I believe every person has at least one sermon in him or her. Each of you, sitting in the pew, has a sermon in you: a word of proclamation (which is what the word “Kerygma” means), a word that could be preached from this pulpit or at your kitchen table. I think we all have one message we feel compelled to share.
I believe preachers have one message too. And, essentially, we preach it over and over again using different texts and words and stories. A friend of mine calls it the preacher’s theological treadmill. We are most likely preaching THE sermon we ourselves need to hear, and we hope that when we preach it to others, it has lasting impact on both of us. My supervising pastor taught that in a good sermon the message has to be first shot through the preacher’s heart before it is delivered to the hearer’s heart.
At FHC, we have one consistent message. Let’s see if you’ve been listening: When I say, You ARE A….you answer? ( …beloved child of God!) YES! A beloved child of God. That means: we believe that whether one believes in God or not, whether one is following Jesus Christ as his disciple, or hasn’t taken a first step, whether one has heard about Jesus Christ or not, We nevertheless proclaim: You are A Beloved Child of God. That’s how God created us.
The Apostle Paul was a tremendous preacher and it seems he too had one sermon he preached throughout his life and ministry. In his earliest letter, written about 55CE, to the Galatians he laid the foundation for it.
“Through Christ, we have been set free.”
Paul was passionate about the gospel of freedom through faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age,
according to the will of our God and Father, 1:4
For freedom Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 5:1
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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “ Love your neighbor as yourself.” 5:13
Paul swore up and down that the message of freedom he preached came through a direct revelation from Jesus, and not through any human teaching. In fact, Paul called himself apostle. An apostle was one who had had a direct experience with Jesus.
Just imagine how radical Paul’s experience with Jesus must have been to cause him to do a 180?
Paul shared a bit of his autobiography in this letter: he was a zealous, young Jew, a Pharisee, a strict adherer to the Law, who persecuted mercilessly the early Jesus followers. Maybe it was his experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus, or maybe there were many more revelations while he was in Arabia—whatever it was, his life, teachings, and actions were forever changed. He called himself a slave to Christ.
I think Paul was less an arrogant leader who thought he had a better gospel than did others, as he was a passionate, albeit outraged, parent, pastor and teacher.
In 4:19 he wrote, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.”
He’s brokenhearted and really angry. Parents understand the simultaneous combination of feelings you can have toward your child—you can be so mad and so worried about them at one and the same time. “Do I hug you or yell at you? I’ll do both!”
Paul’s passionate, parental response to the Galatians came after he heard that Jewish/Christian missionaries had followed on his heels and preached a different but convincing gospel to the Galatians.
Paul, to be clear, was always a Jew. He never considered himself a non-Jew, just as none of the earliest disciples stopped being Jews. The issue they faced was how to deal with Gentile converts. Paul never intended Christianity to supersede Judaism.
The missionaries taught the Galatians that circumcision was THE outward mark of being Jewish, and therefore their mere trust in Christ was not enough for membership into the community of faith.
Paul came back fiercely! Righteousness was not gained from an outward, physical mark, or by following the law. Righteousness was given by trusting in Christ and the sacrifice of his death. Paul was horrified to hear that his beloved children were led backwards into a captivity that asserted a hierarchy of righteousness– and made distinctions between believers.
In chapter 3, we will read what Paul clearly thinks about distinctions and divisions: “There is no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free, no male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” This was a radical image of what a community in Christ was to look like.
Paul was desperately concerned that the Gentiles were giving up the freedom they had received. They shared in the life of the Spirit already. “You were running well,” he said in Ch. 5; “Who prevented you from obeying the truth?”
The truth for Paul was that Jesus set them free from the sin of their old lives. The truth was that they were to turn away from the behaviors of an evil generation. The truth was that through faith they were set free to be who they were created to be! To cast off their false selves, and put on their true selves. To be the Beloved children of God, and heirs to Abraham’s promise, and free to act like it.
The truth IS that the whole world through Christ is reconciled to God, and it matters not what we do or don’t do. You can’t bargain with God for more grace; you can’t perform well enough to gain the approval of others. You can’t dance fast enough to please God or people. Don’t we get weary of trying?
Christ did not die so that one day in the afterlife we could experience true freedom. He died so that we might experience freedom in the kingdom of God TODAY, NOW, in this life. Like the Hebrew children were liberated from the Egyptians, we too have been liberated from all that holds us captive.
What does that really mean?
We have been set free to use the gifts we have been given,
and to be the gifts we are.
We have been set free to stop behaving poorly toward each other.
We have been set free from our self obsessions.
We are set free from the negative voices in our heads that tell us we are unworthy, or that we will never change, or that we need to keep quiet because no one wants to hear what we have to say. We have been set free to use our voices to call out injustice when and wherever we see it!
We have been set free from the threat of bondage to our own wounds and brokenness.
I know a woman who was abused as a child; she says to herself nearly daily, “I will not be defined or reduced by my wounds; I will not be held captive to the pain another person inflicted upon me.” In her deepest core there’s a furnace ablaze with the fire of God’s love, and she is allowing God to heal her deepest self.
Our theology professor in seminary was rough around the edges. He had a raspy voice from years of smoking and was a curmudgeonly fellow named Shirley Guthrie. He said to our earnest class of wanna-be ministers– with all the sincerity of a child and with a lump in his throat, “Why is it so difficult to trust that God loves you? Why is it so difficult to accept the truth that there is nothing you can do to earn it or lose it?” He said, if there’s nothing else you preach in your churches, preach that truth.
Maybe our refusal to believe and receive the gift of gracious love IS THE sin Paul talked about. Sin is not about our doubts or unbelief or what we’ve done in our past that keeps us from God. Sin might plainly and simply be the refusal to accept unconditional love and forgiveness. Maybe our refusal is precisely what keeps us separated from God, from our true selves, and from one other.
For freedom we were created, and to freedom we are called out.
Don’t move backwards, Paul pleaded. Move ahead into the grace of God. Live by the Law of Love. Reject any other teaching that threatens your freedom.
If it’s true that the preacher preaches the message he or she needs to hear, then it was definitely true in Paul’s case. Freedom in Christ through faith pierced Paul’s heart.
Paul became a preacher with a divine message—a message essential enough that the church passed his letter around the ancient world, and the church handed it down through the generations, and it is in our hands today 1,950 years later. Here we are studying it, and grappling with its message for our 21st century challenges.
Now, that’s a great sermon!
Thanks be to God.