June 6, 2010

… to set us free from the present evil age

Passage: Psalm 146, Galatians 1:1-24, Luke 7:11-27, Galatians 1:3-5

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.


In the early morning of March 29 (2010), in Cleveland, Ohio, police began chasing a motorist attempting to flee over a traffic violation.  After a chase that continued through several communities, the driver and a passenger bolted from the car and headed for a fence. They apparently did not realize that the fence they were scaling was on the outside of the state women’s prison in Cleveland.  Needless to say, they were arrested.

1. Even when the impulse eventuates in ill-conceived actions there is something about the human desire to be free that we readily identify with, yes, even admire. And often, like our fleeing suspects, the places we are running towards that look like freedom turns out to be yet another prison.  How many a young person starts out believing that sufficient wealth will set us free only to discover that the wealth owns us.  The communist revolutions of the last century that promised freedom from the dictatorial rule of tyrants in turn imposed a tyranny far more brutal that the deposed kings and royal families.

Where does this desire for freedom come from; why does it even arise in the human heart?  Is it simply an over-inflated dislike for being told what to do; a zealous fondness for being in charge?  The gospel implies that humans were created to live in freedom; when the Apostle Paul said that “the Lord Jesus Christ ... gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” he declares that God longs for us to be free; free us from that corruption from which all bondage finds its source.

Please note that the gospel answers the cry of the human heart.  That desire we have to be free is because we are created for it; the human created in the image of God was made for freedom because God is free.  The image of God, though defaced by sin, still has the memory that humans were once free.  I think this is why we long for freedom; still we know that something binds us and we are ever leaping over the fence in front of us hoping that on the other side we will finally be free.  The gospel says that only Jesus can set you free.

The Apostle Paul’s opening greeting is theologically loaded; it is a succinct, densely packed, declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In fact, all that follows in the letter to the Galatians will simply unpack this opening declaration.  Clearly, the good news of Jesus Christ is about setting people free; what beats in the heart of Jesus Christ is a longing to set people free so we can be all God created us to be.

This summer Rev. Burden and I will be preaching a series of sermons in two of Paul’s letters; the first is the letter to the Galatian church.  One theologian described Paul’s Galatian letter as the Magna Carta of Christian liberty.  On June 15, 1215 the English legal charter known as the Magna Carta was issued; it required King John of England to proclaim certain rights, respect certain legal procedures, and accept that his will could be bound by the law.  The Magna Carta gave rise to the rule of constitutional law in the English speaking world; the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms being an example of such constitutional law.

Even though we enjoy the liberties of living under such a constitution, I point out to you that such charters cannot set people free; indeed they protect liberties, but can they set you free?  The gospel declares that Jesus Christ sets people free; it is profoundly instructive to note that Paul made this declaration about Jesus setting us free in the Roman world where close to 90% of its inhabitants lived in some form of slavery or indenture.  I am looking forward to exploring these themes with you in Paul’s Galatian letter.

2. Ulrich Zwingli, was ordained to the priesthood in 1506; a contemporary of Martin Luther he paved the way for the reformation in Switzerland.  His love for his people shone most brightly when plague overtook the city of Zurich and he spent himself self-forgetfully on behalf of the sick and dying, barely surviving ending up plague-infested himself. Even though he was the most accomplished musician of the Reformation era, he trashed the organ in Zurich’s cathedral church when he discovered that the music there was nothing more than “high-brow” entertainment devoid of gospel significance. (It was said that the organist wept at the sight of the razed organ)

(Just for the record, I have no designs on trashing our church organ).  What Zwingli objected to was that the music was being played for its own sake; it was not played for the sake of the worship of the One who gave himself to set us free.  In essence, Zwingli saw this as a perversion of the gospel; it may be that his methodology was strident; still his passion for the gospel was unmistakable.

In the Apostle Paul’s letters, following his opening greeting, he generally included a commendation of the church typically in the form of a prayer; he would often express why he gave thanks to God for them.  Even to the problem filled church at Corinth he wrote: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus”.

Here in the letter to the Galatians what follows his greeting is something more akin to a bucket of cold water being thrown into your face; some may even say a slap upside the head. “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. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!”

So what has Paul striking such a strident tone?  This will unfold in the weeks ahead as we explore his letter; here we note that Paul perceives that some “agitators” (as he puts it) have come to the churches and their teaching perverts the gospel of Christ.  When we hear the strident tone of debate; the sharp distinction that this is a perversion of that; sometimes the discomfort has us reaching for the safe-sounding “why can’t we just all get along”; or the erudite “above-the-fray” position of “there are problems on both sides”.  To take such an approach here is to say that there is no genuine gospel or to say, in effect, anything can be the gospel.  It is my experience that the person who offers to meet me half-way generally thinks they are already standing on the dividing line.

