Two Steps Back
Imagine that you're given $1M. Seriously. Out of nowhere, some stranger drops a massive case of cold, hard cash on your lawn. Intentionally. It wasn't a mistake. It wasn't an accident. Someone purposefully gave you a ton of money, and didn't dictate how you spent it, but I'm sure they probably hoped you'd do something decent with that money.
Imagine, you're in deep debt when this happens, but that this massive sum covers the cost and then some. All of the sudden, your debt is gone. You no longer have any reason to be downcast or under the gun because you can now pay off your debts and get on with life.
Imagine the feel of the roughness of the cotton and linen interwoven into a paperlike currency. Imagine testing the currency to be sure it isn't counterfeit. There's no denying it. Some complete stranger who probably had no reason to dump money on your lawn did exactly that. I'd be shocked. I'd be confused. Baffled. Excited. Uplifted. Optimistic. Overjoyed. Unable to keep myself from riverdancing because why the heck not.
Imagine chasing after the person who gave you this gift. Maybe he was long gone, but surely someone else saw the direction in which he was heading! Maybe you could catch up!
Imagine finding this person, being grateful, or even trying to return the money to no avail.
Imagine not doing these things.
Imagine that you were scared and hid the money in your mattress, never to be seen again until finally the mattress could no longer hold itself together with a lifetime of use.
Imagine you were so skeptical of the gift that you burned it up.
Imagine you were so reckless with the gift that you spent it on all sorts of things you couldn't take with you when you died. You impressed the neighbors. You fit into the crowd. You made yourself look grand. And why wouldn't you? Life from then on was grand! Imagine that you were so busy spending your newfound money on things that didn't matter that your debt was left unchecked. Imagine being so consumed with fame and fortune and "the good life" that everything you bought burned down your relationships, leaving you and your family with the same debt with which you began.
Imagine all these things.
Now, imagine the church in Galatia.
A gift was given to them. It's the same gift that was given to us. Eternal life. Forgiveness from sins. Freedom from sin. Freedom to worship the Lord. Understanding that the Lord is good. Faith in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Imagine the backstory. Imagine a nation, Israel, chosen by God to carry His message for generations leading up to Jesus' birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection, and the fulfillment of the promise: that the Holy Spirit would dwell with men who choose to follow Jesus in spirit and truth until the day he returns.
Imagine the same nation, rebellious, adulterous toward the flesh through the worship of themselves vicariously through the worship of other gods. Imagine being exiled to a foreign empire, then returned, then experiencing the unfolding of the prophecies through Jesus. Imagine living by the law for hundreds of years, needing to account for every deed for all of your life, understanding that this is just, and that God deserves everything we have.
Imagine being freed from the fear of screwing up so badly that one day you'd lose your life and never have the chance to repent, turn back to the Lord, because men took the law into their own hands in order to attempt to seize momentary power from the Lord. Imagine knowing that you deserved every bit of the law falling down on your head, but learning that Jesus, as His Father, loves mercy as He seeks justice, and that it's not sacrifice He craves but a broken heart willing to turn back to the Lord.
Actually, you don't have to imagine.
If you've decided to follow Jesus, you know what that's like. From the birth of the church two thousand years ago, we have been faced with many things. One thing stands out to me lately, though. We have always been faced with the prospect of returning to the law rather than moving forward into grace.
We often use the phrase "fallen from grace" to describe someone who has lost favor or credibility do to something they've done. The origins of the phrase, though, mean something different.
The Galatian church was faced with a faction that preached Judaic law as a parallel necessity to faith in Christ for salvation. Throughout the whole of his letter, Paul the apostle tackles this issue, explaining to the Galatians that the gospel of Jesus Christ was designed as a fulfillment of the law whereby human beings could be free to pursue the Lord and be reconciled to Him, despite mankind's tendency toward unfaithfulness. It is the breaking of the curse. It is a gift. Jesus' death was His free gift to us.
By repenting and turning to Him in faith, we forsake all the others we've run to in His place, all the things in this world we've broken, and all the things that have broken us. Through Jesus, we are put back together. From day one, we were never able to fulfill the law. We we're never able to be perfect, live our lives without doing evil to someone or being selfish in some way. He understood us, and gave us the law to guide us in His paths. Unfortunately, we took that, and we ran away with it, claiming that it was the way, and not the Lord Himself.
The law came thousands of years ago, and it has always been broken and abused by even those people He chose to bear His name. But that law, and the rituals surrounding it, was just a scaffolding. That was just the lead-up to the cross. The cross was always the point and the plan. From before creation, He planned that no matter how bad things became with us, in every possible scenario, through every possible fall, failure, ignorance, and arrogance, He would always have died for us, without exception. It's that love that makes the prophecies that were fulfilled in Christ possible to begin with.
Why then, now that the grace has been build by Christ and the scaffolding removed, do we put it back up? Why do we act as though things are still under construction? Jesus paid it all! We could never have paid our debts! We'd work ourselves into the grave to pay our debts, but guess what! Jesus dropped something better than a million bucks on our doorstep. He forgave us for every hurt we caused Him and each other.
