Who doesn’t want to be free?
There is something so compelling about the idea of freedom. In our lives, in our culture, and in the wide world there is a desire for freedom – a desire that comes to expression in so many ways. Yes there are sometimes different ideas about what it means to be free – in some cases there are conflicting ideas about what freedom looks like, exactly. But even so, the compelling nature of human freedom is expressed powerfully when we ask that simple question: Who doesn’t want to be free?
This past week we have celebrated Canada Day, so perhaps a way into this subject is by way of the freedoms we enjoy here in Canada. There are the general freedoms we enjoy – freedom to work and to travel and to raise a family. More specifically there are the freedoms that are given to us and outlined for us in the 1982 charter of rights and freedoms: the freedom of conscience and religion (the first of our freedoms); freedom of thought and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of association; freedom to move within the country; freedom to leave the country and return.
These freedoms, and others with them, are basic to Canadian culture and basic to many other societies – in many cases these freedoms are written into constitutional frameworks. But then of course there are and have been many places where these basic freedoms haven’t been granted – where certain groups are or have been excluded from sharing in such freedoms. In such contexts the call for freedom becomes particularly compelling.
The words of Martin Luther King Jr’s echo so powerfully down into our age because they are set against a backdrop in which so many were not free – not free to live and work and thrive in ways that we all desire. Those words famously spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington echo down to us.
Let freedom ring. From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the mighty Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!
Who doesn’t want to be free?
When we think about the Apostle Paul – when we think about the preaching of that first century Jewish leader in the church – perhaps the last idea that will come to our minds is the idea of freedom. Given the negativity that is often directed toward traditional Christianity – and given the general idea out there that Christianity is restrictive and constricting approach to life – we aren’t likely to associate ideas of freedom with the Apostle Paul. We are more likely to see him as someone who would lay down the law – someone who would reinforce rules – someone who like to diminish our freedom to live and love in the name of conformity.
But this could not be further from the truth. The Apostle Paul is an apostle of freedom. Particularly in his letter to the Galatians, we discover that the Apostle Paul takes freedom so seriously – we discover that his whole message is shaped by the reality and desire for freedom.
In fact, Paul is so enamored with the idea and reality of freedom that other teachers are trying to rein him in – other Christian teachers think he’s gone to far. In fact these religious rivals, these teaching rivals are telling the churches in Galatia – in what is modern-day Turkey – that Paul’s idea of freedom is dangerous.
In chapter 5 of his letter, Paul uses this oddly repetitive, yet beautiful language to make his point with the Galatian Christians. He says: “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” Christ didn’t set you free so that you could embrace a life of bondage. It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. In the opening of the passage for today in chapter 5 we also heard Paul say to his sisters and brothers: “You were called to freedom.” For Paul freedom defines the gospel. He is an apostle of freedom.
As is often the case with the idea of freedom, this freedom of which Paul speaks has two dimensions to it. In the first place it is freedom from something. There is something from which the Galatians have been set free. There is something that no longer binds them. There is a restriction that has been lifted. Specifically, Paul says that these gentile Christians are set free from the law.
Now the truth is that Galatians is a complicated piece of writing. Some parts of it are clear – and some parts of it are not entirely clear. Scholars don’t agree on every point as to what Paul is saying. But here’s what seems to be going on.
As we’ve said, there are Christian teachers who are visiting the Galatian churches – and they are saying that the gentile Christians in those church have to keep the law of Moses – that gentile Christians have to be circumcised – that gentile Christians have to keep all of the Jewish purity laws. These Christian Pharisees are preaching that if Christians of Galatia want to really be children of God, then in following Jesus the Messiah they must also embrace Jewish ritual and practice and law. After all, Jesus is the Son of Israel’s God – Jesus comes to renew and expand the covenant God made with Israel. So it makes perfect sense to these religious teachers that that gentile Christians must also embrace Jewish culture and practice.
But to this argument Paul offers a resounding: “No.”
To the Galatian Christians, Paul says: “You have faith in Jesus Christ, and that’s enough. Through him you have hope and life and a future; through him you have God’s forgiveness; through faith in him you’ve received the Holy Spirit. That’s all ou need. That is enough, and more than enough to belong to God and his people.
