Almost one year ago, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in church vocations from Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, TN, and started Asbury seminary last fall. I am in my second semester. I take 3 classes at a time, and this semester I am taking them all online, but I will have to travel to the Kentucky campus for about 1/3 of my classes. My goal is to be an ordained elder in full connection, which I figure, could be by the time my youngest starts college in 5 years!
I began to feel the pull toward ministry in the mid 1990’s, but did not get the “official Call” until 1999. It wasn’t until 2004 that I was given the push to actively pursuing my education. Up until that point, I was content and happy being a full-time wife and mom to our four kids. I often joke about not knowing what I wanted to be until I was 30!
This has been a very long process for me and I often wondered if I would ever make it, but during this time, I have learned that I need to be patient with God and trust his timing. When I look back to when he first called me, I can’t imagine why he did, because I was such a different person then. I have since realized that there was a lot I needed to learn and change before He could fully use me. God’s timing is always perfect.
I have been following Christ, for most of my life, but what I didn’t realize until about 4 years ago is that I was just like this group of Jewish Christians, called Judaizers that Paul warned the Galatians about in his letter to them. These Christian Judaizers were people who combined a commitment to Christianity with following certain Jewish practices to varying degrees. They followed some dietary laws, and other Jewish customs. They saw no contradictions in how they lived or had any issue with blurring the lines between Christian practice and Jewish practice. In other words, we could say that they lived a belief system more than they lived a life of faith because their life of so called faith was based on what they did more than on the grace of Christ.
The reason for Paul’s letter to the Galatians was because a group of Judaizers had infiltrated the church in Galatia that Paul had founded and they were trying to not only undermine Paul’s authority there, but also to persuade those Christians there that circumcision was required to be “right with God.” They were telling the people that a certain set of beliefs and practices were the only way to correctly serve God. Paul writes to dissuade them and remind them of what he taught them when he was there. Listen as I read Galatians 5:1-6 and 13-16 from the New Century Version of the Bible.
Paul says to them:
1 We have freedom now, because Christ made us free. So stand strong. Do not change and go back into the slavery of the law. Listen, I, Paul tell you that if you go back to the law by being circumcised, Christ does you no good. Again, I warn every man: If you allow yourselves to be circumcised, you must follow all the law. If you try to be made right with God through the law, your life with Christ is over—you have left God's grace. But we have the true hope that comes from being made right with God, and by the Spirit we wait eagerly for this hope. When we are in Christ Jesus, it is not important if we are circumcised or not. The important thing is faith—the kind of faith that works through love.
13 My brothers and sisters, God called you to be free, but do not use your freedom as an excuse to do what pleases your sinful self. Serve each other with love. The whole law is made complete in this one command: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If you go on hurting each other and tearing each other apart, be careful, or you will completely destroy each other. So I tell you: Live by following the Spirit. Then you will not do what your sinful selves want.
I said earlier that I was like those Judaizers. But how, you ask? I lived my life of faith according to what I did or didn’t do; what I wore or didn’t wear; what I listened to, or didn’t listen to; watched or didn’t watch. If I did A, B, and C, then I was okay and right with God, but if I didn’t then I felt guilty, not good enough, and that I didn’t deserve to be in God’s presence, or for him to hear me. I didn’t live in Grace, and I didn’t give Grace. I was very judgmental toward those that didn’t live as I did, and did not love people in a godly way.
Everything I did was based on my performance. I knew in my head that Jesus loved me, and I thought I knew all the right answers and believed all the right things I needed in order to be a “true Christian.” But, I was in bondage to myself and what I thought was right. The heart of what Paul was getting at, I was living. I was trying so hard to make myself right with God through everything I did that grace had no place in my life and Christ was of no use to me because I was doing it all myself, even though I spoke of what Christ did for me with all the right words.
Paul is very clear in his warning against “religious” practices and how they can enslave us without our realizing it. We cannot depend on outward expressions or inward determination to make us right with God. Our faith in those things, whatever they may be, will have the opposite effect and will cut us off from Christ. Paul warned the Galatians that if they try to be right with God through the law then Christ would be of no use and their life with Christ is over, they would essentially be turning their backs on grace…leaving it behind by trying to create righteousness by their own effort. The life of Jesus, all he did and taught, his love and his sacrifice would be pointless.
Listen folks! We can’t make ourselves right with God through anything we do or don’t do! God could care less about our own righteousness, and we can’t fool him with it anyway. He sees right through us. We may fool others with our “pious” attitudes and words on the outside when on the inside we are judgmental and unloving, but God can’t and won’t be fooled! Paul says in chapter 6 verses 7 and 8 that we should not be deceived because God cannot be cheated. People can only harvest what they plant. If they sow to their sinful selves, then harvest their sinful selves will bring them is ruin.
Those Galatian Christians needed to be reminded and we do also that Christ made us free! Free from many things, but in this context free from a performance-based attempt at a life with God. The good news Jesus brought is that this God we serve is not a God who we are to be afraid of and have to perform for in order to keep him from being mad at us. We are free from performing because this God loves us beyond our imagination! So we need to stand firm and not allow ourselves to be bound again to anything that takes us away from the grace and love that we have been given. To Jesus, none of that matters anyway, the only thing that matters is faith—which is trust, that works through love.
So, here I was, living my life and thinking I was doing well keeping myself righteous. I had no idea that I was in bondage to anything, but I also had never really experienced the full impact of Jesus’s love either. My bondage to my performance had built many walls around my heart and spirit that Love did not go in, and love did not go out except in very small, carefully chosen ways.
One amazing weekend while on a spiritual retreat, I experienced the love and grace of God in ways I never had before and the impact radically changed my life and my life with God! During this weekend, I was in amazement as I was served and loved by others that did not even know me. This caused the walls to slowly begin to crumble.
One night, God broke through and I was suddenly and completely free from my bondage to performance-based religion and was completely free to receive and give love! Free to truly and deeply love people that I had not truly loved before that weekend. Not just people I know, but also people I don’t know.
I was set free to rest—truly rest in the love and grace of God and not wonder any more if I was doing enough to keep myself on God’s good side. The guilt was gone! I was free to take care of God’s people with no strings attached, and to share God’s love with whomever I come in contact with because I can now see them as other people deeply loved by God, even if they can’t see it themselves. I am not perfect at it, but I have come a long way.
With this amazing freedom that God gives us through Christ we are called to serve each other—take care of each other with love…with God’s love. This is in direct contrast to what the Judaizers were trying to do by following the Law. They were missing the point of the Law entirely. The whole Law is made complete in two commands: “Love the Lord your God”… and “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is freedom! Free to truly love God and people the way God loves, and the way they need to be loved.
We are God’s representatives on earth to all of His people. They are his people, whether they know it or not. We are to care for them and love them so they may know God’s love and grace from us….not judgment or abandonment or rejection because of who we think they are…but love, grace, and mercy because of Whose they are.
I believe God is present everywhere and is always as close as our breath, but sometimes we need someone with skin and bones to love us. We are called the Body of Christ; we are to be his hands, and feet in the world, and we are also supposed to be his heart…gathering those who need him into our arms to be loved by him through us—arms with skin, bone, and blood, saturated with grace, fully empowered, and filled by God.
I think Christ set us free from everything that kept us focused on ourselves and our performance so that we could deeply love others instead. As long as we focus on only ourselves and only on our life with God, then there is no room for loving anyone else with any truth or depth. As people set free from that, we can pay attention to those around us who may need a piece of Christ—and the peace of Christ…someone who needs to be acknowledged, who needs to know that they are not forgotten; that they are loved—with no other motive, but love…pure unconditional love that only comes from God.
Through grace, Christ set us free to live a life of faith that works through love—a life of trust in God that is expressed through loving him and his people. Grace came down to us, and continues to come, and we live according to it in freedom…freedom from rule-keeping and performing…free to love others authentically. Free to be God’s representatives of grace and love through faith.
Now we must find that freedom and live in it; live in grace. It is never too late! Stand firm in faith and don’t rely on anything but the grace of God to make you right with God. Faith being lived out through love is the only thing that matters. God doesn’t care about anything else—to him, everything we have to offer in our own power to be right with him is worse than garbage (Isaiah 64:6).