23Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There 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. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
The story is told about the three Oehler boys: John, George and James. Their mother had left them at home while she had run into town to pick up some groceries. The boys has been playing outside in the yard and after mom left for the store, they decided to play a game of chase in the house. Suddenly the three boys were whizzing around the house through the kitchen, the dining room, into the living room and into the bedrooms. The oldest two boys were trying to get the youngest one. He quickly escaped and barricaded himself into the bathroom. The two larger boys began to beat on the door, but the younger would not let them. The began to pound on the door, the younger put his hands on the door and his feet on the sink. John and George started putting their shoulder into the bathroom door and suddenly BOOM – the door was popped open; James and the bathroom sink were on the floor! Water began to flow from the bathroom towards the Livingroom – the good living room with the nice furniture and fancy carpet. Mom and Dad were not going to be happy! Maybe the three Oehler boys needed a babysitter or better yet a disciplinarian?
Our lesson from Galatians 3 contains what for me is one of the most important words in Christianity, even though it is used only three times in the New Testament. The word is translated today, in the New Revised Standard Version, as “disciplinarian.” The law, says St. Paul, was our disciplinarian until Christ came. The Greek word is actually pedagogy, which we have come to understand generally as the science of teaching.
The word “disciplinarian” uses as its root, obviously, the word, “discipline.” It is this word “discipline” which may be one of the most important words of our life.
I looked it up on the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary website. What I read there has horrified me. I am not so much chagrined at the dictionary’s definitions as I am by my own sad acknowledgment that this dictionary is probably an accurate reflection of how our society understands this great word “discipline.”
Merriam-Webster’s has two numbered definitions of “discipline.” The first definition is “punishment.” Discipline has come to mean punishment. That definition horrifies me and unfortunately symbolizes what many of us understand as discipline. It means punishment to many of us.
I quickly read the second definition. This second definition is noted as being obsolete. This means that this second definition may have been accurate some time ago, but is no longer used so frequently in this way. The second definition is “instruction.”
So we are given two definitions for the word “discipline.” The primary way in which this word is understood is as “punishment.” The obsolete meaning is “instruction.”
My sermon today is about the obsolete meaning of the word “discipline.” I urge us today, perhaps against a tidal wave of opposition, against the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, to regard “discipline” as “instruction,” not as “punishment.”
If we understand “discipline” as punishment, then we will miss the power of St. Paul’s words to the Galatians, “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came.”
This Spring, the confirmation class gathered and began the learning about the faith of the church. During their twelve weeks, they were taught about scripture, our history, the polity of the Presbyterian church, our worship and the responsibilities of being a follower of Jesus Christ. The class also served their neighbors by assisting in the Thursday night community dinner. They learned during those weeks because of discipline, organization and order, repetition and instruction, clarity and love. This is not only how children learn, but how all of us learn. We learn because disciplined people teach us how to be disciplined.
Discipline requires effort, just as anything worthwhile requires effort. One of the historic tensions in Christianity is between those who think a person can become a Christian overnight, and those who think a person becomes a Christian over a lifetime. Both are, in a sense, correct. It takes the moment of conversion, the moment of baptism, to make suddenly, a new Christian. But the process of developing Christian virtues, Christian character, a Christian life, takes a life of discipline.
We, the Church, try to teach ourselves such discipline. We say we will baptize you, but you need to attend pre-Baptism classes. We say we will officiate at your marriage, but you need to attend pre-marital instruction. We say we will teach you how to pray, but you’re going to have to come to church. We say we will teach you about the love of Jesus Christ, but you’re going to have to attend Christian education classes. We say we will teach you how to give as Christ gave, but you’re going to have to learn how to tithe. We say we will teach you how to love others, but you’re going to have to love and support the poor.
At every such suggestion, we meet opposition. Folks always want the church’s services without the church’s discipline. That’s fine. It’s part of our discipline to serve, and to serve generously. But if we want genuinely to live the life of Christ, a new life of joy generosity, then we will at some point take on discipline.
At its best, this is what the Law was to the Hebrews of old. It was a way of learning. God. It was not punishment. It was instruction toward a greater good. The Law cared for the Hebrews, and the Hebrews loved the Law.
Law as discipline is still with us. It is behind every successful person in this world. For success does not mean simply winning the lottery and retiring to the beach. Success means the reward of self-effort and industry, the disciplined sacrifice of one thing for a greater good. Discipline takes time, as every successful athlete knows. Even those born with great athletic skills must practice, must take on a regimen of discipline. It’s been said that musicians learn much better if they practice one hour for twenty days than if they simply practice for twenty hours straight. Success requires the time of sustained discipline.
Yet, for all of this, for all the deep joy of the disciplined life, Paul is saying something else in Galatians, isn’t he? Paul knew that the dark side of the Law was not in regarding it as punishment. The dark side of the Law, and the dark side of any law which we use as a standard for our lives, is that it can begin to take the place of a living relationship with love, a living relationship with God.
This is why Paul says that the Law was our disciplinarian until Christ came. Paul in no way disparages the Law, or discipline. But Paul is saying that the Law leads to the living Christ. The law leads to something greater.
When Christ comes, when we discover living relationship with Jesus Christ, we are in touch with what discipline was designed to teach us in the first place. A discipline is supposed to lead us to something else. Our Christian disciplines are supposed to instruct us about Christ, but they are not supposed to get in the way of our relationship with Christ.
There is a perfect law, a perfect discipline, which I believe youth can experience in Confirmation Class, which can be experienced in the church’s mission efforts to the poor, which can be experienced within any of this Church’s disciplines. It is that perfect law of love.
When our faith takes us beyond the mechanics of our discipline, when our faith takes us to relationship with Christ, we are face to face with love. We are where our disciplines are designed to lead to the perfect love of Jesus Christ. It is a beautiful and generous place, where past distinctions are not nearly so important as present love, where there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, but where we are all one in Christ Jesus.
That is our destination, not to be achieved by punishment, but by instruction, which leads to discipline; which leads to faith; which leads to character and virtue and the life of love.
Commentary provided by Alicia Vargan, Scott Hoezee, Sarah Heinrich, and Sam Candler.