Sermon June 30, 2019
Scripture Reading: 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.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and 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; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
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. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Sermon: "For Freedom?"
Wow, this is weird.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been here in the pulpit. There’s a part of me that wonders if I’ll make it back down those steps. It’s been a long climb to make it back up here, if you know what I mean.
I’m keenly aware that I am following in the footsteps of some fine speakers for the last several weeks. While I am grateful for their willingness to share a word with us, I am a little anxious about whether or not I’m still able to put my thoughts together in a coherent way, to bring an original look at the scriptures, to maybe encourage, gently, a new way of thinking about God and each other, to provoke a kinder spirit, a more compassionate heart.
You know, when I say it like that, it sounds a little overwhelming. I think I’ll just focus on me not toppling out of the pulpit and call it a win. Who’s with me?
Today, the Apostle Paul brings us a paradox: the tension between freedom and righteous behavior, the tension between trusting the Holy Spirit to move in us and in others and in living the kind of life that reflects your understanding of your relationship with God and with those around you.
On one hand, Paul offers us a respite from the grind of trying to live up to the law that he calls death. On the other, he quickly reminds of the ways that our new freedom is reflected in our lives and interactions with each other.
It’s a tightrope that he is walking, and he doesn’t always perfectly capture his thoughts. Maybe that’s why he wrote so many letters. He was trying to get it right, this new way of thinking about God in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and he had to keep coming back to the same things over and over and over again. I know how he feels. Maybe I’ll get it right next week. It could happen.
Now, I confess, that when I first entered Seminary, I was not a huge Paul fan. I felt that he was overbearing, zealous in a frightening way, rule-bound, harsh, and rigid. To be honest, maybe I saw too much of myself in Paul's writing. He made me realize that I’m kind of a puritan in some ways. And, I didn't like it.
But, as I read more of Paul, with the gentle encouragement of my professors, I began to see how Paul was wrestling with some pretty big concepts, radical departures from conventional thought. It's easy to think of Paul as being simply a preacher, or an evangelist, but in reality, he was a revolutionary, spreading a completely new kind of religious thought among two competing philosophies, Jewish and Greek.
Paul was fearless, he was uncompromising, and he had to be. Changing paradigms does not come easy, and he was opposed at every step, even by those who fundamentally agreed with him.
And sometimes we see his frustration come out in his letters. "Who are you to judge?" he asks, judgmentally, in one letter.
Ever the diplomat, he tactfully asks the wise, "Are you fools?" in another letter.
In a third pastoral letter, he says "I hope the knife slips," to those who are considering adult circumcision.
His writing runs the gamut from the cool, detached theological analysis of the academy to the hot, emotional rhetoric perhaps better suited to a bullhorn on a soapbox, or in today’s terms, a ranting idiot on Twitter.
We've got it all in Paul's letters: encouragement, exhortation, sarcasm, begging, scorn, love, derision, and paternal advice. And above all, we've got tension. We've got tension, because Paul is trying to work out the paradox of God's mercy and God's justice.
Paul is trying to figure out, just like we are, how do we understand this God of contradictory characteristics? Who is this God of law and love, and how do we relate to Him? And especially, how do we live our lives, now that we have been given the gift of Jesus Christ, the promise of everlasting relationship with God?
And, has God changed in the giving of this gift? Does the incarnation of Jesus Christ mean that God's justice has become a vapor lost in the wideness of God's mercy?
Or, are we supposed to adopt a whole new set of rules and regulations that reflect the new relationship we have with God? Does being a Christian mean that we have a whole bunch of new laws that we have to follow?
Over the rest of summer, we’ll be looking at some of these questions as we explore the letters of Paul to his churches around the Mediterranean. This sort of journey is likely to end up in some tall weeds from time to time, but I think it might be good to really think about what it means to be a Christian in a time of litmus tests, tribalism, and ideological purity.
On the other hand, maybe I’ll just run the risk of making everybody mad at me. Should be fun!
You may have heard me say this before, that this my favorite verse in the Bible, Galatians 5:1, "For freedom, Christ has set us free." It forms the basis of my own personal theology and it helps me read the rest of the Bible.
But it’s not an easy verse to accept. And now, Paul begins to address the inevitable push-back that accompanies such a bold statement. I'm sure that some folks have to be thinking, "But, does that mean that we get to do whatever we want? What about sin? Is that out of the picture now? Are there no standards at all?"
This is a legitimate question about our new life in Christ. If we are freed from the slavery, the obligation, the requirements of the law, what is it that will keep us in check? What will prevent us from simply running amok, indulging in our every selfish, hurtful whim?
Or maybe, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not our sin we’re worried about. It’s those other people’s sins that concern us. If there’s no rules, if it’s all about freedom, what about them? What stick do we have to corral them back in line? What cudgel do we have if the law of God suddenly becomes moot? After all, we’re not likely to stray that much, are we? We’re Presbyterians! The real question is: what about other people? What's to keep them on the straight and narrow path? What regulatory weapon do we get to threaten other people with, when the authority of the law has been dissolved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Let's face it: the requirements of the law are comforting. We know what the score is, for us, and for others. We are hedged in by the loving limits of a loving God, and we know that as long as we follow the laws, we are fine.
