So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free.
(Gal. iv. 21)
The theme for the Fourth Sunday in Lent is liberation and freedom. And our lections for that past three Sundays have been leading us up to this point. On the First Sunday in Lent, we learned that Jesus Christ was tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebr. iv. 15) What we found, I hope, was that the first step on the road to freedom was Christ’s willingness to be tried and tested as we are. We are tempted, and so was He. He resisted the temptations and desires to do the same in and through us. On the Second Sunday of Lent, we learned that when we become faithful and loyal dogs which need the crumbs that fall from the Jesus’ table, we shall discover a humility that opens our hearts to God’s healing power. And last Sunday we learned that eating the fragments of Christ’s Word is meant to grow into a persistent habit through which our hearing and keeping the Word move and define us. In sum, then, we are undertaking a difficult and daunting work or labor that will lead us into freedom. The problem is that we become obsessed with our own good works and not with the faith in God’s Grace. We are tempted to forget that it is faith in God’s promises that liberates us and sets us on the road to true freedom.
St. Paul is very much aware of this pernicious proclivity in the human heart, and he addresses it head-on in this morning’s Epistle. In his case, what he finds is that Judaizing Christians are threatening the spiritual freedom of his flock. Judaizing Christians were early believers who taught that strict adherence to the Jewish Law was essential to the success of salvation. Being Jewish, God’s chosen people, and the Elect were more important to them than faith in Christ’s redemptive power. They believed that circumcision, dietary regulations, and the ceremonial Jewish Law were necessary for salvation. So, in effect, moral and ritual customs were as essential to them as faith in Christ and the work that His Grace. The end result was that Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit were put into a kind-of Old Testament strait-jacket and put on only when they did not conflict with the Law. But St. Paul knows that devotion to the tradition of the Law can never sanctify or save a man. He uses an allegory drawn from the life of Abraham to show these Jewish Christians that they were behaving more like slaves than the free children of God. He uses the illustration of Hagar and her son Ishmael. You will remember that Hagar was Sarah’s slave-girl. She produced the bastard-heir Ishmael for Abraham before the time that he learned to trust fully in the Lord.
Prior to the conception of his children, when Abram was old, God promised him that he would sire an heir and that he would be the Father of children more numerous than the stars in the sky. (Gen. xv. 5) And so Abram and Sarai his wife got to thinking. They were old, childless, and beyond the age of conceiving a child. It was not that they had no faith, but their faith was weak and thus determined by the laws of nature. They were too earthly minded. And so they thought that in order to obey God and sire a child, Abram would have to mate with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar. So Abram did so, and Ishmael the son of the bond-woman was born. But Abram and Sarai’s natural and human solution to the problem of siring children was not God’s will for them. Abram and Sarai were enslaved to their own human ingenuity and the good work which they thought followed. But God had other plans for them and would elicit from them a faith in His promises that would make them the spiritual father and mother of many nations. Because of their increased faith, they would come together eventually and be made the parents of Isaac in their old age. What they learned was that faith in God alone generates true freedom from a fallen and limited earthly existence.
So St. Paul tells us that the early Jewish Christians were behaving more like Ishmael the son of the slave woman than Isaac the son of promise. And this because they were consumed with the Jewishness of Jesus and not with His liberating nature as the Son of God. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. (Ibid, 29) The early Jewish Christians were caught up in the flesh and not the Spirit. For St. Paul, these Jewish Christians saw Jesus as the apex, apogee, and acme of their own obedience to God through the [Law of] the flesh. They saw Him as the fulfillment of a long history of ceremonial obedience to God through the Law. But they did not see aright. What they could not see was that Christ had transformed the Law of commandments and observances into the Law of mercy, love, and transformative desire by becoming the truest expression of the new Law of Love in His own flesh.
But St. Paul is not content to leave it at that. He takes another turn in his allegory that he hopes will smother and suffocate Jewish ethnic and racial pride. He tells them that though Hagar was the slave mother of the slave child Ishmael –and thus of all the Arabic people, she is no different from the earthly children of Israel. A better translation than our Authorized Version reads that Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (Gal. iv. 25) For those who desire to be under the [old Jewish] law (Ibid, 21), there is no practical distinction between being an unsaved Gentile or an unsaved Jew. St. Paul has added insult to injury. He tells the Jewish Christians that though they are by birthright the children of Jerusalem, they are actually proving to be more the spiritual children of Arabia and that their coveted and cherished Mount Sinai is actually, in spiritual terms, an Arabic hill! As Monsignor Knox says, Mount Sinai, in Arabia, has the same meaning in the allegory as Jerusalem; the Jerusalem which exists here and now; an enslaved city, whose children are slaves. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 100) Both Jews and Gentiles live in bondage to nature and her laws or to the elements of this world. In other words, all men are born slaves and can become Christians only through faith in God’s promises. The historic Jerusalem is in bondage and can only find freedom in the spiritual Jerusalem of God’s kingdom. For, Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, 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. (Ibid, 26, 27) Sarah, well-stricken in years and barren by reason of nature’s laws, through Abraham’s faith, became the mother of promise. Mary, young and innocent, who was barren because she knew not a man, became the mother of the promise’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The faith of both looks forward to promises that are to be enjoyed in the liberation and freedom that is above creation in God’s own Kingdom.
My friends, this Sunday in Lent is called Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or in Latin, Laetare Sunday. The Latin from the ancient introit to the Mass is Laetare Jerusalem: O be joyful, Jerusalem. Today we are called to remember that our salvation comes to us only through faith in God’s promises. So as we continue our Lenten journey up to the Cross of Christ’s love, Mother Church desires to bring us out of slavery and into the freedom of new life. When we live as children of the bondwoman…born after the flesh…and in bondage, (Gal. iv. 23,24) under the elements of the world (Gal. iv. 3) doing service unto them which by nature are no gods (Gal. iv. 8), we are enslaved to Hagar and Ishmael. When this world’s natural attachments, human expectations, and earthly hopes consume us, we imperil and threaten the free operation of God’s Grace in our hearts. The problem is not with the world but with Christians who are too enslaved to it and thus are not being made free from above. This problem is not new. And, so, as St. Paul rebuked the ancient Galatian church long ago, he admonishes and reproaches us today. My little children, I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you….(Gal. iv. 19
Jerusalem which is above…free…the mother of us all. (Gal. iv. 26) For Christ to be formed in us, we must allow Him to work His redemption into our hearts. Let us remember that the earthly man, be he ever so pious, swithers, vacillates, hesitates, and halts, thinking all the while of what God’s gift of salvation might cost him. As Oswald Chambers writes: Some of us are trying to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God before we have sacrificed the natural. (M.U….Dec.10) The Law of Nature binds us to the old Law of sin. Sin’s hold on us must be confessed before true faith in God’s promises can have their effect. When we count the cost, we weigh and measure salvation over and against earthly gain and loss. Our father Abraham never counted the cost. Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Rom. iv. 3) The Blessed Virgin Mary never counted the cost. And her faith so filled her with all of God’s Grace that His promise was conceived in her womb and born into the world. The five thousand in today’s Gospel never counted the cost; their faith followed Jesus, and they were fed and filled.
If we would not count the cost, we must sacrifice the Ishmael in all of us today. Will we see that we must sacrifice the slave to nature in all of us so that we might become free man through faith in God’s Spirit? With St. Paul will we become sons of the freewoman through the deepest trust in the promises of God? If we do, it will cost us nothing less than everything. But such will seem a very small price to pay when faith’s reward will be the love of Jesus carrying us into perfect liberation that yields perfect joy in the Jerusalem which is above…free…[and] the mother of us all. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons