A Sermon for Covenant
“Zealous to Good Purpose”
or, “How We Say It, Part 2”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
June 2, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Steve has been joking with me about what it would be like if I suddenly let loose with a hellfire and brimstone sermon. Can you imagine me pounding the pulpit, wiping the sweat from my brow with a handkerchief, stomping my foot and using religiously-appropriate scare words like hell and damnation? I imagine I could attempt all those theatrics and I still wouldn’t sound convincingly angry.
I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know I’m not much of a yeller, and I don’t enjoy listening to shouting of any kind either. I’m not the only one. Apparently it’s a trend among the millennial generation that we’re tired of shrill and polarized voices; we’re ready for everybody to just calm down if we’re going to talk to one another.
All that to say, Paul’s tone is a bit disconcerting. This is Paul’s epistle with the harshest tone, and as a person who is quite sensitive to tone, this is a text that can make me squeamish. Can’t we all talk a little bit nicer? “If anyone is preaching to you another gospel, let that person be under God’s curse!” he says, which is not only intense, it puts a lot of pressure on the preacher to get the Gospel right.
If you read further, the intensity builds. Paul says things like, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Are you so foolish? Have you experienced so much in vain?” “I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” Paul is upset because a group has infiltrated the Galatian church, insisting that the new Christians observe Jewish laws and customs, particularly circumcision. In response to the infiltrators, Paul says, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”
There is no doubt Paul is aggressive in this letter, and that can be a little disturbing to our modern sensibilities. Of course, Paul has always been a bit fiery. When he was Saul, he persecuted the church zealously; after his conversion to Christianity, this hardly lessened his fire, as Gena aptly pointed out during Lectionary Tuesday. Paul redirected his passion in a new way, but he hardly lost any of his zeal.
Paul knows firsthand the dangers of zeal gone awry. He has been a persecutor of the church himself in a terrible way. So, where’s his sympathy for these agitators? Is he ever afraid that he’s getting wrong all over again? Doesn’t he know how easy it is to be misled?
You would think a person like Paul might be afraid of zeal, after zeal went so badly for him the first time around. But he is just as intense as he was before (though he left the violence behind).
He explains what he thinks about zeal in chapter 4:17-20, “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!”
Zeal is fine, though you can hear how Paul doesn’t want to be using this tone with those he loves. The problem is zeal without good purpose, zeal that seeks to alienate, zeal that is seeking attention for itself rather than promoting the good of others.
It is hard when you’ve been burned by misguided zeal to recover a healthy and appropriate zeal. For Baptists emerging from the flames of fundamentalist controversy, this has certainly been the case. We’d rather be timid than find ourselves being tenacious for the wrong cause. We’d rather be overly polite than risk alienating people even further from the church and from the love of God.
Recovering a healthy zeal can be very unappealing, like an introvert attempting to speak at a rambunctious party. We’d rather run and hide than join the fray. I suspect you know what I mean, at least a little, or you wouldn’t be here, this off-the-beaten-path, calm and quiet church. We’d rather say nothing at all than add to the ruckus of warring factions and pushy evangelists who so often dominate the church scene. We’d rather cozy up to a prayerful posture of a near oblivious existence.
It is hard work to figure out what things are worth saying, and then to say them. It is hard to figure out what work is worth doing, and then to do it. But Paul reminds us of our responsibility to replace misguided zeal with a zeal that has been redeemed. This is not easy. There is so, so, so much disastrous potential for ending up on the wrong side of history, for sticking your foot in your mouth, for getting it wrong, for hurting when you meant to be helping, for enabling dysfunction when you wanted to be part of the solution.
Of course, I’ve said it before, and I’m bound to talk say it again, that I think how we say things can be just as important as what we say. I, for one, am glad Paul doesn’t always choose this tone in every epistle, because I’ve certainly encountered Christians who don’t seem to know any other tone but aggression. Still, Paul does choose this tone in this case, and it is worth examining why. Choosing when to get vehement is a tricky and potentially hazard business.
