This is a reflection on the Uniform Series text for February 12, 2017. It’s a continuation of the text we read last week, and continues with Paul’s communication to the churches in Asia Minor about the subject of adopting more strictly traditional Jewish religious practices.
(8) Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. (9) Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? (10) You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. (11) I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.
(12) Friends, I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong. (13) You know that it was because of apphysical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; (14) though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. (15) What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. (16) Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? (17) They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that yo may make much of them. (18) It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you. (19) My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, (20) I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.
Those of us who got up, got ready, and went out this morning probably didn’t think much of it. For us, that behavior was probably pretty routine – whether we went to the corner grocery to pick up some donuts and the Sunday paper, or put on “good clothes” and headed off to church.
But for 1 or 2 out of 100 people, some time in their lives, that behavior not only won’t be routine, it will be something that makes them so anxious they won’t even attempt it. The thought of being somewhere “escape” isn’t possible – like a car, or a store, or a public place – will be unbearable. That intense, painful anxiety, called “agoraphobia,” will lead those of us who suffer from it to avoid it and to stay safe by staying at home – sometimes, even in a room or two of our homes. Some famous people have suffered from this condition, including the southern cooking celebrity Paula Deen, who says she learned to cook in part because she could only get the ingredients that were close to the door of the grocery store. Scholars continue to speculate on whether the famously reclusive poet Emily Dickinson suffered from this condition – she was known to run from the doorbell, found it more and more difficult over time to see or visit friends, and she took to having conversations with visitors from behind a her door. She certainly never attended services at church!
The behavior of people who suffer from agoraphobia is an extreme illustration of an idea that many of us take for granted, that we may be willing to sacrifice some freedom for the sake of a sense of security. We hear this idea often, floated in a number of contexts – as we stand in line getting ready to take off our shoes at the airport, for instance, or when we are having that argument with our brother-in-law again about what we ought to be able to look up on the internet. The sacrifice of freedom people with agoraphobia are willing to make probably strikes most of us as extreme: most of us enjoy the freedom to go where we need or want to when we need or want to, the freedom to participate in sports or cultural events, to visit family and friends rather than wait on them to come to us, and so on, and don’t feel too unsafe outside our homes. And sadly, statistics show that the safety and security we might actually obtain by confining ourselves to our homes is less than we might imagine – because our homes are not as safe and secure as we probably think. For instance, in the United States, in an average year over 200,000 people will end up in an emergency room due to an accident in the bathroom alone, about 14% of those will need to stay at least overnight in the hospital; over 30,000 people will die every year due to unintentional injuries suffered at home – most often falls, but what are called unintentional injuries can include poisoning, burning, drowning – a lot of damage can happen in the seeming safety and security of our own homes. And then there are the people we live with: many of us are probably aware that 60% of violent attacks on other people are made by friends or loved ones, and 60% of the time these happen at home. So the sense of security we may obtain by shutting ourselves up at home may be … misplaced, because unfortunately, we are a lot less safe in our own homes than we think.
Paul seems to be saying something similar to the Galatians at the beginning of this morning’s lesson. According to Paul, the Galatians were once “enslaved” or “serving as slaves” beings or ideas that had no right to their service in the first place. Then, they heard his proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they received the Spirit, as he has mentioned in 3:5, and have come to know, or at least, to be known by, God. So Paul now expresses dismay, fear, concern, perplexity that the Galatians seem to “want to be enslaved” to what he calls the “weak and beggarly elemental spirits” and observe “special days, and months, and seasons, and years.” (4:10)
We don’t know precisely what has been going on in these churches, because we do not have any documents that lay out the “other side,” the arguments of the Christians – we presume they were Christians – whose position Paul was opposing in this letter, that we presume was circulated to the churches in Asia Minor. But what people have thought for a long time is that it had something to do with a difference of opinion about how many or which specific procedural and formal practices of the Jewish Christians these Gentile Christians needed to observe. It seems to have had to do with whether they needed to be circumcised, perhaps whether they needed to be circumcised before they could take communion; whether they needed to follow dietary practices, what they needed to do to “honor the sabbath” and whether they needed to practice new moon ceremonies … perhaps, we don’t know for certain.
Unfortunately, what we do know, from our own experience, is that it’s easy for us to get the idea that we “have to” do this or not do that in order to be “real” followers of Jesus. When I was a girl growing up in a pretty mainstream evangelical church in California, the really good Christians all went to church on Sunday morning, and again on Sunday evening, and then again on Wednesday night for prayer meeting. My family was a little bit suspect for only going on Sunday morning, but my parents did teach Sunday school, so that made up for it, a little. Real Christians didn’t smoke cigarettes, or drink alcohol, either. It was a matter of some debate whether good Christian girls got their hair cut. They definitely didn’t get their ears pierced. My mom explained to me that when she was growing up, there was a lot of debate about whether good Christian girls could wear shorts, or lipstick. That seemed comical to us – in 1970. My point is that for a lot of us, for a long time, Christianity became a matter of what we didn’t do or weren’t allowed to do, because it was against our religion – whether it was because the Bible said not to, or because of the way we read the Bible and what it said not to. But we didn’t really think of ourselves as “strict.” We thought other people, like our friends who were Mormons, were the strict ones, because they couldn’t drink coffee or tea or diet pepsi. Others may have had similar experiences.
