2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 – Elijah parts the water so that Elijah and Elisha walk across the Jordan on dry ground. Elijah taken to heaven by a fiery chariot in a wind storm.
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 – Elisha becomes Elijah’s apprentice.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 – For freedom Christ has set you free! Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. The whole law is summed up in a single word: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Luke 9:51-62 – Jesus rejected by Samaritan village. Cost of discipleship. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Galatians 5: Freedom
Freedom is a good jumping off point the Sunday before the Fourth of July. Of course, we will have to define true freedom, but there is some overlap. Here is the epistle reading from Galatians 5, for this Sunday:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
The entire thrust of Scripture is about freedom from slavery, both a literal, physical slavery, and also a spiritual slavery to sin, death and the Law. The central story of the Hebrew Bible is the Exodus, a story of a people fleeing a very feral slavery in their country to establish a homeland of freedom elsewhere. Stories of freedom from bondage of every kind permeate the Scriptures. Joseph is sold into slavery. Jesus sets people free from slavery to illness and evil spirits. Paul writes a letter to a slave owner, Philemon, instructing him to treat his slave Onesimus as a brother now.
In today’s epistle, Paul is talking about freedom from the Law, the Torah, which, in Galatians 3, Paul said enslaves us. We are in bondage to sin, and we are in bondage to the Law. By “The Law,” Paul usually means the Torah, with its 613 laws.
The gospel is about freedom. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Do not return to a yoke of slavery, by becoming enmeshed in a web of do’s and don’ts. Paul is not telling the Galatians to live wild, reckless lives. He is reminding them that the Spirit didn’t come by keeping the law, but by faith.
In fact, he goes on to remind them not to let their freedom become an opportunity for self-indulgence. They are not to use that freedom to hurt one another. Instead they are to be slaves to one another.
The word “law” appears about 25 times in this short six-chapter letter called Galatians. You can find the references here.
A brief, one-paragraph summary of Paul’s feeling about the law from his letter to the church in Galatia, might sound something like this:
No one can be justified by the works of the law. I, Paul, have died to the law in order that I might live for Christ. The Spirit does not come through the law, but through faith. Those who rely on the law are under a curse: Having to fulfill the whole law. Every last iota. Christ redeemed us from the law’s curse. Abraham’s covenant was based on faith, that is, Abraham believed God’s promises. Believing God’s promises was the original plan. The Law came afterwards, through Moses, 430 years later to be precise. The covenant of the Law cannot nullify the covenant of Faith ratified earlier by God. We become part of the family of God by faith, believing God’s promises, like Abraham. The law is not opposed to the promises of God; it was just our babysitter until Christ came. Now we know longer need a babysitter. Even Gentiles can become part of this family. Not by law. Through faith they are adopted into the household of God and so become heirs. If you allow yourself to be circumcised, you are “cut off” from Christ, and now must keep the entire law, which is impossible. Even the circumcised don’t keep the law. The entire law can be summed up in a single thought: love your neighbor as yourself. If you’re led by the Spirit, you don’t really need the law anymore. The law of Christ is to bear one another’s burdens.
Freedom from what? To what?
The yoke of slavery to which Paul refers are the two religious systems he has been discussing: Pagan worship and Torah observance. Both of these yokes are heavy, and actually, Paul would argue, can ultimately push us away from God.
The yoke of Christ is the new law: loving God and neighbor. This law is not heavy. It is light, and offers freedom. Although no longer under the law, followers of Christ should not abuse their freedom. Paul believes if people truly live by the Spirit they will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
As Christians we are free from the law, but not free to do whatever we please. We are now bound by a new law: the law of love. The law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). There is a paradox in this, one that Martin Luther picked up in what is probably his simplest writing on the gospel, On The Freedom of a Christian (De Libertate Christiana, sometimes known as the Treatise on Christian Liberty). This short treatise may be one that we should provide for every new member of our church. In it Luther explains that Christians are not compelled to keep the laws of the Bible, but are compelled to love their neighbor.
Luther’s thesis is,
A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none;
A Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.
These may appear contradictory, but they are exactly what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19,
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. (1 Cor. 9:19)
Luther goes on to say,
Meanwhile it is to be noted, that the whole Scripture of God is divided into two parts, precepts and promises. The precepts certainly teach us what is good, but what they teach is not forthwith done. For they show us what we ought to do, but do not give us the power to do it. They were ordained, however, for the purpose of showing humans to themselves; that through them we may learn our own impotence for good, and may despair of our own strength. For this reason they are called the Old Testament, and are so.
This tract is sprinkled with quotes from Romans and Galatians, such as,
For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)
This is an interesting passage. The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament, which dates back to before Christ) translates the Hebrew, Torah, with the Greek word for law: nomos. If we substitute Torah back in, that renders Romans 10:14, “For Christ is the end of the Torah, so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” These are strong words for Paul who was trained as a Pharisee, one set apart for the Torah.
Luther (still from On Christian Freedom):
For example: “thou shalt not covet,” is a precept by which we are all convicted of sin; since no one can help coveting, whatever efforts to the contrary we may make. In order therefore that we may fulfill the precept, and not covet, we are constrained to despair of ourselves and to seek elsewhere and through another the help which we cannot find in ourselves; as it is said: “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.” (Hosea xiii. 9.) Now what is done by this one precept, is done by all; for all are equally impossible of fulfilment by us.
