Paul, the ex-Pharisee, asks the Galatians “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” And, listening to this question, I am struck once again by the profound change worked in the heart of this man who once took the law as the necessary and correct way to being in right relationship with God.
Saul would have said there is a set of rules, complex but clearly laid out, for those who seek righteousness. The way to God is to puzzle out the correct way to live these laws. They are so important that anyone who witnesses against them must be killed. Through them one can obtain salvation. Without them we are all doomed.
But the coming of Christ, Messiah and Son of God, obliterated this way of living in relationship with the Holy. Christ did not usher in a new set of regulations. Nor did he create a continuum of rule-following where some of the lesser or outmoded edicts can be thrown away but the really important ones must be kept. With Christ, the question of laws and the breaking of laws is set aside altogether. And this understanding is what transformed Saul.
So now Paul is scandalized by the Galatians wanting to get circumcised – not because he is against this practice per se but because he is horrified that his fledgling church believes that an act like this can make them right with God. They have been given the mystery of the Gospel message, and with it the Holy Spirit, a living presence in their hearts. It is this which gives life and heals.
Whenever I feel the tug to follow a rote religious path, whenever I trust in a prayer practice or a spiritual discipline for its own sake, whenever I have the vain desire to rank myself either up or down on some scale of spiritual enlightenment, may I remember the Galatians. Whenever I find myself musing about the worthiness of my occupation or my volunteer commitments, thinking about the words I spoke or didn’t speak and the tasks I either accomplished or left undone, may I remember Paul’s words to the church for which he cares so deeply.
Because it is not in doing these things that I find the voice in my heart which says, “you are the beloved child of God.” The kingdom lodges itself in my soul and begins to put down roots like bindweed regardless of how I behave.
This true absolutely. There is no merit system. There is just that glimpse of something of pure joy, fleeting and bright, up ahead or behind or off to the side of the path – something so valuable I would sell everything I owned to have it. There is only “believing what I heard.”
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado