Paul sounds awfully American today, doesn’t he? His watchword matches that of our own founding documents: freedom! With these words you can almost see Paul lying right there next to William Wallace in Braveheart, getting disemboweled, yet holding on to that one and only thing worth holding on to, shouting it out with that last gasp of life: “Freedom!”
In both Braveheart and American history freedom is a political thing. People fight for the freedom of speech, of the press, to assemble, and the freedom of religion. Freedom means being allowed to do, well, what you want. At least within the bounds of civility, decency, and the laws we can all agree upon.
When Paul talks freedom he isn’t engaging in political speech. Paul’s only interested in theological freedom. That’s the whole point of this letter to the Galatians. He needs to talk to them about freedom, because he has heard things. His former congregation has begun listening to those who advocate believing in Jesus and getting circumcised. The Galatians seem interested in returning to the Jewish religious calendar: observing the Sabbath, special fasting times, celebrating the Old Testament festivals, maybe even the year of Jubilee when everything returns to its original owner (the original redistribution of wealth, eh?).
On their own, none of these things are wrong. Paul says, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.” It’s the same with the Sabbath, eating kosher, marking the Day of Atonement or fasting each week. As we learned in catechism, “Fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose.”
The problem Paul sees isn’t the doing of these things. That’s not why he’s stunned and bewildered. That’s not why he asks the Galatians if they’ve been bewitched or gone insane. That’s not why he calls them fools. The problem is the compulsion involved. Paul refused to let anyone compel him to circumcise the Gentile Titus; because he knows that circumcision is not necessary for salvation. Only faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. To add anything, anything, to that, Paul says, empties the cross of value. Or, as he said today, alienates you from Christ and causes you to fall from grace. In other words, turns you into an unbeliever.
Fifteen hundred years later, the same situation held. Sadly, not long after Paul died, the same problems snuck back into the Christian Church and seemed to take over. That technical term Paul used, “justified,” which refers to a status God declares upon us, a righteousness God gives us – not guilty, for the sake of Christ – slowly, but surely, shifted from focusing on having this righteousness before God through faith in Christ, to a righteousness in man. It curved man inwardly upon himself and asked, “How can I achieve this righteousness?” The Christian Church shifted its view away from finding our righteousness in Christ alone, to finding it in me, that is, forcing me to do righteous things to earn and merit God’s love, favor, and, eventually, heaven itself.
The Church didn’t listen to Paul. He said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” He identified the yoke: circumcision, which represented obedience to the Law, specifically for the Galatians, the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. Paul didn’t fear getting general: “You who are trying to be justified by law,” not “the law,” but “law,” as in the general principle of the quid pro quo: I do this, so God gives me that. No, Paul says, it doesn’t work that way. Slaves get no pay, they receive no reward. They work and work and work and die. Worse, “you have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
In the Latin Bible Luther read as a friar and professor, he would have read an interesting word in verse four: evacuati. It can mean pouring something out of a vessel or purging something. It can also mean “evacuate,” not as in people leaving a city, but our bowels, that is, the elimination of waste that happens in a bathroom. If I had the courage of Luther, I might use some graphic language here; alas, I do not, but gather in this particular image. Paul says to try to, by your own efforts, find some way to God, righteousness, and heaven, causes God to set you free (that’s the gentler image of the original Greek). Crassly, God sees what you’re doing, and deposits you in the toilet as filth, waste, and manure.
Luther, like Paul, saw this all around him. The pope told people to pay for masses, communion services, to get friends and relatives out of purgatory. The pope sold indulgences to escape purgatory. The pope called the mass a sacrifice not only for the dead, but also for the living. The pope said that you could receive absolution contingent upon doing good works, making yourself righteous. The pope still says so. One of my grandmother’s Catholic relatives offered a mass for the repose of my grandmother’s soul. The Catholic Catechism still says that faith plus works equals heaven. Not Christ’s works, but my own.
