Sunday, July 26, 2015

“DYING TO LIVE”




A Sermon Based Upon Galatians 2: 15-21, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 8, July 26th,  2015

What makes you feel free and alive?   How about a roller coaster?    This past spring marked the opening of Carowind’s new ‘monster’ roller coaster ride,  “Fury325”.   It’s purported to be the world’s largest, fastest, frightening and exhilarating roller coaster.   I learned about it when I heard it from two female local news reporters who were traveling down to see it and to take a ride on it themselves.   One reporter said, with fear in her eyes,  “My friend loves roller coaster.  Me, not so much!”

What does it take to make you feel alive?  A roller coaster?  Bunge Jumping?   Parachuting? Or perhaps Hang Gliding?   Some people put a lot of demands of what it takes for them.  Many people need a ‘thrill’ so they can ‘feel’.     They need to “take a walk on the wild side” or walk on the edge of life and death to feel and realize what it means to be alive.  

In the days of the apostle Paul, just being a Christian could make you feel alive, because you could be persecuted, or worse, you could lose your life.   If fact, it did come to that for many of those first disciples.    Today our Christianity has become much more bland, boring, dull or dreary.   The worst thing that could happen is to fall asleep during a sermon and break your neck.  That just about happened while Paul was preaching.   Even way back then, some went to sleep and almost missed their whole life.   Can you imagine?

Today, in this message on freedom Galatians, we want to consider one of the most important Bible verses where Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life, I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2: 19b-20).   While the ideas presented here are ancient, this verse speaks volume to what it means to be alive, awake, and aware, as a follower of Jesus Christ.

LIVING IN THE PRESENT-TENSE
When it comes to thinking about ‘life’  and what it means to follow Jesus,  there is one word that should jump right off the page for every single one of us,  whether we are Christian or not.   It’s the word that comes in the middle of verse 20 when Paul writes:  “And the life, I NOW live in the flesh….”  (20).   When you think about it, is there any other way to live than ‘now’?   Oh, yes there is:

You could be trying to live in the past.   That’s where a lot of people become content to try to live.   They remember how it used to be.   They are imprisoned in how things were, but will never be again.   They are not really living in the past, but they are dying in the present because they want life to stand still.   And this is the problem, no ‘living person’ can actually ‘stand still’,  and no living person can go back to the past,  nor can any living person really live in the past, because,  “the past is past”.   It exists no more.   Nothing really exists except the present.   Until you realize this you can really live free at all.

Of course we know what Paul’s past was.   When Paul says ‘AND THE LIFE THAT I NOW LIVE IN THE FLESH  he remembers very well the life he used to live.    He recalls the self-righteousness of his past.   He remembers how he murdered Christians.   He remembers how he thought he was upholding the law, but what he was really doing was breaking the heart of the law which is the law of love and grace.   Paul had made a lot of mistakes, even when he meant well, even when he was very educated, and even when he was an outstanding citizen and an exceptionally bright, moral, and religious person.   Paul was all of this in his ‘former life’; but he got it wrong.

What strikes me about Paul’s self-understanding about the ‘past’ is that any of us can get stuck there.   Even when we were right and are still right, we can get stuck in the things that have been good for us and to us.   Good is good, but even good can become bad, if we get stuck in it.  Think about a young person who doesn’t grow up.   They graduate school, they go to college, or get a job, but they never move out.  They keep living off their parents, or they never create a life for themselves.   There is a lot of good in having a good home, great parents, wonderful roots and a great ‘foundation’, but if you never built your home and move on to make use of what you have been given in the past,  then you decay and die.  For you see, it’s not just a bad past that can hold you back,  a ‘good’ past can be more dangerous if you are ‘bound and determined’ to live in it.   No one can live in the ‘past’ and live free in the present.

You may also try to live only in the future, dreaming, hoping, praying, and pressing toward what you hope is yet to be.   Just like a ‘good’ past, planning and hoping for the future can become enslaving as well.  You can work so hard to make your hopes and dreams happen that you fail to live the life that you have right now.   We’ve all done this, and most of us know just how dangerous it is.  You can have a family and never see them.    You have dreams, but never be content with what you have.   You can even be dreaming, singing, and praying for heaven—to be with loved ones past, but forget to be a witness and do the work that needs to be done, right now.   By only living for the ‘future’ your forget to live the days you have now.

