Learning to ride a bike was a big deal for me as a child.I didn’t learn until I was in the third grade, which was later than most of my peers, so I felt some embarrassment, and pressure to learn.
How do you describe to a child how to ride a bike?Words are pretty inadequate to express the mystery of balance.So we put on the training wheels to practice being up on a bike, but eventually the training wheels have to be left behind in order to experience the wonder of real bicycle riding. To stay upright without those extra set of wheels can seem just about impossible to child, and the temptation to give up would be irresistible if not for the fact that there are all these other children who have proven it is possible.
So there is much strain and struggle in the child’s attempts, and then suddenly the child is doing it! and one of the striking things about the child’s discovery is that it is almost the precise opposite of strain and struggle.It is effortlessness.
If you know how to ride a bike I suspect you can remember that extraordinary moment when suddenly, for the first time, you were gliding along on your bicycle with amazing ease and grace.
I find a metaphor in learning to ride a bike for talking about the mystery of faith, or what the Apostle Paul in our epistle lesson calls “living in the spirit.”
When Jesus and Paul lived on this earth, the dominant religion was one that was based upon the Law.It had been a gigantic step forward when a thousand years earlier Moses had come down from the mountaintop with the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments from God, which commanded human beings to keep our most destructive impulses under control.
Religion of the Law was a step forward, but what people didn’t realize at the time was that the Law was essentially “training wheels,” to use my learning-to-ride-a-bike metaphor.
There were problems with this kind of religion, such as the fact that life has a way of presenting us with ever-changing circumstances, and how are we to know how to live in each new situation?The solution offered by the religion of the law was to add more laws, and so the Jewish Law grew until it contained 524 of them.
The Jewish tradition contained the Law, but it contained more – the stories of their ancestors and poetry of the psalms and the prophets, all of which pointed to the possibility of another form of religion.Jeremiah dreamed of a day when people would not have to be perpetually reminded of the Law, because the Law would be written on peoples’ hearts.
Jesus grew up with the Law, but also with these hints of another way of living a faithful life.And then one day as he entered the river Jordan to be baptized by John, the Holy Spirit descended upon him, entering his heart, inviting him to let go and live his life from that moment onward in the extraordinary current of God’s love.
Using our metaphor, it was on that day that Jesus, without any models to follow, experienced what it was for the first time to ride a bike. It was the moment he fully realized that the time had come for human beings to leave behind the training wheels.He looked around and saw how heavy a burden the Law had become, leading people to feel like slaves, rather than like the beloved children that God intended.
He saw how easy it was for people to focus all their energy on keeping the laws – doing all the “right” things – and yet have loveless, hard hearts.He saw the walls the Law created between people, and with God.He saw how it especially left the most vulnerable people excluded from feeling as though they were a part of God’s family.
It was a real challenge for Jesus to get people who were devoted to the Religion of the Law to see that the Law was simply a set of training wheels, meant to be left behind for an altogether new way of living that God had in mind them.Most of them just refused to consider the possibility at all. But there were exceptions. A Pharisee like Paul named Nicodemus had the integrity to recognize that Jesus was living a kind of faithfulness that was well beyond his own Law-based faith, but he was clueless how to live such a life. He came to see Jesus in the hope of learning – in my metaphor – how to ride the bike.The life Jesus was living wasn’t something that could be put directly into words, so Jesus employed metaphors: He said it was like the unseen wind, or like the mystery of birth.But it didn’t really help. As much as Nicodemus tried, he just couldn’t catch hold of how you enter into this wondrous soaring life Jesus was trying so hard to express.
There’s a story from Matthew’s Gospel that resembles a lesson in learning to ride a bike, except in this instance, it’s about learning to walk on water.Jesus comes walking on the sea of Galilee at night while the disciples are struggling to row against the wind.Eleven of the disciples refuse to consider the possibility that they could float over the water like Jesus, but to his credit, Peter was open to the idea – willing at least to step out of the boat (let go of the training wheels) and see what happens.“Jesus, bid me to come to you on the water!”Jesus says, come, and Peter steps out of the boat, and for a couple of ecstatic seconds he’s floating along with Jesus in this wonderful sense of freedom; that is, until the wind picks up and he takes his eyes off Jesus, and he tells himself that what he is doing is impossible, and begins to sink until Jesus catches him and puts him back in the boat.
On the night before Jesus was to leave his disciples through death, they were pretty anxious, figuring they would be lost without Jesus there to show them the way.They were hoping he’d give them a list of rules to follow, but he wouldn’t do it.He said that he was giving them just one rule.“Love one another as I have loved you.”And then he promised to give them the Holy Spirit, which would be with them to help them find their way forward in every new circumstance life would throw at them. You don’t need rules, he was saying. Just trust the Holy Spirit to show you what love means in each new moment.