In fact, Paul goes on to say: “If you start adding other things on top of faith – if you require observance of this law, and then that law – if you require circumcision, then adherence to food laws – if you start adding cultural and ritual requirements – then you are saying that life with Jesus isn’t enough. You are saying that the Spirit that dwells with and among you isn’t enough. So Paul says so strongly in chapter 2: “If add all of these other practices and requirements, then Christ died for nothing.”
For Paul, this is Christian freedom from… Freedom from the law. Freedom from circumcision. Freedom from food laws. Freedom from purity rules that divide the church into us and them. Paul says to his sisters and brothers in Galatia – you aren’t bound by any of that – those rules belongs to another time and place – now that Christ is here, he’s all you need. His Spirit is enough.
But the freedom of which Paul speaks in his letter to the Galatians is not only a freedom from – not only freedom from the law. The freedom of which Paul speaks is a freedom for. The freedom Paul talks about is a freedom that moves us in a certain direction – it is freedom for a certain form of life. In the case of Paul and of Christian faith, our freedom has a specific content.
Perhaps it’s worth taking a moment to point out that in our culture freedom has no content. Freedom in our culture is strangely empty. We define freedom very much in terms of individual liberty – almost solely in terms of freedom from restriction. So we are
free to define our lives however we want;
free to value whatever we want to value;
free to live however we want to live;
free to be whatever person we want to be,
free to construct whatever future we want try and construct.
But in reply Paul would say: that’s not freedom at all.
In speaking about the content of our freedom – in speaking about our freedom for something – Paul writes these words: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.”
In the context of Christian faith, freedom has a content – it has a shape – it has a direction – it has a purpose. Freedom is not freedom to be whoever we want to be – it’s not freedom to craft whatever identity we want to craft – it’s not freedom to set our own standards of goodness and beauty. Rather freedom is being fully alive with Christ – freedom is a life lived with the one who declared: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
There are other ways of speaking about freedom in our culture, certainly. But if there is any other freedom that we may embrace – whether the freedom to vote, the freedom to assemble, the freedom to practice a religion, the freedom to express ourselves, the freedom to live as a family – if there are any other freedoms we may embrace in daily life or in our cultural context, they are and must be secondary to the freedom that is ours in Christ.
We belong to Christ – in him we are free. Free from shame; free from the judgment of others; free from the power of fear and death; free from cultural restrictions that suck life rather than give life; free from the need to make ourselves something in comparison to others; free from destructive ways and habits. We belong to Christ – we have our identity in him – we are free for love of neighbour.
Which brings us finally to those familiar words of Galatians 5:22-23. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” I suspect that when we read this list we tend to see it as a list of things you should do if you are a nice person – a good person. God wants us to be good, and so here’s a list that will help us know what it means to be good.
There is some small truth here – this list has to do with living well in relation to others. The Galatian churches were fighting and disagreeing over how to live out their faith – they were fighting and quarrelling – and Paul wants the divisions and hostilities to end.
But this list isn’t just about being a good person – not just about getting along well with others. With this list, Paul is describing the contours of our freedom – the shape of our freedom. “For freedom Christ has set you free.” That freedom isn’t an emptiness that we can fill with whatever we want. There is a shape to the freedom that is ours in Christ and by the Spirit – and this is its shape: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Paul doesn’t see our life in Christ as a constant battle between good and evil; he doesn’t think that we are all trying to live a better and fulfilled life. Paul says that in our very being we belong to Christ. That is who we are, in the truest sense. The old life has gone – it is over, we are free – a new life has begun. The fruit of the Spirit define the new life that is ours.
And so we are not called to become something new and different – we aren’t called to seek a fulfilled life for ourselves – we aren’t called to work harder at becoming like Jesus. No, we are called to be true to our own deepest identity – we are called to embrace the freedom that is already ours. Paul puts it this way: [T]hose who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” We are alive in and by the Spirit – that’s the only life we have – the only identity we have – so let us keep in step with the Spirit – let us live our freedom.
Not an empty freedom. Not an abstract and negative freedom. But a freedom that has a definite shape. In relation to others, here again is the shape of that freedom: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Let us keep in step with the Spirit. Amen.