The point Paul is making when he writes about the Christian life, is that life “in Christ” is the life that you and I should be determined to live right ‘now’.   You can’t live off the life you have lived, or the decisions you have made, but your faith and your freedom comes alive with the life and the decisions you are making ‘now’.   It is the ‘power of now’ that Christ calls you to that will set you free to be all that you can be in your life.    One very famous spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, makes exactly this point in his very popular book with that very title,  The Power of Now”.   Tolle’s book has struck a nerve with millions around the world, as it has been printed in over 33 different languages and has been on the New York Times list of best-selling books ever since it was released.   It is ‘spiritual’ book, but it is not overly religious, though it is based upon spiritual wisdom that comes from Jesus, from Buddha, from modern psychology.  It has been widely used by business leaders to help those who are over their head in ‘materialistic’ matter to realize that ‘the physical world is not the only world there is’.  It is a book to help people get off the wheel of self-destructive behavior and to find a ‘life’ that is lived, not in the past, nor only for the future, but for now.

The best part of Tolle’s book comes right at the beginning, when he explains what motivated him, as a spiritual teacher, to set down and to begin to write this book about the “Power of Now”.   His experience was not that much unlike the apostle Paul.  He says that up until his 30th year, he lived in ‘a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression….   One night not long after (his) 29th birthday, he woke up with a feeling of absolute dread.   He woke up like this many times, but this one was more intense than it had ever been.   He observed the dead silence, the darkness, and then the distant noise of a passing train---everything was so alien, so hostile, and so meaningless.  But the most loathsome thing of all, however, was himself, and his own existence.  What was the point of continuing to bear the burden of his miserable life?  Why carry on in the struggle? 

“I cannot live with myself any longer” was the one thought he kept repeating to himself in his mind and heart.   Then suddenly, something came to him.   He says ‘I suddenly became aware of what a peculiar thought it was…. If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me…  Am I one person, or am I two?  Maybe only one of them is real… Maybe the only ‘self’ that is real is the one who is ‘alive’ right NOW!    That’s was his awakening to the ‘now’ of his life.  This was his way of moving out of his ‘self-condemnation’ to seize the gift of ‘now’.

If this sounds like the Buddhist teaching about ‘enlightenment’, it is.   If it also sounds something like a person having a spiritual experience of being ‘born again’,  it is that too.   There is only one spiritual reality, but there are many ways to describe it.   When Jesus spoke about ‘life’ he was not speaking “Christian” as much as he was speaking “life”.   The Christian life is not about having a particular religious life but the true religious life is about getting a life, or as Jesus said, getting a life that is “abundant”, full and meaningful.   It is about getting beyond who you haven’t been, and not getting stuck on who you want to be,  but it means getting real about who you are, right now, not in self-condemnation and defeat, but coming alive in the love, the grace, the goodness, and opportunity of this very moment.

 “The life I NOW live…”  Paul says.   Or  finding the ‘self’ that is ‘real’ right now, who is alive and to be free, --free to love, free to be loved, and free to love God and others.  This is the first step toward finding life in Christ, as we discover the freedom to live ‘in the present tense’.  

LIVING TO PRECLUDE A LESSER LIFE
But living the ‘life’ that is full, free, and fruitful, is not living just any kind of life we want, you want,  or I want, but it is living the kind of life that God has created us to live.   This is what makes Christianity a peculiar kind of faith, not just another form of religion.  This is why Christianity can find truth in other religions, in other ways of living and culture, because Jesus is the Lord of all.  Christianity can learn, appreciate, and appropriate truth from all walks and ways of life, because Jesus is the truth—all truth.  Christianity knocks, seeks, and finds life that is ‘full and abundant’ (Jn. 10:10) because it is about the life you ‘should’ be living now, wherever you are and whoever you are.   This is something that Buddha could only partially see.   He was on the right path, but he was not ‘the way, truth and the life’.   