In other words, the purpose of the law is simply to drive us to the gospel. Like the prodigal son, about to eat the pig pods, we realize we cannot make it on our own, and are driven to return to the loving, forgiving embrace of the Father who has been waiting for us all along. This is true freedom.
The Three Uses of the Law
The Formula of Concord distinguished three uses, or purposes, of the Law in Article VI:
- that “thereby outward discipline might be maintained against the wild and disobedient,”
- that “people “might thereby be led to the knowledge of their sins,” and
- that “after they are regenerate … they might … have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life…”
The Law may not be our primary guide, and it certainly has no power to save or transform, but neither can it be discarded. It is discipline, mirror and guide (though the third use was hotly disputed amongst theologians).
Article 4 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) says,
All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal.
The Formula of Concord says in Article V,
We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence…
Throughout the Lutheran Age of Orthodoxy (1580–1713) this hermeneutical discipline was considered foundational and important by Lutheran theologians.
As we celebrate freedom on the Fourth of July, freedom is on the brain. People will walk to the door already contemplating the general concept of freedom. This general concept will naturally gravitate, for U.S. Americans, to freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, representation, and the like. Paul’s primary thrust in Galatians is, of course, not to speak about freedom from political oppression, though the Old Testament frequently does. Paul is addressing freedom from religious legalism and oppression. We can, however, use freedom as a springboard, by asking the congregation: What is true freedom? A person can be free from oppression, but a slave to addiction. A person can be free from hunger, but a slave to anger. What enslaves you today? What does true freedom look like? This is where a true story of deliverance will drive the point home. When has God delivered you from slavery to something? Or when has God delivered a parishioner or someone you know?
Then we can talk about what we do with our freedom. Okay, once you’re free from whatever enslaves you, now what? Where do you go? What do you do? Once you are free from the law, what then? Now that you don’t have be a slave to some laws in order to stay out of hell, how will you live into your freedom? Or, to put it most poignantly:
Now that you don’t have to do anything, what are you going to do?
What do we do with this freedom we have in Christ? For Paul, and for Luther, we are freed from our bondage to the law in order that we might live in love of God and neighbor. If we live in love of God and neighbor, we will not need the law, for love does no wrong to a neighbor. Luther said if you can keep the first commandment you could toss out the other nine. This is our Christian vocation. You are now free to go and love your neighbor, without constraint. Love. Serve. Do no harm. Speak ill of no person. As Abraham Lincoln said,
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Beloved, be free. Free to love with malice toward none and charity for all. Free to bear one another’s burdens, to care for the orphan and widow, to work for peace and justice.
Luke 9: Fire from Heaven
I can’t close without a few comments about our gospel text. In my Introduction to Luke’s Gospel, I offer an outline of Luke. The three main bodies of material are boldfaced below, Jesus in Galilee, Jesus Traveling, then Jesus in Jerusalem.
A rough outline of Luke’s gospel:
- Prologue 1:1-4
- The Birth and Childhood of Jesus 1:5-2:52
- Preparation for the Public Ministry of Jesus 3:1-4:13
- The Ministry of Jesus in Galilee 4:14-9:50
- The Journey to Jerusalem 9:51-19:48
- Teaching in Jerusalem 20:1-21:38
- The Suffering and Death of Jesus 21:1-23:56
- The Resurrection 24:1-5
This Sunday’s text launches the Travel Narrative. We begin at Luke 9:51:
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus “set his face” to Jerusalem. He has his game face on. His ministry in Galilee has concluded. He’s now heading, methodically, to the big city. Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paideia Series), calls this section “The Demands of the Journey.”
He sends messengers ahead. The Samaritans don’t receive him. “You want us to call down fire from heaven and obliterate them?” the disciples ask (2 Kings 1:9–12). “Uh, no thanks.” And Jesus rebukes them. Jesus reveals a God not interested in genocide. In chapters seven and ten, Jesus will tell stories about good Samaritans.
This is the second time something like this has happened. In the verses immediately preceding today’s text, we have this:
“Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us” (9: 49). Jesus responded, “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you” (9: 50). Jesus is not ours to own, or hoard. The power in faith is not to be used to exclude, demean or destroy.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Oh yeah? Really? So now we get three sayings, what Parsons calls “chreiae,” about following Jesus. They respond to prepared excuses of an enthusiastic wanna-be disciple for not following.
- Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
- Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.
- No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
First, following Jesus will lead to rejection. Second, it will require radical commitment. Third it is of utmost urgency. You may end up homeless (or crucified). You may not be able to make it home for your parents’ funerals. You may not even have time to say goodbye to family. Jesus’ call to place discipleship above family is inescapable in the gospels.
This is a somber call to discipleship. Call it law if you wish. It is a stern warning that the way of love will not be all rainbows, unicorns and lollipops. The way of love sounds warm and fuzzy, but love calls us to sacrifice. Love is giving ourselves for the sake of the other. Jesus offers himself as the example of this self-sacrificial love on the cross.