Laughing with God at Legalism
Third in the series “Laughing with God”
This week, I came across some lists of strange and ridiculous laws that are still on the books around our country. Here are some of them:
- It is not permitted to eat fried chicken any other way than using your hands in Gainesville, Georgia. Really?
- Also relating to food: A pickle cannot be sold unless in bounces when dropped from a height of one foot in Connecticut. Apparently this protects against counterfeit pickles …
- In Indiana, you are prohibited from using public transportation or attending public events for four hours after eating garlic or onions.
- So after you’ve eaten, you’ll want to know this: It’s against the law to sell a toothbrush and toothpaste to the same customer on Sunday in Rhode Island.
- Then there are a few laws regarding animals: In Arizona, it’s illegal for a donkey to sleep in a bathtub.
- In Quitman, Georgia, chickens are not allowed to cross the road. Sure, the law saves poultry, but think about the poor budding comic-kids who can’t begin their careers telling chicken crossing road jokes.
- Closer to home, police are allowed to bite a dog if they think it will calm the dog down in Paulding, Ohio. Thinking about my dog, I’m pretty sure if someone bit him, he would not be any calmer.
- In Alabama, it’s against the law to drive blindfolded. Why do we need such a law? I mean, who ever thought driving blindfolded might be a good idea?
- It’s hard to imagine this one is still around. In Waynesboro, Virginia, it is illegal for a woman to drive down Main Street unless her husband is walking before the car waving a red flag.
- Fortunately we don’t live in North Carolina, where some of you would be under arrest because it’s illegal to sing off-key.
Can you believe such crazy laws are still around in our 21st century, technologically-advanced nation?
Laws help protect life and order a fair and just society. Schools, companies, even neighborhood associations have rules. When laws are well-considered, they can allow for a more enjoyable life. But, as we’ve seen, some are just down right laughable.
In our scripture reading today, we meet a church that is submitting to a set of rules that is outdated, like those we began with. It’s as though the church is about to stand outside with red flags.
Paul had visited the region of Galatia, preached to anyone who would listen, founded churches and encouraged Christians to live by God’s grace. He knew these people well, and they knew him and his message about God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
But, when Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians, they were being fooled. The church started its ministry and mission well. People were coming to know Jesus and his way, especially Gentiles. They were sharing life together, including the Lord’s Supper, and they were inviting others to hear about God’s marvelous work through a Jewish Messiah named Jesus Christ.
The new Christians opened their hearts to one another and followed Jesus authentically. Paul had taught them about God’s grace, and so they changed immoral behaviors in their lives. However, they were not following the pages of the Law found in the Old Testament and other sources beyond the Bible in the same way that Jews practiced the Law as part of their faith.
They were doing well, following Jesus without a lot of rules. They were living in God’s grace and not trying to gain God’s approval by following rules that were outdated.
But something went terribly wrong. A group of self-appointed God-representatives came to the region. They began to tell the Galatians that they were only halfway down the road to salvation, only halfway to being made right with God. In order to please God, they taught, the Galatians needed to fulfill the entire Law of God found in the Old Testament.
Practically speaking, they needed to change the foods they prepared and ate to only those allowed in the Jewish law. They needed to observe the Jewish religious feasts. They had to keep the rules regarding the Sabbath.
And, forgetting what Paul had taught them about grace, the Galatians bought it. These new teachers seemed so holy, so pure, so close to God. Besides, how could we have bought into the idea that God’s gift of salvation is free and available to all people? There are no free lunches in life, no free salvation. The Galatians were fooled.
So Paul, in his anger and frustration, wrote to the Galatians. In his letters in the New Testament, Paul always began with words of thanksgiving and encouragement to his audience. Except Galatians. Our scripture reading comes at the end of his argument about the role and function of the Law and the Spirit after Christ. It begins in chapter 3, with Paul addressing his audience with the words: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1)
Paul explained that God had established the covenant with Abraham and Sarah through faith (we heard about that in last week’s sermon). But Abraham and Sarah’s descendants behaved badly, so God gave the Law through Moses. The Law’s function was to point out sin and to discipline God’s people until Christ came and people were reconciled to God through faith. The Holy Spirit was given to guide Christians in living their lives as God desired, while reflecting on the Law. This was very different from these teachers who came after Paul and said that faith was the beginning but the Law was the foundation of our relationship with God. Let’s try an analogy.
