"What Has Become of the Joy?"
Text: Galatians 4:8-20
I’d like to share with you one of my earliest experiences at theological seminary. During our orientation, one of the professors preached a sermon as part of the opening convocation. He began his message by making the curious statement that seminary for a Christian is one of the most perilous places to be.
Perilous? I’d never heard that before. Isn’t theological seminary the place a person preparing for ministry comes to be educated, strengthened and nurtured in the faith? I was fully aware that the course of studies would be demanding and the hours of study long. I knew that my theological assumptions might be challenged, and perhaps corrected and refined. I had heard that the seminary campus was located in a section of Pittsburgh known for a high rate of crime. But perilous? That seemed a little strong. The only real peril I could imagine was washing out, which was said to become a reality for a third of the incoming students. Was this the danger to which the professor was alluding?
He went on to explain that when a Christian enters theological seminary, he or she is usually as they say “on fire for the Lord.” Yet by the time they leave seminary, the fire is oftentimes burning low if not entirely snuffed out. If my memory serves me, he went on to say that the rigors of graduate-level study were intense, and the potential for burnout high. Even so, his message didn’t resonate for me. I myself was too on fire for the Lord to even entertain the possibility that the fire could ever be put out. Later when I went to my first lecture, I could only think how great it was going to be to learn within this academic environment and Christian community. No one was going to mess with my fire!
About twenty-five years after Jesus’ resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to another Christian community; a community which had been known for being on fire for Jesus. We read
in the 4th chapter of his letter to the Galatians Paul reminding them of his first visit. Evidently,
Paul had not intended to preach in the region of Galatia at all. He was just planning to pass through on his way elsewhere; perhaps to Macedonia. But we find in verse 13 that because of some bodily ailment, Paul was forced to stop there in Galatia. We don’t know what the particular ailment was. It may have been the same “thorn in the flesh” Paul alluded to in his Corinthian letter. Many scholars believe Paul had some problem with his eyes. Whatever it was, Paul expected that his condition would turn the people off and blunt the effectiveness of his witness. But to his surprise and delight, Paul was received in his own words “as an angel of God”; an enthusiastic welcome which would befit Jesus Himself.
Paul went on to teach them of the freedom they would find in Jesus Christ; that they no longer needed to be enslaved by the pagan cultures which surrounded them, or by the fleeting pleasures of life which quickly turn into task masters, or by the burdensome requirements of Jewish Law. What good news Jesus Christ was to the Galatians! And after Paul’s preaching and the working of the Holy Spirit through him, the Galatians were no doubt on fire for Jesus.
But one of the main purposes in Paul’s writing this letter is summarized in verse 15 of the
4th chapter: “What has become of the goodwill you felt?” Another, and I propose more accurate, way to translate the Greek noun makarismos [ma/ka/ris/mos] is “joy”: “What has become of the joy you felt?” Let’s put it into modern vernacular: What’s happened to the fire? After Paul had left the Galatians, a group of people infiltrated the fledgling church; probably Jewish Christians who were discrediting Paul, and saying that mere faith in Jesus Christ was not enough. They claimed it was also necessary to fulfill all requirements of the Torah or Jewish Law, beginning with the act of circumcision. Also infiltrating the church was a group of Gnostics called “Antinomians,” who were teaching in effect that there was no need to follow any law; moral, ethical, or otherwise. For them, grace was sufficient to cover any transgression, so one could pretty much do as he or she pleased. Finally, based on what Paul says about “elemental spirits” and “observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years,” there may have been pagans in the church teaching a sort of nature worship known as “animism” [which, by the way, is practiced by large numbers of millennials today]. Apparently, the Galatians were being bombarded by these competing doctrines. And in the process, doubts began to creep in, and the fire for Jesus they had acquired after having first heard His gospel was slowly being snuffed out. In Paul’s estimation, the Galatians were running right back to the bondage and confusion from which Jesus Christ had first set them free.
By the end of my first term at theological seminary, I began to notice that there were several groups of students on campus. They seemed almost cliquish with only certain persons welcomed. There were the progressive/liberals, the ultra-conservatives, the peace and justiceadvocates, the evangelicals, the ivory tower intelligentsia, the black coalition, Jews for Jesus.
What was most disturbing to me was that none of these groups ever seemed to meet anywhere in the middle. It appeared you were an insider, or you were an outsider. But I was sure my perception was wrong. Was not seminary a place where there was diversity, but ultimately unity? Then by the end of the second term, I began to sense an uncomfortable atmosphere of competition. It wasn’t the sort of friendly, good-hearted competition as between church softball or golf teams. It felt cutthroat; a degrading game of one-upmanship; competition which made an A in, and a C or even a B out.
One of my good buddies at seminary was a fellow commuter and pisano by the name of Nick, who traveled into Pittsburgh four days a week from Wheeling, West Virginia. He said to me one day, “You know, when I first came here, I was so excited. I knew I’d be with other Christians who are all responding to a call from God. But sometimes, I feel like I can’t find Jesus anywhere in this place.” Nick’s observation was filled with pain. It was about this time that the sermon I had heard at chapel during orientation began to resonate. For Nick, the seminary, that Christian community, was becoming a perilous place spiritually-speaking. Like a candle with a glass slowly placed over it, Nick’s flame was becoming smaller and weaker. Many students, like Nick, cried out from their hearts: “What has become of the joy we felt!?”
I sense that from the heart of the 21st century church comes a similar question: What has become of the goodwill we felt? What has become of the joy? From both outside and within the church, we are bombarded by differing theologies, philosophies, ideologies, worldviews, and political positions. Like students in seminary community, we as members in the church community are often lured into spiritual bondage to the very things from which Jesus Christ has freed us; things like cutthroat competition, exclusivity, lack of unity, mean and hateful speech, inappropriate and unhealthy lifestyles, sins of the flesh. We face the peril and run the risk – as individuals and as a community – of becoming oppressed by principalities which court our favor, yet as Paul points out, “but for no good purpose.”
Do any of us here struggle with keeping the flame of our Christian faith and practice burning brightly? Have things of the world gotten us down? Are the competing voices surrounding us in this divided culture and society chipping away at the goodwill and joy we felt when we first heard and accepted the good news of Jesus? We will all have ebbs and flows in our Christian journeys. Sometimes the fires of our commitment to the gospel will burn tall and bright, while at other times our flames will flicker like a candle in the wind. Paul understood this. Nevertheless, he expresses his concern – and articulates Divine concern – when the joy and goodwill of our lives in Christ is endangered by all which surrounds us and presses in. Paul’s warning is that we -- having come to know God and all God’s benefits – must not turn back to what he calls “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits.” And he asks, “How can you want to be enslaved to them again?”
Let’s resolve to allow the flame of the Holy Spirit to be rekindled in our hearts that we might glow brightly again, even as on the day that a great hymn we’re going to close with this morning describes: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believed.” Let’s not be haunted by Paul’s question: “What has become of the makarismos you felt?” Let’s reopen ourselves to the movement of God’s Spirit within us! Let’s recapture the joy we felt in the hour we first believed! Let’s praise the Lord!
Heavenly Father, some of us this morning may be feeling at a low ebb in our journeys of faith.
The competing and often confusing voices surrounding us, and the circumstances of life pressing in upon us, can rob us of our goodwill and blunt our joy. Lord, by the powerful movement of Your Spirit and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, fully restores in us the joy and hope befitting those redeemed. May we not run back to those things which once held us in captivity, but rather run the race set before us, its goal the Kingdom; our joy, its crown. All this we pray in the steady name of Jesus. Amen.