June 30, 2019, Burning Our Boats, I Kings 19:15-21 and Galatians 5:1,13-25 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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There is a famous story, with some basis in historical fact, about the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes, who sailed to Mexico in the 16th century, and claimed the territory of the Aztecs for Spain. As the story goes, when Cortes arrived in Mexico, he and his men faced a hazardous journey to the Aztec empire, and a fierce battle once they got there. Cortes was afraid that a significant number of his men would decide to desert him, to turn right around and go back to their last, safe port, which was Cuba. So, rather than risk being abandoned by his men, Cortes ordered that the ships be burned. With no way backward, his men had no way to go but forward. And so they did; they attacked the city of Tenochtitlan in 1521 and they brought about the end of the great Aztec Empire. This is where the expression “burning your boats” comes from.
Now, Cortes wasn’t somebody you’d want to follow as an example. He was certainly bold and determined, but he wasn’t a good or admirable person. Cortes was motivated by a combination of nationalism and ruthlessness and greed. But oddly enough, in the reading from the first book of Kings this morning, we see God’s prophet Elisha doing something very similar. More than two thousand years before Cortes and his men landed in Mexico, in about 800 b.c., the prophet Elijah was sent by God to call Elisha to be his successor.
Elisha is a pretty impressive character as we first meet him, out in his fields plowing up the ground with a dozen oxen. And as soon as Elijah calls him, Elisha heads home to say goodbye to his family, to kiss his father and mother for the last time. But he’s not ambivalent about leaving; he’s not having second thoughts. Elisha has absolutely no intention of turning back. We know that, because of what he does next. He chops up all of his farm equipment – plows, yokes, the whole kit and kaboodle – and he builds a huge fire. Then he slaughters all twelve of his oxen, and he roasts all that beef over the fire, and he feeds everybody. And then he follows Elijah. And that’s it. There’s no going back; Elisha has made sure there’s nothing to go back to. You could say Elisha burned his boats. He committed himself – heart, mind, soul and body – to go after Elijah and to begin this entirely new life he’d been called to.
And that brings us to what Paul is talking about in the letter to the Galatians, when he’s talking about freedom. Christ has set us free, Paul writes. Christ has burned our boats. But there’s a right way and a wrong way of understanding that. When Hernan Cortes burned his boats, he was narrowing the options of his men down to one: “My way or – actually I’m just kidding. There is no other way. Just mine.” Following Cortes was like joining a cult. You sign up and you hand in your will, and your skill, and your brains, at the door, because you won’t be needing them any more, thank you very much. All you need to do now is follow the rules.
On the other hand, when Elisha chopped up his farm equipment and barbecued his livestock, he was doing something very different. He was setting himself free to follow Elijah. There was nothing standing in the way of his leaving. There was nothing left to go back to. And that meant he was free to go forward.
And that is exactly what Paul wanted the Galatians to understand. “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” he writes, with some exasperation. “Why are you trying to go back and pick up the pieces of the yoke? Why are you trying to go back to the slavery of rules and regulations?” Paul had founded the church in Galatia on his first missionary journey. He was writing to people that he cared about as if they were his own children. It was a church with both Jewish and Gentile believers. But some men had lately arrived in Galatia teaching that the Gentile believers weren’t quite all the way saved. Gentiles, they taught, have to follow the law of Moses, just like the Jews. They have to be circumcised, and observe all the rules and regs set forth in the Torah. Christ had saved them out of their old Gentile way of life, sure. Those boats were burned. But these teachers had their new life all mapped out for the Gentiles, and it led right back into the law.
And Paul is outraged. Of all of Paul’s letters, it’s his letter to the Galatians that lets us see Paul at his most human. “You foolish Galatians!” he writes to them. “Did somebody cast a spell on you or something? How can you be such fools! I wish those troublemakers who want to force you to be circumcised would just castrate themselves.” That’s pretty strong language. But Paul desperately wants them to understand the difference between giving up all their options and accepting the slavery of the law – and being set free from the slavery of the past, to go forward in the freedom of the Spirit. Because it’s the difference between life and death.
