“Growing Up” A Sermon on Galatians 3: 23-29

Growing up isn’t easy! I’ve had four grandchildren in the last two and a half years, so you can imagine I have spent a good deal of time with toddlers, and I am in awe of my children’s parenting. Toddlers need constant supervision, encouragement, and correction. I’ve heard my children say, gently but firmly, things like: “We don’t throw things at the dog!” and “Careful. You really don’t want to stick your finger in your baby brother’s eye.”

No, growing up isn’t easy. Ideally, over time, and with lots of nurturing and correction, a child develops a value system, a moral compass, and a sense of right and wrong. For this to be successful there must be a great deal support from family members, teachers and other elders and mentors, firm guidance and loving discipline.

In our passage from Galatians for today Paul employs the metaphor of “growing up” to describe the new life in Christ compare to the old life subject to the Torah of Israel, which henceforth I will call “the Law.”

Let’s take a quick look at the whole of the Letter to the Galatians before diving into our passage. The letter lays out Paul’s argument that God has done an entirely new thing in Jesus Christ. Paul believed Jesus was the Jewish messiah, and that God had raised him from the dead. This inaugurated a new age, and a new community, the church.

Other Jewish Christians in Paul’s day also believed this, but a missionary party among them wanted the church to continue to follow the Law of Israel and retain Jewish practices such as circumcision for the men and certain dietary practices.

In the Letter to theGalatians Paul angrily rejects this view and argues that the new thing God has done in Jesus Christ has freed Jesus’s followers from what he calls “the tyranny of the Law.” For this reason, Galatians is often described as “The Epistle of Freedom.” It is not too much of a stretch to say that without Galatians the church may have remained a Jewish sect. Judaism, then as now, was not monolithic, but had various groups, and the early church was just another of them.

Galatians raises perennial issues for the church about the limits of human freedom and the breadth of divine grace. Every generation of Christians asks, “What is required of us?” In Galatians we have Paul’s breathtaking assurance of God’s amazing grace that expects much but requires little for human salvation.

I realize that the words “saved” and “salvation” have become loaded religious words, but they remain good words. Among their several meanings are healing, wholeness and integrity. Paul understood salvation as being made “right with God,” something that he believed God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, while the Law is all about what we do for ourselves.

Paul address his letter “to the churches of Galatia.” Who were these churches? Galatia cuts a swath through the center of Asia Minor (in modern day Turkey), and Paul had traveled there and founded several churches. Paul sees the work he had done in these congregations as being at risk, because of the challenge to his Gospel made by these Jewish Christian Missionaries.

Who were they? One problem we have is that, like many other ancient texts, we only have one side of the argument (Paul’s.) But we can deduce from his robust rebuttals what his adversaries stood for.

Like Paul they believed that Jesus was the Jewish messiah and that God had raised him from the dead. So far, so good. But, unlike Paul they saw the logical move in response to Jesus was to be continue keeping the Law of Israel.

A problem remains as to what to call this party. When I was in seminary the common term for them was “The Judaizers” but that has fallen out of fashion for a number of good reasons, not least of which the conflict is not a Jewish against Christian debate, but an intra-Christian one. And in our post-Holocaust world we must be very careful not to employ ancient arguments as fodder for current anti-Semitism.

I will just call them “the Missionaries.” At the very beginning of Galatians Paul gets right to the point: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (1:6,7.)

The Missionaries wanted Gentile converts to keep some of the Law, to “hedge their bets” so to speak. Paul sees this a betrayal of the Gospel. For him, it is all or nothing. Christ has either freed us from the old ways or he hasn’t. Paul believed the Law is no longer necessary. Keep in mind that Paul was formerly a Pharisee, the most conservative of the parties within Judaism, and by his own admission “zealous for the Law” and a persecutor of the church before his conversion.

The keeping of the Law was the primary means of identity for Jews and their daily connection to their God. It is not surprising that the Missionaries wanted to hold on to their old practices. Keeping of the Law was a sign of being the recipients of all the promises of God given to the ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To keep the Law was to know oneself as an heir to the Promise to Israel.

Now, Paul is saying that keeping the Law is no longer necessary. And if it is not necessary are the promises of the ancestors valid, and was the Law a lie? Was it ever necessary?