Thankfully, most of you know the story we remember today. Luther had his breakthrough. The Spirit showed him that Scripture wasn’t talking about a righteousness we gain by works, but a righteousness that comes from God, the righteousness of Christ, given to us through faith. So Luther posted his theses, wrote his catechisms, helped others stand at Augsburg and Smalcald, and declared, “Only Christ, and not human works, are to help souls.” As we begin learning so young, Jesus redeemed me, lost and condemned creature that I am, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy and precious blood, his innocent suffering and death. For me, that I might be his own. As Paul said, we turn our eyes away from works, and “by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” The righteousness of Christ won for me, given to me through the ministry of the Word, the preaching, the baptizing, the communing.
But cattle keep returning to the cow path. No matter how often we hear Paul and rehearse the history of the Reformation, we find ourselves bellowing, instead of “Moo!”, “Doo!”, which is why Paul says we keep our eyes open: “Stand firm.” We can’t rest for a minute, because the devil isn’t. He prowls around looking for whomever he may devour. Where Christ’s Church is, he’s busy building a chapel. Which means right here among us. He wants to get us into a position where we think we have Christ, but actually don’t. He wants to make us debtors “obligated to obey the whole law.” He wants us to miss the public display of Christ crucified for us, the public display of God’s righteousness, where he became what he was not – sin – so that in him we can be what we were not – righteous. The devil wants us to misplace our faith.
We do it well. You know how quickly we come to rely on money or sex or things; and if not that, our own innate goodness. We also put faith in institutions, organizations, and current reality. If I have this place, this thing, then all is well. “My synod, right or wrong.” “My church, right or wrong.” “My school, right or wrong.” “My liturgy, right or wrong.” And it has to be “this way” because we’ve always done it this way. We think if we have this institution or organization or thing then we’ve immunized ourselves against the law obedience and slavery Paul warns us against. We fail to see how we turn those things into a law. It’s in the compulsion. You must do this, you must do that, you must have this, you must say that. How much better off are we than the Jews asking, “Why don’t you fast, wash your hands, and obey the Sabbath like us?” or the Pharisee, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like that man over there.”
We don’t call ourselves Lutheran, have a Synod, support this congregation, operate a Lutheran school, or worship using liturgical forms and in so doing check off another mark on the list of our righteousness. If that’s why we have this building or that school, then we’re in trouble. We do these things because God has made a promise to us. He promises that the righteousness we need comes from him through Christ. The law, Paul told the Romans, only makes us aware of our problems. Or, in the picture he used with the Galatians, the law catches us in the fishnet and takes us prisoner. To act under compulsion is to act as if we can somehow solve our problems or get out of the net ourselves.
We cannot. “I, a poor, miserable sinner,” we confess. “With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected,” we sing. “But for us fights the valiant one, whom God himself elected. You ask who is this? Jesus Christ it is!” Christ sets us free. He is the righteousness from God, the sacrifice of atonement, whose blood we trust because it paid the price; it ended my slavery. No more compulsion.
That’s a word we need to hear. It’s why we join together in a Synod. It’s why we organize a congregation. It’s why we make the sacrifices to have a Lutheran school and send our children to a Lutheran school. It’s why we use the orders of service and liturgies we do. Because there we hear this word from God, there we see God wrapped up in his promises that Christ has set us free! You don’t hear that outside of God’s Word and his Church. There you only hear “Do” and “You.” In the Word you hear “Christ” and “done.”
This is the great Reformation truth, the great Lutheran truth, Paul’s truth. Christ has set us free by binding himself to our death. Then, when fully bound to death, he killed it to death: one little word felled death and sent it to hell. Tetelestai!, Jesus cried. “It is finished.” Done and accomplished. Now given and poured out for you in Word and Sacrament. Which we only receive when faith expresses itself through love and preaches the Word, distributes the sacraments, and teaches the little children. Thank God for the freedom of Christ, freedom from the law, sin, death, and hell, the freedom of the forgiveness of sins, our communion with the saints, our life everlasting, the freedom we proclaim with every fiber of our being in every way we can from the moment we hold a precious new life in our hands over the font: Christ has made us free! Amen.