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Breaking the Spell

June 20, 2016

“Breaking the Spell” Galatians 3:1-14, 23-29 © 6.19.16 Ordinary 12C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

What a bunch of idiots you are! Y’all are “dumber than a sack o’ hammers” (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). “Calling you stupid is an insult to stupid people” (A Fish Called Wanda). You are so stupid, you don’t even know how stupid you are! The morning God gave out smarts, you were sleeping in!

That was Paul’s idea of pastoral care. I’m sure you didn’t like it. Neither do I. Not my idea of how to express compassion and concern. But the apostle’s technique was a common one among speakers of his day. You got the attention of the audience by calling the members names.

But Paul isn’t just trying to get the Galatians to sit up and listen. He really thinks they are stupid, foolish, irrational, ignorant. The Greek term he uses can mean all those things. But then he seems to change his mind and decide that they are no so much stupid as they are under a spell. Or maybe they’re hexed because they were too dumb to know what was going on, that they were being victimized and taken.

What has happened that would lead Paul to criticize his friends so harshly? Why would he think they were under a spell, under someone else’s control? Because they aren’t acting rationally or for their own well-being. There can be no other explanation than that somebody is stupid or bewitched or both when he or she gives up freedom to enter into bondage, a life of fear, hemmed in by rules and regulations that make existence difficult. No other reason comes to mind when a whole group of people embrace a religion that governs every thought and action rather than following one that leads the believer into an open and liberating relationship with God through faith. The false teachers offered a life in which one little mistake, one momentary failure to follow the smallest rule left a person on the outs with an angry God. No matter what good you had done in the past, only your latest behavior mattered.

Paul is amazed, dumbfounded that the Galatians would prefer such insecurity and fear. They had to be under a collective curse, every one of them subject to mind control. Or if they knew what they were doing, there was no other word for it but “stupid.” Think about it. Acting the way the Galatians did is like having the best car in the world and trading it for an ancient rattletrap lemon with a leaky gas tank. It’s having a storehouse full of gold and abandoning it for a single ingot of lead. Being given unlimited and free ultra-fast Internet and preferring to pay a premium for dial-up. Living in a cold and wet lean-to made of cardboard instead of a solid, warm, dry house with four walls and a roof. Suddenly abandoning friends who love you for an existence of isolation and loneliness. Absurd, irrational, nonsensical behavior. No one in his or her right mind would choose to do what the Galatians were contemplating or had already done.

The apostle is concerned primarily about the control the false teachers are exerting over the Gentile believers. Such domination and manipulation are the essence of a hex, a spell, a curse. There’s also an implied threat in the pronouncement of it. The old blues tune by Jay Hawkins is instructive. “I put a spell on you because you’re mine. You better stop the things that you do; I said ‘Watch out! I ain’t lyin’!’ I ain’t gonna take none of your foolin’ ‘round. I ain’t gonna take none of your puttin’ me down. I put a spell on you because you’re mine.” Some of you may have been hearing John Fogerty’s distinctive voice as I read the lyrics.

The one who casts a spell is interested in imposing a viewpoint, a way of life, an identity foreign or even harmful to the one hexed. The interests, needs, thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the victim are not considered important. Indeed, they are radically devalued in order that the sorcerer can use and profit from somebody who would normally be hostile to his purposes.

So Paul tells the Galatians to wake up and realize what the false teachers are doing. The term he uses for “bewitch” in the text is literally “to give the evil eye.” As one commentator notes, the curse placed by Paul’s opponents has caused the eyes of the Galatians to glaze over as if by magic (Richard B. Hays, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI: 250). They can no longer see the value in their own experiences, make their own decisions based on evidence. Paul vividly recounted the gospel story for them, so that the Galatians almost felt they walked with Jesus or were there at Calvary or felt the mighty rushing wind at Pentecost. He reminds them that what they have witnessed among themselves as a community of faith gives clues to how the Spirit works. They didn’t come to Christ by following food laws or performing rituals. God did not work miracles among them because they observed the regulations of the Torah. Why should it suddenly be true that all that happened among them by the Spirit was worthless and fake and what the teachers were telling them was true and real? What happened? Did their brains fall out? Did they lose all confidence in themselves? Paul wanted them to have the courage to interpret the Bible in light of their own experience, the events they had witnessed. After all, the ancient writings supported them, not the teachers! Abraham lived long before the Torah came, and he and Sarah were saved by faith. Jesus liberated the Galatians and all humanity by dying on a cross. So, let them live like free people. They shouldn’t let anyone trick them, tell them they’re second-class, that their opinion, their witness, their way of coming to faith was wrong and didn’t matter.

There are a couple of takeaways, I think, from Paul’s harsh, but caring, speech to the Galatians. For one, it’s OK to read the Bible through the lens of our lives. That may sound self-evident, but for classical Reformed theology we are so tainted by sin through and through, that our judgment is flawed. We can’t trust our eyes, our intuition, our thoughts. Instead, if what we see and feel and think conflicts with what some biblical writer says, it must be we who are wrong. We have to submit our sinful selves to the perfect Word of God. So goes that line of thinking.

