A lot of people in the world feel trapped in their homes right now. And when you do leave your house to go to the store there are restrictions on what stores are open and what you’re allowed to buy. Here in Ventura County, for instance, stores like Walmart and Target are permitted to sell groceries and pharmacy items but non-essential goods have been cordoned off. Go the HOA facility in our neighborhood and you can’t use the tennis or basketball court and kids can’t use the playground equipment. (Adults can’t either, by the way, before you ask.) And if you happen upon another human being while you’re outside you can’t get within six feet of them.
Experiencing all these restrictions can help us better understand the meaning of the “yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1) Paul talks about in our reading today in Galatians. There were those in the ecclesias of Galatia who “hindered you from obeying the truth” (v.7) just as we’ve been hindered from engaging in our normal lives. The virus Paul talks about constricts and puts demands on people that prevented them from following Christ.
Paul counters the power of this spiritual virus by reminding his readers “Christ has set us free” (v.1). We already have a vaccine and took advantage of it by our baptism into Christ. Despite this the Galatians were still afraid. They still thought that the restrictions, placed upon them before they had the vaccine, were required. Maybe we’ll feel a little bit like that when the restrictions from the coronavirus are lifted and the vaccine is available. Will it work? Should I still stay six feet away? Should we still have all our meetings and classes over Zoom? Should I continue to hoard toilet paper?
The difficulty we have with freedom in Christ is that it feels so counterintuitive and even unsafe. This was especially for true for former Jews. Their minds had been trained to live according to restrictions. Having our behavior defined by clear boundaries makes us feel secure. When those boundaries are taken away in Christ, we naturally want to redraw them, and that’s what was happening to the Galatians. When we can define our religion by concrete things we can see, as was the case with those pushing circumcision in the Galatian ecclesias, then we know we’re on the right track towards the Kingdom.
Except we’re not really on the right track at all. That sort of religion hinders us from obeying the truth. It’s counterintuitive because surely, if we have the boundaries clearly defined, then we know what it means to obey the truth – it’s right there in front of us in black and white. The abstract and invisible quality of faith, along with freedom in Christ, doesn’t tell me what I ought to do. So, we go back to defining our religion by rituals, avoidance of certain behaviors, dress codes and so on. But however safe we feel cocooned in our homes, cordoning off non-essential items and staying six feet away from tax collectors and sinners, none of it helps us fulfil the purpose of God.
Paul provides the answer to our predicament in Galatians 5. The first thing he does is provide the necessary balance – “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (v.13). Freedom in Christ is not license to do whatever we want. We are free from the restrictions of law-based religion but just like when the coronavirus vaccine comes along that doesn’t mean that we can ignore good hygiene and healthy living. Instead of licentiousness Paul says “but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v.13-14). Love is another invisible abstract quality which can’t be seen, measured or touched. But it’s the answer to everything. Every single law is based on the outworking of love. One of my favorite examples is where it says in the Law of Moses that a farmer was not to reap all his field but leave a “corner” for the poor. The question is, how big is a corner? You could obey that law by only leaving one square inch for the poor to take advantage of. But is that really obeying the truth? You see, when we set boundaries for ourselves and others, we tend to make sure that they’re convenient. But if we “through love serve one another” then we’ll make sure the size of the corner is expressing our love for the poor of the land.
Obeying the truth doesn’t come from following rituals and defining outward behavior. It comes from developing the invisible qualities Paul lists at the end of the chapter – the fruit of the spirit. When we “walk by the Spirit” (v.16) our outward appearance is meaningless – “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (v.6).
When the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, and we have our freedom back let’s remember this lesson. The world will be a changed place and no doubt restrictions will be enforced to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. But when we can stand within six feet of each other again, and give one another a hug, let’s make sure we make the decision where the corner of our field is based on an abundance of love.
Simi Hills, CA