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Monday, July 2, 2018

Freedom!

Introduction
            One of the great and classic movies about freedom is Braveheart, which chronicles William Wallace's epic struggle to help Scotland win independence from the British in the 11th century.  In his rousing (yet fictional) speech before the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace inspires his rag tag army to tell their enemies, "...They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!"
            On 1775, the American patriot, Patrick Henry, gave another rousing speech in favor of the fight for freedom, where he said, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
            A couple months ago, I was privileged to travel to San Antonio, Texas where I visited the Alamo, known as the cradle of Texas liberty.  It was at the Alamo that a handful of Texas patriots held off the vastly larger Mexican army for 13 days before they gave their lives in service of Texas liberty.  Texas went on to win independence from Mexico and was a free country for nine years before becoming a state in our American Union.  From those Texas patriots who gave their life for liberty, the expression "Remember the Alamo!" lives on today as a call to free men to stand up and fight, whatever the cost, for freedom.
            It is always inspiring to remember those who have thought it so important to sacrifice for freedom--especially during this time of year when we celebrate the independence of our free United States of America.  Freedom is the paramount theme of our nation.  However, freedom is not originally an American idea.  Freedom was instilled in us by our Creator and freedom has been sought by people throughout the ages because it is part of the human soul. 
            The truest form of freedom was won by Christ, the Son of the Living God on the cross at Calvary.  It was, indeed, the freedom won by Christ that inspired our American forefathers to imagine a country where people were endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
            Over the next five blog post, I will share my thoughts on the Christian idea of freedom based on a reading of Paul's Letter to the Galatians.  For my first installment, let us read Galatians 1:6-10.

Galatians 1:6-10
6 I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News 7 but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.
8 Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. 9 I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed.
10 Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.
 
The Galatians and Freedom
            Have you heard of the Celts?  We usually think of Irish or Scottish people when we think of the Celtic culture, but the Celts were a great civilization that spread throughout ancient Europe.  Some of the Celts in that empire invaded what is now modern-day Turkey.  These Celts settled down in Turkey and became the Galatians.  The Galatians were Pagans.  They did not believe in the One True God of the Bible.  They believed in many different Pagan gods.  So suppose they believed there was one god who was in charge of rain, and one over the harvest and another over fertility, and another over war, and so on and so forth.  And the ancient Galatians believed they had to perform so many different religious rituals and sacrifices to appease and gain the favor of the various gods for different seasons of life.  Can you imagine what a headache that would be?  And all this was further complicated by the belief that all the gods didn't get along and they didn't necessarily like human beings!
              And along comes the Apostle Paul with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Paul preaches to the Galatians:  "All these so called gods you've been worshiping are not gods at all.  There is only One True God; and He is all powerful and all knowing.  He created everything and is over it all.  And furthermore, this One universal God cares about you so much, He came down to earth (as Jesus the Christ) to live as one of us.  And He died on the cross to ransom us from our sins and set us free from the penalty of death that was a consequence of our sins.  On the third day, Jesus rose from the grave and is alive again!  He has defeated death and we can rise to new life too if we trust in Jesus!" 
            And so this was really great news to the Galatians.  Jesus set them free from all the tedious rules and regulations of their pagan religions and the fear of the gods, as well as setting them free from sin and death!  And they received the Good News.  They put their faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.  They willingly and wholeheartedly became Christians.  And the Apostle Paul joyously helped them establish a church--a community of Christian believers who work together to worship Christ and build each other up in the faith and go out and spread the Good News to all they can.
            However, there was a problem.  At this early stage in the Christian era, most Christians in the world were still Jews.  You see, Jesus was a Jew and all his disciples were Jews.  Even the apostle Paul was a Jew.  These people followed the Jewish religion--the rules and ceremonies, festivals, and traditions of the Old Testament Jewish religion.  And so many of the earliest Christians mistakenly thought new converts to the Christian faith must also start following the Jewish religion.  They must follow the Old Testament customs, ceremonies, festivals, and especially they must be circumcised (because circumcision was the hallmark trait of all devout Jews). 
            After Paul left the Galatians to go to another province to preach the Good News about Christ, some of these "Jewish" Christians came to the Galatians and began teaching, "You must be circumcised and start following the Jewish religion or else you're not a real follower of Christ and you will not have eternal life.  And the Galatians, being new to the Gospel and new to the whole concept the One True God, started to believe they must indeed become Jews in order to really be Christians.
            This is a big deal, because it goes down to the very core of our Christian faith.  Are we saved by living the right way or are we saved by faith in Jesus Christ?  Are we justified by a religion or by trusting in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross?  The Apostle Paul taught it was only by faith in Jesus Christ.  The Jewish Christians (known as Judaizers) said it was by faith in Jesus and following the Jewish religion.  Which is it?
             So, Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians to show the Galatians (and us) that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone.  No religion, no ceremony, no rule, no sacrifice, no extra action other than trusting in Jesus Christ is necessary to receive the grace and forgiveness and salvation of God.  Furthermore, Paul argues, if you are trusting in any other requirement, it actually nullifies the salvation we receive by faith in Christ.  Christ came to set us free of the impossible burden of trying to earn God's love.  God loves us as a completely free gift when we trust in Christ alone.  If we ever try to do anything to earn salvation, we cannot receive it. 

