Today, we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and we start to see his logic unfolding, as in each text, he builds on the argument he laid down in the last passage. Last week, remember, we talked about how we are saved, and Paul reminded us that it is not adherence to rules, at which we can never be perfect, but faith in God’s free grace, which sets us right with God.
In today’s text, Paul is talking about discipline. We can think about discipline in multiple ways. First, you might think of being a disciplined person. Are you a disciplined person? Do you have something that is sometimes hard to do, but that nonetheless you do regularly? My brother Todd is becoming a very disciplined runner. He’s trying to train for a marathon, and he runs on a set schedule, whether he feels like it or not. That’s discipline. Spiritually speaking, we have disciplines too – spiritual disciplines. I think we’ll be talking about those some months down the road more intentionally – but spiritual disciplines can be prayer, scripture reading, fasting, etc., done on a regular, committed schedule.
But on the other hand, discipline can mean the trouble that we get into when we do something wrong, that is supposed to get us back in line. Both senses of discipline are to keep us in line – remember how we talked about being justified last week – in line with God. Both senses of the word discipline keep us in line, but discipline that happens when we’re in trouble for misbehaving is usually more like punishment. How have you been disciplined in your lifetime? I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I was pretty much a goody-goody two shoes growing up. I didn’t get in trouble very often. So I didn’t get disciplined very often. But the ‘discipline’ I can remember included things like having to go to your room – which was of more consequence when your room didn’t include TVs and ipods and laptops and gaming systems – or not being able to hang out with a particular friend that got me in trouble. My mother wasn’t a particularly tough disciplinarian. But I know others of my friends weren’t so lucky, and they and my less-well behaved little brothers, got grounded with much more regularity than I did, and I know that some of you probably had more strict discipline as children than I did!
Paul says that outside of faith, the law is our disciplinarian, but that when faith comes, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Jesus, we are all children of God through faith. When he uses the word disciplinarian, you can think of a babysitter. In fact, the role Paul is describing was similar – the word he uses in Greek meant something like a slave who would be in charge of watching children while they were not in school. There’s no real relationship between the disciplinarian and the child – it isn’t a relationship of affection, but of obligation. The slave is required to care for the children by a master. The discipline is meant to keep order, keep things in line. By contrast, Paul says that we belong to Christ, and so we are God’s children and heirs, inheritors of all God’s promises. And because we’re all God’s children, any other categories that are set up for us through the law are meaningless. We’re meant not to be kept in place but set free. Paul names the categories that divided folks in his day: Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We could add more: native or immigrant, black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, pro-life or pro-choice, Republican or Democrat, Methodist or Presbyterian: these categories are nothing in the light of the one label that unites us: we are all children of God.
So what does this mean for us? What does it mean to be children of God instead of wards of the law? Next Sunday we will celebrate our graduates from high-school and college. I can guess about one aspect of their journeys that is a common bond, even though they will take different paths. These journeys – from kindergarten through elementary school, during middle-school days and high-school and for some of them beyond that, the journey of education has involved a lot of following rules and learning to be disciplined. You have to learn rules about how to behave in school – which bus to take and how to get along with your classmates, when you can and when you can’t talk in class. You have to learn how to change classes when you get older and make it in three or four minutes from one end of the building to the other. You have to learn your subjects – math and science, history and English, music and art, language and technology and home and career skills – a little bit of everything. And, to a large degree, you have to learn to stay within the boundaries set for you by the rules, by the teachers, by the administration. You can’t miss too many classes, or show up late. You have to get your permission slips signed to go on field trips, and get permission or passes to be in the hallways. Part of learning and growing up is learning to follow the rules – or suffer the consequences! You have to be disciplined, in a way that comes from inside you, your own self-control, or you will be disciplined from without – timeouts, name on the board, missing recess, detention, suspension, failing classes. You have to follow the rules, at least most of the rules most of the time, or you don’t get to pass to the next level.
But it isn’t only about the rules, is it? I hope our graduates have gone beyond the rules – not through the rules, or bending the rules, or breaking the rules, or getting around the rules – but beyond the rules. I hope – not just for our graduates, but for all of us, that we’ve experienced a transition in our lives from learning because we have to learn because the rules say so to learning because we want to learn. And usually, it happens at least in the areas of learning when you are starting to fall in love with a particular subject matter, when you are starting to learn what will be your passions in life. I remember feeling this way during my piano lessons in high-school. For so long practicing was a chore – something I had to do in order to make it through my lessons without my teacher being too upset with me. It took a lot of discipline to keep practicing my scales and playing the same phrases of music over and over. I like piano, and I wanted to play. But it was more work than pleasure for some time. And then, somewhere in there, the transition happened. My playing, my practicing, became enjoyable. I was actually making some music. And making music inspired me to practice more, to love music more, and to invest myself more in what I was doing. I felt the same way my freshman year of college – I was learning so much and being exposed to so many new ideas that I just couldn’t soak it up fast enough. Like I said, I hope you’ve all experienced or will experience this transition – and it isn’t limited to the classroom, or the world of academics – it’s the passion that my brother Todd has for acting, that made him commit all of his summer vacations to theatre workshops and training programs until he could start getting paid to do what he loved. In religious-speak, we call this discovering of passion a vocation, which means a calling. So often, we talk about being called by God as something that happens just to people who think they’re called to be pastors. But I’ll keep saying it until you believe it: we are all God’s children, so we are all called by God
What is your passion? This passion that we seek for our lives, this figuring out of our vocation and our call from God – this leads us back to our text from Galatians. Paul sees that instead of trusting in the faith that they have, instead of being moved by the Spirit that they’ve received, the Galatians keep returning to the law, thinking that the law will save them, that the law will prove them worthy servants of God. But Paul asks the Galatians, challenges and chides them, “Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (1) Where we pick up, Paul is talking about the law that bound these people together before they heard the freeing word of grace in Jesus Christ. Paul argues that while we can live by the law when there are no better alternatives, when we have a better option, we better take it. Because of Jesus, our better alternative, Paul says, is to live by faith, not by the law, and be justified – set straight – by faith. We “are no longer subject to a disciplinarian” but instead we are “children of God through faith,” “clothed with Christ,” and “one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul was trying to teach the Galatians that they could live beyond the rules that they’d been taught from the law. Not against the rules, not breaking the commandments, not ignoring the way that they’d already come to know God – after all, Jesus taught that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. But the Galatians needed to learn that they weren’t bound and imprisoned by the law because they were free in Christ, free by God’s grace to live in a bigger way, live in a deeper way, life in a more challenging and more satisfying way. Imagine if your whole life you had to get a permission slip in order to do anything? That would be ridiculous of course. But that’s how the Galatians were living – so afraid of breaking the rules of the law they once had learned that they were missing out on the joy of following God because of sheer love and passion.
When we make that transition – from law to faith, from rules to freedom, from practicing to passion, finally, change can happen, and finally, transformation occurs, and finally, we start really being disciples and living out the good news that Jesus shared. Instead of God being the Disciplinarian with us as the students just trying to stay out of trouble, Paul reminds us that God is our Parent and we are God’s beloved children. And as God’s children, we’re meant to follow rules, sure, but God most wants us to grow up into the unique creations we’re meant to be. We’re meant to be full of passion for what and who God has called us to be, and we’re meant to mature in faith as we are filled with a Parent’s love. May we be filled with God’s love and freed by God’s love as we continue in a journey of faith. Amen.