October 23, 2022
Scripture Reading: Galatians 5:5:16-18, 22-26 & II Corinthians 3:17
I’m still thinking about the 21st Century Church, even though the bulletin doesn’t say so.
I think I want to start today’s sermon with a little background into this guy Paul. Don’t be too hard on Paul. If he hadn’t shown up, hating Christians, with murder on his mind, on his way to Damascus to put a few more notches in his gun, we wouldn’t be here! God showed up on that road on our behalf and Paul had this most amazing turn-around, this dramatic conversion, so that he became not the Christian’s #1 enemy, but their #1 defender.
He was born in Tarsus (present day Turkey) and was a Pharisee – a religious lawyer and a card carrying Jew – but pretty much outside the Jewish inner circle of Jerusalem. After his conversion experience he was a natural at spreading the good news about Jesus to Gentiles all over Eastern Europe (present day Turkey, Greece, and into Italy).
The Christian movement started out as a sect totally within the Jewish faith. A Jewish movement composed of Jews who came to believe that Jesus was worth following. They had Jewish leadership and a majority of Jewish members.
Along comes Paul and with him more and more Gentiles who want to be Christian! Good news, right? Right! Sort-of! The wrinkle that kept popping up all over the new Gentile-dominated churches that Paul was establishing over Eastern Europe was this:
This new Christian movement is a Jewish thing, right? Jewish leaders! Jewish rules and boundaries for this club! No girls allowed and all that! And the two biggies: 1) a lot of food rules 2) circumcision for boys on the 8th day of their lives.
The new Gentile Christians of this movement said: “Oh no, you don’t! We’re not doing that! That’s your rule, your boundary, not ours! Besides, haven’t you been saying that Jesus set us free?”
Paul, the Pharisee and the Jewish LAWYER said after an extended debate with God: “Of course you don’t have to follow our traditions! To follow Jesus is not about the rules, not about tradition, it is forever and always about love! All those rules had their place, and for their time were fine, but we’re past that! The rules of this game have changed and WE ARE FREE!”
Now that was good news for the Gentile Christians, but it was a hard word for the Jewish Christians. “What do you mean that our cherished traditions can be set aside that easily? We’ve been doing that for centuries! It’s the RIGHT thing to do. Even Moses said so.” Paul said, “Someone greater than Moses has been here!”
The emerging church, 21st Century Church is saying these things again: “The rules are changing. Things are not the same now. Some of the things you have thought were core values are not core for us.” And you and I who have been in the existing church, worked hard for it, paid for it, and bled for it are having to take another look at our long-standing values and traditions and it is not easy.
You know what it is like when the rules change. You grew up with certain rules, values and accepted behaviors. You instilled them in your children. When they started to think for themselves, they decided: “No way! That was good for you in your time, but not in ours. We’re not doing it that way!” And you tried to insist, you judged, you argued and things got really tense. They cried for freedom and you thought it was going too far.
The new church that is emerging around us is not the same as it once was. At the core, it is the same. But in the particulars, it may well look very different. Paul’s word to ALL OF US is this: It is all about love. Love frees us and yet it confines us. We are not bound by all the old traditions that are secondary to the main message. But we are all bound by love. That obligation is binding. Make no mistake. The love of Jesus frees us to be ourselves. It frees us from traditions that no longer fit us. It frees us from other people’s rules for us. BUT – it binds us to love one another. And it is at that very point that the old church and the new emerging one come together on common ground. Love wins!
Paul’s word to us is: “Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.” Gal 5:16. And Gal 5:22-23: “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”
In other words, God invites us to hold loosely to our traditions. Don’t judge, but hold to “affection for others” and “exuberance about life.” and a “sense of compassion in the heart.” We just can’t be worried about where the boundaries are for everyone else and in the letting go, we can live exuberantly, holding compassion in our hearts at the same time.
I used to walk to church past the same back yard each time. It was fenced and there was a lively dog inside the fence. It was a big yard, but the dog had worn a narrow path all around the yard right up against the fence. No place in the whole yard was worn like that narrow path. I felt sorry for the dog – not so much because he had a boundary set for him, but because he never seemed to be able to let go of worrying about where the fence was – where the boundaries were. His whole life was frittered away wishing that the rules were different. And, it didn’t seem to me that had the capacity to enjoy his great big yard.
That dog reminded me of some church people who can’t seem to let go of the obsession of either fretting about their own boundaries or fretting about how other people are not minding their own boundaries! What a waste of a life!
God has given us all this amazing and bountiful yard, this life of ours. As long as we insist on worrying about where our boundaries are – or where our neighbors think their boundaries are, we will never truly enjoy the freedom of the place where God has placed us!
Holding loosely is one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves – and when we let go and hold lightly, it is a gift to all of those around us as well.