Jesus is the ‘life’ who points us to a quality of life we all should live now, which is why Jesus told Nicodemus, in no uncertain terms, “You must be born again (John 3:3)!  Jesus was not telling Nicodemus not to be Jewish.   He was not even telling Nicodemus how to become a Christian, as in getting a new religion.   Jesus was telling Nicodemus that if he wanted life, he had to learn to see everything differently and to live his life in a completely new way.    This life was not the life Nicodemus necessarily wanted, but it was the life God wanted, and it was the life Nicodemus needed to live, and should have been living.  For only when Nicodemus decided to live in God’s now, as he ‘should’ be, seeing, thinking, becoming and being in Jesus as the Messiah, will he get free and stay free.  

Paul himself experienced this new level of life and living in Jesus Christ.   This is what his letter to the Galatians is about.    Certain  ‘troublemakers’ had infiltrated the churches in Galatia, who wanted to stay with the old way of living, or to go backward away from the freedom Christ gives.    But Paul would have nothing of it.   He himself had been a follower of God’s law, but Paul came to realize that even God own law (which was good in the past) could not give him what Jesus now offers which can take into the future.    In the grace of Jesus, a new kind of obedience and law has been revealed and released—the law of love.   This new kind of seeing, being, and living is best described by Paul as a life of ‘‘faith IN Jesus Christ’ (2:16, NRSV).   But before you settle on this translation, you must remember that this can also be translated, ‘the faith OF Jesus Christ’ (KJV).   In the original language it can be translated either way, and in good Christian understanding, it is advantageous to see it both ways, not just one way.   To put it simply: we can have FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST because of THE FAITH OF JESUS CHRIST.    It is Jesus himself, who makes this new way of life possible.

The ‘power’ that enables us to live in the now, not in the past, nor only for the future is because of the faith Jesus himself had as he lived his life ‘for us’ and died ‘for us’.   What kind of ‘faith’ did Jesus have?    Again, this is an oversimplification, but the ‘faith’ Jesus had a life lived because of the ‘obedience’ that was in his heart---not because of the law.     This is why Jesus was able to challenge the rules, the laws, and the regulations that had lost their soul and heart.   Jesus lived a life that trusted God in a way that vindicated him, even when the world turned against him.  Jesus lived a level of life that can still save us from the negative pulls of this world.   Jesus lived a life that was based not on human flesh alone, but based on Jesus own spiritual ‘relationship’ with the Father—the source of life.   As Jesus was one with the Father,  so we can now become one with the Son, who came to create a new level of believing, of living, of loving, and faithfulness, that is based upon having a relationship of ‘faith’ that is not based upon laws, rules or regulations, but is based upon having the right attitude of faith based on God’s reconciling and redeeming work.    By having faith to join with Jesus in having the faith Jesus had, and by living the quality of life Jesus lived, we too can be saved from the lesser, lower, destructive way of life which can enslave and rob us of the life we should have.   

How do we come to this higher level of ‘life’ by having ‘faith in Jesus Christ’?   We don’t come to it, but Scripture says this freedom for life comes to us, as ‘gift of grace, through faith,  not of works, lest anyone should boast’ (Eph. 2.8).  Jesus did not come to take our life from us, but he came to empower us to get our lives back, which the ‘world, the flesh, and the devil’ can still, steal away.   This is why Paul’s discussion includes a discussion about ‘being found to be sinners’ (v.17).  Paul’s point is the Jewish need for the law proves Jews are still sinners, just like being a Gentile without the law also proves Gentiles are still sinners.  

Since, before God, we are all sinners,  there is only one sure way not to be a sinner anymore.   It does not mean that we ever overcome sin or ever stop ‘falling short of the glory’ God has intended for all of us.   We can never stop being a sinner through the law, and we can never stop being a sinner, even if we live outside the law.   No, the only way to stop being a sinner is to be released from the guilt of sin by the only one who can release us:  God.  And this is exactly what the Jesus’ life and death means.  