It is easy to treat Paul’s letter to the Galatians as intercepted mail that is not addressed to us; we can write it off as a personal matter between Paul and the Galatians.  I invite you to consider that this letter helps us address a number of impulses or attitudes that hamper spiritual health of congregations today.  One of the impulses we face today is that nothing is really worth insisting on; except “hate speech”, of course, which often is code for offending someone in transgression of current politically-correct pieties.  The perversion of the gospel is spiritually unhealthy—to say the least.

3. Father Fred Dolan is the head of Opus Dei in Canada.  Last week he met with a dozen or so MPs in the Parliamentary dining room. Actually, every MP received an invitation, and—as Ezra Levant noted—not even in invisible ink.  Josée Legault of the Montreal Gazette reported that, as this was the third time in the past two years, it was proof positive of an ultra-right-wing conspiracy infecting the Harper government.  NDP MP Pat Martin sought out reporters and said he would never attend such a lunch because guys like Fr. Dolan “give me the creeps.”

Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, actually asked about it in Question Period ... and demanded that the Prime Minister “admit that his policy is influenced” by such people. A reporter asked Mr. Duceppe if he wasn’t being “a little McCarthyite”; Mr. Duceppe brushed off the accusation and went further: Opus Dei members should not be allowed to participate in political life — even as volunteers — if they identify “as a group.” He went further claiming Opus Dei “have people in place … so a lot of things prove that something’s going on.”

This is what you call a “smear campaign”.  (Someone needs to remind these MP’s that Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code was fiction nor the movie a documentary).  This is precisely the kind of smear campaign that is being mounted against the Apostle Paul. Those infiltrating the Galatian church are saying things like; Paul isn’t a real Apostle you know; second tier at best; Paul learned the gospel second hand and doesn’t really have the complete message; Paul didn’t hear it from Jesus’ own mouth like the real Apostles.

You can tell this is going on by how Paul introduces himself: “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.”  Paul also takes time to trace his general itinerary from that day on the road to Damascus when Jesus stopped him in his tracks; he did not even meet with the other Apostles until at least three years after this event; by that point the news about Paul had already spread to the Judean churches; “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.”  Paul insists the gospel was revealed to him by God: “for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Now that is a bold claim; it may also show us why Paul is so passionate that the gospel not be perverted; he has had encounter with Jesus Christ.

Today, as then, people try to deflect the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ by trashing its messengers.  Paul is judged by many theologians today according to current pieties as misogynist, egomaniacal, patriarchal, and homophobic; the conclusion is that we are not to take seriously much of what he says and the gospel becomes something other that he proclaimed.

But Paul insists he received it “through a revelation of Jesus Christ”.  Now, let me be clear the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ is something all the Apostles agreed upon, including Paul.  What Paul is witnessing is that the gospel the other Apostles received from Christ he received from the same source; the conclusion is Paul too is an Apostle.

4. Is this—Paul’s Apostleship—important for us?  Dr. Lionel Tiger is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University; his expertise is on the biological roots of human social behaviour. He says that the brain creates religion; further that believing in God generates soothing "juices" in the brain that make us feel good.  Is Paul’s “revelation of Jesus Christ” nothing more than the generation of soothing juices in the brain?  Has God really made God’s self-known in Jesus Christ?  These are not questions of small import; they have to do with the reality of the gospel.

There are currently 1.7 billion active Internet users; another three billion are expected to be added in the next five years. Within five years, at least half the globe should be online; within fifteen years, Internet reach should be almost universal. “The speed of modern life is 2.3 words per second, or about 100,000 words a day,” The Sunday Times of London reports. Although we may not actively read 100,000 words a day, that is the approximate number reaching our eyes and ears. Add images, such as videos and computer games, and we are faced with the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of information each day – enough to overload the typical laptop inside a week

There are thirty-one billion searches on www.google.com every month. In 2006, there were only 2.7 billion searches. It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times newspaper contains more information than a person would come across in their whole lifetime in the eighteenth century. Data and information are no longer a commodity in a world where persons can find facts on the Internet. This has led to development of knowledge engines such as “Wolfram Alpha,” which takes information and applies complex computational processes to extract knowledge

In a world where information is so assessable and coming at you in increasing volumes how do you filter what is worth listening to?  One of the impulses of our world is to regard no single piece of information is definitive for the rest; we are left to navigate the rising tide of information.  The Apostle Paul declares that there is one who will show us; will help us navigate the sea of information; will set us free from the challenge of absorbing it all, as if it is sufficient information that will make sense of our lives.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.