By imposing on each other unrealistic expectations of perfection, we divide ourselves from each other and subsequently from Him. By assuming that anything we do, be it baptism, or opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and the gifts He brings, or spending time with a particular subset of people in certain intervals, doing particular good deeds or acts of service, we say to the Lord that the cross was pointless and that we can do it ourselves. That is what was meant by "falling from grace." It means that rather than accepting the cross for what it is, we try to replace it with us.
If you think about it, really, this is similar to [if not the same] crime the fallen angel Lucifer, whom we now call Satan, is guilty of. His goal was to ascend to the throne of God, to take it from Him. Setting such a goal is impossible without deluding oneself enough to believe that we and all that we have to offer, righteousness or unrighteousness, creativity or destructivity, is equivalent to or higher than the Lord. Of course, we were created by Him, and not the other way around.
As He said to Job--I paraphrase--as he complained to God about the chaos that had come upon his life, "Who are you? Were you there when I created the heavens? What about the dinosaurs? What about humankind, whom I made from dust?" And of course, the Lord wasn't being arrogant, as some like to imagine, but He was trying to assure Job, with the simple message, "I've got you. I know what I'm doing." After all, even Lucifer recognized in Job a righteousness that he himself didn't have, one that he wanted to eradicate: righteousness not of his own doing but righteousness that came by faith in a righteous God.
This is just my take on it, but I think that Job was at the breaking point of that faith when he started to question God's allowance of bad things to happen to him. I think that's why God responded the way He did. He just reminded Job of who He actually is. Sometimes, we just need a reminder that the world isn't going to fall to pieces because we screw up once, and God isn't going to abandon us over it either.
It's just like David and the murder he committed to get away with sleeping with another man's wife (as if he didn't have enough already, right?) Sure, he still had to deal with the consequences, but despite that, God never stopped chasing him. Interesting that the shepherd boy who became king ended up being the one lost sheep spoken of in Jesus' parable, in which the shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who strayed. It's not that God was going to validate the pain David inflicted on those involved. It's simply that God's love is unstoppable.
Once we're "in the fold" so to speak, He doesn't just abandon us when we stray. He'll allow us to feel the consequences, and He'll collect us with His shepherd's rod, but He doesn't just leave us to die all over again. That was kind of the point of the cross. We don't just have the power to revoke that. That's as deluded a thought as was Lucifer's place to replace the Lord.
All of that said, God did make us to follow in His footsteps. Good people make good people. He is good, so He made us good. We fell, so now, we can no longer make people good without Him. Actually, we never could, but I digress.
From day one, the calling out of Abraham to follow the Lord, to be the forefather of the nation of Israel, there was a promise, a covenant made deeper than that of marriage, that once again the Holy Spirit of the living God would pervade mankind as it did in the beginning, I believe. That promise was fulfilled through Jesus in every moment of His life, death, and reclamation of life. That was poured out on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell on the apostles, then spread life like an unquenchable, consuming fire.
By this Spirit that was poured out, and by this Spirit alone, we can return to the Lord, understand what it means to truly be righteous, by faith in Him. Why then, should we return to the law that was meant only as a conduit by which we understand the righteousness of the Lord Himself? If we have been given a free gift, pardon, and way to stay with the Lord, the Spirit in us, what else behind us could be so valuable that we would force ourselves to try to carry the world as Jesus did, then destroy each other in life and presume to damn each other to death when we don't get everything exactly right? Only God can be held to that standard, and He alone can define that standard. Newsflash: we can never fully comprehend on this side of death what righteousness is. We can only understand it better until the day of the Lord.
And you know what?
He never asked us to do His job.
He only asked us to follow Him.
The truth is simple.
In Jesus, you are free.
In Jesus, you can be who you were meant to be.
He is faithful to make you more like Him.
Until then, we don't need to be knocking each other down and condemning each other for not understanding every little bullet point of doctrine, or not knowing the right move to make, or having to deal with past sins springing up. We're all being guided home by Jesus, and we're all learning to walk a little more in a straight line as we go.
The most important thing we can do is be there for each other when we mess up--and we all do--teach each other when there is a lack of understanding, and look forward to the day when these struggles no longer exist.
Living this way might cost you. Believing in grace is frankly more insanerer than anything we've ever done. We can choose to live by our good deeds alone and pretend we're on an equal plane to God in terms of righteousness, which is arrogant, and people will understand that because people generally don't want to screw things up, nor do they want you to screw things up for them. Living by grace, though? Who does that? Well, there's Jesus. And frankly, without grace, I might not have lived long enough to see what life change really looks like. People might scoff at that because revenge seems better most times, but then who has ever profited from pain and death?
Grace returns us to the one who loves us more than anyone anywhere will ever understand. It reconciles us to God, and it reconciles us to each other. That is worth living and dying for. That is the message of the cross.
I don't normally say things like this at the end, but I have a request for you, followers of Christ.
Build a bridge.
Find someone of a different denomination, especially if they don't believe in grace, and find a way to offer it do them.
I'm not saying to evangelise or even be correcting.
Just let them talk about their life, and see where mercy can fall.
Find an excuse to be close to them.
By doing this, the Spirit is already working, and the Gospel is already unfolding.
Peace, and love, always.