It’s easy to get the idea that these careful rule-following behaviors are, in a sense, “playing it safe.” This was certainly the way it felt to me and my friends from church growing up – like, not following one of these important church rules was “taking a chance.” We may not have specified what the consequences of that chance were likely to be – maybe our parents anger or disappointment, but we knew it went beyond that, there were potentially eternal consequences here. If we pushed it, we probably didn’t exactly think that whether or not a girl got her ears pierced was going to make the difference between going to heaven and going to hell, for eternity – when you put it that way it seemed a little extreme – but there was a flavor of that in our thinking, those off-limits behaviors were shrouded in threat and fear, and it was a diluted form of the threat and fear we would have felt about doing something much, much worse, like killing someone or stealing a lot of money or, when the time came, committing adultery, something we were committed never to do. This was just playing it safe.
Paul’s opponents in Asia Minor seem to have convinced the Galatians of something similar: that right relationship with God depends upon adhering to some important provisions of God’s covenant with Israel. Stepping outside that box has started to look risky to them – maybe they are sacrificing their participation in the body of Christ; maybe they are not real Christians after all. Maybe they need to get circumcised, and stop eating with uncircumcised men – maybe especially the Passover meal, which the Bible says very clearly that uncircumcised men may not eat, the Passover meal that is the prototype of Christians’ new practice of communion.
Paul seems to be calling this attitude “enslavement.” And then, it almost seems like he changes the subject – strangely, he says “look, you haven’t done me any wrong.” Why might they have thought that? He reminds them of an episode that there has been a lot of speculation about, that presumably these Galatians know all about, how it was because of a “physical infirmity” that Paul initially preached to them. What scholars seem to think is that Paul was forced by some health problem to stay with one or more of these churches on one of his journeys; there has been speculation that it had something to do with his eyes, since he mentions that the Galatians would have torn out their eyes to help him. I haven’t ever heard anyone question why Paul brings this up here, though. And it seems a little bit strange to me …
Unless, perhaps … could he be trying to get them to see that this kindness they did for him, this welcome he received from them, was possible because they were not concerned, in those days, about whether it was OK to eat with circumcised people, what foods it was or wasn’t OK to serve to fellow Christians, what was clean and what was unclean. No, in those days, they had the freedom to show anyone a real kindness, to welcome someone with genuine affection and concern, and to listen to what that person had to say about the gospel. They didn’t impose a holiness test. They had the freedom to receive the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of adoption that entered their hearts saying “Abba! Father!” And that freedom turned out to be life-giving for them, and for him. Maybe his point is: look, by treating me like one of you, like a Gentile, you didn’t do me any wrong, and you were really responding to the Spirit.
And isn’t that exercise of love and care the way “real Christian” living ought to look, and how it ought to feel? So maybe what Paul is saying, in the end here, is that what seems like “playing it safe,” by following this or that ritual or procedural rule, is in fact the opposite of “playing it safe.” The gamble is not in following the Spirit and relying on grace, but in not trusting that grace, and in relying on following rules instead.
Paul and his opponents represent two very different positions on spiritual risk and spiritual security, positions that continue to surface in people’s religious lives today. Strangely, we continue to be accustomed to reading behavioral “strictness” as a kind of “playing it safe,” much as the Galatians seem to have done. We, too, might benefit from taking Paul, and his implicit point about risk, seriously.
Because security and risk, in the end, are established by reality. When what we think of as “security” is not in line with reality, it may not be safe at all, but rather dangerous – as dangerous as climbing up on a chair in the kitchen instead of getting a ladder because “I’ve got great balance,” or starting to work on the wiring before double-checking the circuit breaker. When actions are in line with reality, they’re not risky, they’re certain – as certain as hugging your children when they spill the milk is better for them than yelling at them, as certain as a kind smile says welcome better than a critical scowl. We have a temptation to believe that more control, more rules, more proscriptions and prescriptions make our religion more secure. But that isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes slavishly following the rules is a way to get things wrong. Sometimes relaxing or even abandoning some particular rule for the sake of love or truth or grace is what we’re being called upon to do.
We cannot do without the wisdom given us by the Spirit of God here. Neither rule-books, of themselves, or throwing out the rule-books, come with guarantees. Instead, we’re called upon to meet each moment with the freedom to pray, to perceive, to learn, to love, and to risk, wisely, secure in the faith we have from Jesus Christ, the faith that whatever befalls us, we remain children of God when we are led by the Spirit of Christ.