That is an important question and Paul has a ready answer. Paul says that God put the Law in place on a temporary basis. Let’s look at the passage:

3:23 “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 3:24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 3:26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”

The Greek word translated here as “disciplinarian” is paidagōgos, the name given to a tutor, often an educated slave, who helped a child to grow up, by teaching them to read and write, and the dos and don’ts. In our day we might substitute nanny or au pair, but Paul’s point is that the Law was a temporary solution to prepare someone for adulthood. The law was a boundary, a fence. He says that before faith in Jesus arrived we were imprisoned and guarded until we were ready for it. Until we “grew up” sufficiently to be free on our own without the constraints of the Law.

The problem, as Paul saw it, was that the Law showed people their sins, but had no power to fix them. In other words, the Law was purely diagnostic and not remedial. It pointed out the problem, but couldn’t fix it.

But, Paul believed, now that Jesus had come, the tutorial was no longer needed, since those in Christ have grown up and are now free from the Law. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child. Now that I am an adult, I have put aside childish ways.”

And this new life in Christ, in the new age he has begun, in the new community, the church, had practical and ethical implications. Let us look at the back half of the passage. Paul says:

3:27 “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 3:28 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. 3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

We can see that some of the important social signifiers of Paul’s day, such as Jew and Gentile and slave and free, are no longer important for ours, but we have our own preoccupation with distinctions that divide us, be they racial or about sexual orientation or even about political affiliation. In our day there are congregations and even families separated by political differences.

In Paul’s day it was revolutionary that Jews and Gentiles could live together in the church. It was a radical demonstration of the power of Jesus and the Gospel to be able to unite those who were previously separated if not downright enemies.

Paul would say that being “in Christ” was now the most important social signifier, and all others were lesser identities, though not erased, were no longer decisive.

It is sad and ironic that the church itself has often been the most powerful source of imposing distinctions and prohibitions on people. For example, racial integration in the church is still only a dream. Dr. King once said that Sunday morning at 11 is the most segregated hour of the week.

And Christians still aggregate to our respective silos over doctrine and social policies, where we don’t get an opportunity to know and love each other, and hear each other’s point of view. Paul would say we have not grown up into the freedom into which Christ has set us free.

In our day of fragmented identity politics, the church at its best holds together various sorts and conditions of people who may disagree on many matters, but clings to our unity in Jesus Christ.

For Paul, baptism is the outward sign of this new life in Christ, and the freedom it bestows. And the term “clothe yourself in Christ” is a reference to the baptismal robe worn at baptism. It is appropriate that we explore this subject on the day we celebrate a baptism.

So, what is the takeaway from our study today? I would argue that for the world to flourish (if not to survive) we need grown-ups. What are the marks of such grown-ups?

  1. Grown-ups can transcend tribalism. Humans are hard-wired to be tribal. Millenia of evolution taught us to trusts our own people and to mistrust strangers. When we are fearful we tend to look for scapegoats and enemies. We will see the “Other” as a threat, and dehumanize them in our eyes. Once you have dehumanized the “Other” there is license to treat them badly, to hate them, perhaps even kill them. We have too often seen this demonization of the Other in mass persecutions and slaughter of minority groups around the world. We are seeing it now in the demonization of migrants and Muslims in Europe, and, sadly, here in the United States. The world needs grown-ups, who can look beyond the tribal human distinctions of “not our kind” to find the common humanity that resides in all God’s children.
  2. Grown-ups avoid excluding those who are different. Human tribalism tends to create social rules of exclusion. We may not think Paul’s arguments against the Law apply to us, but let us think about the kind of exclusionary rules we operate on. They may not even be written rules, but subtle social indicators that tell us who is acceptable and who isn’t, who is really welcome and who is not. We say, and I believe we mean, that everyone is welcome here, but is it completely true? It’s a perception, but it is an immaculate perception?  It is always good for a congregation to think hard about this. I recently saw a picture of a church sign that said, “I would rather be excluded because of the people I include than be included because of the people I exclude.”
  3. Finally, people grow up at different rates, so the church needs to be respectful and loving toward those who are still stuck in whatever today’s version of the Law might be. I am convinced that the church of Jesus Christ is God’s human experiment to show the world how different people can live in community together despite their differences.

The old hymn says that “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love across the whole wide earth.” For now, that is but a hope and a dream, but a hope and a dream worth working for, worth living out. Amen

(I preached this sermon on June 23, 2019, at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI.)

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