When people say religions are all the same, they usually mean that their ethical rules are alike. That’s not quite true but there is a great deal of overlap. As you may have heard, most but not all religions have some form of the Golden Rule. Usually it is negative: don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you. In a few religions, it is stated positively, namely to treat others as you wish to be treated. In comparative religion, it is called the Ethic of Reciprocity. You might also call it applied empathy. It’s a pretty basic moral rule and can be arrived at independently without reference to any theology.
So why do we have different religions and theologies? Why not just live by that rule? Of course that begs the question: why don’t we in fact live by a rule most of us see as the proper thing to do?
The answer is hinted at in an episode of Doctor Who. When one of his companions is kidnapped, the Doctor comes up with a very clever plan to get her back. The villain behind the plot sneers that it will be easy to defeat the Doctor because good men have to obey the rules. To which the Doctor replies, dangerously, “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”The Doctor would find himself in agreement with Paul. A truly good person doesn’t need rules. And the letter to the Galatians, which we will be reading in our lectionary for the next several Sundays, explains why.
If you read enough of Paul’s letters, you notice that the opening of this one is different. It’s shorter, curt, and there’s no thanksgiving for the church he’s writing to. And it’s because he's upset. He needs to straighten up a big problem that has arisen among the Galatian churches. A group of Jewish Christians have been casting doubts on Paul’s apostleship and his characterization of the gospel. They feel that Gentiles who become Christians should be bound by the rites of the old covenant; in other words, the Gentiles had to get circumcised and follow Jewish law.To Paul this totally negates the gospel, the good news that because of Jesus’ sacrifice God saves us by his grace alone. If God declares one righteous, one doesn’t need to try and earn that through rites and rituals. In essence by requiring Christians to observe and perform these rites, Paul’s opponents are saying Jesus’ death was not sufficient to save us. We need to add these other things to complete our salvation, according to them.
So Paul, you notice, beginning with his greeting, asserts his God-given authority as apostle and the fact that his gospel is one of grace, based on what God in Christ has done for us on the cross and on Easter morning.If you’ve been active in our Bible Challenge, you’ve been going through the narrative portions of the Old Testament. And some parts are extremely difficult to read. God saves his people again and again and they betray him again and again. And it’s not like he doesn’t warn them over and over about the penalties of following other gods. So God comes off as frequently angry and scolding and punishing, rather like the parent of children in their terrible twos. But the Israelites are not little children. They have the law. But merely having or knowing the law doesn’t save you, or else all lawyers would be moral paragons. Paul as a zealous Pharisee knew firsthand how our perverse natural impulses can even turn the law into temptation. So Paul finds freedom, not only from sin but from the law, in God’s grace through simply trusting in him. To Paul, trying to save yourself by following the law is futile. It’s like trying to fix a broken leg through vigorous exercise. You need to go to a doctor and get the leg taken care of properly. It may even need to be rebroken so it can set properly. I couldn’t fix my neck and head pain with Excedrin and a soft cervical collar at bedtime any more. I needed to go to a surgeon who could remove the extruded discs and replace them and use marrow and stem cells from my pelvis and put in a titanium plate. I’m free from the pain now. I wish I had done it years ago.
Luther found relief from the pain of his acute awareness of his imperfection and sinfulness when he was assigned to teach Galatians. He had been trying to save himself through following the rules of his monastic order, frequent confession and even self-mortification. Discovering in Galatians and Romans that we are saved by grace through faith was a pivotal moment for him and indeed for the church at large.Just like I had to be fixed by a surgeon, so our sin-damaged lives have to be set right by God. We can’t do it ourselves. In fact, we can make things worse, such as walking on a broken leg. Paul was not, as his critics charged, trying to please Gentile converts by loosening the requirements of salvation; he was protecting a vital truth. Our salvation doesn’t depend on ourselves but on God. That means, among other things, that our salvation is in better hands than our own. If God is who we rely on, rather than ourselves, we can be assured that our standing with him is secure. As Paul says in 2 Timothy, “if we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” God's very nature of love is to be faithful. That’s why he never totally abandons Israel despite their sins. He is faithful. His name, which he gives Moses at the burning bush, can be translated “I will be there for you.”
All of our sins with which we have alienated ourselves from God have been dealt with by Jesus on the cross. Therefore we need not add any rites or practices to make ourselves “extra” saved. Once the doctor has brought you back with a defibrillator, you needn’t try to give yourself chest compressions to make sure you are “more” alive. Once saved from drowning and returned to dry land, you can stop dog paddling. Paul’s opponents were mistaking pre-op procedures for the surgery itself.