The very biblical word Paul uses here is ‘justified’ (v. 15, 16, 17, 21).   This word is the same as the word ‘righteous’, which is a legal word from ancient law courts which means to be ‘declare free of any charges’ whether you are guilty or not.   Only a judge who is free from any legal restraints can do this.  And this is exactly what God has done in Jesus Christ.  The whole world stands ‘guilty’ under the judgment of sin, but now, God, the righteous judge of all, has declared us ‘righteous’ and ‘free’ of any charges.   This declaration of ‘justification’ is not based on who we are, but it is based upon who Jesus is, and it is based upon our having a living faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Lord of all.   As this free gift of grace is given to Jew and Gentile, free of charge and free beyond the law, all of humanity has been given the gift of ‘freedom’. 

The Faith of Jesus Christ, which calls the world to have faith in Jesus Christ,  is a good news gospel that means that in Jesus Christ,  God has set the world free from sin,  to empower us to be free from lesser living so that we, and anyone with faith in Jesus Christ, can live a full, abundant, and redemptive life.  This quality of life can even now be lived while living ‘in the flesh’  because it is not based upon our ‘flesh’  or upon following the law in our flesh, but it is based upon the heart that has ‘faith’ in Jesus Christ.   It is a faith that is not based upon works of the law at all, nor upon our achievements, nor is it forbidden because of our character flaws or our failures to live our ‘best’ life, but now, the life of faith is based upon the ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ who has ‘finished’ God’s work of reconciliation and now works through us all ‘by faith’ and ‘for faith’ which is only way any kind of ‘faith’ will work—by faith.  
PARTICIPATING IN THE LIFE OF CHRIST
We can live our life in God’s ‘now’ because in Christ the past forgiven.   We can live in God’s now and we can preclude sin, not by overcoming sin, but by overcoming the power of sin because we have a God who has declared us righteous,  not through our goodness, but through his own goodness, love and grace,  through faith in Jesus Christ because of the faith of Jesus Christ.  It is this Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection that now inspires and empowers us to live our life on a ‘higher level’ of understanding, of consciousness, or of awareness, which is nothing less or nothing more than a life that is now live by grace, through faith in this Jesus who loves and gives himself for us.   

But there is one more important word.   Paul says we participate in God’s forgiveness and freedom, through participating in ‘crucifixion’ of Jesus Christ.   This is not done by being ‘crucified’ in fact, but he means being ‘crucified’ by faith.     Being ‘crucified with Christ’ means that ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”.   This mystical, spiritual language is hard for some to get a handle on,  but Paul goes on to explain it quite simply,  “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me…”  (v.20).   This is the kind of life which sets us free and keeps us free.  It’s the kind of life live ‘by faith in the Son of God’ so that we ‘crucify’ the  that may hinder us and are released to live the only kind of life that ‘justifiable’---which is a life that is free to live a life based on God’s love (vs 20, “who loved me and gave himself for me”.  

The life of faith in Jesus that is based on the faith of Jesus, is a life that is lived out of love for God and others because of God’s love for us and for all others.   Only when we participate with Jesus, in the death of our old selfish, legalistic life, can we learn to live this new kind of life based upon the love of God.    But how do we see this kind of ‘crucified life’ in real life today?

At the end of March, CBS ran an remarkable story about twelve strangers who made a six-way kidney swap that gave life to each of them.  Up until the story was released, the twelve strangers had not met each other, to learn whose kidney donation had given them life.  The most remarkable part of that story, which was already known, is that it all began with one altruistic donor, Zully Broussard, age 55,  who felt compelled to give her own kidney to save a stranger’s life.  She said she came to realize just how precious life is, when she lost her own husband and son to cancer.  (http://news.yahoo.com/video/six-patients-six-donors-pay-130234735-cbs.html; http://hospitalbusinessnews.com/tag/zully-broussard/).

What is remarkable about Mrs. Broussard, is not only the compassion she had, but the ‘faith’ she had.  Her donated kidney could not be used by the person it was intended, but it started a chain reaction of compassion, which saved the lives of others, all because of her ‘faith’ to give.   Isn’t this what ‘faith of Jesus’ means for our ‘faith in Jesus Christ?’  Jesus came to show us not only how to die, but how to live, by giving our own life to God and to each other.   By ‘faith’ Jesus has started a chain reaction of faith to redeem us and set us free to live in God’s love. This is still how Christ has ‘died for something, rather than for nothing.  Amen.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

“GET READY TO FIGHT”



A Sermon Based Upon Galatians 2: 1-14, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 7, July 19, 2015

“We did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you.
(Gal 2:5 NRS).

