Let Freedom Ring! Gal. 5:1, 13-25; Lk 9: 51-62
“For freedom Christ has set us free! Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” This passage from Galatians is perfect for Pride Sunday, a time for announcing to all LGTBQIA+ people that they need NEVER go back into the closet again. As free people in Christ, we celebrate all our siblings, and rejoice in the varieties of love with which they have been blessed. We condemn reparative therapy and similar misguided attempts to change people from who they truly are. We condemn violence against any of God’s creations by word or deed—especially when done in God’s name. Stand firm, my friends! For freedom Christ has set us free!
It’s also appropriate that we read this passage in the same week that the entire nation celebrates freedom on July 4th. In this case, we honor a group of our country’s leaders who said, “We’d like to be free to choose our own rulers, to make and enforce own laws, to say the things we wish to say without fear of reprisals, and to be free to pursue happiness.” But we know that just because the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on that hot July day, freedom wasn’t handed out willy-nilly to everyone. Women, slaves, Native Americans, and immigrants did not enjoy the freedoms those men declared in 1776. Since then there have been many mini-revolutions, as more and more people struggle for liberation in one way or another.
All of this leads me to wonder about what kind of freedom is ours through Christ. Freedom from what? Freedom FOR what?
St. Paul can’t be talking about literal freedom, implying that if you are Christian you will never be enslaved or incarcerated, since he himself—and many other Christians—did quite a bit of time in jail. The Galatians who would have received Paul’s letter were struggling with what freedom meant within their Christian community. Most of the early church were (like Jesus) Jewish. They followed Jewish laws, like keeping kosher and obeying the requirement that men be circumcised. But the majority of the church in Galatia was made up of people who were not Jewish. They were Gentiles, and circumcision was not part of their culture. The questions of liberty Paul addresses have to do with what is required and what is optional within God’s family.
His main message to the Galatian Christians is this: “Don’t let anyone tell you that your behavior dictates God’s behavior. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you have to do such and such or NOT do such and such to belong to Christ. Jesus has done all that truly needs to be done. At the cost of his own life, he embraced you and the whole wide world, and said, ‘World, I know you are a mess, but I love you so much! I am going to give you all that I am, and all that I have. You are free to do whatever you will with that love.’ For freedom I have set you free.” That, beloved Galatians, beloved Seattlites, is the point.
But that’s not what people usually think of when they think of Christianity, is it? Absolute freedom? Many people perceive Christianity as a confining religion, in which people’s behavior is constricted by a mandates and rules, with the ultimate goal of “making it into heaven.” But that ISN’T what The Way of Jesus is all about—not those means and not that end.
What if Christians took seriously Paul’s observation that we have been set free from all the rules and expectations people have of religion? What if we embraced the command, “Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery!” Without the 10 Commandments, would we all go hog wild, and start robbing banks and murdering one another, forgetting all that stuff about caring for our neighbors and striving to be peacemakers? Is the only thing keeping us in line the threat of hell? Have church and society colluded to sell us the fear of God’s potential displeasure—created a sword hanging over our heads—so we’ll behave ourselves? If that is what Christianity is, I have to ask, does anything about that arrangement suggest freedom?
If our relationship with God is motivated by fear or guilt, then it is not based on or rooted in Love, and we know God is Love. If we do whatever we do out of a sense of obligation or fear, then we are a slave to our own expectations of who God is and what God demands. It is a relationship without freedom. It makes us like the Galatians, worried about whether or not we are following all the proper rules so that God will be pleased with us.
Ironically, what God would please God is that we feel free! God created us to reflect God’s own nature to the world, each in our own way, with our own gifts and passions—not to trudge through life, guessing at what might be required to keep us from outer darkness forever. For freedom Christ has set us free. In Christ, we are free from the need to please God in order to dwell with God forever. Jesus did all the work of reconciliation in his life, death, and resurrection. We’re in. So now the only question is, “What are we going to do with all that freedom?”
Martin Luther, in his marvelous document, The Freedom of a Christian reminds us of this important paradox about Christian living: “A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, Subject to none. A Christian is perfectly bound, Servant of all, Subject to all.” Part 1: We don’t have to do one single thing to get into God’s good graces. Jesus has done that already. Got it. But what about Part 2, where Luther describes us as “servants of all, subject to all”? How does that work if we are free?
It works as a response to being loved and trusted. Because we are grateful for the liberty God has entrusted to us, we are free to express our gratitude to God and to share God’s gifts with others. Jesus tells his disciples that the best way to show God our love and thankfulness is to follow Jesus. What does that look like? I’m sure many of you have favorite Jesus stories that you use to guide your own lives. Maybe Jesus feeding the hungry; Jesus curing the sick; Jesus calling out injustice; Jesus holding children; or some other pivotal story. Today’s Gospel lesson begins with Jesus rebuking the disciples James and John when they call for violence against the Samaritans, with whom they have religious disagreements.
In short, we are following Jesus when we are treating all people the way God has treated us. God knows that this is hard work, and so God accompanies us on the way—providing us with food and companionship and stories that empower us to love our neighbors the way God loves us—in a self-giving way. Being free to love is not a safe position to be in—it is risky. Frequently it’s easier to be hemmed in by rules and regulations rather than to be allowed to make our own choices. We hear stories of people who’ve been released from prison or other forms of confinement who do not know how to conduct themselves without someone else deciding when it is time to eat or sleep or work. When we live under rigid rules, we bear no responsibility for our choices because we have no freedom to choose. Liberty, however, requires us to walk through an ethical minefield of options.
But that leads us back to where we started: God made us, loves us, and lives with us. We respond to that belonging by following Jesus and sharing the grace we have been given with everyone, everywhere. In the process, the power of the Holy Spirit waters us and nurtures us so that we inevitably produce the rich fruits of the Spirit—generosity and joy and self-control and kindness, and all the others. We are empowered and unafraid to live rich, abundant lives, not because we’re doing everything right, not because we have forced ourselves to cultivate virtues, and punished ourselves and one another for anything less. No, it’s just that these life-giving traits flourish when we use our freedom to follow our leader, who loves us more than life itself. For freedom Christ has set us free! In all our doing and all of our being, let freedom ring! Amen.
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