Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Living Under Grace” (Galatians 3:23-28)
June 23, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I recently visited Graceland, the home of the legendary Elvis Presley. Graceland is second only to the White House as the most visited residence in America, as about twenty five million people have visited Graceland so far. Elvis was larger than life. He was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, not far from the musical influences of country and gospel music from the Appalachian Mountains and blues music from the Mississippi Delta, three types of music Elvis merged into rock ‘n roll.
Over a billion Elvis records have been sold, more than anyone else, even the Beatles, and nearly half of those purchased outside the U.S. Elvis had over 150 different gold albums or singles. When you walk through the museum adjacent to Graceland there is an enormous wall upon which are hanging these gold records, and it is overwhelming. Elvis’ music transcended categories and connected with the whole world. When President Nixon famously visited China in 1972 the millions who had lived in isolationist China by and large had heard of only three figures of Western Civilization: Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley, and Richard Nixon.
Paul Simon took the title of his 1986 Grammy winning album Graceland from a visit he made there with his young son, as he sang in the title track:
The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar
I am following the river down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War
And I’m going to Graceland, Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland
My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I’ve reason to believe we both will be received
Today I am not preaching about Elvis Presley or Richard Nixon, or even Paul Simon—but about living under the grace of Jesus Christ, grace that transcends categories and connects with the whole world.
God’s grace transcends everything. And living under grace through faith impacts everything in your life, especially who you are—as Paul wrote in today’s passage from his Letter to the Galatians:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:23-28).
Paul wrote his Letter to the Galatians in order to address a very significant issue in the early church, the role of the Old Testament law in light of the New Testament gospel of God’s grace. The churches in the region of Galatia, which is modern day Turkey, were wrestling with a question that impacts the entire trajectory of the Christian life: Is the New Testament grace of God enough or do you need to keep the Old Testament law too? Many Christians at the churches in Galatia had converted from Judaism to Christianity and were insisting that yes, as Christians you still need to keep the Old Testament law.
The problem became more pronounced as many Gentiles also converted to Christianity and the converts from Judaism were insisting that they too needed to keep the Old Testament law, including the rite of circumcision. In Judaism circumcision was the physical sign of the Old Testament, and administered when male children were eight days old. It is not difficult to see then why circumcision for adult Gentile converts to Christianity would create much anxiety, much “fear and trembling.” God’s grace needed to be supplemented by keeping the law.
But the Apostle Paul would have none of this. For him, when it came to the Christian life the grace of God in Jesus Christ was and is enough. This grace of God did not need to be supplemented by the keeping of the Old Testament law.
Paul minced no words about this, as he wrote earlier in his Letter to the Galatians:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:6-8).
There are no nuances to this at all. For Paul this issue is a black and white issue. When it comes to the Christian life, God’s grace is more than enough. God’s grace transcends everything. Paul emphasized this again later in this letter:
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…I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:16, 21).
In fact, the expression “fallen from grace” is from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Many think to be “fallen from grace” means that when you sin, when you mess up your life, when you fail, when you drop the ball, when you are a hypocrite, when you are a phony, when you doubt, when you hurt someone else, when you hurt yourself, etc.—that you have “fallen from grace.” Thankfully this is not true. God gives you grace no matter what happens, because God is a God of grace.
To be “fallen from grace” actually refers to putting your faith in keeping the law, putting your faith in what you do or don’t do—rather than putting your faith in Jesus and what he already did on the cross, putting your faith in the grace of God. Paul put it this way: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Yikes.
In other words, again, when it comes to the Christian life, God’s grace is more than enough. God’s grace supersedes the law. God’s grace transcends everything. Scripture tells us “the law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), and moreover, that “you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).
In the New Testament baptism replaced circumcision as the sign of God’s covenant. Grace replaced the law. When you are baptized, you receive what St. Augustine called “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”, you are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and you are changed from being under the law to being under grace. The post-baptismal prayer in The Book of Common Prayer states: “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace” (308). In other words, you could refer to the Kingdom of God, the Church, as Graceland, where you have been raised to the “new life of grace,” where you are not under the law but under grace. Jesus’ death and resurrection give you reason to believe you will be received in Graceland.
It is the grace of God that saves you, not keeping the law. As Paul put it in his Letter to the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). We respond to God’s grace by faith, trust.
And again, as Paul wrote in today’s passage, “You are all children of God through faith…you have clothed yourselves with Christ…all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Do you believe this? Do you believe you are not under the law but under grace? Do you believe “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female”?
Lest you think this is all esoteric theology with no bearing on your actual life, bear with me. Living under the law is very different from living under grace.
Living under the law means you are always trying to justify yourself, always trying to be accepted, always trying to measure up, always trying to win. Living under the law means you are always trying to prove yourself to others, even God, especially God. Living under the law means you have to be right, and therefore others have to be wrong. Living under the law means you have to win. Living under the law leads to one of two places: hypocrisy or despair. On the surface people who think they are living properly under the law are judgmental, arrogant, think they actually have things all figured out, thank you, and are impossible to be comfortable around for more than thirty seconds—but under the surface they know they are hypocrites, living a double life, under the constant fear of being found out.
Living under the law and failing over and over and over can also lead to despair. Neither hypocrisy nor despair gives life. Living under the law is not only exhausting, it is a dead end. It will not work. It cannot work. Again, “if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” Do you really think Jesus’ death on the cross was not enough for you? Do you really think you can supplement the grace of God with your efforts to keep the law? Really?
Living under grace is entirely different. Living under grace means you are fully aware that you are a sinner but you trust in God’s forgiveness, which enables you in response to forgive others more readily when they sin against you, and may even enable you—take a deep breath—to forgive yourself. Living under grace means you don’t have to prove yourself to anybody because God proved his love for you in that while you were still a sinner, and still are, Christ died for you (Romans 5:8).
Living under grace means you know you are accepted by God, and in response can begin to accept others and—take another deep breath—begin to accept yourself. Living under grace means you learn what Jesus meant when he commanded, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Living under grace means you do not always have to be right, and you do not always have to win. Living under grace means you no longer have to justify yourself because Jesus already took care of that on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Living under grace means you can be who you actually are; you can remove the mask of hypocrisy and toss it away. Living under grace replaces the despair that comes from trusting in yourself with the hope that comes from trusting in God. Living under grace is never exhausting because it is based on God’s inexhaustible love. Living under grace is not always easy, but it always leads to life.
God’s grace transcends categories and connects with the whole world, including you. In his death on the cross Jesus fulfilled the law for you, and in his resurrection Jesus raised you to the new life of grace. This grace is for everyone, for Jew and Greek, for male and female, for “poor boys and pilgrims with families” and for you today. You are not under the law, but under grace.
And living under grace means you have already been received in Graceland.