Galatians 5:1, 13-25
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
That was Paul’s advice to the church in Galatia. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” A few paragraphs later he advises what not to do. “Do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh… Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these…those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
He speaks first of freedom – and then, almost immediately, speaks of restrictions. It reeks of contradiction!
The concept of freedom is certainly important in our culture. One of the emphases is on personal freedom. We hear that emphasis in so many areas of our national life. People speak about the need to keep their resources away from the government – the “It’s mine, I earned it” mentality. Here, in Florida, we have the stand your ground law that puts a premium on personal space and the right to defend it at all costs. We’re programmed by the culture to ask, first, how things affect or will affect us personally. The reasoning is: “We live in a free country. Therefore, we should be free to do what we want!”
Years ago, someone told Mark that the church ought to take all responsibility for those who couldn’t take care of themselves, those who had become a burden on society. He felt that it was an imposition upon him and his family to be asked to do anything for others. He wasn’t a church goer. But, the church ought to do what he was unwilling to do.
It is a sentiment that often gets put forward. Why should we, as a nation, be concerned about those who struggle? Our freedom is to be unencumbered!
“For freedom Christ has set us free.” This assertion may be, in some ways, one of the foundations of our existence. We speak about the various freedoms that we have pledged to uphold. The first amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly.” Those freedoms are basic to who we are and to how we approach life. And, in today’s world, they are often heard and interpreted as individual freedoms. In fact, an individualistic reading of the second amendment has led to the battle over the possession of firearms. “The right of people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed upon.”
This individualistic approach has led to all sorts of divisions. People proclaim the right to freedom of religion – and then force their practices, beliefs, and perspectives on the society of a whole. I was struck by the story of the woman in Tampa who complained about the rainbow flag the city flew to offer its support to the Pulse Nightclub victims. “I’m a Christian,” she had declared. “Flying the flag creates a hostile work environment.” Her “freedom” was, in her eyes, compromised by the city’s willingness to offer support in the face of unimaginable tragedy. For her, freedom was a personal right that could not be compromised by others. We see this over and over again as particular segments of society demand that society abide by its codes and beliefs and practices. Freedom, for them, means never having to acknowledge or be threatened by others’ differences.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul said. “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
“Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” I think we are to keep those words in mind as we hear Paul’s words about the flesh’s desires. Professor Robert Bryant says that this isn’t a passage that speaks about a Greek notion of duality – that the mortal world is tainted and the spiritual world is pure. Instead, when Paul speaks of the flesh he is using a sort of shorthand. Living in the “flesh” is self-centered rather than God-centered living. Slavery comes in many guises. Sometimes we are enslaved by our very selves. We see that in addictions. People are enslaved by their need for drugs or alcohol. But we also get enslaved in other ways. “The works of the flesh are obvious,” Paul said, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” These attitudes enslave because the self is the center of all things.
Professor Mark Douglas says we live with the notion that freedom means the absence of entanglements, when, in actuality, entanglements are the means by which freedom becomes meaningful. “Freedom is not separation from relationships; it is a feature of relationships that becomes especially apparent as a result of our relationship with Jesus Christ.” When the self is the center of our universe, it is almost impossible to see and hear and be concerned about others. I think that’s evident in the complaint from the woman in Tampa. She can’t see beyond her own interpretation of the faith so she can’t have concern for those who have been hurt and those who are mourning.
Bryant says “Christian freedom is not unrestrained permission to do whatever one pleases.” We are freed to follow God’s ways, to let God claim us and shape us and direct us. We choose that path. It is not forced on us.
Today’s gospel lesson could be an example of what it means to be free. Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We have heard so much theology that speaks of God putting the son to death on the cross that we are in danger of missing the Biblical witness that speaks of Jesus choosing to be faithful. Of course, if he had turned away, we wouldn’t have his story – so it’s tempting to read it through the lens of knowing what happened. Yes, we have to do that to an extent. But, at times, we lose the sense of Jesus, the human being, who was presented with choices. Is that not the story of the temptation? Jesus was challenged to choose to follow God or to place himself first. “Turn this stone into a loaf of bread. Throw yourself down from here. Worship me, and all this will be yours.”
He refused to be “enslaved” by the temptation to put himself first or to allow someone else’s agenda to drive his own. He chose to be faithful to God’s way – because he trusted that God’s way would lead to an unseen fulfillment of promised redemption for all. Following God meant that he had “nowhere to lay his head.”
The Rev. Carol Holtz-Martin wrote about moving from slavery to a freedom found in God. “The first six months I lived overseas after college were awash in loneliness; late each weekday afternoon, I would buy a paperback mystery and read it to make endurable the solitary evening…Finally, it was make-or-break time. I would cut the ties that bound me to my discontent and try my host country on its own terms. With little enthusiasm, I stayed in town to visit a church near my workplace. The second time I showed up, the head usher remembered me, his kindness startling tears into my eyes. The third time I did not duck out during the final hymn and gained an invitation to a home for Sunday dinner. The effect of that loving, laughing, and singing congregation’s connection to Jesus Christ would come to permeate every aspect of my life. It was a wondrous thing to stumble into the hands of the living God.”
She goes on to say that Paul is reminding us that “Christ’s perfect freedom engages us in a call. That call carries obligation to neighbor as well as to God, to invest ourselves in the community of faith, to put up with the sandpaper of fellow congregant’s wearisome ways against the rough edges of our own unholiness.”
Paul describe’s the fruits of the “free” life – life that has chosen to pursue God’s ways. The fruit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” Those fruits are evident not in a life that doesn’t look beyond the self, but in a life that seeks the well-being of others, the wholeness of the community. He does not put limits on it – that these fruits are to be reserved for a small group of like-minded people. These fruits are to be shared with the world. “There is no law against such things!” No matter what the world might say to us, we are freed to be loving, joyful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle – and self-controlled. Who could make a law against such attributes? It would be impossible to prevent these things – even in the harshest of conditions. I think of the stories of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer – a theologian imprisoned in Nazi Germany. He may have been behind bars, but he lived a God-centered life that demonstrated the fruits of the Spirit. He connected with those around him. He looked beyond himself.
When the Samaritans rejected Jesus, his disciples were tempted to take the worldly way of revenge – in God’s name – and call down fire on them. But Jesus rebuked them. Others spoke of their desire to follow him. But he challenged them to see, recognize and consider the cost. They were free to follow him only if they could let go of the things that enslaved them. His words sound harsh to us. But they are to challenge us to see, recognize, and consider the things that enslave us and prevent us from following God’s ways.
I would like to end with a wonderful prayer I came across yesterday, a prayer from the Celtic tradition. It’s titled “The Knot Prayer,” and plays on the words knot-k, n, o, t, and not, n, o, t.
“Dear God, please untie the knots that are in my mind, my heart, and my life. Remove the have nots, the can nots, and the do nots that I have in my mind. Erase the will nots, may nots, and might nots that find a home in my heart. Release me from the could nots, would nots, and should nots that obstruct my life.
And most of all, dear God, I ask that you remove from my mind, my heart and my life, all of the AM nots that I have allowed to hold me back, especially the thought that I am not good enough.”
A comment was, “We have been set free in Christ!”