Recently I had to trade in my old car for a newer one.   It wasn’t new, but it was new to me and it was supposed to be certified.   Being “certified” should mean it is held to a higher standard, both inside and out.

I bought the car on a cloudy, rainy day.   That was a bad mistake.  When the sun came out, I noticed at least 30 chip repairs where all rain drops had been.   It had been touched up, but I also noticed that the paint on the bumper did not match the color of the paint on the car.   When I took the car back to complain, the manager said that he could do nothing.  He said that the hood had been properly repaired, for a used car and he added that you couldn’t match paint on plastic bumpers.   I did not agree, so he at least consented to doing some research and said he’d call me back.   He didn’t call back when he said, so I put a stop payment on the check.  

In the meantime, I consulted with a good lawyer who told me to read the fine print in the contract.   I did.   When I called the manager of the car dealership again and told him that I put a stop payment on the check until the car was fixed properly, he told me I could be guilty of “Grand Theft Auto”.   But of course, he said he would be nice and not press charges if I went ahead and paid for the car.   That didn’t agree with me, so I called the N.C. Attorney General’s office and got to know a nice lady named “Jessica” and asked her if I was being unreasonable.   To make a long story short, now they are going to fix the car.

In a world where many people want more than their fair share, sometimes you will have to put up a fight.    As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, who teaches us to invite the kingdom by ‘turning the other cheek’, we should not be easily pushed into a fight.   If we want the new kind of world to come into reality, we have to fight differently.   “That’s well and good,” as my mother used to say, but the kingdom hasn’t come, yet.   In a fallen world, where the tendency is not only to fall into sin, but also to be enslaving to others or be enslaved by others, sometimes we still have to put up a fight.   As Christians we should fight fair, and we should fight in the most humane and advanced ways (which is what the Sermon on the Mount means), but if you want freedom, and you want to remain free, you still have to know when and how to fight.

In our text from Galatians, Paul is ‘fighting the good fight’ for freedom in Jesus Christ.  Interestingly, he is not merely fighting against the ‘evil’ in the world, but he is ‘fighting’ against ‘false believers’ and he is even fighting against some very good people who have it terribly wrong.   There is much to learn about ‘fighting’ in this text.   If you are going to keep your freedom, sometime or other, you will have to learn how to put up a fight.

DO NOT SUBMIT (vs. 5)
Before we look more closely at how Paul ‘fought the good fight’ for the cause of Christian freedom among the churches Galatia,  I want to tell you another ‘car’ story.   However, this one is really not about cars, but it’s about people.   Many years ago, when I arrived in Europe, I came across a little ‘fender bender’ on the highway.   The looked like they were getting very ‘emotional’ with each other.  They were waving arms, giving the policeman an earful and with were excessively arguing their points.   It all looked rude and impolite to me.  So I asked an experienced German driver about my observation.   He said that this was all very necessary.   In European culture, the one who doesn’t speak up is assumed to be the guilty one.

Paul is ready to speak up and to speak out in our text.   He knows who the guilty part is, and it’s not him.   For this reason, the entire letter to the Galatians is written in emotional, aggressive, if not aggravated prose.   Paul is hot.  He is passionate and he is angry because his ‘call’ as an apostle is being questioned by ‘false believers’  who have ‘secretly’ come to ‘spy on the freedom’ Christ has given (4).    They have come to ‘spy’ because they do not agree with Paul’s allow ‘new converts’ to remain ‘uncircumcised’ which goes against Moses.   Since Paul has not ‘compelled’ Titus to be ‘circumcised’,  he knows these ‘pseudo believers’ have come to trap him and to challenge his freedom.

