We are all familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland; if not the book titled Through the Looking Glass, then with the Disney movie version Alice in Wonderland. Alice follows a strange rabbit who keeps looking at his timepiece declaring, “I’m late. I’m late for a very important date!” Following this strangely dressed creature, down the rabbit hole Alice goes! She encounters all sorts of strange creatures. “Curiouser and curiouser!” cries Alice. “Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual.”
The story of Alice is a story about meaning. The unexpected appearance and disappearance of the Cheshire Cat appears to be meaningless. In the field of mushrooms, she is asked by the Caterpillar, “What do you mean by that? Explain yourself!” In the final scene, a judgment scene, Alice stands before the king and queen of hearts. The Queen, uninterested in anything Alice has to say, declares, “Off with her head!” Alice replies, “No, no. That’s not what I mean.” And then the tiny little king jumps in and happily declares, “If there’s no meaning in it that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.” Eventually the house of cards collapses in silliness and Alice finds her way back to her own world, as if no time at all has passed by.
“If there’s no meaning it,” declares the King, “then that saves a world of trouble.” Think about it. The king gets it backwards. For him, the lack of meaning saves. How easy it is to be king when, if no matter what you do, or do not do, there is no meaning. That makes ruling an empire pretty easy. If what you say as king rules the day, then you are accountable to no one but yourself. And, to heck with all of your subjects, even if they are all just cards to be played and ordered about.
I describe this courtroom scene and the role of the king and queen of hearts because THIS is the type of kingdom, or empire, that the people of Jesus and Paul’s time lived in. They were at the mercy of the powers-that-be. Cards to be ordered about as slaves and serfs and workers. All of their meaning came from Caesar and from the minions under Caesar: governors, Pontius, tax-collectors, centurions, and temple priests. Rise with the sun. Do your appointed work. Eat if there was food. And collapse into sleep when the sun went down. Everyone in their place. No interaction between free and slaves beyond commands of, “Do this!” or “Do that!” No interaction between Gentiles and Jews. Women knew their place and could speak only when spoken to. The culture of the Roman Empire and the culture of the religious community at that time was Law. And it was the Law that provided meaning to everyone.
Into this environment comes a man, short of stature, a bit ugly, and slow of speech, who brings a radical message. A message of salvation! Of salvation from the power and control of the Empire’s meaning-making systems.
NRS Galatians 3:23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
“You don’t have to live like this,” Paul declares. “There is a better way. The Way of Christ!” Imagine the thoughts of those 1st century folks who heard Paul’s message for the first time. Scratching their heads, looking at each other, saying, “What in the world does this mean?”
It is hard for us in the 21st-century modern world, especially in America where WE are free. Free to do what we want, when we want to do it. Free to make our meanings. While this message of salvation may not sound so significant today, I say that it is this very message of salvation that was THE most powerful message of salvation for those 1st century people. And while it doesn’t sound too subversive today, once Paul’s listeners figured out what Paul meant when he said, “We are no longer subject to the disciplinarian,” then, my guess, is that eyebrows were raised, maybe some eyes began to twinkle, and fear…fear grew in the hearts and minds of those listeners. Because they knew who and what the disciplinarian was and what happened to those who didn’t listen to the discipline of the Law of the land.
Paul never let his congregations forget about the disciplinarian. Paul declared over and over again, “We preach Christ crucified!” Notice Paul didn’t say, “We preach Christ crucified for us!” No. Paul preached, “Christ crucified,” to constantly remind his followers that it was the disciplinarian, Caesar and Rome, the priests in power and the Temple-system, those who followed the Law, that crucified Christ.
Paul preached and wrote letters to the people in the capital cities of Roman provinces. He preached to the poor, urban folk. Mostly to slaves and serfs, occasionally to people with a bit more power. These folks were helpless. Their lives had no meaning. So to get us into their sandals, let me try and place Paul’s message into our lives today.
Into Kokomo or wherever you may reside strolls Paul. He gathers us around him and begins talking. “People of Kokomo, let me tell you of a Way where you can live meaningful lives. But before I do that, let me tell you where meaning does NOT come from. It does not come from the lawmakers in Washington, D.C. It does not come from the preachers and pastors in the houses of worship. It does not come from the rich and the powerful. It does not come from the talking-heads on television, on the radio, or on the internet. It does not come from political slogans or from advertising jingles. It does not come from all the distinctions that are made by the American way of life that separate the haves from the have-nots, the men from the women, the white collar workers from the blue collar workers, the rural folks from the urban dwellers, the elderly from the eternally young nor the black from the white nor the yellow from the red. Meaning is not born in Hollywood nor financed by Wall Street.
“You do not need to be subject to these laws and the disciplinarian that seems to control this web that you are caught in.” And then Paul shifts direction with a smile of deep care and love on his face. “In Christ, there is a still more perfect way. There is no longer Jew or Greek, Muslim or Christian, there is no longer slave or free, Mexican or American, there is no longer male and female. there is no longer black or white or red or yellow; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” A radical message. Yes? Just as radical today as 2,000 years ago.
What meaning do we take away from this for our lives today? For me it’s pretty simple. We are ALL God’s creatures. We are ALL loved by God. No one more loved by God. No one less loved by God.
So what are we to do with this message today? Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his nastiest letter of all of his letters that we have in scripture. Remember the line: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” And my favorite line: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Paul is really upset because the Galatians are falling back into the ways of the Law, being controlled by the powers-that-be of Rome and Temple, being manipulated by The Matrix. Influenced and cajolled Fox News and Fake News. Satisfied with $1,200 while corporations reaped 84% of all COVID relief funds. Willing to accept a level of death and casualties so long as we can go on living our way of life.
So what do we do to free ourselves? Remember Paul’s words from last week? “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.” He goes on, saying the very same thing that Jesus said just a few years before, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And how do we act out this love for each other and for our neighbor? Paul finishes his letter to the Galatians with this simple instruction: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
So how does Christ save us from a life of meaninglessness? How do you feel when you relieve another person of a burden? How do you feel when you touch the life of another, even in some small way? How do you feel when you serve a need of a person with many needs? A family member. A church member. A neighbor. A stranger. An enemy? Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, writes, “It is in combating the suffering of others that we find meaning in our own.” I end with Paul’s closing words to the Galatians, “As for those who will follow this rule (bear one another’s burdens), peace will be upon you.” In theological language, you will find your salvation by saving another. In Jesus’ words, salvation is found in seeing the hungry and giving them food. Giving the thristy something to drink. Welcoming a stranger. Clothing the naked. Visiting those in prison. And, deeply resonant with our own time, taking care of the sick.
Saved. And, your life will be filled with meaning.