After the discovery of insulin but before researchers came up with a form that could be given to human beings, people were still dying from diabetes. Some patients, realizing that insulin was in the pipeline, tried to last until it was available by going on a dangerous diet. It was known that diabetics could not properly use the carbohydrates found in foods and that it was the buildup of unprocessed glucose in their blood caused a lot of the damage to their organs. So one doctor conceived of a diet in which the patients lived on a bare minimum of food and thus kept their blood sugar low. But it was so extreme that it put them at risk of malnutrition and even dying of starvation. Still it offered hope to those, especially young people, who knew a much better solution was just around the corner. Many survived to see the birth of insulin treatment and the possibility of a diabetic living a fairly normal life. But what if, after they were given insulin, they continued to eat next to nothing? That would negate the benefits that insulin was designed to give them.Before the coming of Christ, circumcision and the dietary laws and the rituals of temple-oriented Judaism were the way for God’s people to deal with their sins. But now that Jesus had taken away their sins once and for all, they didn’t need to keep doing all that. The cure was here! Why keep acting as if it weren’t?
Of course, Paul was then accused of saying that since we need not and cannot do anything to save ourselves, that we need not do anything after being saved. Since righteous behavior cannot save us, we don’t have to behave righteously at all. That’s like saying after the doctor replaces your hip, you need not follow his orders anymore. The problem is if you don’t follow his post-op orders, you will not get much advantage from your new hip.
I’ve seen patients do this. Because rehab is hard and painful, they make excuses, do few or none of the exercises and end up as wheelchair bound as if they hadn’t had their hip replaced. I’ve seen patients who having had heart surgery go back to the fatty and fried foods that had a hand in damaging their hearts in the first place. I’ve seen patients finish breathing treatments for their lung disease and then go outside to smoke. The doctor gave them life when they would have died but they continued to do things that limited the benefits of that life.Sin is not like an arbitrary penalty in a game; sins are attitudes and actions or inactions that threaten our spiritual health. We don’t behave better to save our lives but because, having been saved, we don’t want to do anything to compromise our new life in Christ but rather to enjoy it to its fullest.
And this is all due to God’s grace, his undeserved unreserved goodness towards us which we access by simply trusting him. We can trust him because he loves us. We know he loves us because of what he did in Christ. God became one of us in Jesus. He did what we should have but could not: he lived as one of us yet without sin. Then he took all of our sins, the sins on the whole world upon himself, let them die with him upon the cross and buried all our sins with him in the grave. Then he rose again, to bestow his life on us, new life, life unlimited by sin and the old rules meant to contain it.When our rehab is over, we will not need any rules. We will not need a reminder to do this or not do that. That will be second nature to us. And thus we return to what the Doctor in Doctor Who said about rules. The truly good person doesn’t need them. He lives by the Spirit and therefore naturally produces the fruit of the Spirit, namely love. And that love encompasses joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It only looks like the Spirit-led person is obeying rules to those who don’t understand how goodness can exist apart from them. Like someone who has only done one of those paint-by-numbers pictures might think that Da Vinci or El Greco or Michelangelo must have worked by an analogous process. I’m not saying they didn’t make sketches or plan things out but neither did they mechanically churn out their art by rigidly observing inviolable rules. Hitler did, though. His drawings and paintings were precise, realistic and devoid of life. He rarely included people, painting mostly buildings and landscapes dominated by buildings. Look them up and you can see why he couldn’t get into art school. There is a reason that we call great art inspired.
A good life is also inspired. The word “inspire” means “to breathe or blow into.” God inspires or blows into us his breath or Spirit. The Spirit animates our spiritual life as an idea animates an artist. The Spirit shapes our actions as the idea shapes the work the artist produces. A good artist knows when to follow the rules and when to bend them because the work demands it, just as Jesus knew when to violate the Sabbath in order to heal someone. And yet only someone with an uninspired and unimaginative mind, with an OCD-like devotion to the rules, would say Jesus was not a good man.
If you look at most religions, you see the same rules, the way a surgeon, a chiropractor and a natural foods advocate will all tell you to avoid fatty, salty and sugary foods and exercise more. But if you have a broken hip, following those rules won’t help you. You need to trust the surgeon and let him give you a new hip. Afterward you need to follow his rehab regimen. And eventually you will not need the wheelchair, walker or cane. You won’t need to check if you are placing your foot properly or shifting your weight correctly. You will walk without regards to the once helpful but now superseded rules. When we in trust give ourselves to Jesus, we are saved entirely by grace of Christ. He puts in us his Spirit and if we walk by the Spirit, we will eventually find ourselves free of our enslavement to sin and the law, free to be what God intended us to be, free to love him without limits.