Philip Gulley tells about pastoring a small Quaker meeting not far from where he lived when he was still in college. Several months into his tenure there, an elder in the congregation approached him with the news that a man and a woman in the congregation, both of whom were widowed, had begun living together. This elderly couple had met and developed a deep friendship that blossomed into a deep and mutual affection.
This elder confronted Gulley: “Did you know they weren’t married? I think you should talk to them. They’re living in sin,” he said. Gulley says that like many people of his generation, he’d been taught that couples who were romantically involved and living together should be married. It was a principle he had never questioned, so he agreed to visit them.
Tom and Maggie welcomed Gulley into their modest home, ushered him to the most comfortable chair, and offered him refreshments. Pictures of their respective children and grandchildren lined the walls. Gulley asked about them and received a detailed biography of each family member. They ended by showing him pictures of their deceased spouses.
Gulley seized the opening and commented on their relationship, offering to marry them if they wished. Tom said quietly, “We can’t afford to. We’d lose too much Social Security. It’s all we have.” He was obviously embarrassed and Gulley was starting to feel ashamed for bringing it up. Maggie spoke up, “We know we shouldn’t be living like this, but a person just gets lonely.”
Gulley thought for a moment and then said, “You know, friends, I think God has bigger things to worry about. Let’s just be grateful you have each other.”
The next Sunday the elder asked him if he had spoken with the couple. Gulley told him that he had met with them and then explained to the elder the financial setback marriage would impose. That didn’t seem to satisfy the elder so Gulley suggested that perhaps then he could reimburse their lost income so they could marry. Not surprisingly, the elder declined his proposal.
Why in almost all religious organizations and institutions are there people who set themselves up as the temple police? They see themselves as gatekeepers of the laws and traditions of the faith. But an even greater question has to do with the laws and traditions themselves. What’s the purpose of religious laws and traditions anyway?
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians Paul is confronting Christians who he felt were putting law, elevating rules and traditions over the heart and soul of authentic faith. Paul was instrumental in founding the churches of Galatia, and after he left other teachers had come in persuading these Christians that in order to be right with God they had to keep in totality the Jewish law. Paul was so upset with his brothers and sisters for going along with this he skips his normal opening salutation at the beginning of the letter and tears into them for being so easily deceived.
It’s so easy, it seems, for us to miss what is primary, what is most important, what God cares most about, and focus on secondary things.
Albert Schweitzer was an amazing man. In his life he was a renowned theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. The second half of his career was devoted to serving a medical mission in Lambarene,
Africa. He could not get
missionary support because his theology was suspect so he performed concerts in
order to raise money to support his work.
In the first half of his career as a theological scholar he wrote several books, one of which launched a major theological movement that has now went through several phases. The title of the book describes the movement, The Quest for the Historical Jesus.
The late Fred Craddock, who taught at Candler School of Theology for a number of years, tells about the time he first read the book. He was in his early twenties, just getting started in his theological career. He thought Schweitzer’s Christology was woefully lacking. He marked up the book, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds.
Fred was in Knoxville and read in the news that Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio to give a concert at a church dedicating a new organ. The article reported that there would be refreshments afterward in the Fellowship Hall and that Schweitzer would be around for conversation.
Fred bought a greyhound bus ticket and went all the way to
hoping to have an opportunity to ask him some questions. He laid out his
questions on the trip. He was going to go after Schweitzer on his doctrine of
After the concert Fred was one of the first persons to get a seat in the Fellowship Hall. He plopped down in the first row armed with his questions. After a little while Schweitzer came in, shaggy white hair, big white mustache, sort of stooped over, with a cup of tea and some refreshments. Fred was waiting for his chance to hammer his theology of Christ.
Dr. Schweitzer thanked everyone: “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me, and I thank you for that. I wish I could stay longer, but I must get back to
must go back to Africa because many of my
people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a
medical station at Lambarene.” Then he said, “If there’s anyone here in this
room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with
me and help me.”
Fred said that he looked down at his questions and realized that they were absolutely stupid. Fred remarks, “And I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.”
Healthy religion, truly liberating religion says that wherever you find compassion at work, care for the sick and hurting, wherever you find people working for peace, welcoming the marginalized and disenfranchised, lifting up the downtrodden, caring for the most vulnerable, loving the enemy, working for the common good, there you will find God – that’s where God is. When we participate in this larger story, when we give ourselves to truly loving our neighbor as ourselves, we are living out the very best of our humanity.
Paul explains that love is the fulfillment of the intent and design of the law. Love is the highest law that supersedes all other laws. The purpose of law is to teach us what love looks like and how to live it and express it.
Some laws in the Bible do this effectively, others do not. There are some bad laws in the Bible, because the Bible is not a perfect book. There are some laws and instructions in the Bible that are attributed to God, that we can say very clearly, in light of what we know of Jesus of Nazareth and our own experience of the living Christ, these laws did not come from God. Sometimes we attribute to God rules and expectations that are simply designed to justify and rationalize our own prejudices and self-serving interests. We interpret Scripture to suit our purposes. We all do this. No one escapes their biases. And the biblical writers were no different than we are. They were just as human as you or me.
