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Defining a People!


Passage: Galatians 5:1, Galatians 5:13-25

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Stephen Graham

I remember the beginning Sunday of my first pastorate. The chair of deacons gave a warm and glowing introduction of our young family. We smiled at his graciousness. He had been nice. We hoped his kind words had not overstated the truth.

He closed with a little joke. (That’s when I coined the phrase “All jokes are serious!) His “joke” was a tad clever but also brought up possibilities different from anything we had dared to imagine. He spoke in jest with a big grin, “We welcome Stephen and his wonderful family, but if you remember what happened to Stephen, you’ll be cautious with your excitement. In Acts when Stephen preached prophetically, the people became enraged, ground their teeth at him, covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” Then with he smiled and turned and said, “Stephen, with enthusiasm we welcome you to our little town!”

All ministers have days when their name is Stephen.

His introduction had purpose. He was hoping the people would play nice! And he was asking me to be alert, to be “Careful out there!”

Paul writing to the church in GALATIA reminds them they are free yet bound. They have been called to freedom, but they are not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Paul is concerned for this young church. He believes strongly that they are free in Christ. God does not coerce us from without but set us free from within. Paul is displeased with the those who have given up their freedom, as well as those who have squandered their freedom.

We are called to freedom, but our freedom is not that of an island but that which we have in relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, and with the ecological situation in which we exist. This polarity of freedom and bondage cannot escape it paradoxical nature, the tension in which authentic existence becomes possible.

Freedom implies freedom from and freedom for. One is free to the extent that he or she can become a true human being, nothing more and nothing less. This means freedom from all that prevents fulfillment as a human being. We are free when our relationship with God, other people, all aspects of self, and our total situation is such that we can emerge and function as authentic persons.

Free yet bound. Free to be me. Free to be you. Only as we are bound to one another are we free. (Frank Stagg, Polarities of Man’s Existence in Biblical Perspective, pp. 120-121)

Baptist polity for being pastor and people is as good as it gets. Every church is free, and every pastor is free. And yet, it is also a vulnerable condition, a risk for both. Born of high calling the relationship of pastor and people has remarkable potential, a divine experiment like balancing heaven and earth, idealism and practicality, big dreams, and limited budgets.

Paul wrote in Galatians with pastoral clarity to a splintered body. Freedom has been constrained and abused. The balance of being free yet bound has hit high center. Freedom denied by old understandings and self-indulgence. Paul saw this as a growth challenge. He believed they would be strongest by honoring this paradox, free yet bound.

A 19th Century Baptist Pastor remarked upon our pendant for controversy. “Living person differ. It is the dead who agree. Differences with others enable us to see what alone we cannot see.”

James McClendon calls this the way of being baptist with “a little b.” (My spell-check went wild over the little b!) McClendon uses a lower case “b” because it better represents the minority, dissenting perspective of Baptists, a people strong in conviction, yet modest in voice! Next week we will explore our passion for religious liberty, our commitment to look out for the underdog, because that’s how we began. We believe that you keep religion thriving by keeping it free,

Paul stated, “We rest only on our faith in Christ.” That’s why the only question we are asked regarding our membership to join a Baptist Church is: Do you believe that Christ is Lord?”

The Baptist Principle of unity in diversity reminds us that we did not come together to be told what to believe. We came together to celebrate that we believe. My little grandmother, Nanny, loved to invite stay overs by saying there is always room for one more on our Baptist pallet.

As Baptists we believe that pastor and people can discern what God is saying, that God has something to say to us! The priesthood of every believer and the autonomy of a local church are based upon both privilege and responsibility. “We are called to be free but must not use our freedom as an excuse to do whatever we want to do.”

I’m gripped by the little boy whose mother was glad that he had been out from under her feet. But then, he came to her and asked, “Mom, what can I do?” She hoped he’d continue to entertain himself. “Do whatever you want!” He answers her solemnly, “I’m tired of doing whatever I want to do.” This may encapsulate our biblical lesson.

Paul challenges the dead-end adventure of being left to our own selfish desires. Life gets smashed down when we are obsessed with what we can get rather than give. Our mind becomes cluttered with hatred, quarrelling, rivalry. “If we go on fighting one another, tooth, and nail, all we can expect is mutual destruction.”

We are best defined and made free by God’s Spirit whose gifts are:

“Love, affection for others.
Joy, exuberance for life.
Peace, serenity and well-being.
Patience, a willingness to hang in there.
Kindness, creatively loving something into shape. Goodness,
because all people are created in God’s image!
Faithfulness, defined by our commitments.
Humility, not needing to force our way.
and Self-Control, able to direct our energies wisely.

Paul tells the young church they are most free to serve one another in love (v. 13) because “love measures our stature; the more we love, the bigger we are. There is no smaller package in all the world than that of a person all wrapped up in herself or himself.” (William Coffin). It is a good day when we create an environment of love.

How Do I Love You?
By Mary Oliver

How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily, Perhaps
I may elaborate by

Demonstration? Like,
this, and
like this and

                 no more words now