saying something entirely different, something that goes radically against the grain of this culture in which we live, a culture in which all progress and accomplishment are commonly thought to be ours, and ours alone, to make. On the contrary, I think Paul is saying: it’s not about us at all. It’s not really about whether you and I have the right sort of spiritual practices. That’s just ego and checking off the necessary boxes and adhering to more rules that we ought to be ditching. The decisive faith is not the one that we put into practice. The decisive faith is the faith of Jesus. It’s Jesus’ faith that saves us. Not yours. Not mine. Faith, in other words, is a holy gift, not a spiritual achievement. Faith is Christ’s grace working in us.
So spiritually speaking, our job is not to do all the right things. It’s to receive. Just receive. Our job isn’t to cook the meal; it’s to be served the banquet. Our job isn’t to peddle the bike furiously uphill; it’s to ride in the limousine of grace. Our job isn’t to practice the violin; it’s to listen to the concert. This is what Paul is saying to us today, oh so urgently. Receive the grace that is already and always yours. Bask in it. Be filled by it. Be restored by it. Find your deepest peace right in the midst of Christ’s faith, Christ’s endless giving. That’s what makes you and me whole.
So that’s two shorthand symbols in Paul’s lexicon: the law; and the faith, not in Christ, but of Christ. There’s one more shorthand symbol, though, and it’s what Paul says about binaries in today’s climactic verse: “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, [enslaved] and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ” (3:28, The Message).
For Paul, this is one more shorthand expression that upends the way we look at the world. Our culture is so often about who’s in and who’s out. Remember what we said earlier, about how we strive for status on so many fronts—who’s wealthy enough, smart enough, sophisticated enough, accomplished enough, thin enough, appealing enough, pretty enough, athletic enough, famous enough. We stratify our world, with some passing muster, and so many failing to measure up.
And if we’re really being true to Jesus, if we’re really receiving the insistent grace that is at the heart of the universe, then we can’t help but erase those binaries and act, instead, in accord with that holy, inclusive grace. Which means we honor each person as a holy manifestation of God. We don’t dismiss the cleaning woman or the server. We don’t cower before the titans of industry and wealth. We don’t consign those with sexual orientations or gender identities different from our own to second-class citizenship. Why? Because “all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Who? “All.” What? “One.” In what way? “In Christ Jesus.”
Carol E. Holtz-Martin, a local church pastor, puts it this way: “In the midst of complex immigration controversies, ‘There is neither native born nor illegal immigrant.’ In a society dramatically divided by income, ‘There is neither monied nor working class nor poor.’ In a society polarized by race [we note on this Juneteenth], ‘There are neither people of color nor people of no color.’ In the season of elections, ‘There is neither Republican nor Democrat nor Independent . . .’ [T]o repeat Paul’s own words, ‘There is neither male nor female [and, we might add, neither gay nor straight, neither cis nor trans].’ For you all are one in Christ.”
Holtz-Martin goes on to underline Paul’s affirmation, “that Christ alone matters: Christ our unity, Christ our focus, Christ the line of energy along which relationships run, Christ the beginning and the end, Christ the cause for which we live, Christ from which nothing can take us, not even death—especially not death” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 165).
Paul today uses his own unique theological shorthand to say: Throw off the expectations and standards that can never lead to full life. Receive and embrace the faith of Christ that holds you close now and always. And ditch the binaries that stratify our world. You are better than that. God is better than that. Open yourselves to the big tent of God’s grace and the liberating love that embraces all people. In just such a life is freedom. In just such a life is joy. Together let’s live it.