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 from the slavery of sin. Our lections for the 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 by Satan as we are. He resisted the temptations to sin through an act of free will that rejected slavery to all false gods. On the Second Sunday of Lent, we reduced ourselves to becoming loyal dogs which eat of the crumbs that fall from Jesus’ table because our freedom is found in faithful submission to God alone. And last Sunday, we learned that eating and digesting the fragments from Christ’s table means establishing the habit of hearing and keeping God’s Word which alone can free us from bondage to all demons. In sum, then, we are undertaking a difficult and daunting labor of liberation from all that separates us from the knowledge and love of God. The problem is that we become obsessed with our own good works and not with faith in God’s Grace. We are tempted to forget that believing in God’s promises alone liberates us to walk 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 salvation. For these Christianized Jews, following the Law seemed more important than faith in Christ, God’s own sacrificed Lamb and our Redeemer. They believed that circumcision, dietary regulations, and the ceremonial Jewish Law were necessary for salvation freedom. So, in effect, the ritual traditions of Judaism competed in their hearts with faith in Christ and the work of His Grace. The result was that Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit were subject to the Law. But St. Paul knew that devotion to the tradition of the Law could neither free nor save a man. If the Jewish Law had been able to save a man, there would have been no need for Christ’s dying on the Cross to save us all!
St. Paul uses an allegory drawn from the life of Abraham to show that these Jewish Christians 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 the slave of Abraham’s wife Sarah. She produced the bastard-heir Ishmael for Abram. 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 not strong enough to trust in what seemed naturally improbable, if not impossible. They were too earthly-minded and in bondage to this world. They thought that the only way for Abram to sire a son would be to mate with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar. Abram did so and Ishmael the son of the bondwoman was born. But Abram and Sarai’s premature jumpstart on fulfilling God’s promise was wrong-headed. Abram and Sarai were enslaved to their own human ingenuity and the good work they thought they could conceive. They had not found the freedom that is the fruit of faith in God’s Word. 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 in God’s Grace, they would eventually sire Isaac in their old age. They learned that faith and not human ingenuity is the virtue that trusts in God’s power to fulfill His promises.
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. Because they were more consumed with reason and human wisdom and not with God’s supernatural power in Jesus Christ, they were enslaved to the flesh. 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 allowing their flesh to enslave 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 were in bondage to Abraham’s obedience to God as the father of the Law and did not see their slavery. They could not see that the Law given to Abraham’s descendent Moses was the Law of Sin and Death. They could not see that the Grace of God in Christ alone could hear the Law, endure its Sin and Death, and conquer both.
But St. Paul is not content to leave it at that. He takes another turn in his allegory that he hopes will eradicate Jewish bondage to the flesh. 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 distinction between being a Gentile or Jew who is still enslaved to the Law of Sin and Death. St. Paul has added insult to injury. He tells the Jewish Christians that though they are by birthright the children of promise and the New Jerusalem to come, they look much more like the earthly children of Arabia, and that their cherished Mount Sinai is no better than 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 the elements of nature and her laws. They do so because all men are born slaves to sin.
They can become Christians only through the freely willed act of faith in God’s promises. 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 and freedom. Mary, young and innocent, who was barren in the sense that 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 are found in God’s own Kingdom.
My friends, this Sunday in Lent is called Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or in Latin, Laetare Sunday. The Latin is 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 faith. 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 like Hagar and Ishmael. When this world’s natural attachments, human expectations, and earthly hopes consume us, we imperil and threaten the free operation of faith in God’s Grace. The problem is not with the world but with Christians who are too enslaved to it and thus are not being made free through faith 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…is 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. To allow that work to begin, we must freely desire that God’s Grace in Christ might become the Law of our lives. We should go up with Christ to die on His Cross. 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 enslaves us to the old Law of sin. For this reason, we must pray that Christ may be formed in us. (Idem) As we follow Him up to the Jerusalem of His Cross, we must abandon ourselves to faith in His desire to conquer the Law of Sin, Death, and Satan. Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Rom. iv. 3) Jesus believed that only by the pure sacrifice of His whole life to God, in enduring Sin and Death, could He conquer them both and turn Sin to Righteousness and make Death the seedbed of the New Life. Jesus’ victory over Sin and Death alone opens the way to New Life and freedom with God our Heavenly Father.
Cast out the bondwoman and her son. (Gal. iv. 29) Will we journey from earth to heaven, from Mount Sinai to Jerusalem in Jesus? Will we faithfully follow Him up to His Cross to find that as He pours out His Blood for us, Sin and Death have no power over Him? Will we approach the Gateway to Heaven, to Jerusalem which is above…free…[and] the mother of us all, and which earnestly longs to free us by Law of God’s Love in the Heart of the Crucified Wounded Healer? In Christ on His Cross, we believe that our bondage to Sin and Death is conquered. Sin could not stop Him, Death would not keep Him down, and Satan was rendered powerless. His Cross alone leads us to freedom.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: