The Apostle Paul was one worried man.  He had worked so hard to establish several fledgling Christian congregations in Galatia but now it appeared that his work might go right down the drain. As you heard Jim read during the introduction to the scripture, most of the people in the Christian communities in Galatia had been pagans who worshiped the Roman gods until Paul introduced them to the Way of Jesus.

But now some other missionaries were trying to convince the Galatians that in order to follow Jesus, they needed to observe all the requirements of the Law of Moses.  After all, they reasoned, the Way of Jesus was a movement within Judaism: Jesus was born a Jew, raised a Jew, observed the Jewish Law, and was crucified under a sign that mockingly read “King of the Jews.”

The original twelve disciples were all Jews, and the center of the Jesus movement in Paul’s time was Jerusalem.  Church and Synagogue had not yet split, and many followers of the Way of Jesus were Jews who had never abandoned that faith to follow Jesus.  So, to these Jewish-Christians, it only made sense to require new converts to the Way of Jesus to observe the same law that Jesus had observed: the Law of Moses.

But Paul had come to believe that Gentiles could embrace the Way of Jesus without having first to embrace Judaism, and he worried that insisting that all converts observe all the requirements of the Jewish law could hurt the cause of spreading the Good News in pagan nations and could discourage Gentiles from becoming Followers of the Way of Jesus. So Paul wrote to the Galatians, For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Now, “yoke of slavery” –  that seems like a pretty negative assessment of the Law of Moses from someone who himself had been thoroughly trained in the Law and had even been a Pharisee. So, we need to remember that Paul still had a great deal of respect for the Law of Moses and respect for Jewish Christians who chose to continue to follow the dictates of the Law.

But while Paul believed the Law had been essential to the formation and development of the people called Israel, he also believed that the very principles the Law embodied – the justice and mercy of God – were literally embodied in the person of Jesus.  So, if someone followed Jesus – truly followed Jesus, living as Jesus lived – then that person would walk in God’s ways even without the Law as a roadmap.

Now, it is clear that when Paul talks about freedom in Christ, he does not mean license to do whatever one pleases: 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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And the behaviors that Paul names as being contrary to the spirit of Christ (fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these) include behaviors specifically prohibited by the Law of Moses.

So it is not that Paul has rejected the Law entirely; but he sees the Law as leading to something new: the Law fleshed out perfectly for all humanity in the person of Jesus.   And what he sees in Jesus is the incarnation of truly life-giving behavior: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Today, of course, the issue underlying Paul’s letter to the Galatians is moot.  Church and synagogue parted company centuries ago and no one insists that in order to embrace the Gospel you must embrace Judaism.  But Paul’s letter still speaks to us when he says For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

In essence, Paul is saying, You don’t need to observe the Law of Moses, but neither should you revert to your old lifestyles before you became Followers of the Way of Jesus; don’t go back to patterns of behavior that are no longer helpful.  And  this is where our reading from Galatians is a message that we all need to hear, and especially as we enter a time of transition.

When Steve and I first came to this congregation 8 years ago, the word I would have used to sum up First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem was “scared.”  Steve was on the Administrative Commission of Presbytery that worked with this church before and after the schism, and he preached the first Sunday after the final break.

I remember that day well: the people who were choosing to stay with the PCUSA were only allowed to worship at 8:30 a.m., much earlier than many of you were used to, and as people came into worship, we could read the expressions of dismay and worry on your faces. Who was left after the split?  Who would be there in worship?  Was First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem going to continue to exist as a PCUSA congregation?

What about the building?  Would you always be limited to use of the Sanctuary only at 8:30 on Sundays and given very limited access to the rest of the building at other times?  And what would happen when this went to court – would you all be evicted from your longtime church home?

At that time, I had just retired from pastoring First Presbyterian in Easton and had told the Presbytery not to put my name on the pulpit supply list since I had planned to take at least a year before I preached anywhere.  But here I was, in this pulpit, several times the summer of 2016 and again when Interim Pastor Bill Hess needed some time to recover from a heart issue

Now, because of Steve’s connections to the Moravians (he taught at Moravian Seminary for 17 years), it had felt natural for us to migrate to Central Moravian right after I retired and we loved singing in their choir. But the more we got to know this congregation, the more Steve and I felt called to come to this congregation and do what we could to help heal the pain called by the schism.

At that time, none of us knew if this congregation would be allowed to keep the building and I remember vividly an event in which Janet Bickford led us in an exercise in which we walked around the outside of the building (since we weren’t allowed inside) and invited participants to remember the various ministries and events that had taken place in each part of the building.

And then she reminded us that whatever decision would be made by the court, the building was only a building.  Our church is the people who gather to worship God, to grow in our faith, to support each other, and to serve our community and the wider world.

Today, we are in a very different place than we were eight years ago.  Bill Hess provided the sense of calm and hope this church needed so badly in the early days; and after Bill we have been greatly blessed by the leadership of a terrific pastoral staff: J.C., Lindsey and Suzanne.  But now J.C. is leaving, and while we know this is the right thing for him to do, that doesn’t make it any easier to say good-bye.

When Steve and I were preparing to leave our first pastorate in Medford, Oregon, a member of the congregation sent us a card with a cute picture of a perplexed- looking person.  The inside of the card read,“You’re leaving?  But I liked things the way they were.”

Oh, could I resonate with that card!  We could not have had a better first call: J.D. Conrad, the senior pastor, made it clear he wanted colleagues, not underlings; we had made a number of good friends; and Oregon is a beautiful place to live. I had loved our time in Medford, and I hated to leave.  But Steve had been accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Chicago and I knew when I married him that he wanted to work on a Ph.D., so I had always known our time in Medford would be limited.

And there were certainly some good things about the move: the Chicago area was my home: where I’d grown up, and where my parents and siblings still lived.  And now that we had a baby, it would be wonderful for him to be close to his grandparents. But it was still hard to leave the life we had built for ourselves in Medford. I liked things the way they were.

I imagine many of us now are feeling that way – after all of the tumult of the schism, we like things the way have been and we’re not ready for another big change.  After all, what pastor will want to come to a church still recovering from a schism, a church in the midst of two big building-and-grounds-related projects, a church that is holding its own financially but is still encumbered with a building that is definitely showing its age?

But we need to remember that our situation here was no more settled when J.C. accepted the call to serve as senior pastor.  And things were still unsettled when Lindsey joined us as associate pastor right at the beginning of the pandemic. Yes, this church has some real challenges ahead and will need a good transitional pastor to help us navigate the process of calling a new senior pastor.

But we have a strong pastoral staff here – both Lindsey and Suzanne are experienced and gifted and dedicated to their ministry in this congregation.  And there are four retired pastors who serve this congregation as Parish Associates – Steve Simmons, Ginny Smith, Richard Smith, and myself.  All of us are willing to step up and fill in some of the gaps until the transitional pastor arrives, and so you will see each of us in the pulpit or serving as worship leader after J.C.’s final Sunday with us on July 28.

But most importantly, while thoughtful and solid pastoral leadership certainly helps a congregation to grow in their faith and in their service to God, in the end the health of a congregation depends on the congregation itself and how well we demonstrate the gifts of the Spirit that Paul describes.

It was hard for me to leave Medford, but 14 years later, it was even harder for me to leave Chicago to accept the call to serve as Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Allentown.  And my friend Joyce must have sensed this when she gave me a little ceramic plaque with these words from Galatians 5: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

With this gift, Joyce was reminding me of where I could find my roots as, once again, we uprooted our family – leaving behind grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so many friends. In this time of transition, remembering these words of the Apostle Paul would be the guideline I needed to navigate a time of saying good-bye and of saying hello. And I think these words from Galatians 5 will serve us well as we enter our own time of transition.

Now, I think it’s worth noticing that this verse does not say “the fruits of the Spirit are…” but “the fruit of the Spirit is…” because it is when we exhibit all of these gifts that we truly follow Christ.  And it is when a congregation as whole exhibits these gifts that the Spirit can do its best work among us and through us. So, my charge to you and to myself is to follow Paul’s advice and not to slip into patterns of behavior that won’t be helpful: becoming fearful or pessimistic or resentful; engaging in gossip or speculation; losing patience in the midst of the Presbyterian call process that can be very slow at times.  Instead, let’s all do our best to live out the fruit of the Spirit.

The pastoral staff and our elected officers will need the support of a loving congregation in this time of transition – a congregation that exhibits the gifts Paul list.   And I am convinced that if we can indeed embody the gifts of the Spirit, there is a pastor out there who will want to come join this plucky, faithful, creative, loving and lively group of disciples.