And so two years after Jesus died and rose, Paul was a Pharisee who was absolutely certain there was nothing more to religion than following the Law, and persecuting people who said otherwise, when, to his great surprise, he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus.And in that moment he discovered that there was an altogether new way of being in this world — one that relied on the amazing grace that was revealed to him during his one-on-one with Jesus.Soaring with Jesus, he left the training wheels behind for good.
Paul tried really hard to speak the language of his own people to help them catch a glimpse of the new life he had entered into.He described his discovery that we are saved not by works of the law, but by grace received through faith.But for the most part, his old friends in the religion of the Law would have none of it.They accused him of denying the truth of the Bible – the old-time religion. They felt so threatened by what he was saying that they tried to kill him.
And so it turned out that Paul had a whole lot more success getting his message across to Gentiles who had never developed the attachment the Pharisees had to the training wheels.
Paul helped get several churches going in the Gentile world.But there were these Jewish Christians who would come around to these churches after Paul had left town.They could speak with some authority, because all of Jesus’ disciples – and Jesus himself – were, like themselves, Jews.They would criticize Paul’s teaching, saying they had to put the training wheels back on if they wanted to be Christians.The specific piece of the Law they focused on was the requirement that men be circumcised.
When Paul got wind of what they were doing, he got pretty upset. It was pretty clear to him that something pretty crucial was at stake here.If you start thinking you need to get your penis cut (if you’re a man) in order to be saved, you’re missing the wonder of the grace of God revealed in Jesus upon which everything depends. You’ll never really get what Jesus was about.To use my metaphor, if you think you have to have the training wheels on in order to ride the bike, you’ll never really get what it is to soar without the training wheels.“For freedom Christ has set us free.” He wrote. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Now the reason why the people in the churches were so susceptible to the teaching of these Jewish Christians was because within the congregations there were a lot of people who were behaving really badly.They had understood the “freedom” of a Christian to be freedom for self-indulgence.To do whatever they felt like regardless of how it effected others. To pursue every physical desire they had without any inhibition.
And so Paul’s critics could say, “See!This is what happens when you listen to Paul’s teaching!That’s why you need to get back to the Law!”
And so Paul proceeded to point out that people who are living in such a self-indulgent manner were not really free at all.They’d simply exchanged one form of bondage for another.They were in bondage to the unbridled cravings of their bodies.They were slaves to their petty little egos that demanded that the world bend over backwards to conform to their desires.
Paul doesn’t give them a new set of rules to rain in their worst behavior.Instead he points out that if your desire is to live this new way of being which he called “living in the Spirit,” you can be pretty sure you’ve missed the mark if you find your life characterized by things like“enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”
In the end, he says, “living in the Spirit” is about the state of your heart. It’s not a tight grip at all, but a relaxed, easy quality of being that manifests “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Now, the conflict that was happening way back in 1st century Galatia can seem pretty far removed from our modern world.Actually, its not.Everywhere you look you see people missing the mark. Some miss by giving themselves over to self-indulgence. Others run in the other direction and take on the yoke of a religion of the Law.
Take, for instance, the conflict between the Western world and extremist Islamic radicals.What are the roots of this conflict? It is all about freedom and its misuse.
We pride ourselves in the idea that our culture is all about freedom and democracy, and wonder why people in the Middle East aren’t grateful for our attempts to export our culture.
When Middle Eastern people sympathetic to the views of radical Islamic radicals look at our society, what do they focus on?Our excesses.Our self-indulgences.Our tendency to reduce life to an obsessive quest for more and more stuff, more and more pleasure.They see the superficiality of a society that reduces people to consumers, where sex gets detached from love and is used as a way to market products.They look at the political system we pride ourselves in and see the pettiness with which we carry on our political “debates,” and the way politics and so much more about our lives is driven by money.They see how isolated we have become from one another, and they say, “What you call progress, we see as a dangerous threat to our communities! You can keep your culture to yourselves!”
And in face of the threats our culture poses to their communities, it is not hard to see how appealing the beliefs of the Taliban could be as a way to protect their way of life.
And so as this week we celebrate July 4th and once more celebrate the concept of “freedom,” it is good to spend some time thinking about the use and abuse of freedom. To ask: what is real freedom?If the freedom we have in this country is understood as nothing more than the freedom to do whatever I want, what is so admirable in that?But freedom rightly understood and rightly embraced is for the sake of building communities of caring and justice where love, peace, joy and the like can easily come to fruition.