But other traditions have said and continue to teach that reason and experience, guided by the Spirit, are valuable tools for discerning what God is doing in the world, how we ought to read scripture, and what is happening in our lives. I think that’s a better way. The Galatians could therefore trust the miracles that had happened among them as evidence that God was present and active, that they had truly received the Spirit. In the same way, we can look at what’s going on in the world and in our lives and use those observations as tools to either confirm or deny the presence of God. We can engage some scripture affirmation about the power and love of God, for example, with questions when violence and hatred own the day or when loss overwhelms us. Or we may find resources we never knew we had and attribute the gift to the providence of God. Either way, experience is key. When we read the book of our lives, what does it tell us about the reality of God among and in us?

The other takeaway is also about the value of experience, but with a bit different slant. We are used to thinking of conversion, probably, in terms of self-abnegation, self-hatred, bowing low before a holy God who could destroy us with a mere breath, throwing ourselves on his mercy in Christ. The old hymn in its original captures this notion: “Alas! and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die! Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” No doubt that way of understanding repentance and sin is appropriate if one has been addicted to control of others, insistent on autonomy, full of self-righteousness. Lord knows, we need such abject humility a little more in our day of self-important privilege, when the measure of morality is what will make the most money, when the goal of politicians and pundits is setting themselves up as the only arbiters of truth.

But what of the one whose sin is complete lack of self-esteem? She or he has been told since childhood, often by the church, that she or he is barely human, not worthy of love or respect. What she thinks counts for nothing; what he feels is irrelevant. It’s an assessment taught by those whose agenda depends on control, on violating boundaries, which people with no self-esteem cannot maintain. It’s a premise proven, so the self-talk goes, by the failure to succeed over and over according to the world’s standards. Such a person goes through life feeling as if a big red “L” for “Loser” is tattooed on her or his forehead. Isn’t conversion in such a case to find value in oneself, to trust the witness of one’s own experience, to insist on being listened to and taken seriously by family, friends, church, and society?

Our experience, then, is an important way of entrance into the transcendent reality of God. John Calvin said: “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” Theologian Elizabeth Johnson, following the Catholic writer Karl Rahner, notes that the experience of God is mediated through the “changing history of oneself.” For her, in love, fidelity, loneliness, and death, for example, we “experience and are grasped by the holy mystery of God” as the very source and context of our lives. When we grow in self-understanding and relationships, we develop in the experience of God. So, Johnson concludes, “loss of self-identity is also a loss of the experience of God” (She Who Is: 65).

We can see, then, why Paul was so agitated by the Galatian willingness to discount what happened among them, going so far as to call them “stupid.” They were cutting themselves off from linkage with God! The apostle calls them to remember what had happened among them, all that they had undergone and shared, because such memory was essential to their freedom. When you’ve been nobody or when you’re tempted to be nobody, telling others about what you’ve suffered and how you’ve triumphed is a way of becoming somebody, a subject who acts instead of an object always acted on. It’s a way of breaking the spell of control, in the first or the twenty-first century. And you begin to believe, as you talk and act with others, that your identity comes from God, not from what you do or don’t do, not from what you’ve got or “don’t got,” shall we say, not from accidents of birth or biology.

For believers in every age, it’s supremely in baptism that such a meshing of self-awareness and God-awareness happens. We’re named and valued in baptism as those who belong to God, whose identity comes from God. Even in the small detail of using only the person’s first name in the ritual, and not their family name, we affirm that we belong to a larger family, a broader community. We’re freed from bondage to what Paul calls in this epistle the “present evil age.” And we’re summoned and commissioned to make real in church and society God’s inclusive vision. Citing a ritual formula that came before him, Paul insists that we are all one in Christ Jesus, that in him “there is no longer Jew or Greek,…slave or free,…male and female.”

So in the community created through baptism and sustained by faith in Christ, all are valued as the children of God they are, without reference to or limit by their ethnicity, socioeconomic status or gender. The contributions of all sorts and conditions of people are important. The body of Christ comes closer to wholeness every time someone values a viewpoint, an experience, a person different from himself or herself. We are called to “put on Christ,” to show Christ to the world as if we were clothed with him. To be an alternative community in which the deepest hopes of humankind for a world of harmony become reality through the power and presence of God.

Inclusiveness is not just some politically correct fad politicians like to criticize or some ideology a bureaucrat in government or church has forced upon us. It’s fundamental to the gospel, to our identity as a community of the baptized. It’s our calling and an index of our faithfulness. When we value ourselves and likewise celebrate the experiences and identity of others, we break the hold of evil forces that want to control, deform, and destroy human life. We bring closer the day when the promise of God will be fulfilled, and all God’s children will live in peace.

That doesn’t sound stupid at all.

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