This is why Paul says in the passage: Do not use the freedom you have to pursue self-indulgence, because then you lose your freedom, and you become enslaved to your false self, your ego, your disordered desires. Rather, he says, use your freedom to serve others in love, because serving others in love will truly set you free to discover and express the best of your humanity. Then you will find true freedom, which is the freedom to love unconditionally and completely the way God loves you and me. True freedom is always rooted in love.
Paul contrasts true freedom and false freedom, which is really enslavement, by contrasting the fruit of the Spirit (capital S, the kind of fruit God produces in our lives) with what he calls the works of the flesh. The works of the flesh are disordered desires and actions that tear down community and feed self-interest and self-glory. Why he calls these life-diminishing attitudes and patterns of behavior “works of the flesh” is a kind of mystery. He does the same thing in his letter to the Romans. (Quite possibly he is sarcastically using the language of the teachers who were arguing that they had to keep the whole law. These teachers apparently emphasized circumcision as a sign and symbol of keeping the whole law, so this may be a veiled allusion to that, but it’s hard to say. But whatever we call these characteristics, they are the opposite of loving actions.)
The fruit of the Spirit, says Paul, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Love heads the list because all the attributes that follow are characteristics of love. Paul says that against such things there is no law. He also says that those who are led by the Spirit are not subject to the law. In other words, law cannot ultimately produce these qualities. This is the work of God’s Spirit and it is the fulfillment of the real intent and design of law, but the law itself cannot produce this results. The law can say, “Be kind to one another,” but it is the Spirit that generates kindness. Does that make sense? The law can move us in the right direction, but it takes the Spirit to fulfill the law.
Then too, as I have already pointed out, there are biblical laws that do not advance the cause of love, which is why each instruction in Scripture must be critically evaluated and not just accepted as if from God. By just accepting everything a lot more harm has been done in our world than good. The Bible has been used to condemn our LGBT sisters and brothers, keep women as second class citizens, and condone violence. As Christians we should critique every instruction in the Bible in light of the compassion of Jesus and the true intent of love. And, as you well know, there can be a vast difference between what is legal and what is loving. Love will eliminate laws that are oppressive and advocate for laws that are liberating.
So, the Spirit of love will compel us to work on both on our own personal responses to one another and love will compel us to advocate for justice in society. Certainly, life in the Spirit makes us better persons. When we live in the Spirit we will become individually and personally more loving persons, more empathetic, more compassionate, more kind, generous, patient, forgiving, humble, and authentic. We will become more like Christ.
The story that Lisa read about Elisha wanting a double portion of the spirit of Elijah can be read as an illustration of what discipleship is about. We should want a double portion of the Spirit of Christ so that we can reflect the likeness and image of Christ, so that we experience and express the kind of compassion and grace that he embodied.
But Christian discipleship does not end with our personal character and responses to others in our small communities. No. Our Christian discipleship compels us to work and advocate for the best in society as well. When the Spirit of love fills our lives, then we also become more concerned about our larger society and the laws that govern it, especially when those laws favor certain groups, or reflect the interests of power and wealth, or when they express prejudice and create un-level playing fields.
This sort of freedom to love can take many different expressions. We witnessed a form of this in our nation’s capital in the House of Representatives this past week. Some of our elected officials led by civil rights icon John Lewis staged an unprecedented sit-in contending for a vote on two bills. One simply says that if one is on a no-fly list because of suspected terrorist activity one cannot purchase a gun. The other is simply an expansion of background checks. Ninety percent of Americans want this legislation passed, our police forces and city officials want this legislation passed, most gun owners want this legislation passed, but speaker Paul Ryan feels such pressure from the NRA and his congressmen who are in the pocket of the NRA that he would not even allow a vote. John Lewis and others have said, “Enough is enough. That is not freedom they say, that is enslavement to money and power. Lewis says, “Exceptional times and circumstances call for exceptional measures.” And he would know. He marched with King across the Selma bridge and paid the price for true freedom. No one in Congress has more moral authority than John Lewis.
Early in this passage Paul says that what really matters is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, what really matters he says is faith working through love. When faith produces love that’s when faith makes a difference. If our faith does not lead us to be more loving persons, then our faith is irrelevant and doesn’t really matter. True freedom is love in action.
Our gracious God, you have set us free in Christ to love as you love, and yet there are times when we fail miserable to experience and express that freedom. We so easily become ensnared and entrapped by our biases, our fears and insecurities, our pride and self-interest, and the negative habits and reactions that we have acquired. But the power is at hand to break free. It is the power of love. It is the power of Christ. Give us the faith and will to nurture a more loving spirit, that we might love others more faithfully and unconditionally. And give us the courage to love others enough to work for peace and justice to make our society better, more fair, safe, just, and good. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen.