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Living an Imperfect Life Well -- Galatians 5:1-2, 13-25 (3rd Sunday After Pentecost)

You may have figured this out by now – but I love the letters we have from the Apostle Paul. It’s pretty amazing: We have this collection of letters from Paul to a variety of communities, with a glimpse of what life was like nearly 2,000 years ago. Paul is travelling the known world – bringing the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – and helping form communities who live out that love. Paul proclaims this Good News right into the midst of real life, into the mess of real life, the hurly burly, the ups and the downs. They’re trying to figure out who they are in Jesus Christ – what it means to follow the way of Jesus -- together. They write to Paul; he writes back. What we have in Scripture is some of Paul’s side of that conversation – tackling the issues of the day.

We get all that – and it’s not always pretty – and – we also find in Paul’s writings, some of the most beautiful expressions of love lived out in the reality of community and family and an often-bewildering world – the words we read at weddings (“Love is patient, love is kind”) and at memorial services (“Nothing can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus”) – life-giving, truth-bearing good news – in the midst of real life.

Every once in a while, though, when I’m reading one of the Apostle Paul’s letters – I just have to stop and say, “Paul, man, why are you so angry?” Because Paul is not, well, he’s not mild-mannered. And sometimes he gets quite worked up.

Like in Galatians. Galatians is a scorcher of a letter. Paul is fired up. Galatians is the only one of his letters where the Apostle Paul doesn’t thank God for the people to whom he is writing.[1] He’s barely written “Dear Galatians,” when he launches in – “I am astonished that you have deserted the Gospel!” And then a chapter or so in, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” And then towards the end, as he’s wrapping it all up, one of my favorites: “See what large letters I am writing to you, in my own hand!” (OK, Paul, we get the point.)

We get the clear sense that something has gone wrong in Galatia, and that something vitally important is at stake here.

Here’s what we think has happened: From the text of the letter, we can tell that some group of people have come to the churches in Galatia and tried to undo the work that Paul has done.[2] Paul is moving at a good clip, breathlessly proclaiming a gospel of grace and freedom. In Jesus Christ, God has done everything needed to reconcile humanity to God. In Jesus Christ, God has done nothing less than birthed an entirely New Creation – setting the whole world free from everything that does us harm. In our baptism into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the very Spirit of Christ has come to dwell in us. The old barriers that used to separate us from God and from each other are gone. Everything is new, and everyone is welcome. Good News!

But not everyone agrees with Paul, and when he leaves town, there are a group of people following Paul around, preaching something different – trying to add back in some of the old rules – the law – you still need to follow the strict dietary requirements, the male members of your families need to be circumcised. They are setting the barriers higher and higher for folks to be welcomed in. When it comes to being loved as God’s own – they say – there are still some things you need to do to get it right. And the Galatians seem to be sliding into the seeming clarity of these rules.

In response, alongside his angry outbursts, Paul says this: In Christ, there is no division. “There is no Jew or Gentile, no male or female, no slave or free, we are all one in Jesus Christ.” Everyone is welcome. Paul writes, “The only thing that counts – the only thing – is faith expressing itself in love.” “What counts is the New Creation.” He writes in today’s Scripture, “It is for freedom Christ has set you free.”

Why is Paul so angry? Because these folks he loves are turning their backs on freedom. They are yoking themselves to rules that keep some people in and some people out. They are boxing others out from a full experience of God’s abundant grace and love for us in Jesus Christ.

In his letter to the Galatians, why is Paul so angry? Because they are turning their backs on freedom.

Why would anyone do that?

Well, here’s the thing about freedom. Sometimes freedom can be untidy. Rules may constrain, but they do come with order. If you follow these rules, you know you’re on the right track. For the Galatians, if your men are circumcised you’re in; if not, you’re out. You know where you stand. You know where others stand. Freedom leaves so much – maybe too much – up to us – a little too much uncertainty – and we don’t trust ourselves – or others – there’s got to be a rule. There’s a part of us wants a rule.

On this Pride Sunday, I’m thinking of the work that I and so many others have done for marriage equality. Those who disagreed said, “But there’s a rule – there’s a definition of marriage – it’s between one man and one woman – it’s how it’s always been – and the order of our society depends on that. There is a rule.” But that rule kept us, for too long, from the freedom that honors and celebrates the broad diversity of how folks meaningfully create families that love and sustain us in the whole of life.

Now, to be clear – it’s not just other people who want a rule. So many times during COVID, I’ve found myself just wanting a rule. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. In the first days of pandemic, the rules were clear. Stay in your house. Put your masks on whenever you go out. Wash your hands. Keep 6 feet of distance. In a world where so much was unknown, the rules let me feel like I could DO something – something to protect myself and those I love.

Now, two years into pandemic, absolute rules like that no longer make sense – we know more, we’ve made progress, we have vaccines. Absolute rules like that, though clear, would actually restrict us from meaningfully living out the whole of life. So we have guidance, the wisdom of health professionals, and as we move through life, we have the freedom to figure out how we’ll best move through pandemic.

I’m just back from a lengthy trip – and I’ll say what you already know – figuring out how to live in a risky world day to day – that’s hard. I thought European nations would have it all together, but I got on the Paris Metro, and hardly anyone was wearing a mask. We had to figure out what we would do. Would we mask? No one else was. Would we find other transport? Would we only eat outside, which felt a bit safer? Or would we venture in? When would we use the tests I had packed? How might our decisions impact others – particularly those who are immunocompromised?

Risk was everywhere – and so was life. And there we were, figuring out things as we went along. Same as here. And actually, that’s probably how life has always been. We are always figuring out life as we go along – trying to live an imperfect life well – evaluating our options, the world around us, assessing the risks and the benefits, doing the best we can. COVID just has made it more evident. Can’t we just have a rule? Freedom can be untidy, uncertain, and sometimes even scary.

And here’s another thing: Freedom comes with responsibility. The Apostle Paul is clear – the freedom we have in Christ is not the freedom to do whatever we want. It’s not utter anarchy. “It is for freedom Christ has set you free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery – but – (Paul goes on) – through love, become slaves to each other.” What on earth does that mean?

The freedom we find in Christ is a specific freedom. It’s not only freedom from the things that constrain us; it is freedom for freedom to live for the freedom and well-being of others. We talked about that last summer. Paul goes through the list – it’s not freedom to be licentiousness, or quarreling, or envious. It’s freedom for the well-being of others. All of those rules, he says, can be summed up in one principle, one command: Love. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The freedom that we find in Christ is the freedom for love – the freedom to live lives of love – for the well-being of others and all creation.

And in this type of freedom – this freedom for – in Christ – we are not alone. Throughout the season of Easter, we talked about the experience of the New Creation we find in Resurrection. At Pentecost, we experience that New Creation alive in us by the power of the Spirit of Christ. This freedom of which the Apostle Paul writes is the freedom to live in and by the power of the Spirit of Christ, alive in us. And what takes root in that kind of life – what comes to life – the fruit of life in the Spirit – is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Our worship theme as we move into the Summer is “Living an Imperfect Life Well.” That theme takes as a given that life is imperfect and so are we. So we can all take a deep breath. We live complicated lives in a complex world. As Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie write in their book A Good Enough Life: 40ish Devotions for a Life of Imperfection – they write: “We are fragile... and so is everyone else. Life will break our heart, and there’s nothing wrong with us if we know that. We are made for interdependence. And our imperfect, ordinary lives can be holy.”[3]

As we begin this summer series, let’s just say this: The first step toward Living an Imperfect Life Well, is leaning into grace. It is for freedom Christ has set us free – freedom to live by the power of the Spirit alive in us – freedom to figure out together how to live our imperfect lives well – freedom to live lives that come to embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Now we can’t really talk about freedom – on this day – without talking about the blow to freedom that we’ve experienced in this nation this week. On Friday, the Supreme Court reversed Roe v Wade. On Thursday, women had a constitutional right to reproductive choice. And on Friday, that constitutional right no longer existed. We’ll talk more about that next Sunday as we reflect on living our life of faith within the constitutional framework of this nation. But today, we name the grieving, so broadly and deeply felt – that has come with that loss of constitutional freedom, and what it will mean for all women, and especially women with crisis pregnancies, as states automatically trigger laws with absolute rules that have no regard even for the life or health of the mother.

How will we live lives of freedom in response to that?

And not only that, in our own lives, in our life together, we know that over the past few weeks, life has come with challenges near to our hearts. We have sustained loss. There are those we love who are ill, some healing from injury, some recovering from surgery, some preparing for surgery. We continue through COVID. And, we celebrate new life – as Lindsey McLorg and Malcolm celebrate the birth of a grandchild.

In the big movements of our day, and in the intimate moments of our lives, bound together in love, how will we live this imperfect life well?

As we move into the coming week, I want to offer a practice – a spiritual practice. It has two parts:

1. First, I invite you to memorize the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. If you’re not up for memorizing – write them down or print them up, and put them somewhere you’ll see them throughout the day.

2. And then, each day this week, pick one. Or you could pick one for the whole week. Pick one fruit of the Spirit and ask, “How will I live this out today?” Gentleness. How will I live that out? Generosity. How will I embody that? And carry that word as your prayer throughout the day – a prayer that can come to life in you – by the power of the Spirit alive in you.

In Galatians, the Apostle Paul is angry because something important is at stake – the freedom we have in Christ to live – by the power of the Spirit – our imperfect lives in ways that bless and heal the world. And so he writes – in large letters – It is for freedom Christ has set you free. Don’t enslave yourselves or others ever again. No: Love. In the New Creation, embrace these imperfect lives we’re given to live in this imperfect world, and live for love. Live for freedom. Lean into grace. And what will flourish – in you – is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. What matters is faith expressing itself in love.

© 2022 Scott Clark

[1] See Mitzi Smith and Yung Suk Kim, “Galatians,” Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018). [2] This understanding of the life and theology of the Apostle Paul draws from Udo Schnelle’s comprehensive work, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (trans. M.E. Boring) (New York: Baker Publishing Group, 2005). [3] Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, A Good Enough Life: 40ish Devotions for a Life of Imperfection (New York: Convergent Press, 2022), p.xii.

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez, used with permission via Unsplash


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