Wednesday, February 06, 2013

June 27, 2010 sermon: Freed From Fear, Freed For Service

Freed From Fear—Freed For Service
June 27, 2010

If I were to make a top 10 list of the greatest works of Western literature,  Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, would be somewhere on that list.  It’s an amazing story of sin and redemption, of love and hope and pain and loss, and ultimately of law and grace.  The main character in the story, Jean Valjean, spends 19 years of hard labor in prison for stealing a loaf of bread so he could eat.  Prison hardens him, gives him an edge, makes him distrustful of everyone around him.  His attitude becomes one of “hurt the other person before they have a chance to hurt you.”  At the end of his 19 years, he is paroled, but is forced to carry a yellow ticket everywhere with him and show it to anyone he comes into contact with, so they know he’s a parolee.  For Jean Valjean, being freed only becomes a new kind of imprisonment, and makes him even more cynical and bitter.  Four days after being let out, he arrives, cold, hungry, and broke, at the house of a bishop.  Nobody will house him or feed him or give him work.  He’s desperate.  And angry.  Here’s the scene from the 1998 movie…you may recognize Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean:

Don’t forget.  Don’t ever forget.  You’ve promised to become a new man.  Jean Valjean my brother, you no longer belong to evil.  With this silver, I have bought your soul.  I have ransomed you from fear and hatred.  And now I give you back to God.” 

God’s grace transforms our fear into lives of loving service.

What the bishop did for Jean Valjean was an act of costly grace.  The bishop sacrificed his pride, his silver, and his sense of justice.  But in taking that act, he did something that Jean Valjean never could have done for himself.  Not only did the bishop ransom him from fear and hatred, he ransomed him for a purpose.  He said “And now I give you back to God.”  An act of complete and utter selflessness broke Jean Valjean’s bondage to living for himself…it gave him the freedom, and the mission, to live his life for the sake of others
My friends, what we witnessed in that scene was the power of cross-shaped grace in transforming our lives.  It is that same power that Paul concerns himself with in our passage from Galatians.  We’ve heard over the past few weeks about the identity struggle that the early church had.  The church saw itself as a sect of Judaism, so they had that heritage and those laws to look to, to help shape their identity as a people.  However, they were also attracting a large number of non-Jews to the faith, especially as it began to spread into areas that were not primarily Jewish.  The question became, how do we handle these folks who didn’t grow up with these laws, customs, and heritage?

There was nothing wrong with Jewish Christians continuing to observe the Jewish purity rites…clean and unclean foods and the like.  In the first section of our Galatians passage, Paul is pointing out what he sees as blatant hypocrisy on the part of Peter.  He had begun to eat with Gentile Christians—non-Jews—and by extension had been lax on the Jewish food laws.  But then, when some Jewish Christians came to Antioch where he was, he stopped eating with the Gentiles.  The implication was that in not following Jewish law, these Gentile Christians were second-class citizens. 

And that’s what got Paul’s blood boiling.  In verse 14, he recounts a showdown he had with Peter, telling him, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”


Then he gets into the meat of his argument, telling Peter, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.”  One of my seminary professors says, “there are two kinds of people—those who divide everything into two groups, and those who don’t.”  Paul is one who does that…in his eyes, one is either a Jew or a Gentile.  He’s saying that even those who have been Jews from birth, those who have been given the gift of the law, are unable to be saved by that law.  So why then is Peter using the law to divide the community?  Observance of the law does nothing for a person’s eternal life, whether that person is Jew or Gentile.

Why?  Because God’s grace transforms our fear into lives of loving service.

You and I, we hear this passage and immediately our thoughts turn to our individual salvation.  Martin Luther interpreted it in that sort of context, and we, as 21st Century Americans, we whose very identity is defined partially by our rugged individualism—of course we’re going to think in those terms as well.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and we’ll get there eventually.  But that wasn’t Paul’s primary concern.

His main concern was with community.  His concern was that the Jewish Christians were using the law to exclude other Christians, instead of standing unified under the cross as the sinners that we are.  He reminds Peter, and us today, that our identity as humankind isn’t that we fulfill the law, but rather the opposite, that there is nothing any of us can do to live up to the law’s demands.  God’s law wasn’t given to divide.  God’s law was given to draw us all to the power of the cross.  Paul is pointing out that every time we draw lines that seek to divide or exclude, we are always going to find God on the other side of the line.  “If justification comes through the law,” Paul writes, “then Christ died for nothing.”

The silent question the bishop was asking Jean Valjean, the silent question Paul is asking the Galatians, and the silent question our Scripture passage asks of us today are all the same question: are you going to live lives of fear, or are you going to live lives of grace?

While it’s an important question to ask ourselves individually, it’s an even more important question to ask ourselves corporately, as those who are called to be Christ’s body on earth.  The world looks at the church and it sees a body that builds walls.  It sees a body that divides.  It sees a body that lives out of fear more than out of grace.  Sometimes these conclusions are unfair, but quite often we as the church—the whole, universal, worldwide church—have given the world good reason to come to those conclusions. 
However, God’s grace transforms our fear into lives of loving service.

Now this doesn’t mean that we’ve been given free license to do whatever we want, to live however we want to live.  The bishop didn’t tell Jean Valjean “with this act of grace you’re free to do whatever you want to do.”  Paul even says “But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?  Certainly not!”  What it does mean is that we’re living by a different set of motivations.  We don’t serve others to build up points to try to get to heaven or win God’s favor.  In fact, the cross is what has freed us from all of those old insecurities, all of those doubts, all of those fears that we just don’t measure up, that God can’t possibly find us acceptable, that there’s no way that we can earn a spot in heaven.  You know what?  There is no way, no way at all, that we can earn ourselves a spot in heaven.  Nothing to worry about.  We can’t do it.  But the cross, the empty tomb, God’s promise to us through Christ, that is what’s done the job for us.  The word that Paul uses over and over in this passage, the one translated “justified,” is the greek word dikaios.  It is a courtroom word, and has the sense not of actually being innocent, but of being declared and treated as though we were innocent.  Through the cross, God sees our guilt but still acquits us.  It’s not a whitewashing of sin, it’s God grabbing us by the collar like the bishop did to Jean Valjean, looking us right in the eye, and telling us, “Don’t forget.  Don’t ever forget.  You’ve promised to become a new person.  My brother…my sister…you no longer belong to evil.  With this cross, I have bought your soul.  I have ransomed you from fear and hatred.”

God’s grace transforms our fear into lives of loving service.

So we are free.  Free to break down the walls that fear has built.  Free to live in community with those we agree with, as well as those with whom we disagree.  Free to live not for ourselves but given the mission to live in loving service to others.  Free to recognize that God’s law doesn’t divide one person from another, but rather unifies all of us as one gigantic category of people—redeemed sinners at the foot of the cross.     


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE   

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