A sermon based on Galatians 5:1, 13-26
This text was actually one of the lectionary’s choices for last week, but because this week is 4th of July weekend, and because the text has a lot to do with freedom, it made sense to read it today.
It’s part of the letter from the Apostle Paul to the young churches in the Roman province of Galatia – what we think of today more or less as Turkey. Paul has been really concerned for these churches, because of disputes that have been going on, disputes we might call theological or, frankly, political. His letter is an effort to get his position across, with some force; it’s clear from the whole letter that he takes this matter very seriously.
Church history took the side of the Apostle Paul. That’s probably why we have this letter in our Bibles; and why we don’t have letters written by the other side. I think we Presbyterians believe that the Holy Spirit has a hand in the outcome of deliberations of this kind, but … we sometimes have to remind ourselves that it can take a long time for us to see the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work, and often when we think “this is it,” we’re jumping to conclusions.
When was the last time anyone thought about prepositions? Like that word “for” in Paul’s opening sentence here, “for freedom” – Christ set us free, for freedom, for the purpose of making us free, with everything that means.
When does anyone think about prepositions, unless they’re in 6th grade or 8th grade or whenever we learn about them in school? Usually never. But they make a big difference to the way we think about other things.
I learned this when my daughter was very little, and learning how to talk, because sometimes she would use the wrong ones, and it would sound funny. The one that always stands out for me was the time she was looking out the window and said “Sasa” – who was our cat at the time – “Sasa is with the driveway.”
If she’d known better, she’d have said “in the driveway,” or maybe “on” the driveway, and eventually she did know better … but that with stuck with me. For one thing, I really liked the idea of Sasa being with the driveway … as if they were having a nice chat or something. And for another thing, because it woke me up to how those little words make a big difference in what we think someone means.
Like in that sentence of Paul’s – if he’d said by freedom – Christ has set us free by freedom – we’d have a different idea, we’d think Jesus had used freedom somehow to set us free, maybe like a tool, or a weapon.
Or if he’d said in freedom, Christ has set us free, in freedom, we’d think Jesus was free when he did it.
When we say for freedom, we get the idea that the freedom is the whole point of the exercise – what Christ wants is for us to be free, to be able to live free lives.
So don’t get ensnared again in a yoke of slavery – that’s Paul’s very next point, which seems to mean something like, don’t get wrapped up in a way of life where you “have to” do this, you “have to” do that, you “have to” have a to-do-list or know all the rules for “how to be a good-enough person.” That’s not Christ’s kind of freedom; that’s not any kind of freedom, in fact, it’s actually the opposite of the life God really wants for us ultimately.
We know from the other parts of the letter that Paul is really concerned about this, and about the vision of the Christian life it comes from. He’s concerned for what he believes is the welfare of his Galatian audience. It seems they were being lectured by some other Christians, who apparently were telling them that they were not doing Christianity “right,” and who were trying to get them on board with the “proper procedures.”
In particular, those proper procedures included getting all the men to go through the proper initiation ceremony – to be circumcised. Circumcision had gotten “politicized,” we might say these days.
Circumcision had been an indispensable mark of belonging to – being “in” – the covenant community of Israel. Probably naturally, there were early Christians who thought it was obviously still just as mandatory for belonging to the Christian community that was a further development of that community. Jesus and his disciples, who were Jewish, had been through it; the very earliest Christians, like the ones who had heard Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, and who had joined the first Christian community in Jerusalem, had all been through it. So …
But then pretty quickly things get fuzzier, because Peter takes the story of Jesus also to a Roman centurion and his family. Then lots of Gentiles join the church in Damascus, and various other places. Those new members are less certain about what’s obvious, or mandatory, AND they are now getting different instructions from different people. So by the time Paul writes this letter to the Galatians, things have gotten kind of confused and tense.
Because the big question when different people have different ideas and different practices is: who’s in charge around here?? Who is running this church??
Who is making these rules??
In other words, they’re literally having a political problem, in the church.
I have some sympathy for the people who say we ought to keep politics out of the church – in the sense that I would not want to show up at a worship service to find someone giving a campaign speech. But I also used to be a political scientist, and back then I learned that any time we get two or three people together, and they start making decisions about what they’re going to do, or how they’re going to do it, or what rules they’re going to follow, or basically, who’s going get who’s way – that right there is already politics. It’s politics in the original sense of the word “politics” – which comes from the Greek word polis, city-state, and which means, basically, “the process of working out the rules of the polis, the community.”
So, the early church, and specifically the churches in Galatia that Paul is writing to, are in the middle of a political crisis. But Paul is trying to get them to see that it isn’t only political. Aside from being social or cultural, it’s also theological, that is, it’s important for how they understand God, and how they’re going to relate to God. It’s important for how they’re going to govern their lives as God’s people, people who understand God to be “in charge around here.” So, the stakes are high, according to Paul; this isn’t just some incidental question about how different people want to do things different ways. There are some essential principles at stake.
I think we would agree. Which is why you’d think Paul would have been a little more precise about that preposition at the beginning of that first sentence …
Since we saw that it might mean something a little different to us if he’d said “by freedom, Christ has set us free” or “in freedom, Christ has set us free” instead of “for freedom, Christ has set us free.”
