A Free Life in God

We CAN find God in church, despite its flaws and failings, when we focus on love, not law

Written By Eyleen Farmer


I’ve had my share of arguments with the Church. I’ve been bored enough to make grocery lists on the back of the bulletin; angry enough to stomp out in a huff; hurt enough to leave in a flurry of tears. Some of you may be shocked to hear this, but my guess is that I’m not the only one here who has ever felt this way.

Even my granddaughter, who is only five years old, has days when she would rather stay in her p.j.’s and play than get dressed and go to church. A few Sunday mornings ago, she told her mom, “I don’t like God, I don’t like Jesus, I don’t want to learn about them, and I wish church never existed!”  Caroline of course is only the youngest in a very long line of church detractors.

In fact, it’s rather trendy these days to bash the church, along with religion and even God. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and The End of Faith by Sam Harris have both been best sellers. And Christopher Hitchens’s book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is currently number three on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. For Hitchens the falsity of religion is “blindingly obvious;” he calls those of us who cling to belief in God “morons, lunatics or liars.” (NYT review)

It’s too bad, but an undeniable fact, that the church so often lets us down. It disappoints, frustrates, infuriates. It betrays, wounds, and bullies. In its long, tortured history the church has more often than not been timid in the face of injustice, self-protective in the face of threat, and arrogant in the face of challenge. One Victorian poet (Algernon Swinburne) bitterly referred to the Church as the “leprous” bride of Christ.  

Collecting evidence against religion in general and the Christian church in particular is easy enough. You don’t have to know very much at all about history to click off the sins of the Church—Crusades, Inquisitions, and witch-hunts for starters. The greedy corruptions that fueled the Protestant Reformation, the misuses of scripture to justify slavery and the exclusion of women; more recently, abuse scandals and battles over homosexuality. Hitchens argues that we would be better off if God would just leave the world alone and quietly totter off to a retirement home somewhere. (NYT Sunday Book Review, May 13, 2007)

Arguments with the church and within the church are as old as the Church itself. In today’s lesson, Paul is a contender in what we might call the “first fight” in the Church. And he is furious. Eavesdropping on the controversy is a little tricky because we can’t know exactly what or to whom Paul is responding. As one scholar (Garry Willis in What Paul Meant) puts it, “We hear (Paul’s) raised voice without knowing what the other side is shouting.” (p. 6)  But we can surmise that accusations and counteraccusations are flying.

On one of his missionary journeys, Paul preached to the Gentiles in Galatia—so convincingly that they responded with joy. He baptized the new converts and went his way, confident that these new communities were “running well.” (5:7) But then, another group of missionaries, Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, come along behind him and try to persuade the fledgling Galatian communities that they need to observe the Jewish law, including circumcision. They accuse Paul of watering down the gospel and preaching what the pagans want to hear. Paul gets wind of it and the result is this letter, a part of which we read today.

Paul’s counters the charges against him with a passionate rebuttal: “They are so wrong!  How could you fall for that nonsense??!” Then, in the verses immediately preceding our reading, Paul actually pronounces curses on his detractors! Twice!

At this point, it may strike you, as it did me, that the Apostle Paul, writing somewhere around 50 AD, and Christopher Hitchens, writing in 2006, sound very much alike. Both are angry, argumentative, and passionate. They are incensed, and they don’t mince words. Paul’s letter has been called “a lava flow of heated language.” (Willis, p. 7)  And Hitchens has been likened to the “village atheist, standing in the square, trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church.” (NYT review)  Ironically, these two men, one the unapologetic atheist puffing on his cigar, the other a lover of Christ who would later die a martyr’s death, actually agree on at least one thing, and that is their indictment of rule-bound religion.   

Eugene Peterson, begins his introduction to Galatians in The Message with these words: “When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting or keeping them ‘in their place.’”  Putting the same idea in a different way, Katherine Jefferts Schori, in an interview just this week (with Bill Moyers) said, “The desire to control access to the sacred is one of the basic human failings.”

And that is what Paul’s outraged letter to the Galatians is about. It’s about how we so often spoil and misuse the beautiful and grace-filled gift offered to us in Christ Jesus—freedom from the burden of religious laws that we cannot keep. Not anything-goes-freedom to do whatever we please or have whatever we want. Not the freedom to strong-arm others into believing like we do. Not even the freedom to snub our noses at authority and make up our own individual belief systems. But freedom, as Paul puts it, from “the present evil age.” 

Freedom from the bondage of fear and guilt, sin and death. Freedom from our past failures and freedom to change, no matter how deeply ingrained our habits of mind and heart may be. Freedom to take risks, to be daring and bold. Freedom to live into the promise that God intends for every one of us.

This world-shaking, life-changing freedom renders the difference between pagan and Jew irrelevant. Circumcised/uncircumcised—makes no difference. Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian—doesn’t matter. What Paul came to understand in his encounter with the risen Christ, the insight that turned his life upside down, that changed him from a “zealous persecutor” of the Jesus followers into a Jesus follower is that religion itself is a human concoction and a pale substitute for the law of love which is the love of God.  

In Paul’s day there were no structures or hierarchies, nothing that could be called “The Church.”  The gospels had not been written, there were no creeds or sacraments. Just small communities of believers coming together in Jesus’ name to encourage and care for one another, share a common meal and say their prayers.

So, why are we here? Why do we continue to cast our lot with the broken body called the church? We come here, of course, for all kinds of reasons. But I can tell you that I am here because the freedom of which Paul speaks, living into the law of love, is more demanding, more difficult by far than following rules. I’m here because I know I can’t do it on my own, no matter how hard I try. I’m here, we’re here, because we need each other, because when we come together to say our prayers and share a common meal, we make love possible. Because here is where we have the best chance to grow into what Paul called “the full stature of Christ.”

To say that the church is troubled, that it fails to live up to the claims made on its behalf, that it wounds us as often as it heals us, is a stunning understatement. And yet…the One whose body we are just might show.

Were Caroline to share her protest of the church with Jesus, I imagine that he would smile, perhaps even thinking to himself, “I know; sometimes I get tired of the church too and all that it does in my name.”  He might tell her, as did her mom, to put on her dress and get to church, but I think it is just as likely that Jesus would get down on the floor with her to play—showing her how to cherish her spirit as deeply as he does.


This sermon was originally delivered June 10, 2007 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, TN.