Sunday, March 27, 2022

Persecuted by the Flesh

 Galatians 4:21-31

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman.  But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.  This is allegorically speaking: for these women are two covenants, one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar.  Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.  But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.  For it is written, "REJOICE, BARREN WOMAN WHO DOES NOT BEAR; BREAK FORTH AND SHOUT, YOU WHO ARE NOT IN LABOR; FOR MORE ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE DESOLATE THAN OF THE ONE WHO HAS A HUSBAND."

And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.  But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.  But what does the Scripture say? "CAST OUT THE BONDWOMAN AND HER SON, FOR THE SON OF THE BONDWOMAN SHALL NOT BE AN HEIR WITH THE SON OF THE FREE WOMAN."  So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.

Sermon for Laetare Sunday                  
Persecuted by the Flesh

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Repetition is the mother of pedagogy.   I could say that in Latin too, but I figure the English is stupefying enough.  It means that repeating is the foundation of teaching - specifically of teaching children.  But it works for adults too.  Let me illustrate:  You have all learned that our failing economy is former President Trump's fault, not the current administration's.  Whether you believe it or not is not important, you've heard it until you could say it in your sleep.  You know that the evils of capitalism stand at the heart of our nation's troubles, that Republican is bad and Democrat is good, unless you listen to Tucker Carlson or that evil Fox News.  You know that anything but open handed acceptance of the GBTQ+ Agenda is homophobia, saying anything about people of color except praise is racism, that noticing that Jews are present is anti-Semitism, and the silly idea that terrorists tend to be Moslems is both racist and Islamophobic.  And Critical Race Theory establishes that white folk are racist by race and from the womb.

Whether you agree with any of the statements I just made or not is not the issue – it is the politically correct line repeated to us until you know it without thinking about whether you agree with it or not.  This same process that has been used to tell us that our religion belongs in private - or in your church on Sunday - and that holding faithfully to the teachings of the Bible is superstitious, fundamen-talist, uneducated, old-fashioned, and bigoted, and that you have no right to impose your religion – or morals – on anyone else.  It doesn't seem to strike any one that every one of these statements is some else's religion and/or their values imposed on you repeatedly until you don't stop to think about its rightness or wrongness.  You simply live with a sensitivity to these social rules and allow the arrogance and judgmentalism of the pagans among us to silence you, and train your public and private expressions, and force you to kowtow to their sensibilities.

This constant drumbeat of proper public opinion - or politically correct expression - is a part of what the Bible describes as being persecuted by the flesh.  That is the focus of our Epistle lesson, and the theme of our sermon this morning: Persecuted by the Flesh.

Now I chose the most egregious political examples I could think of because I know that everyone has heard them, and you probably have an opinion on each one - so I can count on getting more than just your intellect focused for a moment.  It doesn't matter how you might respond to them - I reckon some of them are hot-buttons for some of you, and perhaps different ones are for others.  My point is not to address these slogans and values individually but to make you aware of the process – and the hostility of the world - and our own flesh - to the Christian faith.

The world hates Christ, Christians, and the Church.  To the world, they are indistinguishable as objects to be lied about, disabled, or destroyed.  You may have noticed that every time anyone with any sort of religion does anything that we don't like, somehow Christians get thrown into the mix.  News reports about a child abuser almost always focus on the religion of the abuser, if there is one, as though the religion actually played a part in making the pervert perverted.  When a politician speaks what our culture does not want to hear, if he is a Christian, we hear complaints about someone forcing our religion on others – or about some supposed plot to bring about a theocracy in America.  Even when the evil-doer is not Christian - such as when Moslem terrorists attack us - somehow the news report gets around to Christian extremism, or Fundamentalism, and by that term they mean faithful Christians like us.  In such reports, we are likened to the terrorists, or it is suggested, at the very least, that Conservative Christians are every bit as much of a danger to society as "they" are, whomever they may be.

Our culture is drifting - some would say speeding - toward thought control.  We hear about thoughts which are unspeakable in polite society - and there is an effort to make certain thoughts illegal to express.  They call it a hate crime.  Speaking negatively about homosexuality, or denying the holocaust, is already illegal in some countries.  Expressing the wrong opinion about climate change in America can cost you your job, in some places and in certain professions.  Christians have to stand on the politically incorrect place in such a debate, because to take the politically correct point of view is to imagine that God is not in control.

But when the Apostle wrote about being persecuted by the flesh, he wasn't just thinking of society outside of the Church, but of the opposition in the church and even within ourselves to the Gospel.  Paul was facing the Judaizers.  They were the ones who wanted the law first, who taught that you had to keep the Law before you were fit for the Gospel.  Now, the specific Law they often focused on was the law of circumcision - but it doesn't matter which Law you use.  Whenever you make even a part of the Law a requirement of salvation, you destroy the Gospel altogether.

You see, the Gospel is the gift of forgiveness, life and salvation.  It is grace.  The Law is about obedience, worthiness and ‘earning it'.  If you must first prove yourself worthy before you can receive the gift, it is not really a gift.  When you earn something it is called a wage.  But the Gospel presents us with that which we do not deserve and have not earned.