So What?  Who Cares? What difference does it make to us today?
            Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”  (John 8:36)  Jesus came to set us free from “the rules” of religion.  In fact, Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship.  You see, Jesus came to the most religious people of his day (the Jewish Pharisees and Sadducees) and told them, you must repent of your sin and turn to God.  Now that was a surprising claim (from these religious leaders perspectives).  The Pharisees and Sadducees were the holiest, most devoutly religious people of Jesus day.  To tell them they were sinners who needed to repent and turn to God sounded ludicrous.  No one was more religious than them. 
            However, Jesus taught that following the rules is not enough.  Even if you could follow them perfectly, you still have a broken relationship with God.  Following the rules is not the issue.  A broken relationship with God is the issue.  Jesus came to heal that broken relationship.  When we have faith in Jesus, the relationship is restored.  People who devoutly follow all the religious rules are often the ones who struggle the most to have faith in Christ to restore their relationship with God.  You see, deeply religious people are often very good people who do what God says and so they may feel God owes them and should be good to them as a reward for their good behavior.  But God doesn't owe us anything and love is freely given, not earned.  A love relationship is built on love and trust, not rules and regulations and rituals and religion.
            Jesus said the first and second greatest commandments are these:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as your self.  He said all the religious laws of the Old Testament and all of what the prophets said hangs on these two relational commandments.  They sum up all the religious rules.  They are the heart of the matter.
            Religion and rules are easy, but relationships are messy.  Religion is black and white, but relationships are made up of a thousand million shades of beautiful colors.  Jesus came to set us free from religion so we can enjoy the full beauty of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, people often want to leave the less spontaneous and beautiful possibilities of a relationship with the One True and Living God and go back to the confined, black and white (and more predictable) chains of religion.  "A living relationship with God is too complicate," many people complain.  "Just tell me the rules I need follow and I'll do that."
            It will never do.  There is no life in religion.  There is no salvation in rules and ceremonies.  Jesus set us free from all that.  Shall we then go back and enslave ourselves to religions now that we've been set free.  Never!  "Give me liberty or give me death!'
            Trying to live by religious rules is also hopeless because we confuse our culture with our Christianity.  Our culture is the social rules and traditions of the American people.  America was founded on Christian principles and many folks have lived by them for so long they often equate our American way of life with Christianity itself.  The line between what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Christian is fuzzy and many don't know the difference; they think to be one is to be the other and this is not necessarily true.  Still, people believe "good people" must dress a certain way, look a certain, act a certain way, eat certain food, talk a certain way in order to be good in God's eyes.  Yet this is all very confusing because the rules change according to where you live in this great country.  What is acceptable in New York is different from what is acceptable in Georgia.  And as someone who's lived in Georgia almost all my life--though in many different parts--I can tell you the rules are slightly different in middle Georgia than they are in Northwest Georgia and that's different from Northeast Georgia or coastal Georgia!  The rules can even be different depending on the social class or generation to which you belong. 
            Today, many so called "Christians" equate social justice with Christianity.  They say you have to do good and fight for those who are oppressed and help the needy and that this is what real Christianity is at it's heart.  And we should help those in need, but we must be careful that our charity does not become a religion divorced from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ or else it is merely a means to make us feel good about ourselves and earn the favor of "god" in whatever form we imagine god to be (for it certainly is then no longer the God Jesus showed us).  There are many non-Christian charitable organizations in the world that do good.  What makes Christians unique is we feel God has loved us so much--even though we don't deserve it--that we in turn are compelled to love our neighbor as God loves us. 

An Important Question
            As we begin a journey to understand Christian freedom, Galatians challenges us with an important question.  Are you following a different “gospel” than the Gospel of Christ?  We must never forget:  Faith in Christ alone is the only thing that can save you.´ Or as the Apostle Paul puts it in Galatians 5:6 – “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”  So, we will look at this over the next few weeks—the freedom we have through faith in Jesus Christ.  Do you want to know what real freedom is?  Do you want to truly be free?  Our freedom in Christ is so much deeper than fireworks or the fourth of July.  It goes far, far deeper than even America—“the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  Join me for this journey through Galatians and learn about true freedom—something worth dying for, something Christ already died for so that you I could be free indeed.