Galatians 5:1, 13-26
Last week we began our history lesson. We started a series on the Congregational Way… Pilgrim’s Progress… in which we followed our spiritual ancestors from the very beginning of their movement. From the whispers and dreams of a world that held freedom of worship while they were still in England, to them loading up everything they owned onto a boat, said goodbye to their family, and set off to their new promise land. And we left off our story, when the Pilgrims, a faithful band of Separatist, arrived off the coast of Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. So this is where our story will pick up this morning.
Because of frequent storms during their voyage on the Mayflower, the pilgrim’s didn’t hit their target. They were sailing for Virginia. But they ended up quite a ways north of there, off of the Massachusetts coast. This presented a bit of a problem, because the Pilgrims had permission, a charter, from King James, the king of England, to colonize a part of Virginia! They did not have permission to colonize Massachusetts Bay. So they had a big decision to make… Do they stay aboard the ship, travel along the coast until they find the Hudson river, as was the original plan… or do they go their own way? … After attempting to travel down the coast, and nearly shipwrecking themselves… they decided to proclaim self-governance! Which is a really big, groundbreaking deal for this time! Aboard the ship on November 11, the Mayflower Compact was signed, establishing the pilgrims as an autonomous body. … And it is interesting who actually signed this document! All the men did, naturally, but also the male servants as well. A few families on board the ship had servants, and they brought they along. So it was both slave and free that signed the document! Very new and profound stuff!
This autonomous, or self-governing, band of Christians began to refer to their way of governing and worship (which were very much so tied to each other) as the Congregational Way! You see, Congregationalism was an early experiment in democracy! These people aimed to create a model for a just society lived in the presence of God. Their leader, John Winthrop, said that “we shall be as a city upon a hill … the eyes of all people upon us.” And indeed they were… They embraced equality, both slave and free; they considered the welfare of the individual while working together as a collective whole! This was really new stuff, and in the years that followed this concept would spread like wild fire! I’ve read that the Mayflower Compact, the document that got this all rolling, was a predecessor to the Declaration of Independence.
Now, to sort of get back on track here… if any of you have been to New England in the late fall, you will know that the weather is a bit unpredictable…. And you may be thinking that building a new colony during the winter months would be extremely difficult… if not nearly impossible. So for the first month after they landed, they lived on the ship… and they would go ashore during the day to scout out the land, to start clearing it, and to begin building the colony. And at night they would return to the ship.
But winter that year was a particularly harsh one, and they clearly did not have the proper food rations that they would need in order to make it through… so about half of the pilgrims died that first winter there… there were only 52 people left when spring came. But thankfully, in the spring their neighbors, the Wampanoag tribe, took pity on them, and taught them how to cultivate, grow, nurture the soil; how to store and preserve food for the winter… so they would never have to experience such a devastating season ever again. And it is this act of mercy that we celebrate every year in November on Thanksgiving Day!
From that point on the Colony thrived! They now had the skills to live and sustain themselves (thanks to the Wampanoag) and they had a new form of governance in the eyes of God that was growing and becoming more and more relevant and necessary everyday! So their numbers grew, and new bands of believers seeking freedom to worship joined them year after year!
Because of the Congregationalist value of equality, and the freedom of the mind and heart… they would grow to value, deeply…education, so they founded some of the first colleges and universities in America! Including Harvard in 1636 (just sixteen years after their landing), Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst… just to name a few… and later on… Oberlin, Beloit, and Pomona…
And in the centuries to follow… they would ordain into ministry the first African Americans, Lemuel Haynes being the first in 1785.
And the first women!
And as a note on the ordination of women… In many protestant churches today, women clergy are more and more common (as you can see in front of you today). And although many people think that the ordination of women has just happened in our lifetime… but the Congregationalist have been ordaining women for over 160 years. In 1853, Antoinette Brown, at the age of 28, was ordained in a small church in South Butler, NY. She was the first ordained in our tradition, and for that matter… the first in any major Protestant denomination. Sadly she left the ministry after just a few years because of doctrinal doubt… but nonetheless she was the first of us! In the 30 years that followed her ordination, only four women entered ordained ministry. But by the turn of the century that number had hit 49, by 1920 it was 67… and today about a third of all clergy in the Congregational tradition are female.
In the years to come, Congregationalist would be at the forefront of the Abolitionist movement, along with the Quakers, pioneer the first foreign missions, they would lead the Temperance movement which lead to the Prohibition in the 1920-30s which is a bit debatable, they would start the Social Gospel movement, which opened some to the first trade schools, and work houses for immigrants in the growing United States, they introduced the first welfare, and free medical clinics. Our spiritual ancestry has been busy! Really busy! Our Pilgrim parents have been following and doing the Lord’s work for centuries!