Following the law leaves one constantly unsure.  Luther called it "the monster of uncertainty".  Have I done enough?  Have I done it well enough?  Did I follow the right rules?  Have I kept the faith enough?  Was my commitment pure enough?  Did I start early enough?  As long as any part of my salvation depends upon me, I can mess it up.  I can fail.  I can fall short.  Therefore, I can never be confident.

The Gospel takes all of that uncertainty away.  My salvation does not depend on me . . . it depends on Christ.  Did He do it right?  Did He do enough?  The resurrection says, "YES!"  Jesus did what I needed to do, and died in my place for my sins and failures.  When Jesus arose, He was proclaiming first and foremost that His death was enough - - and more than enough!  If He had not fully paid the penalty, He would not have risen from the dead.  But now Christ has risen, and the promises of God are secure.  I have been redeemed.  He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.

Nevertheless, most churches teach some sort of earning, deserving or ‘first you do your part, and then God will rescue you'.  These false teachings are also part of being persecuted by the flesh.  With Rome, the doctrine is that Jesus cleanses you from your original sin, and then you must work your way through the pearly gates, with the help of the saints and Mother Mary.

With some Protestant churches, you are expected to live without sin, if you are really a Christian.  Strict Calvinism said that it didn't matter, since you were predestined for heaven or hell anyway.  Your goal was just to show forth your election by holy living.  Most modern Protestants, on the other hand, believe that all you need to do is make the decision, or pray the prayer of faith, sincerely.  Of course, those who fall away after seeming to be Christian raise the question,  "Was my decision sincere, or sincere enough?"  Or, "Do I really believe?"

The answer to those questions is found in my conduct, or so they say.  I must live purely enough, or I prove that my decision was not genuine.  The result, however, is that I am left unsure, hoping but not confident.  Some seek to assuage the lack of certainty by stirring up good feelings, religious and uplifting emotions.  This leads to entertainment worship and "praise services" which focus on stirring up the right sorts of feeling in me.  The problem is, there is no mention of ‘feelings' in the Bible as that which saves you.  Even if it were true that how you felt was a measure of your relationship with God, it still doesn't help.  People don't often die in the praise service.  They don't usually die feeling good and religious.  They die in pain.  Or, they die suddenly, without a moment to feel out how they are doing.  Or, they die in sickness and sometimes wondering why they are suffering and not others who appear to them to deserve such agony more.

In the end, the Monster of Uncertainty is still there.  That is also being persecuted by the flesh.  Only the Gospel can silence that monster.  The Catholic wonders if he – or his or her loved one – has done enough.  The Gospel tells us that Christ has done everything needed, and more!  The Protestant wonders if he or she was sincere, or if it was really enough.  The Gospel teaches that Christ took up you sins, paid the price by dying for you on the cross, and pours out freely the forgiveness of sins.

Human nature even fights against this.  This is the final form of being persecuted by the flesh, although this time it is your own flesh that does the persecuting!  There is no such thing as a free lunch, or so they say.  The Gospel tells us that it is not free — but Christ picked up the tab, so to speak.  He paid.  He won.  He is sufficient.  You are forgiven.  You are redeemed.  You have the promise and the gift of everlasting life, and resurrection from the grave on the last day, just as Christ rose - and just as certainly as Christ rose from the dead.  And that is history.

In our Epistle, Paul used the events and people of the life of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar as an allegory in order to teach.  Sarah is the Gospel, and Hagar is the Law.  The son of Sarah is the heir and free, the son of Hagar is the slave.  Just so today, the Gospel sets us free from condemnation and uncertainty and fear of what is to come.  The Law still accuses and makes one more aware of failing to measure up than confident of meeting the requirements.  The Law always accuses, that is a theological principle.  That is particularly true when you know that the standard required by the Law is perfection.  I might be perfect today – but I am certain I was not always so.  And to get to perfection, you must start with perfection.  You cannot un-ring the bell of sin.

But Jesus never did sin.  His perfection is pure and sinless and from start to finish.  It is this perfect righteousness which He gives to you as He takes away your sin.  It is what is left after forgiveness.  He got your just deserts on the cross.  You get His, all that He has earned and deserved, in the absolution, and in the Holy Supper, and in eternal life.  In the Gospel you are free.

That freedom gives you the power to be holy also in your conduct.  It gives you permission to aim for it without fear that your sin - your missing the mark of perfect holiness - will destroy you.  Your sins are forgiven.  You can aim for holiness - and each day put to death the man of sin in the waters of your baptism, and start fresh again, because your salvation does not depend on you.  It depends on Jesus Christ.  And His victory is, as they say, history.  It is also our future.  And it is our present, right now.

The creeping doubts, the feeling that we ought to be better, the desire for greater holiness and the fear of sin are all part and parcel of the law.  Some of those feelings are true.  They remind us that we are sinners, and we still need our Savior.  But as the foundation of one's hope for salvation, they are the baggage of the sons of Hagar, the heirs of the Law and of condemnation.  There is no comfort, and no salvation in them.  They are the remnants and evidence that we are still and always Persecuted by the Flesh.  But they are not part of the Gospel.

"So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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