In response to this Paul writes this letter.   He speaks out.  He speaks up.   He writes that when these ‘false believers slipped in to spy’, in order to ‘enslave us’,  ‘we did not submit to them even for a moment….”   (2.5).   This is strong language.  It is strong because it sounds like Paul goes against everything else he has taught.   Paul is the kind of fellow is willing to submit to almost anything for the sake of the gospel.  He is willing to be beat up for it, to be stoned for it, to be whipped for it, and he is willing even to die for it.  And Paul is willing to ‘submit’ to any or all of this for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ and he will not even lift as much as a finger to resist this.  But now, Paul says he ‘will not submit’  even ‘for a moment’.   Do you know why Paul is taking such a stand?   Do you know why Paul is getting angry and uptight?   It is not his ‘own’ personal freedom that he is ready to ‘fight’ for, but it ‘the freedom we have in Jesus Christ’. (4)  Paul is not ready to put of a fight for what he wants, nor is he ready to put up a fight for what is good just for him.   Paul is ready to fight for the ‘freedom’ that has been ‘entrusted’ to him as ‘the gospel for the uncircumcised’ (7).   The ‘freedom’ that Paul will not give up, is the freedom that everyone needs.

You could say that the wisdom of this text is to remind us all that if we are going to put up a fight for something that is right, we still need to know how to ‘pick our battles’.   We need to make sure that we are fighting for what is right, not just for what we want or for what we think is right.    But when we know it is right, and when we know it is the ‘truth of the gospel’, we should ‘not submit’ even for a ‘moment’ (5).  But how do we know, when to hold the line and when to give in?  How does Paul know for sure?

DON’T TURN BACK (vs. 12).
When we understand what is happening, this all becomes clear.   It is the same kind of clarity we all need before we ‘draw a line’ or ‘pick our battle’.   In the story before us in this text that line has already been made clear.  The church in Jerusalem, or whoever sent those ‘spies’ to ‘spy’ on Paul and his freedom,  already knew where this ‘gospel was going’.   Even before Paul had been ‘ordained’ or ‘commissioned’ as a preacher and missionary to be ‘entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised’ (7),  Peter and the church had made an agreement that they would not put the requirement of ‘circumcision’ on the new Christians.   The vision had already been revealed to Peter.   The Holy Spirit was already pouring out blessings on the uncircumcised believers.   Even the council in Jerusalem, where Paul, Peter, James and all the church leaders had come together to consider the matter,  they had come to the clear, concise, compassionate decision to allow Gentile Christians not to have to obey the ‘circumcision’ requirement.   If it was good enough for the Holy Spirit, it was good enough for the church.   The new direction of the Spirit had was officially clarified and the church already agreed (Acts 10-15).  

What caused Paul to stand up and ‘fight’ was the fact that now, Peter and the church were now giving in to a faction in the church who did not like the decision.   It was not like they had ‘differences’ but it was that were ‘turning back’ to reverse the decision that had already been made.   This is why Paul ‘opposed’ Peter ‘to his face’.   This is why Paul called him out in front of everybody, even if it made him look bad.    Paul is not resorting to violence, nor to mere anger for the sake of blowing off steam,  but Paul  is relying on the ‘truth’ to gain the upper hand.   And the truth is that ‘until certain people’  of the ‘circumcision faction’ came from James and the church in Jerusalem,  Peter  used to eat with Gentiles’.   It is obviously, definitely, and absolutely clear what everyone decided.   But now,  when the pressure was on,   Peter ‘drew back’,  and ‘turned back’ to the old way, out of fear of people, not out of the fear of the Lord.

Nowhere in the Bible does God give freedom or ‘slack’ to ‘backsliders’, and this is exactly what Peter and the church are doing.   But they are not sliding back ‘unintentionally’ or ‘unknowingly’ but they are sliding back to who things once were with full intent and this ‘intent’ is not in line with the mission that has been entrusted to Paul and the decision that had been agreed upon by the church.   Whatever a church must not do,  whatever a Christian must not do,  whatever a person who wants to be free must not do, is to never ‘turn back’ nor ‘reverse’ the decision that has been made clear by God, by the Spirit or by the leadership.  

