I need more than a ritual
I absolutely appreciate the Apostle Paul's candor in his letters to the New Testament churches. He was never ashamed of the gospel message, nor did he ever mince words as he declared whatever it is God prepared for him to declare. He was bold, to the point, and always spot on. Whenever there was controversy of some sort, he faced it head on - he didn't "make nice" with those who had the controversy in the hopes of "winning them over" to his viewpoint. In fact, he often stood in opposition to the wrong actions of those who chose their own way of doing things and let them know very clearly their choices were definitely not "on the mark". If we understand Paul's role in the New Testament church, we might just appreciate even more why it was he took such a firm stand on occasion. He was the founding father of these churches - it was upon his shoulders to make sure they laid the right foundation upon which to build. If they didn't start right, their chances of ending their journey right was far less likely! The same is true in our lives - begin right, follow the right path, and you are more likely to at least in the vicinity of the mark in the end!
Here’s my instruction: walk in the Spirit, and let the Spirit bring order to your life. If you do, you will never give in to your selfish and sinful cravings. (Galatians 5:16 VOICE)
One such example of having to correct a little of the misplaced beliefs and "wrong foundation" of one such group of folks can be found in the letter to the Galatian church. There was a huge disagreement in the church about circumcision - the right observed by the staunch Jewish believers as a sign of the covenant made between Abraham and God. Many years later, this symbolism was still being carried out, but it had become a matter of "religious pursuit" rather than a real heart-felt commitment between God and man. The New Testament church at Galatia was trying to embrace the freedom of grace (being made right before God because of what he does on our behalf) and walking away from this practice of "religious pursuit", but there was controversy. Some could not see any option other than circumcision - because it was part of who they were as a nation; while others never practiced the religious symbolism, so to demand it of them was kind of frightening and offensive.
Truth be told, there are a whole lot of things we "do" in our churches today which we have very little clue as to where these practices originated, why we do them, or even if they really "matter" in the scheme of what God expects of the believers. We just do them because it is what people in churches do! Don't believe me? Try bringing some un-churched person into your church the next time it meets and then ask them what stood out, what they have questions about, and what might not have made total sense to them. They will come up with all kinds of "religious" questions you may not have every thought of - things you "do" or "say", but don't really know the meaning behind. We do so much by "rote" because it is part of being "churched", but haven't really embraced the full meaning of what we do.
Paul is quite direct - the religious pursuit of circumcision isn't what makes a believer more or less connected with God. Embracing the rite of circumcision doesn't get you "further" in the Kingdom of God, or ensure you are "right" with God. It is a "rite" - a ritual, a symbol, but not the means by which this change of mind, heart, and spirit occurs. The only way to truly "change" what you "are" is to allow the Spirit of God to live within you, bringing "order" to your life. To this end, Paul simply states as a summary to his discussion about the merits of circumcision: "...if you choose to be circumcised, then you will oblige yourself to do every single rule of the law for the rest of your life." (Galatians 5:3 VOICE) In other words, if you want to put your trust in the rituals, then grace has no real effect in your lives. Don't miss what he says - you "oblige" yourself to "do" every SINGLE rule of the law for the rest of your life. The ritual becomes the focus, not the liberty God intends by grace being embraced.
When Paul says "walk in the Spirit, and let the Spirit bring order to your life," he isn't just saying we can intermix our rituals and this new-found grace. We let go of the past practices, making a clean break from what we "counted on" to get or earn us merit in God's eyes. We move into the place where we accept our merit comes from what God alone does on our behalf (and continues to do within us by his Spirit). If you have ever tried to rely upon some religious ritual or pursuit to keep you from doing things you didn't want to do, you probably are like me - you didn't do so well "not doing" whatever that was! When I fully lean into the grace which dwells within by the power of the Spirit living in me, I find I do much better resisting the things I definitely am powerless to resist in my own effort. Just sayin!