True Freedom

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

June 26, 2022

Main Idea – Christ gives us freedom

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Last Sunday was Juneteenth, when we celebrated African Americans’ freedom from slavery  and next week is the 4th of July when we will celebrate freedom from colonial rule so it is providential that our lectionary reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about freedom.  Exploring Paul’s call to freedom is even more important in light of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings about freedom.   As Americans and as Baptists, we love freedom.  We hold it up as our most cherished ideal.  But what does freedom really mean?  How do our freedoms contribute to our society?  And how does freedom interact with our faith?  Paul tells us that Jesus makes us free.

As we begin this exploration, let us remember from last week, that this letter to the Galatians is Paul’s fiery response to a conflict that had arisen in a church Paul had founded.  The Gentile Galatians had been told by new leaders that they needed to follow Jewish law, including circumcision,  before they could be welcomed into Christian community.  Paul insists that this is untrue. Instead Christ has freed all from the bondage of law. Back in Chapter 4 Paul writes, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” (4:8-9) Paul is astonished that the Gentile Galatians, who were both literal slaves and free people,  would so easily give up their freedom in Christ.

Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”(5:1)   What a stirring sentence!  The structure of it has Christ and us surrounded by freedom.  But what does it mean? It means that freedom is essential to us. Christ frees us because freedom is part of God’s vision for creation, with all free to live in peace.  Freedom is the opposite of oppression and God opposes oppression always. 

Paul continues. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”(5:1) In the Galatians’ context, Paul is talking about not submitting to the rules imposed by the other teachers.  For us, Paul reminds us that while freedom is a gift from God, it requires steadfastness to resist those who would take our freedom away.

Paul reiterates – “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;”.  Not only are the Galatians (and we) given freedom, we are called to freedom.  It is not only a gift but an opportunity!  But, Paul tells us “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”(v.13)  Our freedom is not a blank check to do whatever we want whenever we want.  It is not an absence of connections or responsibilities to others.  We are free to serve each other and by doing so, serve God.  This is profound and gets to the heart of God.  God loves us freely and chose to be incarnated as Jesus our Christ, who (as Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God  as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”(Phil 2:6-7a) so that we would know God’s infinite love.   Christ frees us from the bonds of oppression so that we might choose to be bound together in love and service.  In freedom, God chooses us and in freedom, we are invited to choose to live in God’s love.   As Paul says “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (v. 14).  Following this, in freedom, fulfills all of the law.

Paul points out the consequences of not choosing God.  “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (v. 15).  A variation on “Live by the sword, die by the sword”, those who choose to remain in conflict, intent on oppressing others, will find their lives not free, but perpetually in bondage.  Systems of oppression, large or small, cannot last forever because there is always someone who will rise up and overthrow it.  Oppressors live in slavery to fear.

Instead, Paul calls the Galatians (and us) to live by the Spirit, meaning a God-centered life versus life in the flesh, meaning a self-centered life. [Paul is not saying that our flesh is inherently sinful or bad.]  In our freedom we are given choices and Paul points out that we can either focus on our own desires or focus on God’s call to love.  Often these two choices are mutually exclusive.  For example, we can save all our cookies for ourselves (and eat them until we are sick) or we can share them (enjoying the company of our neighbors).    But, Paul tells us, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. “(v.18) meaning that those who keep God in the center of their lives share what they have out of joy and gratitude rather than obligation.  

To make his point crystal clear, Paul lists the work of self-centeredness.  It is a long list of conflicts and dangers that sadly, is not unfamiliar to us.  In fact it reads like the headlines of a newspaper or the content of our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds;  fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. (v. 19-21).   When all are focused on their own desires with no thought for the care of others, conflict and sin is inevitable.  Paul warns the Galatians (and us) that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (v. 21).

But then Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit.  Using the word fruit is important because living in the Spirit brings gifts that feed us and our community.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (v. 22-23a) grow when we care about and for each other. When everyone cares about everyone else, then there is no scarcity or need for fear because everyone receives care!   All are free to live as God’s beloved children. 

Now Paul’s words to the Galatians have such resonance for us today because we are living in a society which has largely forgotten what true freedom means.   While we, as Americans, hold freedom as our most cherished ideal, we have taken freedom for granted.  We have abused our freedoms and allowed them to be taken away by fear or simply inertia.  As people of faith, we have watched as the Christian understandings of faith and freedom have been twisted for political purposes almost to the point of being unrecognizable.  We have cheapened freedom to mean just that those with the most power can do whatever they want, while the rest of society lives with the consequences.  We are living as slaves, in bondage to fear, greed, and oppression.   We now live in a nation where a man’s right to carry a gun is more valued than a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body; where religious freedom is defined as limiting the choices of others according to one religious tradition; where people of color and members of the LGBT+ community are seen as suspect and second class citizens.  We are in real trouble, folks and there is a lot of work to do.

But fortunately, Christ still (and always) offers us true freedom.  Freedom to love and to serve one another.  Freedom to rest in God’s love, Christ’s peace, and the Spirit’s leading.   This freedom brings us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (v. 22-23a).  It feeds and empowers us to reach out to those in need. These fruits of the Spirit are not passive, as nice and peaceful as they sound.  They energize us and make it possible for us to work together to resist fear, greed, and oppression.   Because, as Dr. King reminds us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   

This congregation is a community built on Christ’s freedom. As Baptists, we hold freedom as essential to our faith.  Not only our own freedom to live as Christians but everyone’s freedom to worship as they are called.    As a congregation, we value and celebrate the freedom that has brought each of us here.  We honor each other’s unique lives and points of view while recognizing our unity as beloved children of God.  We care for each other through the joys and griefs of life.  We welcome everybody and we speak up when we see the forces of fear, greed, and oppression threatening.  There is much to do but we do not do it alone.  Thanks be to God.

Let us pray,

God of freedom, We thank you for your love and for your sustaining grace.  Empower us to reject the bonds of fear, greed, and oppression and to work for the freedom of all.   In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.