I think it’s very easy to read this passage about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, and just see more rules and regulations. We read about all the naughty stuff: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. People living like that, Paul says, won’t inherit the Kingdom of heaven.
But notice Paul isn’t just contrasting a list of Bad Deeds with an equivalent list of Good Deeds. And, in fact, this list isn’t actually a list of Bad Deeds. This is a list of the works of the flesh, which is simply the logical consequence of their old life in the flesh. Back in the day, before Christ, this was normal, everyday life. Jealousy and quarreling and fits of anger; self-indulgence and self-gratification of all kinds – that was the life they had left behind. I think we can safely say it sounds pretty familiar – it’s not very different from the life we left behind. They might – and we might – in fact, we do – fall back into some of those old habits from time to time, but if we have received Jesus Christ, the boats have been burned. We can never really go back. That’s why this list describes a way of life that doesn’t inherit the kingdom of heaven. It is the old way, the way that is dead to us now.
The big danger, though, is in thinking that all we need to do is to somehow achieve the Good Deeds list. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control: we might be tempted to think of these as a kind of new law. Now that we are saved, we think, we don’t do the Bad Deeds any more (for the most part), and so, we have to start doing the Good Deeds. But notice that Paul doesn’t call these things the works of the Spirit, as opposed to the works of the flesh – instead, he calls them the fruit of the Spirit. And fruit, we all know, is what happens naturally when a plant is healthy and growing. As we live in the freedom of the Spirit, all these delightful things begin to grow in us, love, and joy, and peace, and even patience and self-control, not by our manly efforts, but simply and naturally out of the abundance of life that flows through us. If you look honestly at how you have grown and changed over the years, you will see the slow and steady growth of those fruits.
Paul wants desperately to convince his spiritual children in Galatia that Jesus didn’t clothe us with his perfect righteousness so we could try to save ourselves by our own grubby little human version of righteousness, following rules and regulations and human traditions. It’s worse than useless, Paul says. “If you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.”
We don’t think of ourselves as trying to be righteous by obeying the law of Moses, and yet even we, Gentiles through and through, cherry-pick laws here and there to burden ourselves and one another. We don’t worry about eating shrimp and lobster, we don’t kill our unruly children, and we don’t quarantine people who get a rash – but we do take laws about sexuality very seriously, especially homosexuality; and some of us feel guilty about things like going to WalMart on the Sabbath. We are still tempted at times to try to prove we are good people by trying to measure ourselves against our favorite bits of the law. But I think most of us are even more apt to fall back into the slavery of our own personal condemnation – of ourselves and others.
But Jesus burned all those boats. He burned the boats of the law. He “abolished in His flesh the enslaving Law of commandments contained in rules and regulations.” And he also burned the boats of our guilt and our shame and our unworthiness and our fruitless striving for approval “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. God is the one who has declared us just. Who could possibly accuse us?” We have been set free to go forward. We have nothing to go back to. And the only real obstacles to getting on with our living, aren’t real at all. They are the phantom obstacles we allow to deceive us. Because all the debts have been paid. All the old yokes, all those chains of bitterness and resentment and unforgiveness, they have all been chopped to bits and destroyed.
We have to acknowledge that every one of us is haunted by the ghosts of our burdens at one time or another, and it’s very important that we not pile burden after burden on ourselves, as we are so apt to do – feeling guilty about our guilt, feeling ashamed of our shame, resenting our resentment. Our feelings are real. But they deceive us; they lie to us; they lure us back into slavery. The only power they have over us is the power we give them. A friend of mine said recently about dealing with an unhealthy emotion – I still feel it, but I’m not going to knit it a sweater. But we do need to name these ghosts for what they are. Because the truth is this: For freedom Christ has set you free. There is no going back, only going forward in freedom, committing ourselves freely like Elisha – heart, mind, soul, and body – to the new life we’ve been called into. If you in Christ, you are a new creation – not you will be a new creation, but you are, now, already, a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.