I’ve told the story about the first time I ever drove to “Love Valley” with my friend Gary Marshall.   I wanted to see Love Valley because I heard it was like an old ‘cowboy’ town with unpaved streets and wild west style buildings.   My friend was from Texas, so I thought he would be a good person to have with me.   When we arrived at the small entrance to the town, we met an old, dilapidated pick-up truck with three long-haired hippies inside.   If you know anything about Love Valley, you’ll know that this was a normal sighting in Love Valley in the 1970’s.  We met these ‘hippies’ at the small entrance, but there was no room to get buy.   They had more room than we had to ‘back up’ but they didn’t budge.  I was ready to put my car in reverse, but my Texas friend said, “Don’t do that!”   I suddenly felt the adrenalin rush like it was ‘high noon’ at the OK Corral.    About the time I was going to trump my friend’s desire to sit tight,  one of the hippy-haired fellows stuck his neck out and hollered:  “Hey, would you mind backing up,  our truck doesn’t have a reverse?”   With a sigh of relief,  we avoided what I thought was going put me on cemetery ridge.

Like that old pickup,   God certainly has no reverse.   God doesn’t have reverse, not because God is hard to get along with, or because God is an broken down truck,  but God doesn’t have reverse because life doesn’t have any reverse.  Life and Truth only have one direction and that is ‘forward’ and ‘straight ahead’.  If the church of Jesus Christ wants to maintain its mission focus and keep it’s costly freedom that was established in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we cannot have a reverse gear either.   If you think about going backwards, don’t even think about it.  Don’t turn back.   The truth only knows how to ‘go marching on’ and the freedom God gives does not work in reverse.

DON’T BE LED ASTRAY
Anyway we lose this freedom God has given us is bad.   But if there’s a worst way to lose our freedom, it’s when we don’t know we are losing it.   This is the ‘slickest trick’ in Satan’s arsenal.  He can put us in a pot like frogs, thinking everything is fine, and then he turns the heat on.   When the heat comes on,  being led astray is worse than ‘giving in’ or ‘turning back’ because without realizing it,  now our freedom is gone forever.  

This is what happened even to ‘good ole’  Barnabas.   It’s the kind of thing that happens to ‘good ole’ friendly people.   Barnabas was a special friend to Paul.   He had supported Paul and his Gentile mission since the beginning.   He had been there with Paul when he was still Saul and he had gone the distance.   He even had the nickname, “The Encourager’.  Barnabas was a good and kind man.  He was a disciple of Jesus and he was close to Paul.  But even Barnabas could be  ‘led astray’ (2.13).

I’ll never forget how a man came to warn me that his wife had turned against me.  He agreed she had no good reason, but she still had her reasons.   When I called the Chair of Deacons to meet with the couple and to try to resolve the issue, with his wife by his side,  that husband would not agree with anything he told me before.   I wondered why he even came to me.   Either been ‘led astray’ by his wife too, or he realized he had to go home and live with her.   I think that was the reason, and I understood.   But I don’t think they are together today.   If you are led astray, even for what you think it is for a good reason, if it’s not for the right reason, it won’t always be good.
Why are ‘good’ people sometimes the most vulnerable people?    It’s not hard to figure.  When we want to do good, or we have been raised to be good, sometimes we’ve not experienced the slick tricks of the devil or we’ve sheltered too much and haven’t been introduced to the way the world really is or to how easily we too can get caught up in the emotions,  the feelings,  the fears and the frustrations of life.   If we don’t have a strong sense of mission, or we haven’t settled for sure and for certain what that mission is and what we should be doing to accomplish it,  we too can be more easily led astray.  We can understand what caused Barnabas to ‘join in the hypocrisy’ of the others who were opposing Paul,  but we can understand how even good people can get caught up in the ‘enslaving tricks’ that can rob any or all of us of the freedom we should have in Jesus Christ.   How can good people avoid such a trap?

BE CONSISTENT WITH THE TRUTH
The best answer comes in consider how Paul describes Barnabas’ failure, and the failure of all those ‘good people’ were giving in to the temptation to take the ‘well-worn path’ rather than the ‘new’ path that God had put them on.   Paul says that the major problem of Peter,  of Barnabas, and of James and the ‘circumcision party’ from the Church in Jerusalem was that ‘they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel.”   It is because of this ‘inconsitency’  that Paul calls them all out and even confronts Peter (or Cephas) ‘before them all’ (14).    What Peter has to pay Paul,  is to explain how he can now, inconsistently say to the Gentile Christians,  Do what I say,  not what I do?   Isn’t this what Paul means when he says: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew,  how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews (14)?