Do you recognize this picture? What is it? A manual typewriter. Anyone here, besides me, learn to type on a manual typewriter? The manual typewriter was a great innovation. Eventually, computers with word processing software came along, and we put away our manual typewriters. Paul’s complaint is that the Galatians have been fooled into using their manual typewriters again. But in typing on the computer, we realize that it is far better than the manual typewriter ever was, and yet it fulfills everything that the manual typewriter wanted to be and more. Christians living under Christ and the Spirit live in fulfillment of the law, not contrary to it. And that is why living primarily under the Law is wrong.
Unfortunately, it is not only the Galatians who are fooled; often religious people are fooled by the message that there are rules to keep in order to be accepted by God. We’ve said that if you play cards, dance, drink alcohol, overeat, smoke, skip church, work on Sunday, read other than the King James Bible, raise your hands in worship or if you don’t speak in tongues, or don’t raise your hands in worship, or lots of other “don’ts,” then God won’t accept you, you can’t be forgiven, you can’t get your ticket punched to go to heaven. God can’t love you, not really, unless you keep all the right rules. That teaching and attitude cause guilt, shame, fear and anxiety in believers. That makes sense, right? Didn’t Jesus say, “I’ve come that you may have guilt and shame, and have it to the full”? Not at all! He said, “I’ve come that you have may abundant life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
One day Ralph, an 80-year-old farmer and faithful member of a church I was pastoring, called me. He was torn up with guilt and grief. It was hay season and it had been raining a lot. There had finally been enough days without rain for the hay to be dry enough to bale by the previous Sunday. Heavy rains were forecast again for that week, so he helped the tenant farmer on his land bale hay on that Sunday. Now, a few days later, he felt awful and was anxious and worried, because he had worked on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. “Should I have told my tenant I couldn’t help him as a faithful witness of keeping the Sabbath holy? Will God forgive me for breaking the fourth commandment?”
I knew that Ralph had gone to church all his life, read his Bible daily and was active in Bible studies and other church groups. So I reminded him of the times in the Gospels when Jesus healed on the Sabbath. He argued that the Sabbath was given to bless people, and not people to serve the Sabbath, so doing good on the Lord’s Day honors God. I reminded him that we’re called to love God and to love our neighbors, and affirmed that he had done that. His tenant had been loved by God through Ralph’s help, rather than his insistence on keeping the Law. He thought about it for a few days, and by the next Sunday, was grateful for the conversation and understood.
Can you think of some rules or actions that you believe are absolutely necessary for you to be loved by God eternally?
Here is the good news: The need to follow legalistic rules to please God has been fooled. Here is the heart of Paul’s message to the Galatians, indeed the heart of the Gospel he preached to the world. He wrote:
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (Galatians 2:15-16)
Rules can’t reconcile you to God. God has already made the way through Jesus Christ. Only faith in what God has done for you in Christ is needed for reconciliation. That is both the easiest and hardest part of the Gospel: God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit has done everything needed to be forgiven, set free from sin, and empowered to live in God’s presence now and for eternity.
You might be wondering, “If our good works aren’t needed to be forgiven by God, then why do them?” When Becky and I were dating, I sometimes did nice things for her, like give her flowers, or surprise her by cooking a special dinner for her. I did it, not to impress and earn her love, but thank her for loving and accepting me. Same with God. We do good works not to be accepted by God (because we’ve already been accepted when we trust Christ), but to express our gratitude for God’s amazing love and grace.
We also do good works to share the love of Christ with our neighbors and help them experience God’s grace.
Don’t be fooled like the Galatians were. Don’t give in to the temptation to keep extra rules and laws to try to earn God’s favor. Instead laugh with God at legalism. Keep your eyes fixed on the cross and live with gratitude and joy that you are loved and accepted by God in Jesus Christ.
 “The 22 most ridiculous US laws still in effect today”, http://justsomething.co/the-22-most-ridiculous-us-laws-still-in-effect-today-2/; “Here are 50 of the Dumbest Laws in Every State,” Readers’ Digest, https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/dumbest-laws-america/; Kara Ladd, “50 of the Craziest State Laws,” https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/news/g4039/crazy-state-laws/?slide=2.