This is all thanks to the audacity of a band of Separatists that valued Freedom! Or more specifically freedom to go after the Spirit! This notion of Freedom is perhaps the most difficult of all the Congregationalist values to wrap our minds around… But it is that, that what our Scripture addresses today…
Read Galatians 5:1, 13-26
One of the interesting things about reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is that the people of Galatia are in trouble! A little earlier in the letter it states, “Oh you foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”
They are getting in trouble because they have let “the law” get in the way of their faith in Christ. Now, Christianity was a new movement at the time, this was only a few decades after the death and resurrection of Christ, and the reigning religion of the day was that of the Israelites, Judaism. But the faith of many Jews had become very legalistic, and most especially in Galatia. They followed the Law of Moses to a T, being a “law-abiding Jew” was an act of worship. But the problem is, is that the Laws of Moses are extensive! Most of these rules regard controlling the flesh and how to live among each other. But when these rules and lessons aren’t regarded in the right way they can grow to become something other than worship. They can become a distraction. Back when the Jewish faith was new and fresh… the rules were really important. The Israelites had to learn how, and why, and what to do to follow God. Just like we have to learn how to read, write… before we compose! The rules have a purpose, certainly… but in this place in time… the rules had lost their context and had lost their purpose… They became a harsh social standard… When we keep in mind that many of the first Christians we converts from the Jewish faith… we can see that they would have struggled with letting go of the legalism.
So Paul states, “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.”
I was a coral performer back in college… and one of the things I was always getting yelled at about by my conductors and instructors over the years is that my head was in the music. I would have my eyes down, on the sheet music, totally focused on the black and white… that I would forget to lift my head, and hear the music, and feel it led me along. This is what Paul is saying here, “Get your head out of the music!” Paul is telling the Galatians to forget about the rules! Look up! Walk by the spirit! Lift up your head, look towards the Spirit and follow. When we look done, when we get focused on the black and white, when we get all caught up in the details… then we forget about the big picture! We forget about the Spirit! About God’s work and movement in the world!
A little earlier in the Galatian text it states, “By works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” Meaning that no one could attain eternal life without divine help, not by our works, acts, behavior alone. And now, we have the ultimate of all divine help, which came in the form of Christ’s death and resurrection. If they looked up from the music, they would see it!
This act of letting go and looking up… is freedom! As Christians they are not bound to the legalistic ways of their Jewish brothers and sisters. They didn’t/ and couldn’t earn God’s attention or favor … But they have freedom to have a direct relationship with God! Not to have to Earn one! How great is that!!!???
And to prove to them, these Christians of Galatia, that they didn’t need to be defined by the rules anymore… Paul drops a spoiler on them, He says “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”… Love your neighbor! And love yourself! That’s what it all boils down to!
Look up! Walk by the Spirit and the concerns and sins of the flesh won’t matter anymore. There will be no more immorality, or debauchery, jealousy, rage… The Spirit has a way of pushing all of that out of our hearts and minds.
But by looking up… the Spirit will bring you love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the fruits, the gifts that come from, walking in the Spirit.
This is freedom! And it brings us to a place of being able to truly love our God, and love our neighbors… We need all those fruits that were mentioned to thrive in community!
But Paul does issue a warning in this passage as well. “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” This is a freedom that requires responsibility. As Spiderman would say… “With great power, comes great responsibility!”
Freedom in Christ is not license to abandon the rules, to abandon all that we have learned, just as a singer can’t abandon the music on the page… For it is a responsible freedom that leads to a holy life. We let go of the rules and the law as a distraction… but we still carry their value in our hearts.
You know, Congregationalism is better defined as a movement than a denomination. And it is a movement that was built on this looking up idea.
Looking up to see God at work in the world around us!
And I know that I’m making our way of doing church sound like the best thing since slice bread… don’t get me wrong, it has its challenges. But to me, it really is the best thing since sliced bread! When we are keeping in step with the Spirit…I believe, that we should not be afraid of anything God sends our way, anything that God places in our path. We have the freedom to ask questions of God. We have the freedom to look around, see God at work in our society and join in. We have the freedom to walk in the light as the Spirit moves. And we have the freedom to know and embrace that this looks different for all of us. And yet maintain fellowship with each other in light of that!
We all are in different places in our spiritual walk. We all express our faith differently. And that is fine and good! We have the freedom to just be in relationship with our God. We may have heard in our lives… that there is only one right way to do church. One single right way to be a Christian… That is the legalism that we have left behind. Thank goodness.
Looking back at the history of the church. God has placed things in our path that has caused great fear. Big things that have shaken our foundation. Things that ask us to reckon with slavery, equality, justice. You have a new thing thrown into your path with having me stand at this pulpit. I’m the first female minister this church as seen or will ordain. I’m sure some of you are reckoning with that.
The gift hidden between the lines here, is that when we reckon, when we ask questions, when we discern… God is jumping with joy! Because we are actively engaging our God… rather than just following the motions… clinging to the rules…
Our church, our movement, is founded on the radical principle that we believe, that we have faith in the truth that the Spirit came, and is among us, actually leading us, guiding us, and bringing us together in truth and unity! That is a radical idea my friends! I pray that we embrace it everyday! Before we step out our door. That we rejoice in the freedom to walk in the way of the Spirit! To serve God, to serve each other. But remember, with great freedom comes great responsibility. AMEN.