Guatemalan Independence Day is filled with parades and concerts. Celebrants dress in traditional outfits while enjoying tamales, chuchitos, and rellenitos. As the day closes, fireworks light up the sky, lighting up the hearts of Guatemalans around the country.
Guatemalans declared independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Many other Central American Provinces joined the rallying cry, determined to live and rule on their own. Native Guatemalans hoped to establish their government and revitalize traditions lost under the thumb of colonialism. Though the road to freedom held bumps and detours, the destination proved worthwhile.
Freedom is a precious gift worth celebrating. So why does Paul warn the Galatian church not to forgo their freedom and succumb to the yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1)? Who would choose burdensome restrictions over deliverance?
As both Jews and Gentiles began to follow Christ, cultural differences became apparent. Jewish believers began to pressure Gentile converts to become circumcised, in accordance with Old Testament Law. Paul explains, however, that circumcision in this case is more than a medical procedure. Paul compares choosing circumcision to choosing a “yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
The issue at hand is the Gentiles’ intention. These church members seek to justify themselves by following Old Testament Law, instead of relying on God’s grace (Galatians 5:4). The good news of Jesus proclaims we are saved by grace through faith. No good works of our own make us holy. Righteousness is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Why did the Galatian Gentiles pursue circumcision instead of throwing a glorious freedom parade? For the same reason that we strive for good works: because we struggle to accept grace.
Many of us doubt God’s love and forgiveness. We tally our good and bad days, desperately trying to add up a total that leads to heaven. We dwell on our worst sins, believing them too far beyond redemption. We trust in our strength, our ability to “be good.” We put back on the chains of self-improvement. We forget that we are free.
Striving for good works to earn credit or affection with God undercuts the gospel’s power. Paul puts it this way:
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:2-6).
Christ perfectly fulfilled the law. Those who believe in him are granted eternal life and perfect righteousness. We no longer live under the law of the Old Testament because Christ has done so for us. Refusing circumcision meant trusting God’s grace is sufficient. It was a powerful outward symbol of a new internal reality.
Paul reminds his friends of this freedom: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:13-14).
After declaring independence, Guatemalans did not hold on to the relics of Spanish rule. They chose to return to their roots and grow a healthier future. We, too, have an opportunity to decide our path.
We can cave to the pressure of fear or legalism or doubt. We can chase God’s love, never realizing it’s always available to us. Or we can choose freedom. We can trust God’s promises and believe we are loved. Out of this freedom, we can pursue loving others unselfishly. Not from a place of fear, but one rooted in the Spirit of God. From here, the fruits of the spirit naturally produce.
Trusting the promises of God is a challenge. When the impulse to earn our love is strong, we must rely on the Holy Spirit, the community of saints, or maybe the counsel of a therapist to point us back to the freedom found in Christ. And when we are reminded, we can take a cue from our national celebrations and rejoice.
Whether we throw a parade or partake of Holy Communion, let us remember the good news of Jesus Christ.