But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all (Galatians 4:26).
It has been said by men wiser than I that heretics are a gift to the church. This idea is, no doubt, a provocative one, but if we keep in mind the staggering reality we discussed last week (God allows no evil in His creation except that from which good will be derived) we begin to see how it is in fact a benefit to the people of God that we be assaulted by the slings and arrows of false teachers and heretics, for within these fights the only real casualties are our complacency and ignorance of the God who reveals Himself in the Word. If the very gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church, neither will Joel Osteen’s sickly smile. We see this reality quite vividly through the first major heresy waged against Christianity by those men and women who refused to follow their brother Jews in worshipping the Messiah. St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death by a group of these men who rejected the fulfillment of all religion in Christ, but it was the aftermath of the first persecution which should interest us as we examine their heretical cousins manfully opposed in today’s epistle by St. Paul (himself an enthusiastic participant in the stoning of Stephen). As we read in Acts, “…And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria,…Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1,4). Our Lord’s Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” (St. Matthew 28:19), this solemn Christian duty only first began to be really pursued by the church after the heretics came for us. It is this understanding of heresy we must carry with us as we contemplate today the beautiful, and quite frankly, incendiary words of St. Paul. As evidenced in the creed born from conflict we recited mere moments ago, God uses the man-made horror of heresy and rebellion to hone and strengthen the witness of His church against a world filled with wolves ready to pin half-truths and empty words to their woolen suits.
So, what was the message of these heretics, commonly called “Judaizers,” who attacked the young church in Galatia? Their message to Gentile converts was actually quite simple, “It is good that you believe in Christ, but salvation can only come through your personal performance of the law.” On a human level, this idea makes perfect sense, hence why it was and is so seductive and dangerous. It makes sense that my salvation is fully in my control; for as a fallen human, I would rather have salvation be up to me—and fail—than admit I have no power to save myself. In fact, humans are so good at self-deception that we can change the rules to the game and convince ourselves we’re winning. At least the ancient Aztecs were trying to sustain the natural world with their religion of human sacrifice; the average American sacrifices himself in order to find fulfillment or happiness or the right work/life balance or positive feelings or the perfect retirement or whatever fleeting purpose for which people daily die. It is indeed pretty rare to meet a person struggling with an intense desire to follow every aspect of the Mosaic law, and so we might falsely imagine St. Paul’s words have little relevance to us today, but as we can easily see, the cultural pressure of our fallen world pushes us towards an almost infinite amount of false salvations. We are told by the modern Judaizers, not that we must become functional Jews to be saved, rather we are told we must become functional atheists to be saved. We are told, “It is good that you believe in Christ, but salvation can only come by embracing the toxic dehumanization of pagan sexual practices, or by perverse political engagement, or by saving the environment, or by completing your bucket list, or by your kids being more successful than you are, or by looking young, or by being nice, or all the other exhausting ways in which we are ordered to save ourselves and the world. Our neighbors and friends and family are slaughtering themselves at unprecedented rates in the richest, freest, most entertained country in the world, but how else could it be when they daily feel the intense, unrelenting pressure of our functionally godless society pushing them into their graves with the endless burdens of self-salvation. The suicides, however, are simply the dead canary in a coal mine for a people who think they can save themselves: a people chasing futility and death, a people who have forgotten eternity and so will be forgotten.
Into that world, a world in which we very much live, St. Paul says this, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). More than anything else, St. Paul is telling us to remember who we are. He does so, not by giving us empty promises or a pep talk, but by showing us how the Living God operates in the real world through the lives of two women: Sarah and Hagar. Abraham, the father of the chosen people, was the husband of Sarah, and in their old age, God promised the elderly couple they would be blessed with a son—a promise which caused the perfectly reasonable Sarah to laugh at God. Years later, with still no son, and no doubt worried about who would take care of them in their old age, Sarah asked Abraham to commit adultery with her young servant girl, Hagar, to produce an heir. This abominable action was perfectly acceptable in the unredeemed culture of the time; although, as terrible as this act was it doesn’t quite rise to the level of the unnatural horrors of our age. For example, how often do we now see the common mention of children bought and sold through the dehumanizing practice of surrogacy? The only difference between the two is the deadening effect technology brings to our moral thinking. Every culture in every age is in rebellion against its Creator, and so Abraham’s culturally acceptable sin was none the less a terrible betrayal of God, and the son born of this sin was a living reminder of Abraham’s failure to trust in God. Of course, Abraham’s attempt to save himself and his family by following his sinful neighbors’ examples led to bitter jealousy between Sarah and Hagar ending with Hagar and her son Ishmael’s exile—a punishment which would have killed them except for the gracious intercession of God.
Why does St. Paul dredge up this terrible story about a central character in salvation history? Well, because the apostle desperately wants us to trust in the life promised by God rather than the slavery and death which can only come from trusting in our own accomplishments for salvation. Abraham let fear and pressure lead him to put his faith in sex and power rather than the promises of God, and just like every religion which leads us to put our faith in ourselves or in the decaying, temporary things of this world, this blind faith led to disaster. Paul’s argument shouldn’t be that hard to understand; he’s saying, “Everyone who has sought eternal life in their works has failed. Why would you follow that path?” If that argument is true for those who think perfectly following the law of God will save them, how much more true is it for people who think being a perfect (fill in the blank) will save them? “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” (Galatians 4:21). If we are really listening to whatever law we think will save us, all we will hear is the ever growing sound of our inevitable failure. As strange as it may sound to say on Mothering Sunday: whether we realize it or not, we are as spiritually barren as Sarah and no amount of self-improvement will change that reality, no law or resolution or plan or google search or drug or will change that reality.
The first step to salvation, the first step to remembering who we are is to know that we are all barren, but blessedly, God is life. God looked upon the barren, childless Sarah: guilty of unbelief, pride, jealousy, and attempted murder; He looked upon her, and He united her to the Trinity’s world saving mission by giving her the son of promise—He gave her a life she didn’t deserve because God keeps His promises. The salvation of the world took its first step forward through a tiny heartbeat inside the womb of a barren woman given up for dead. That heartbeat would grow up to be the man Isaac and from him would come generations of chosen men and women, each in their own way a living testimony to the throbbing, human need for salvation. Until, another woman clothed in her virginity was blessed with the new life which would take away all barrenness—the son of promise who came to reverse the fall of man, to restore the garden of creation, to create new life in you where men see only death. It is Jesus Christ’s resurrected glory which changed St. Paul from persecutor to martyr, and it is Christ’s resurrected glory which should lead all of us barren, unfruitful, human deserts to join in with prophets and apostles, saying, “Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband” (Galatians 4:27). God’s grace is for the barren, and so the barren can now rejoice. We can rejoice instead of worrying; we can rejoice instead of complicating our lives with all the fruitless pursuits of the lost; we can rejoice and know that Christ has promised life to those who believe—he has promised everything to those who are free. By God’s grace, we are the sons and daughters of promise, and by God’s grace we are free.