What is worth speaking up about and what is the essence of the Gospel that we want to preserve? These are crucial questions.
Unfortunately, they have less-than-clear answers. The Gospel matters, but let’s be honest, it can be hard to pin down just exactly what that good news is. For some it’s the Advent, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For others, it is a moral code of behavior. For some in Paul’s day, it included the adoption of Jewish custom. Today, for some is it a certain political agenda. For others, it is the good news of social justice. The Gospel has become for us a chameleon, changing to suit our background.
But what is at stake for Paul is the freedom we have in Christ. Here is the crux of the issue that he’s willing to fight for. You’ll notice the reason Paul is so upset at these agitators is because they are “spying” on the freedom these believers have in Christ, and trying to make them slaves to law and custom. It is freedom that is at stake.
Unfortunately, when people start fighting over their brand of the Gospel, freedom is often the first thing out the window. The freedom to relate to one another, the freedom to listen, the freedom to respect one’s own conscience, the freedom to interpret Scripture as one sees fit, the freedom to grow and morph and change, the freedom to be diverse, the freedom to converse.
When it all becomes a muddle between warring factions, ask yourself this: “Is it a gospel of fear or a Gospel of love, a gospel of enslavement or a Gospel of freedom, that is being presented to me?” And if gospel means good news, then good news as harbinger of fear hardly makes sense. Any gospel of fear is an oxymoron. The Good News of love, by contrast, is on target. So listen to the Gospel of love, every time. Distrust the language of fear every time.
With so many varieties of gospel competing for our attention, it is possible to get overwhelmed by the lot of them and underwhelmed by any one specific version. It’d be easier to retreat than to decide. Paul might make it seem easy with his seemingly confident, crafted letter, but as we already saw in chapter 4, Paul is in absolute agony, which he describes as “being in the pains of childbirth for you.” We might question whether he knows enough about such pains to use this metaphor realistically, but the point is, it wasn’t easy for Paul to write this letter, it wasn’t easy to decide what to say or how to say it. Speaking the truth is like trying to give birth to something precious—difficult and labored, but well worth it to keep going.
If you care deeply about getting it right (and you should), well, it’s possible you may never speak up at all, for fear of getting it wrong! Which means you’ve landed yourself right back into the “gospel” of fear you were trying to avoid, this one being the gospel of paralysis, the gospel of those-who-have-been-burned-by-the-plethora-of-competing-gospels.
So, there is a bit of paradox at play. You have to relax a little about getting it right if you want to have any chance of getting it right. You have to take the gospel seriously while not taking yourself and your opinions too seriously. You have to take a stand, while maintaining the absolute willingness for God to change your perspective. You must speak up, but you must listen well too and listen with just as much fervor as when you talk.
We put so much pressure on ourselves to get it right, to move from point A to point B with efficiency and finesse. But once I start moving anywhere, I get afraid because movement almost always entails some loss of control, and I start to worry: Am I flying off the handles, riding my bike without holding on, going where the wind blows? It’s all far less calculated than we might imagine, far less precise than we plan for. The spiritual life feels like it is all scurry and redirection, hustle and bustle, then milling and meandering. We scarce know where we are at, much less, where we are going!
What would it be like, to trust the wind, to ride instead of steer, to laugh instead of manage, to give thanks, to pay attention, to be moved by the Spirit of God this way, then that way, to remove ourselves from these straight-jackets of perfectionism, these shackles of fear, and these blinders of arrogance? How might we then live, enveloped in that freedom for which Christ set us free? The freedom to love both ourselves and our neighbor, the freedom to give with generosity not with stipulation, the freedom to take risks without fear of failure, the freedom to speak, the freedom to keep silence.
In the words of Saint Paul: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. The only thing that counts is faith, expressing itself through love.” Amen and amen.