“On Being Church Together”

“On Being Church Together”

Pentecost Day (NL3) John B. Valentine
Galatians 5:1, 13-26 May 23, 2021


Good morning ... and Happy Birthday!

Seriously ... if you have figured it out by now ... today is the birthday of the Church.

If my math is correct ... the Church of Jesus Christ was born today ... one thousand nine hundred and ninety-one years ago!

And that’s a good reason to celebrate!

But this church thing which we celebrate today is a funny thing.

You see ... this church thing that we talk about:

It isn’t just an “It” ... it’s an “Us”.
It isn’t just a “Them” ... it’s a “We”.
It isn’t just an “Us” ... it’s a “Me”.

It’s “Us” individually.
It’s “Us” together.
It’s “Us” across the country.
It’s “Us” across denominations.
It’s “Us” across the planet.
It’s “Us across generations.

It’s the whole Christian Church on earth ... the whole catholic and apostolic Church ... it’s the followers of Jesus in every time and every place.

But then again ... this church thing that we celebrate today isn’t just something that “Is” ... it’s also something that we DO!

Because that verb “follow” isn’t a so-called “state of being” verb ... a something that just IS.

It is an “action” verb ... a something that we DO.

And our lesson this morning ... the one from Paul’s letter to the Galatians ... is all about what we do ... HOW we do ... this “being the church” thing.

It’s about what life lived in the reality of God’s amazing grace looks like.

It’s about what life lived as followers of Jesus looks like.

It’s about how we actively go about the work of being church together.

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You see ... Galatians ... chapter five ... began with those glorious words “For freedom Christ has set us free.”


• That’s Paul’s simple answer to the question “How then shall we live?”

• That’s Paul’s simple answer to “What does the life of a Christian LOOK like?”

• That's Paul's simple answer to “What shall we do with our lives now that we have been brought into relationship with God through Jesus Christ?”


Then ... in the rest of chapter five ... Paul details something of what it means ... and particularly what it does NOT mean.... to live out that freedom which comes with being made heirs of the promises and the goodness and the love and the grace of God ...

How it is that we actually:

• BE the Church ...
• BE the Church with one another ...
• BE the Church for the sake of the world.

+ + + + +

Anybody a bowler? ANYBODY?

I’ll confess that I’m NOT a bowler ... or at least not very much of one ... but you know how ...

• you go to the bowling alley ...
• and you lace on the goofy shoes ...
• and you stand out there on the hardwood floor ...
• and see ... out there ahead of you ... the target ... those ten pins all nice and neat and just begging for you to knock them down?

It all appears relatively straight-forward and simple ... right?

Except .... EXCEPT ... for what?

The gutter on the right ... and the gutter on the left

• Too far one way will get you in trouble ...

• Too far the other way will get you into equal but opposite trouble.

(For me ... navigating the bowling alley ... and actually getting my ball down to where the pins are without guttering left or right ... is about as much of a challenge as navigating between Scylla and Charybdis was for Odysseus ...... but that’s another story.)

But in response to the question “How then shall we live ... how then shall we BE the Church?” ...

Paul identifies two gutters ... one too far one way ... one too far the other way ... which need to be avoided.

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The first of those gutters on the one side of the lane Paul describes right there in verse one ...

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”


That’s the gutter which perhaps could best be called “Legalism.”

• Legalism is what folks ... especially younger folks ... are fighting against when they call the church a bunch of hypocrites.

• Legalism is Martin Luther fought at the onset of the Reformation.

• Legalism is what Paul was battling against in his conflict with Peter in the early days of the Church.

You see ... legalism involves what a certain seminary professor of mine used to love to call “Gospel Plus” thinking:

• The gospel plus ... not smoking or drinking or dancing or playing cards.

• The gospel plus ... being baptized in a certain way or having communion administered by a certain person.

• The gospel plus ... being a member of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party ... or the or the Know-Nothing Party for that matter.

• The gospel plus ... being a part of a particular denomination.

Any conditions we place on the grace of God is “Gospel Plus” sorts of thinking.

Trust me when I tell you that the Church has perfected Gospel-plus thinking over the years

Here’s a list from 1800 years ago wherein a young man asked his bishop what he really needed to do to be faithful

“What must I forsake?” ... the young man asked.

“Colored clothes for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don't eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against him who created us, to attempt to improve on his work.”

That list is kind of curious to us ... but looking it over gets me to wondering just what conditions we have replaced it with in our day and age.

As Eugene Peterson once put it:

“There are people ... many people ... who do not want us to be free. They don't want us to be free to express our faith originally and creatively in the world. They insist that all look alike, talk alike and act alike, thus validating one another's worth. Without being aware of it we become anxious about what others will say about us, obsessively concerned about what others think we should do. We no longer live the good news but anxiously try to memorize and recite the script that someone else has assigned to us. We may be secure, but we will not be free.”

Legalism ... Paul tells us is something we need to avoid.

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Anyone want to guess what the other gutter is?

Hint ... you can find it right there in the second sentence of this week’s lesson.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”

If the gutter on the one side is “legalism” ... the gutter on the other side is “license”.

If “legalism” meant “Gospel Plus” sorts of thinking ... “license” is liberty run rampant.

“License” says “Christ has set me free to do anything I want ... live any way I want ... step on whomever I want.”

“License” says “Whatever I do, God will forgive me, so it doesn’t matter what I do ... not to me, not to God, not to anyone.”

Call it “lasciviousness” or “antinomianism” or “libertinism” ... license really just invites unchecked selfishness.

Any of you heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

• He wrote a little book called “The Cost of Discipleship” ...

• He was a famous German theologian who studied the burgeoning civil rights movement in America back in the 1930's ...

• He was a leading co-conspirator in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Anyhow ... Bonhoeffer once described “license” as “cheap grace” ... and had this to say about it:

“Cheap grace is communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ .... of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and just enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.”

That’s the other gutter ... Paul says ... “license”.

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But in between those two gutters ... between legalism and license ... is the realm of life and liberty and love.

• “For freedom Christ has set us free ... so do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

• “For freedom Christ has set us free ... only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”

• “For freedom Christ has set us free ... so that ... through love ... we can become slaves to one another.”

Liberty does not mean the absence of laws.

When the Constitution promises us “liberty” ... it doesn’t give us license to break the law however and whenever we please.

Freedom of the sort which God gives us is not so much “freedom FROM” this, that and the other thing as it is “freedom TO” serve God and serve our neighbors.

You see ... BEING the Church .... BECOMING the Church ...

• BECOMING the Church with one another ...

• BECOMING the Church for one another ...

• BECOMING the Church for the sake of the world ...

Means we find our lives shaped by the law of love ... and constantly asking ourselves this one simple question .... “What is the loving thing for me to do ... for God and for my neighbors?”

For ... as Peter Marshall ... the long-standing Chaplain of the U.S. Senate once said prayed:

“Teach us that our liberty is not only to be loved but also to be lived. Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. It costs too much to be hoarded. Help us see that our liberty is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do what is right.”

Which we might amend just a wee bit to read:

“Teach us that our liberty ... the liberty which we find in Christ Jesus our Lord ... is not only to be loved but also to be lived.

“Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. It cost him too much to be hoarded to be hoarded.

“Help us see that our liberty in Christ is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do what is right ... by God ... and by our neighbors.”

Happy birthday, People!

“On Being Church Together” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine on the occasion of Pentecost 2021 — the Birthday of the Church.  The text upon which it is based is Galatians 5: 1; 13-26.  (There were some streaming issues that precluded our video feed from being captured at the beginning of the service — so the Facebook Feed picks up about 10 minutes into the service.)