I used to have a friend who was once a Baptist missionary in the northeast.   When he was going door to door, he had a favorite question he would ask people who said that they were Catholic.   He would respond by asking the point blank:  “Are you a good Catholic?”   This is the term Catholics used to express whether or not they were faithfully going to mass or whether they were just raised that way.   If they answered that they were a ‘good Catholic’,  he would go to the next door, but if they answered that they were not so ‘good’,  he would invite them to a Bible study and believe they might make a Baptist.   I’ve always ‘worried’ a little about his approach.   How do ‘bad Catholics make ‘good’ Baptist?  

What was not ‘good’ about the whole matter of return to ‘circumcision’ was that it was not the ‘truth’ of the gospel.   Whatever else the gospel means, at its very core it must be ‘true’ or it is no gospel at all?   We call this integrity.   We do not keep our freedom when allow the wind to blow us in any direction, but freedom is kept when we allow the wind of the Spirit to keep us moving in the right direction.   Peter knew when he ‘drew back’ that he was not being consistent with what he said God was doing.   Barnabas knew that when he was ‘led astray’ that he was not doing what he encouraged Paul to do.   The circumcision party in Jerusalem also knew that what they were doing was not what the Holy Spirit had led the leaders in the church to decide.   The problem with losing freedom is something that happens when good people know they are being ‘inconsistent’ with the truth, but they are ‘inconsistent’ anyway.   Isn’t ‘the lie’ always the noose around freedom’s neck that enslaves hearts and lives?   When good people give in, give up, go back, and are led astray, and they know it, or they don’t care to know it,  they can lose freedom.   Giving up the fight for freedom  is not much about being overcome, surprised, or tricked, but it’s ‘allowing’ ourselves to give in, to go back, or be led astray because we ‘fear’ the truth more than we belive in the truth.

The best way to ‘fight’ for the truth is to believe and to live what we say we believe.   Are you living ‘consistently with the truth’  you said you believed?   And furthermore, do you realize this the ‘truth’ of the freedom Christ gives  is a  ‘freedom’  that moves forward toward the new things that God is doing, rather than just walking in the same old steps that are taking you nowhere?  

Len Sweet tells that toward the end of the 19th century, Charles Sheldon, pastor of an average church in an average community in Topeka, Kansas, decided he needed to do something to perk up his Sunday evening services. Sheldon began preaching a kind of serial sermon, in which he told stories about average men and women and the kinds of situations and challenges they might find themselves facing in their ordinary lives.

The question Sheldon put on the lips of his fictional sermonic characters and the question he posed to his own parishioners was this: "What would Jesus do" in these same circumstances? This serial sermon or spiritual soap opera hit just the right note with his people. They were curious enough about the next "installment" to return week after week after week. They were so challenged by Sheldon's urging them to consider what Jesus would do if he were faced with the same issues as they, that a revival of sorts broke out in his church. It spread to the rest of the nation through the publication of In His Steps, the second best-selling "religious" book in all of American history. Only the Bible itself beats it out.

Ever since its publication, now a century ago, In His Steps has become a kind of Christian mantra for the faithful.   But what started out as a new and challenging road has gradually become a kind of safe, well-traveled path. For too many Christians, claiming to be following "in Jesus' steps" has become a substitute for forging ahead into unknown territories, for taking faith into places where the church has not yet trod. This kind of ‘moving ahead’ with Christ and in the Holy Spirit is the kind of ‘freeing truth’ Paul meant.  Like Peter and Barnabas,  we are all constantly tempted to reinstate those written down, black-and-white laws rather than having a living, breathing, growing, life-changing, and challenging faith that sets us free not only from sin, but sets us free to serve and to love Jesus and the world in new and exciting ways.

So, the question of Christian freedom is not only are you living consistently with the truth you say you will live, but it is a question of whether or not you are living consistently with the truth that sets us free, and will keep setting us free to serve and to love God in new, exciting and freeing ways.   And, as another Tomlin (Lilly Tomlin) once said in an unforgettable way:  That’s the truth!  Amen.