Is there Such a Thing as Too Much Freedom?

last will and testament
Photo credit: <a href="">Ken Mayer</a>

Galatians 3:15-18

Take this real-life example, friends. Nobody makes corrections to or ignores someone’s will once it’s been notarized. The promises God made to Abraham and to his heir. It doesn’t say “heirs,” as in many heirs. It says “heir.” One person. That person is Jesus.

Here’s my point. The laws of Moses came 430 years later. That law can’t annul a deal that God had already notarized. It can’t cancel the promise already in effect. If the inheritance were based on Mosaic law, it wouldn’t have any relation to the earlier promise. But as it is, God notarized it with Abraham.

Paul is desperately grasping at straws here. None of this logic makes any sense.

  1. The promise to Abraham is pretty clear (Genesis 15:5) that God is promising a lot of descendents to be Abraham’s heirs, not just one person.
  2. People contest wills all the time. And it’s certainly not uncommon for provisions in wills to be declared invalid, or for them to be over-ruled in court.
  3. Laws change over time. So do terms of agreements. Even notarized agreements.
  4. If God is the one of the parties to the agreement, it’s God’s prerogative to change the agreement.

Besides, it’s sheer folly to use a legal argument when the whole point you’re trying to make is that the law doesn’t apply.

As much as Paul wants to make a case for Christ superseding the old Mosaic law, he’s still so ingrained in and bound by legalism that he himself can’t escape it.

Better to recognize that Jesus was indeed an heir to Abraham’s promise, and that so is everyone else. It’s just that Jesus realized the freedom of that promise in a way that the vast majority of the rest of us haven’t.

Better to recognize that if everyone is the heir to Abraham’s promise, then all of us have the capacity to be blessed and to be a blessing to many.

Better to recognize that declaring faith in Jesus isn’t a magical key that unlocks the pearly gates, but it is a way to realize and live into the freedom that is available to anyone who wants it.

Alas, for many, like Paul, that much freedom is too much to think possible without trying to make more rules about it.

Are You Willing to Go Beyond Fear?

cars on an assembly line
Photo credit: <a href="">John Lloyd</a>

Galatians 3:1-5

You stupid Galatians! Who’s bewitched you? You are witnesses to the public crucifixion of Jesus. So you tell me now, did you get God’s idea by following rules, or by making a commitment to what you’d heard? Are you such idiots that you start with God’s idea but then end up trying to do it on your own? Doesn’t all your experience teach you anything? Apparently not! What does your experience tell you – that God’s work and amazing things happen when you’re following rules, or when you’re true to your commitment?

Paul isn’t going to get any points for making nice here. Calling people stupid idiots is not the way to win friends and influence people.

After you strip away Paul’s scathing tirade, though, the question he’s asking really is worth thinking about. Do amazing things happen when you’re following rules, or do they happen when you’re true to your commitment?

I’d venture to guess that it’s some of both. Sometimes, when you’re starting out with something, you need a few rules. You learn how things work. You find your bearings. Once you know the rules, when you’ve put in the time and become a virtuoso at your art, then, maybe, you can leave the rulebook behind – sometimes.

But, what Paul is furious about is that the Galatians have the capacity to be virtuosos. They have the experience – or Paul thinks they do – to make life following Jesus artful. But in spite of their ability, they’re playing it safe. They’re allowing their fear to rule them, rather than living into the freedom that is theirs for the taking.

So, what about you? Are you fearfully following rules, or are you living into the best of your potential? Is your life an assembly line product, or is at an art?

Song 5

plant blooming from chained flower pot
Image credit: <a href="">Joost J. Bakker</a>

Psalm 5

Let me bend your ear, God.
Hear how troubled I am.
Listen to my call, my prayer to you,
My God, my boss.

God, in the morning you hear me speak.
In the morning I make my case, and then I wait.

God, you’re not the kind who revels in wrong.
Evil won’t hang out with you.
Braggers can’t meet your gaze.
You hate evildoers.
You annihilate liars.
God detests violence and dishonesty.

As for me, I will enter your house
Because you love me.
In your temple, I’ll bow toward you
And respect you.

Consider my enemies,
And clear the way for me
So I can go the right way.
They can’t tell the truth.
They’re bent on destruction.
Their throats are open graves.
They have forked tongues.
Let them get what’s coming to them, God.
Let them be on the receiving end of their own schemes.
Let them be thrown out
Because they’ve crossed the line.
It’s you they’ve betrayed.

Even so, let everyone who remains true rejoice,
And sing with joy.
Surround them with your protection
So they can shower their love on you.
God, you bless the good,
And your kindness is their shield.

While this is similar to Song 3, in it’s pleading for help in the struggle against enemies, this song takes a much more humble, and ultimately more powerful, approach.

