Whenever I read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I am reminded of the analogy made by the commentator Mary Hinkle Shore about its overall message:
“If you have ever returned a rental car, you have driven over those spikes that are made to ensure that the rental cars are not stolen out of the lot. The spikes collapse when you drive forward over them, but if you were to back up, the spikes would presumably stay upright and cause, as the sign says, “severe tire damage”. To read Galatians is to witness Paul trying to spare the damage caused by backing up. The Galatians are easing the car into reverse, and Paul is waving his arms and shouting, “No!”
For Paul, the specific issue was that the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians in the region of Galatia were being persuaded by the formerly Jewish Christians to “back up” intoOld Testament practices such as circumcision and strict observance of kosher rules about cleanliness in order to be accepted as members of this new movement. Paul saw all of this as being unnecessary—for him, their faith in Christ was enough to include them in their communities of faith.
When I read this letter with fresh eyes, I always realize again all of the ways we modern Christians can fall into the trap of moving backward rather than forward. Obsessing with where we have fallen short, where we have made mistakes, where we have failed to forgive others or ourselves—all of these are examples of how we can do damage to our spirits by always “backing up”. To use another “automotive analogy”, it is a dangerous thing to always be looking in the rear-view mirror instead of through the windshield!
During June, we will spend some time in worship on some crucial passages from this important and timeless letter. Specifically, we will see how Paul’s response to the threat to these new Christians is summed up by the phrase that appears over and over—that because of their faith, they have been given the gift of “freedom in Christ”. Through Paul’s words, we will see how Christ frees us from all of the things that hold us back in spirit and in practice. Further, we will celebrate this kind of freedom that instead of giving us the opportunity to do whatever we want, actually focuses us on new opportunities for service and witness. In other words, the bottom line of Paul’s message is that through Christ, we are freed to be the disciples he calls us to be!