Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Translation from The Message:
Galatians 5:1 Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
16-18My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?
19-21It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.
22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
23-24 Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.
25-26 Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.
We are still a week away from the 4th of July, but the spirit of the holiday is already in the air. There are flags waving and renewed talk about freedom and liberty. We have a constitution full of rights that we have here in this country, and there are many wonderful freedoms we celebrate as citizens. But perhaps it is appropriate that this text from Galatians is not being read next Sunday, on Independence Day, because Paul is talking about a kind of freedom that is anything but independent.
Paul writes to the church in Galatia: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (v1). God’s grace revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us from sin. But notice the words that Paul uses. For freedom. That word “for” is important. When most of us think of freedom we tend to think of freedom “from” something: Freedom from the British in the late 18th century, freedom from debt, or (as teenagers) freedom from our parents or teachers, or in the church we speak of freedom from sin. Indeed Christ has freed us from sin, but Paul is going to take us that next step, claiming what freedom truly means for Christians. Because for us, freedom means being released from the sin that binds and oppresses us so that we are free for a calling to love. It is freedom with a wonderful catch – we are free to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The church that Paul is writing to in Galatia doesn’t quite get this. You should read this entire letter sometime – this is a community that was not in Paul’s good graces. Apparently, after Paul left this mostly Gentile pagan community in the Mediterranean region, some Jewish Christian “missionaries” showed up trying to convince these newly baptized Christians they must follow proper religious law in order to truly be saved, mainly, that they must first be circumcised (contrary to what Paul had told them). So it’s no great surprise that someone in the church in Galatia might have decided to double-check this new message with Paul, who had since moved on to other missions in the region.
When Paul hears this he escalates into quite a fury, “For freedom Christ has set us free” Paul fires back in his letter. God’s grace is enough. We are freed from sin by the power of God’s grace revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the foundation of our relationship to God, and it isn’t conditional on observance of religious law. But it doesn’t give us a free ticket to be self-indulgent or do whatever we want either.
Christians are free in Jesus Christ from the necessity of earning their salvation; but because it is Jesus Christ who is doing the defining, we are freed for the purpose of our call to love our neighbors. We are freed from the sin that divides us from God and from each other. We are freed from the old barriers of nation, race, class, and gender. All these barriers are overcome in communion at one table. It is that commitment to community and overcoming the barriers that divide that is the other side of freedom. It’s about grace and responsibility and relationships.
We live in a time that is obsessed with personal freedom and self-gratification. You can turn on just about any channel on TV, and I could almost guarantee that there would a reality show or game show or even the news making this point all too clear. We think that freedom is our license to do whatever we want, say whatever we want, and live however we please. This my friends is not the truth, nor is the good news preached in our gospel.
When we get tangled up in believing we have some kind of entitlement or any kind of control over God’s love, we become selfish and are enslaved to our own selfish choices. I chose to read the translation from the Message this morning, because I think it better captures the difference between the freed spirit and the one bound to selfishness. In most traditional translations, Paul’s words get translated into a stark dichotomy of things of the “spirit” verses things of the “flesh.” It gets too easy with our understanding of those words to read Paul and conclude that all bodily things are bad and all mental/spiritual things are good. But if you look at the list, even in the NRSV, the works of the flesh involve both physical and emotional/intellectual missteps. Paul’s point is not to denigrate our bodies – he is concerned with unhealthy practices that emerge when one is concerned more with their own selfish desires than love for others. His ultimate concern is the strength of the community. So Paul emphasizes that the freedom we have in Christ frees us from being tangled up in selfishness. We don’t have to live that way.
Paul is honest, and I am going to be honest with you, that despite our modern definition of freedom being the absence of entanglements, that’s not how it works when we are followers of Christ. Being followers of Christ puts all of us into this messy and beautiful mix together.
Last Sunday, we began our adult Sunday School class discussing a series called Living the Questions. One of the key foundations of this series is that faith is a journey, not some destination or certainty that one reaches the moment one chooses to be a Christian. It is a way of living, a process full of doubt and uncertainty and hope and beauty and tragedy. But it is a process grounded in the strong belief that God is with us. There is a sort of freedom in this life of faith – freedom from sin and death that could otherwise consume us. But we have to be careful not to let this freedom make us lazy, and self-serving, and generally unpleasant, boundary-building Christians. After all, freedom in Christ is the freedom to love without limits, to serve all of God’s children.
And the irony of this freedom to love is that it means that we actually are more closely bound to one another than we ever were before. Christ’s freedom engages us in a call – a vocation, a way of living that defies what our self-seeking culture would have us do. As one pastor puts it, it is that call “that 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 congregants’ wearisome ways against the rough edges of our own unholiness. That call impels us to prepare our hearts for worship, so that we must be fed or else know sharp hunger; to exist in community with such openness and generosity that our neighbor’s well-being is part and parcel of our own” (Feasting, Holtz-Martin).
And we have companions with us on this journey too. We have fellow brothers and sisters to help ease our burdens, dance and cry with us, and wrestle with the same questions we have. And we are gifted with these fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These qualities are the marks of individuals and communities who live in the freedom that only God can offer. And note that when Paul speaks of these fruits that they are gifts and not works: that should remind us that they are cultivated in us by the Holy Spirit and not achieved through our own efforts.
And realistically, we won’t have all of these with us at all times; and we may lose some along the way. But if we seek to live faithfully, God’s Spirit will help equip us with what we need. It is our responsibility to travel lightly – carry only that which we need, so that we do not become so bogged down with our own selfish baggage that we simply don’t have room for the joy, hope, peace, love, patience, kindness that the Spirit offers.
Look at the cover of your bulletin this morning. You have the 9 fruits of the Spirit listed there. Which one do you most need in your life at this moment? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Don’t try to have them all right now. Which one is most needed at this time in your life? As you pray this week – as you pray for others and for our world, don’t forget to pray for yourself. And pray that God would help you to be open to receive this one gift of the Spirit that you most need.
And watch what happens in your life as you cultivate these gifts. Because you can’t NOT love and serve others when you have peace and joy and patience and gentleness and goodness. If you truly embody these gifts, if we as a congregation embody these gifts, who knows where God could take us? I leave you with Eugene Peterson’s translation that I read from this letter, as it offers solid words about living this out in every aspect of our lives: “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.” It might challenge in way we had not imagined, but I pray that we might have the wonderful problem of working out the implications of what it means to be a church that is loving, joyful, patient, peaceful, kind, self-controlled, good, faithful, and gentle. Amen.