Rather than invoking God to break and smash the opposition, this song expresses the longing that those who act treacherously would simply fall into their own traps, and that meanwhile that God would protect the innocent from coming to harm.

Rather than taking the opposition to war, in this song, the singer takes the enemy to court. The clever part about the case is that it shifts the identity of the victim. The victim isn’t the singer, it’s God: “It’s you they’ve betrayed.”

Maybe psychologists would call this transference. If that’s what it is, then it’s a healthy kind of transference, because it gets you out from under being a victim. If the victim is God, then God can take care of it – however God likes. It’s not anything that need concern the singer any longer. The singer is free.

Quite often the most paralyzing aspect of our situation is that we feel (rightly or wrongly) that we’re the victim. “They” did such-and-such to us. “They” won’t let us. “They” say this about us. Or, perhaps we’re a victim of circumstance. A downturn in the market. A bad company policy. A rainy day. The wrongdoings that we’ve suffered may indeed be real, but the longer we play the victim, the longer we extend the pain they cause us.

Giving your troubles to God doesn’t mean you’ll never have to deal with troubles, but if you’re no longer a victim, you can find a great deal more freedom for dealing with them when they come.

Service Above Self

hospital bed
Photo credit: <a href="">Kate Hiscock</a>

Mark 1:29-39

From church, they went straight home to Simon and Andrew’s house along with James and John. They told him that Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. But when he came in, he took her by the hand and she got up, the fever gone, and began to serve them.

That evening, as the sun set, people started bringing their sick and deranged to the door – the whole city turned out – and he cured many with various illnesses and cast out many demons, but without allowing them to speak – they knew him.

The next morning at O-dark thirty, Jesus got up and went out to be alone in prayer. But Simon and the others tracked him down and told him, “Everyone’s out looking for you.” He said, “Let’s head out to the next few towns and get the word out there. That’s my mission.” So off they went, all over Galilee, speaking in churches and expelling demons.

[See also previous comments on Mark 1:29-34 (on healing) and Mark 1:35-39 (on not stopping).]

This short trio of events is (sort of) Mark’s equivalent to Luke’s great commission (“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8).

  • Jerusalem – The first scene is of Jesus restorative ministry happening among those who are the closest in, Peter’s family, among those few who are (at this early stage) already following.
  • Judea – The second vignette shows Jesus ministry to people who are not on the inside, but who are still close to home. These are people who are coming toward Jesus. They are those who have heard about the movement, who believe that Jesus might have something to offer them.
  • The ends of the earth – The third part reverses the direction of the second part. Instead of people coming to see Jesus, Jesus goes out to take the message to them.

There is a real sense in which every successful, sustained endeavor to lead a movement and to effect real change needs all three of these elements: those who are already in the movement, those who are curious about the movement as a means of satisfying their own needs, and those who haven’t a clue what the movement is about.

In each of these three areas of concern, Mark is careful to show us that Jesus ministry is one of restoration. Beyond this, however, we might also make a few observations about the particular kind of work needs to happen in each of these areas.

  • Jesus’ restoration of Peter’s mother-in-law.While we might focus on the miraculous dissipation of her fever, the more important thing happening here is the result of her recovery. She began to serve them. Jesus will later say, as the disciples argue among each other about which of them is the greatest, that the greatest is the one who becomes a servant (Mark 10:44). Peter may be the most famous of the disciples, but his mother-in-law, by her service is already the greatest. Taken as a whole, Mark implies that the ministry of restoration among those who are already within the community is to generate a community of service.
  • Jesus’ restoration of the ill and possessed. Among those who are coming to Jesus, Mark is careful to note that Jesus would not allow the demons to speak “because they knew him.” This is the first instance in Mark of what’s commonly called “the messianic secret” – Jesus doesn’t want his identity as the messiah to get out. Among those who have come to him focused on their own needs, the notion of a messiah can only deepen their dependence on some external salvation. It reinforces the notion of “a savior come to serve me.” The whole point of Jesus’ restoration (as we have seen in the first scene) is to strengthen people for service of others.
  • Jesus ministry in Galilee. Finally, Jesus isn’t satisfied with merely doing damage control. (Hugh MacLeod cartooned that, “All control is damage control.” Think about that!) It’s not enough to say who you aren’t. You have to proactively advance the mission and say who you are. Again, what Jesus does, and presumably what he says, is about serving others, ending the imprisonment of those possessed.

What’s your mission? Are you caring for those who are already participating in it? Are you receptive of those who are wondering if you can serve them? Are you reaching out to those who have yet to hear your good news? Most importantly, is your work in each of these cases about your greater service or is it about your greater self?