Paul’s Letter to the Galatians about living in a community

Throughout the pandemic, and now with the easy availability of life-saving vaccines to slow the spread of Covid-19, I have genuinely struggled with how people of faith, who are often in church or other places of worship  multiple times a week, claiming that not wearing a mask, gathering shoulder to shoulder, and now not being fully vaccinated, is a personal choice.

In some regards it echos the philosophy of Ayn Rand. We have seen the tragic results in both Christian and Hasidic Jewish communities when members acted on the premise of personal choice. I know people who have gone this route and infected family and friends, some too young to be vaccinated.

Recently someone told me about a newsletter from St. Albans, a church just north of Charlotte, that addressed the challenges, and obligations, of being fully engaged in a faith community, where the health of the community, literally, is the responsibility of every member of that group.

The message from the Associate Rector is drawn from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians:

“The on-going and polarizing debate about getting vaccinated during this time of pandemic calls to my mind Paul’s words about “freedom”, especially in his letter to the Galatians. I say this because many who are refusing to get vaccinated are appealing to the notion of individual freedom: “Nobody else should have any say in my personal decisions about my own health.” On the face of it, this seems perfectly reasonable and in keeping with the principles upon which our nation was founded.

Many Christians will point directly to Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians to support their understanding of individual freedom: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). A mere twelve verses later, however, Paul contextualizes his understanding of Christ-enabled freedom with these words:

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “ ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Gal. 5:13).

This is a critically important caveat that we do well to remember. Paul is clear on this point: the freedom that we have in Christ is not meant to encourage a life of libertine self-interest. Quite the opposite! The freedom that we have in Christ calls us away from being enslaved to pure self-interest towards a life that is committed to mutual love and care for others. Paul hammers home this point with the rather shocking words to our 21st century ears, “…through love become slaves to one another.” Professor of Religion Bruce Longenecker says it this way: “Christians have been set free from the enslavement of chaos-inducing self-interestedness in order to allow the self-giving Christ to become incarnate within their own self-giving way of life.”

The decision about whether to get vaccinated, like many decisions in life, is undoubtedly a personal one, with various factors at play. That said, it is important that we, as Christ-followers, try to make such decisions from a place of neighborly love, and not from a place of unfettered self-interest. Instead of thinking only about how a decision is going to affect me personally, we are called to also give serious consideration to how a decision is going to impact the lives of others. Instead of, as Paul says, using our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, we are called to use our freedom in the service of others and for the common good; that is, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Yours in Christ,

I hope, as the Rector writes, others will feel called to be of service to others and act for the common good of those they know and love.

Advent 1: Doing the math in hope

This post was shared with me by Betsy Blake Bennett, the Archdeacon of the Diocese of Nebraska. It was originally posted at Green Sprouts.

Advent 1: Doing the math in hope

Our Advent Scripture readings, hymns, and prayers emphasize the themes of expectation, hope, and repentance.

Today’s reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33:14-16) is a prophetic voice of hope in a situation that looked hopeless. People of faith are people of hope. A gift people of faith can bring to conversations about the environment – and especially about the climate crisis – is hope.

The Do the Math tour presented by Bill McKibben and was in Omaha last night. The Do the Math website summarizes Bill McKibben’s primary message:

It’s simple math: we can burn less than 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. And they’re planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them.

An article published today by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press drawing on new international calculations on global emissions published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change says that rather than decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases, in the past year the amount increased by 3 per cent. The study’s lead author, Glen Peters at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, says that the only possible way to stay within the goal of two degrees of temperature rise is to start reducing these emissions now and “throw everything we have at the problem.” Given how little we have thrown at the problem up to now, it seems unlikely to happen now.

With 0.8 °C degree of warming, we have seen all sorts of extreme weather in 2012, including Superstorm Sandy, the drought in the Midwest, and wildfires such as the one that forced evacuations around Estes Park, Colorado, this weekend. Imagine what two degrees would bring! Some scientists have said that reaching even the two degree limit would be disastrous , but it’s clear that our earlier failure to notice the signs and turn things around makes it nearly inevitable. Anything beyond two degrees changes our world in even more extreme ways, ways that are nearly unimaginable.

In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 21: 25-36) , Jesus talks about paying attention to signs that are right in front of us, signs that people tend to deny or ignore. He describes distressing, fearful times and then says (Luke 21:28): “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

In Omaha last night, Bill McKibben said that even though the information he was presenting was very discouraging, he found it exciting in a way because we are getting “nearer to the heart of things”. And we are indeed down to what is essential to survival; we are down to questions of meaning and questions about our priorities; we are down to questions about where our hearts lie when we face the finitude not only of our own lives but of our biosphere, our planet, and the way of life it has supported. Our search for hope in this seemingly hopeless situation leads us to a place of repentance and conversion: Are we willing to do what it takes to make hope possible?

The Do the Math campaign is taking a page from the anti-apartheid campaign and asking institutions – including religious institutions – to freeze new investments in the fossil fuel industry and then to fully divest themselves of all fossil fuel investment within five years unless those companies change their way of doing business. When energy companies are willing to leave most of their current reserves underground, to stop exploring for new hydrocarbons, and to stop lobbying for special breaks and for the defeat of legislation that would promote a switch to other forms of energy, in short, when the fossil fuel industry puts life ahead of profits, then divestment will become unnecessary.

Bill McKibben said that people tell him this sort of campaign is impossible, that it’s a “David and Goliath” situation. He said these words were discouraging until he though, “Wait a minute! I’m a Methodist Sunday School teacher; I know how the David and Goliath story ends!” We know not only how that story ends, but how the entire salvation story ends, and that is why we hope when all seems hopeless.

The questions we must answer are Advent questions; the journey of the heart we take to repent and turn ourselves and the world around is an Advent journey. Where do our hearts lie? How do we hope when everything seems dark? Can we set aside lesser priorities of personal convenience and comfort in order to do what needs to be done for the greater common good both close to home and in corners of the globe about which we know very little?

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility…(From the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent)

Posted by Betsy Blake Bennett at 5:59 PM  



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