One evening I had dinner with a friend whom I had not seen for many years. There was a lot of catching-up to do in the first minutes of our conversation.
As our visit began to move into more serious conversation, he asked, “How’s your church doing? I am anxious to see your campus. From your parish paper, I can see the attendance continues to increase, and it sounds like you are enjoying your work.”
“Yes,” I replied. “My ministry has been very rewarding. If I had another life on this earth to live, I would be a parish pastor. I am always anxious to go to work in the morning, and even though the pension board and social security tell me that I can retire, this does not tempt me at all.”
My friend, who had been much more financially successful than I had been, responded, “You don’t know how fortunate you are. I wish that I could make the same statement.”
All of this talk about the church led me to ask, “How are things going at the church where you are a member?”
“I seldom attend church,” he replied.
“What happened?” I asked. “You used to be very active in the congregation.”
“That’s probably where the problem started. I had too much religion as a kid. Every time the church door was open, our family was there. I had enough of the church to last me for the rest of my life.
But that wasn’t all. Religion made our family’s life so abnormal. We had a hundred and one silly laws that supposedly controlled us. For example, mother tried to prevent me from going to my high school junior-senior prom because there would be dancing, and that could lead to adultery. That did it for me. I simply announced in strong language that I was going to the prom. I had already asked a girl to go with me, and nobody was going to stop me. Mother was crushed; dad didn’t know what to do. However, they must have had second thoughts, because I went to the prom and they even let me use the family car.”
Seeing how emotional he was, I asked him, “What is your relationship with God?”
“Now that’s a different question,” he answered. “Believe, me, I am not an atheist. I believe there is a God.”
“If you should die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?” I asked feeling that our relationship was good enough that I could be that personal.
His answer was very clear. There were tears in his eyes. “No, I am sure that if I died tonight, I would go to hell. Look at my life. I don’t go to church. My language, even in front of my children, is not always the best. I do some drinking. I have not always been fair to my wife and kids. I gave them money, when what they really wanted was my time. I can’t recall ever having a devotion with my family. Certainly they have never heard me pray. In fact, I don’t even know how to pray any more.”
“What do you believe about Christ?” I asked.
“Frankly, I don’t give him much thought. I still remember what they taught me about the faith when I was a teenager. After high school there were tough years in the service during World War II. Then I came home and went to college. That caused me to question what we had been taught in church.”
We changed the subject and tried to enjoy the rest of the evening, but both of us knew that the conversation had been pretty depressing. As we were leaving the restaurant, he said to me, “Thanks for taking the time to be concerned about my spiritual life. I am not as far away from the faith as you might think. But one thing I cannot understand, except for my wife, you are the only person who has ever talked to me about why I don’t gp to church with my family, to say nothing about my relationship with Christ. Why is that? Don’t they care?
I squeezed his hand and said, “That’s just the way we act all too often in our congregations.”
Now let me give you another picture of a home that has had its low moments, but is having some happy times now.
Unlike the first home I described to you, this family, by no stretch of the imagination, could be called an overly pious place. The family was not burdened with a lot of man-made rules. However, the parents knew what the Gospel was all about. The children were continually told that Christ was their Savior, and he would forgive their sins if they trusted him. They attended church faithfully, confirmation was a part of the family agenda, and neither parent was ashamed to share their faith with their children.
As they left home to attend a state university, where there would be plenty of temptation, they knew their sons and daughters would enjoy the excitement of university life. The church had a low priority in their young lives, and they drifted away from the faith. Or did they?
Now they are settled in their professions and are doing well. Today the parents are rejoicing, for they see the power of the Gospel, which is bringing their children into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They hear a clear testimony from two of their children regarding their relationship with Christ. What is happening? The Gospel that they had heard repeatedly in church and home is being used by the Holy Spirit to bring the back to their childhood faith.
The parents sent them off with a clear intellectual knowledge of God’s love in Christ, and it bore fruit in their lives.
Turning to our text, we meet a heavy-hearted apostle. Paul was struggling with his spiritual children in the Galatian congregation. He had taught them that salvation was received by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Here are his words: “You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” It was He who could set them free from their guilt and bring them into a personal relationship with their Heavenly Father. In Christ they became heirs of a mighty inheritance. In Christ, they came to God addressing him as Abba Father. He was a loving God who wanted the best for his children.
But then along came the Judaizers with a religion that majored in the law. “If you want God’s favor, you must be obedient to the law.” It placed a heavy burden on these Galatians, and they did not know where they stood in relation to God. God had become a burden. They were slaves to a system. Paul became emotional in seeing these people swap the Gospel for the Law, which could only put them in bondage.”
This was what my friend, whom I mention in this sermon, had experienced in his early years. He did not rebel to the Gospel. I am sure that he loved to sing “Jesus Loves Me” and still does. This message established a relationship between Jesus and the person. What put a heavy burden around his neck was being told that Jesus was watching every move he made, and the Lord would be angry if he broke the commandments. The young man did not want to be disobedient, but he was helpless. Fear was also being created in his heart when the Sunday school teacher asked her class, “What would you do if Jesus came and found you at a movie?”
It was finally too much for my friend. He left home as a young man to enter the military with a religion of laws, and it brought him no comfort. How different it could have been if the words from Jesus Ð “I am with you always” Ð had spoken to his soul when in the heat of battle.
As teachers of the young, we need to make sure that they leave home with the Gospel. If they should decide to set aside the good news of Christ and his love for a while, the day will come when they will return to their Savior. If our souls are immersed in God’s love, especially as young people, we will not be able to stay away from him for a long period of time. What is even more thrilling is to observe how many of our people do not walk away from Jesus. Look around in your worship service and listen to them sing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” or “There is a Redeemer.” Many of these people are drawn to the church because their hearts long to hear the Gospel.
That takes us back to the second story at the beginning of this sermon. This family is rejoicing as they see their children, who left home knowing the Gospel, return to the faith. Years had gone by, and they saw that life without Jesus is lacking peace, comfort, and direction.
Paul was trying to help the Galatians separate the Law from the Gospel. Surely the law was God’s Word, too. It would show them how helpless they were to live according to God’s will. But when the Law had done its work and brought them to Christ, Paul wanted his people in Galatia to hear that God forgives, and each day they can start over. That’s grace.
If you had too much religion as a young person, why not take another look at Christianity. You will find that the Christian faith’s message centers in Christ, who daily forgives all of your sins and gives you the strength and direction to become the kind of person you want to be. In Christ, you can have the assurance of your salvation.
Too much religion! Maybe! But never too much of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and that is what Christianity is all about.