Tuesday, July 05, 2022

What is Freedom for the Christian?


Sermon preached on June 26, 2020, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Galatians 5:1,13-25

For freedom Christ has set us free.

           This cry from St. Paul is the heart of the Letter to the Galatians, and the heart of his proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.

           My question today is this:  What do Christians mean when we use the word “freedom?”

           We can answer the question if we trace Paul’s development of the concept of freedom in this letter.

           Paul writes the Galatians in great anxiety.  He has heard that since he left them, other teachers have visited with a different message, and that message was that in order to be saved, Gentiles (non-Jews) had not only to believe in the work of Jesus, they also had to follow the biblical law—the Torah—to the letter. Among other things, that meant that males had to be circumcised, which was not the practice of the Gentile world.

           It wasn’t just about circumcision, of course.  It was also about what is now called “keeping kosher,” and adhering to all the purity code.  It was not long after the time of Paul when rabbis came up with the number 613:  613 commandments in the Torah, and every last one must be followed.

           Paul was more than anxious about this teaching—he was apoplectic.  At the beginning of the letter his pleasant greeting is the shortest of all the letters. By verse 6 he says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”  By the beginning of chapter 3, he has worked himself into a lather:  “You foolish Galatians!” he says. “Who has bewitched you?”

           He then spends a good bit of time laying out the difference between the gospel as he has taught them and the teaching which is tempting them.  It is about, he says, choosing to live in slavery or in freedom, living under the yoke of the law or living in the freedom of faith.

           So he gets to the passage we heard last week. It is among the best known passages from Paul. We heard:

 Before faith came we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  The law was our disciplinarian . . . but now faith has been revealed and we no longer need a disciplinarian. For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God by faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

           And what does Paul say is the implication of this freedom from the law? He goes on:

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ.

           What the law does best, Paul is saying, is to divide us, to separate us into neat categories.  It is, in fact, the nature of the law to do so.  The law, Paul says, creates the category of sinner. That category is useless now that faith has been revealed.

           Does this mean that sin isn’t real anymore?  Does it mean what we do and how we do it doesn’t matter?  No, of course not.  But it does mean that righteousness is not something we earn by following the law. It is a gift by the grace of God.  Our status as children of God is not something we have to earn. It is something we have only to have faith in.

           Then comes this morning’s great cry. “For freedom Christ has made us free! Stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

           We skip Paul’s final harangue this morning in verses two through 12 of chapter 5.  Paul’s anger at those who are tempting the Galatians boils over.  Those who demand that you be circumcised—I wish their knife would slip and they would harm themselves instead of you!  He uses much more colorful language.  Clearly this is extremely important to him.

           Having vented his spleen, it seems like he takes a deep breath and then we get to his final point.  Now that you are free, he says, use your freedom for good.  And he lays out the way of the Spirit verses the way of the flesh, the way of self-indulgence.  We get two lists, vices and virtues.  Rather than focus on them, I simply ask you to notice that they are all about relationship.

           Now we can go back to our question:  What is freedom for the Christian?  Freedom is the glorious good news that we are all on an equal playing field.  We are all one, the same, before the God of Jesus Christ.  Whatever boundaries come between us in this world are rubbish.

           This declaration is not a “one off” for Paul.  He returns to it again and again in his letters.  He will use the metaphor elsewhere that this good news makes us a new creation.  We are each made in the image of God, and whoever we are counted to be in this world, we are children of God.

           In short, freedom is throwing off the shackles of all the world’s limitations, be they created by law or culture or religion.

           That alone is good news but there is more.  Freedom is not, however, an end in itself.  Freedom is not the highest state of being.  Freedom is not the end. Freedom is the beginning.

           We are free to be and free to make choices.  And make choices we must, every day. It is as certain a part of life as breathing.  As we heard him say this morning,

 You are called to live in freedom, brothers and sisters, but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.

           Freedom means making choices, and we can make them for good or for ill.  We can make decisions that hurt others and ourselves, or we can make them so that we can love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Freedom itself is not the end. Freedom is the beginning of building a new world.

           Now this can be caricatured as:  well there Paul goes, and there the church goes, spoiling all our fun.  In the end the church does not want to set us free, it wants to control us.

           It is true that the church in some of its expressions—including some of its current ones—is about control.  But that is not what Jesus wanted for his followers and it is not what Paul’s vision of the church was.

           For Jesus and for Paul, the church is the people of God knowing deep down in their bones the freedom that is God’s gift to each and every one, and choosing to use that freedom to build the common good in ways that no law can make happen.

           For freedom Christ has made us free.  We are to use our freedom for the freedom of others, so that all can live as the beloved children of God that they are.

           This should be an important part of our proclamation in the world, a fundamental piece of the good news we are called to tell and to live.  Freedom is a gift, a glorious gift.  But it is not the end. It is the beginning.

           There is a saying, “No one is free until everyone is free.”  I think Paul would agree.  As Americans we treasure our freedom and we will rightly celebrate it in the coming week.  But because freedom is not the end, but only the beginning, we must also treasure and celebrate that freedom is a journey.  The end is our absolute equality as children of God.  So let there not only be a celebration of freedom, but a re-commitment to its attainment by all God’s children, by all God’s creation.

           For freedom Christ has set us free.  Let us use our freedom for the freedom of all, for the making of a new creation, the kingdom of God, a new world ruled by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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