I know that I've observed in my own family how firm limits on behavior can be reassuring for my son. Rules and boundaries let people know where their space is, and we need to know that. And when those limits are removed, we can suffer from a sort-of 'spiritual agoraphobia' a fear of wide open life-choices, where our souls are exposed to the reality of sin in our world, and we are afraid to death of the possibility of yielding to our worst natures.
It would be better, we tell ourselves, to not be exposed to this temptation, to surround ourselves with an impenetrable wall of codes, morals, behavioral expectations, laws, rules, and regulations. To hide in our religious bedroom, protected by the walls we erect around ourselves.
The problem is that these walls might be comforting, but they also prevent us from living into the freedom promised to us. These walls dull our ability to discern the path we ought to take, to decide the best direction to go. These walls prevent us from depending on the Spirit of God to guide our faltering steps, and the grace of God to catch us when we fall.
In short, we mistake our laws and rules for a genuine, trusting, relationship with God.
We mistake our own private Torah, our own private codes of behavior, for faith.
We dismiss the amazing sacrifice of Jesus Christ that frees us from our self-constructed prison, and we claw desperately to get back in, scrabbling to return to the familiar, the established patterns of legalistic behavior. Like a lifetime criminal who has become accustomed to the clock of prison time, we are unable to exist in a world of freedom, and we make every effort to return to the familiar.
I remember how hard it was to leave the military, and have to make daily choices about what to wear, what to do, when to eat, that sort of thing that had been decided for me for 5 years. It was disconcerting.
We like boundaries. We like walls. They comfort us. Especially when that’s what we are used to.
But Paul is calling us out of that prison.
Paul is calling us out of our cells of self-imposed rules and codes of behavior that are based, not on what promotes love and kindness, but rather what keeps us in line. Paul is calling us to live into our freedom, to trust and believe that this is what God wants of us.
Now this is a hard thing for us to accept. We are worried about our own choices, certainly, but we are also worried about the choices of other people. We look for evidence that their choices are not effective, or helpful, or proper. We look for the speck in their eyes, and we are quick to point out their transgressions.
But again, Paul tells us to just relax. We are not to point out the flaws of other people. That just leads to a vicious circle of judgment and blame, and nobody is blessed, nobody is affirmed, nobody feels loved, and certainly, nobody feels free.
There is no grace in pointing out the flaws of our neighbors. It's easier than we think, and it invariably results in death. Death of friendship, death of trust, death of mutual forbearance and love.
And most of all, death of freedom.
So, how do we go about living into the freedom offered to us in Christ? How do we go about making decisions which honor the relationship that we have with God, and the relationship into which Christ has brought us with each other?
Are we without any guidance? Are there no indications of a life lived in the presence of God?
We have to admit that we have a tendency to make choices that deny the bonds of our relationships. There's no point in sugar-coating the fact that indeed, we are free to make choices that actually sever the covenantal relationships we have with each other. In fact, Paul takes a moment and names some of those choices in our text. Not all, mind you, just some.
But we already know these things. We know what tendencies lie within us. We know our sins of commission, and our sins of omission. We know our private sins, committed in our homes, or even in our own minds, and we know our national sins, committee in our name against those who are the least among us.
We are deeply, deeply aware of the way we have fallen short of the glory of God. This is not the point of Paul’s letter.
We know very well how these, and other actions break our relationships with God and our neighbor. It's no secret.
So where is the hope for us? We know ourselves to be broken, sinful people, yet Christ has removed the very limits that used to keep us in check. We stand before God, weak, vulnerable, and clueless as to how to proceed. We want our walls back. Just tell us what to do, what to think, how to act.
And here is where Paul becomes a full-blown Presbyterian: In this midst of our confusion and anxiety, he reminds us that God is still in charge. The Holy Spirit is present with us, and in the choices we make.
We can trust the Spirit of God to guide us to expressions of love that reflect God's own nature in our dealings with each other. We are not alone in our battle with our inner demons. We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit to nudge us toward the right way, the gentle word, the gracious act, the self-less gift.
And, the Spirit of God is also active, believe it or not, in the lives of other people. The Spirit is moving inside all of us, calling us to better relationships with one another, to more complete faith, to more joyful trust in God's desires for all humanity, to freedom. That spirit is in me, it's in you, and it's in our church, and it's in our community, and on a good day, it’s in our nation.
Now, we know that we don't always listen to that spirit. We don't always see the fruit of that spirit in other people. But that doesn't mean that God isn't working in us and them. Can we trust that?
For freedom, Christ has set us free. To live, to make choices, in the knowledge that God is present with us, and is working in us to bring us to a more thorough and complete relationship with him and with each other. God is present to help us make spiritual choices that enrich our friendships and fulfill our potential.
And in the end, we can choose to trust that presence, or we can choose to deny it.
Christ has made us free to decide one way or the other.