The Fourth Sunday after Trinity
March 26, 2017
“Slavery and Freedom”
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the free woman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar; for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: "Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband." Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman." So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. Galatians 4:21-31
There are two religions that go by the name of Christian. One of them appears to be true but is false. The other appears to be false, but is true. Both versions of Christianity promise you spiritual freedom. This freedom begins here on earth and extends into eternity. It is the freedom of being children of God, set free from the power of the evil one. To be spiritually free means you don’t suffer under God’s judgment. You don’t fear death. You can rest secure and confident in God, your loving Father, knowing that he loves you and will move heaven and earth to bring you what you need in life.
The version of Christianity that appears to be true teaches that if you submit to God’s commandments and do your very best to honor and obey him, you may become good enough to achieve genuine spiritual freedom. It holds out for everyone the possibility of salvation. Do your part. Do it sincerely, and conscientiously. God is kind. He is full of love. He will help you along the way. And with you and God working together toward the same goal, you may someday find that spiritual peace and freedom you earnestly desire.
This version of Christianity is by far the most popular. It offers a wonderful reward for those willing to work for it. It praises virtue and provides a way for virtuous living to yield a crop of righteousness and goodness. It encourages good behavior by promising eternal life as a reward for it, but it always holds the promise just out of reach, so that people will not slack off in their efforts to live holy lives.
The other version of Christianity teaches that if you rely on your good works to find peace with God and spiritual freedom you will be cursed for your efforts. It teaches that God’s law curses everyone who doesn’t do everything it commands. All who rely on the law are cursed. This version of Christianity teaches that Christ willingly bore the curse of God’s law for us, and in this way he removed the curse from us. This means that the way to spiritual freedom is not by doing this or that or the other thing, but it is through faith in Christ. This is how the Holy Spirit sets us free from our sins. He brings us to trust in Jesus instead of ourselves. The Holy Spirit calls us by the gospel. The gospel tells us that all our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. Our good deeds do not set us free. They don’t help to set us free. In fact, they are only possible after God has set us free by his grace alone.
The false version of Christianity appears to be true and the true version of Christianity appears to be false. That’s because the false version of Christianity goes by what we can see and measure with our senses, while the true version of Christianity goes by faith in what we cannot see. The false version of Christianity praises the good works of its adherents. These are held up for the world to admire. The true version of Christianity trusts in the obedience and suffering of Jesus. But you cannot see this. You can only hear it and believe it. So the true Christians are always hidden. Their faith isn’t visible. It is hidden, often under a very unattractive exterior.
St. Paul wrote to Christians in the province of Galatia who were sorely tempted to embrace the false version of Christianity. They had been visited by false teachers who insisted that the Law of Moses was the pathway to heaven. After carefully explaining to them that it was through faith in Christ, not through obedience to the Law, that they became children of God and inherited eternal life and true spiritual freedom, he illustrated his gospel teaching by means of an allegory.
The Apostle Paul argued, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?” The word “Law” in the Bible is used to refer to God’s commandments. It is also used to refer to the first five books of the Bible, written by Moses. Here, Paul uses the word Law in both of these senses. He is saying, “You who want to become righteous before God by obeying the commandments of Moses, do you hear what Moses writes?” Then he proceeds to give us an allegory that illustrates the theme of this entire Epistle. By telling the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, St. Paul illustrates for us the difference between spiritual bondage and spiritual freedom. It is a wonderful lesson for us to learn today. So let’s take a look at this allegory.
An allegory is an historical event interpreted to illustrate divine teaching. The divine teaching that the apostle illustrates for us in this allegory is that we Christians are set free from our sins and become true children of God, not by what we do, but by faith in the promise of the gospel. Let’s review the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac.
God promised Abraham he would have a son. Sarah was his wife and she was barren. She couldn’t conceive. So she gave to Abraham her servant, Hagar, so that Abraham could have a son through her. He did. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Sarah remained barren. Hagar despised Sarah who was barren. She strutted around as if she owned the place.
Later, God promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah. At first she laughed. It was impossible. But God did the impossible. Sarah gave birth to Isaac years after she was incapable of conceiving a child. With God, nothing shall be impossible. Ishmael, who trusted in the flesh, despised Isaac, who was born according to the promise, just as his mother Hagar had despised Sarah.
Finally, Sarah had had it. She told Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. He did. He sent them away. They had no right to claim Abraham as husband or father, even though Ishmael was his firstborn and Hagar was his mother. It was Sarah who was the true mother and Isaac who was the true son of Abraham.
What this historical account illustrates is this. While those who rely on their own flesh and blood, their own abilities, their own visible strength, may appear to be the true Christians, they are not. Those who have nothing but the promise on which to rely don’t appear to be anything special. But the promise is all you need. To rely on anything other than the gospel promise is to embrace slavery.
And here is what we need to understand: the slave woman and her son are cast out. They appear to be in charge, but in fact, they don’t even belong. Old Sarah, dried out Sarah, pathetic Sarah, the old barren woman who couldn’t conceive, who couldn’t give her husband the one thing he wanted, who was despised by her own servant woman, who appeared to have nothing – this Sarah is the mother of a multitude. She is a princess. She is the mother of the faithful.
Hagar despised Sarah. Ishmael persecuted Isaac. Ishmael represents those who trust in the law given on Mt. Sinai. Isaac represents those who trust in the gospel of Christ’s vicarious suffering and death for our sins. Those who trust in the Law for their salvation persecute those who trust in the blood and righteousness of Jesus.
After feeding five thousand men, plus women and children, with just five small loaves of bread and a couple of fish, Jesus taught them about the bread of life. He is the bread of life who gives his own flesh and blood for the life of the world. He promises them what their own flesh and blood cannot give them. How can a sinner wash himself of his sin? He will only dirty himself further by trying. He must be washed in the blood of the Lamb. He must be acquitted by God’s grace alone. But as we read further in John’s Gospel, we see that most of those whose bodies Jesus fed did not want what Jesus offered. They trusted in their own flesh and blood, not in his flesh and blood.
So it is down to our day. Jesus is used as a prop to further the religion of human works. Religious people promote themselves and their deeds, believing that by doing good they are working their way to heaven. Ignorant of the true demands of God’s law, the holiness it requires, and the depth of their own sin, they imagine that they have obeyed the Ten Commandments. They even invent more commandments to obey, thinking that adding their own rules to God’s law will impress him.
What blindness! When Hagar looked down on Sarah, seeing nothing but a disappointed old woman, did she really think that her own flesh was better? St. Paul speaks for all Christians when he writes, “I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good thing.” This is why we don’t trust in our flesh. We don’t trust in our obedience. We don’t trust in our faithfulness. We are children of promise! The Holy Spirit points us to Christ who offered up his flesh and blood on the altar of the cross as the sacrifice to take away our sins. When we kneel at God’s altar to eat and to drink, our Lord Jesus feeds us with the bread of life. Where our flesh and blood failed, his flesh and blood succeeded.
He who made full satisfaction for our sins was born, not by the flesh, but by the promise. His mother, Mary, like Sarah, received from God the promise to do the impossible. What was impossible for flesh and blood is not impossible for the Holy Spirit. Mary conceived miraculously as did Sarah. Where Sarah and Isaac provide us with a beautiful allegory, Christ turns the symbol into blessed reality. He sets us free by taking our burden of sin and bearing it in our place. He justifies us by his blood. He presents us before our Father in heaven, free from sin, free from blame, and free from judgment. No law can condemn us. Christ has borne our condemnation. We neither need nor want the favor of those who despise God’s grace. We have the favor of God’s grace and that is enough for us.
Rolf D. Preus