But Greek is a language, unlike English, where you don’t HAVE to pick one word there. Instead, you can manage to get across all of those ideas at once, in a way – which is what Paul has done, and that makes the meaning of freedom there bigger than we realize sometimes. Because we could think of freedom as the very thing Jesus uses to set us free, by the complete freedom that Jesus has; or we could think of it as the state Jesus is in when he sets us free, in his total freedom from fear and from sin; or also what Christ has set us free for, so that the purpose of that setting free that Jesus does for us is the same kind of complete freedom Jesus had and showed in his own life. Or we could think all of that at once, like one of those situations where the means are the end, or the way is the life you’re trying to get to.
Because Jesus is entirely free. Nothing ever holds Jesus back from doing what is good and right, right then, right there. The gospels show Jesus being completely free to say whatever he has to say, to do whatever he has to do, to go wherever he has to go … even when people disapprove, like his family; even when it shakes things up, and when it’s dangerous, like cleansing the temple.
Even when we might think of him as being coerced or as “not having any choice” – like when he’s standing before Pilate, or going to his death on the cross, the gospels tell us these are consequences Jesus anticipated, with very clear vision. He chose to live a life of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and generosity and faithfulness and gentleness and courageous self-control anyway, freely, even in the face of religious opposition and Roman brutality.
Same with the early Christians. Knowing how unpopular and how forbidden their religion was, facing all kinds of opposition from relatives and friends and the authorities, even facing violence, they lived as Christians anyway. They had the same complete freedom Jesus had, because in his freedom and by his freedom he had set his followers free for that same free way of life.
It’s a little different from the way we think about “freedom” in the United States these days.
Sometimes when we say “freedom” we mean “we have lots of options.” Jesus’ kind of freedom sometimes meant he had exactly one option, namely to do what was good and right, what was faithful to God. But he was entirely free from the compulsion to do something different, to sin because it was what everyone around him was doing, or because it was what people expected of him, or because he was afraid of what would happen if he did the right thing.
That fear of what will happen is exactly how diabolical powers so often convince people they have “no choice.” Jesus’ kind of freedom is the freedom to make the good choice, the wise choice, and if necessary the courageous choice.
Sometimes, too, when we say “freedom” we mean “no one tells us what to do.” “You’re not the boss of me” – this is something else my daughter used to say when she was little. “You’re not the boss of me, I’m my own boss.” If that’s what we think “freedom” means, Jesus’ kind of freedom, and Paul’s kind of freedom, in which he wants the Galatians to be “enslaved to one another,” may not sound much like freedom to us. Because “being enslaved to one another” definitely sounds like someone else is the boss of us!
Paul’s vision of that seems to look a lot like what goes on between people who love one another, like between parents and children. When our children are hungry, we feed them; when they’re tired and cranky, we put them to bed; when they’re growing, we spend time with them, listen to them, pay attention to them and do our best to ensure their well-being. We do that without constantly checking to see if we “have to” do this or that, according to “the rules,” or “can’t” do this or that, according to “the rules.” We do what seems to be needed or called for, even when it means putting other things aside to do it.
Living that way, living according to what love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and generosity and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control call for from us … that’s freedom. Freedom to live … by the Spirit.
And there again is one of those little words in English, which lets us know that there might be more going on in Paul’s Greek-speaking mind. Because Paul seems to be thinking here that the Spirit leads us as we live this new, free, Christian kind of life.
But he could also mean that the Spirit is the power that makes this way of life possible; that would make sense. Or possibly that this is living the same way the Spirit lives, that would make sense, too. Or even that the Spirit is the environment in which we live this life. All of those ideas are possibilities for understanding what Paul says here. And honestly, Paul could easily have meant that as the Spirit leads us in this way of life, the Spirit gives us power to live this way of life, and shows us how to live it, and is the air we breathe while we’re living it … the whole time acting as our model, our goal …
So [to me] Paul seems to be saying this is freedom in the Spirit, brought to us by the Spirit, for the purpose of the freedom we have when we live in the way the Spirit moves us to live … once again, it’s like the means are the end, we get this freedom by exercising this freedom.
So that as we move in the direction of the Spirit, in the direction of Christ, as we follow that Spirit and as we use the Spirit’s methods in our lives, which Christ has set us free to do, this way of life blossoms and grows and ripens – we’ll look more and more like, we’ll be more and more, these Spirit kind of people living this Spirit kind of life. Jesus’s kind of life. God’s kind of life. A completely free life of loving God and loving one another.
It’s a beautiful vision. It’s why Paul wants to pull the Galatians back from the kind of politics they’re about to fall into with this other faction. That politics depends on those folks getting them to support their party, and join their “we’re more correct than you” club, and sign on to their “we’re closer to God,” “we have the original Godly rules” program.
He says, look, that’s not freedom, and it’s not the Spirit of God. It’s just fallen human nature – “the flesh” to use Paul’s language – masquerading as “being right.” Don’t fall for it. Stick with real freedom – the freedom Christ had, and lived, and for which Christ set us free.