Called to freedom

By in Sermons on July 7, 2019

Galatians 5:13-25

So two weeks ago in our reading from the letter to the Galatian Church we explored how Paul exhorted the followers of Jesus in Galatia to take seriously the freedom that Christ had won for them and the Spirit had gifted to them: freedom from the guardianship of the Law, that had existed to protect and guide God’s people until the day that they were set free to live according to the freedom of the Spirit – the freedom in which, he gloriously declared, releases us from those shackles of male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free.

For this, he continues in today’s reading, this is what you have been called to: freedom. But think about how you are going to use that freedom.

And then he sets out a simple – really, simplistic – choice: you can use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, or you can, through love, choose to become slaves of each other: you can use your freedom to get what you want, or you can use it to lovingly seek the good of others.

Because, as Bob Dylan put it, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody”. You can choose to use your freedom to self-indulgently serve yourself, or to serve others.

And I guess he doesn’t feel the need to add “and just ask yourself, which of these did Jesus choose to use his freedom for?”

And having set out this choice, the next two paragraphs lay out what those alternatives look like. And he sets them out using the slightly unfortunate terminology of ‘Spirit’ and ‘Flesh’.

I say slightly unfortunate because this setting of Spirit and Flesh in contrast to one another has been the source of various super-spiritual readings of Paul’s words, in which the physical reality (and, often in particular, the physical body) is seen as a best an irrelevance and distraction and at worse a mortal enemy to the ‘pure spiritual’ life.

But that is not the contrast Paul is setting up here; we know that because he’s already told us what he is contrasting – self-indulgence v. loving service of one another. And if you then go on to read the lists of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit, you see that they exactly fit that contrast – what a life lived in the freedom of self-indulgence looks like, and what a life lived in the love of one another looks like.

So perhaps it helps to read these words with those phrases substituted: Now the works of self-indulgence are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. And the fruit of loving service of others is joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

What Paul is really setting up here is an alternative basis for good, right living, in the absence of the law. If the law, the Torah, the traditional way of living a one of God’s people does not bind us anymore, how will we live right?

In the Godly Play telling of the story of the Exodus and the Ten Commandments there’s this fantastic description of the people of God in the desert, free from slavery, where they could only live the way they were commanded, free, but wondering what that means. Without the slave owners telling them what to do, how will they decide who they were, how they should live, what sort of people they should be. And it is in response to this need that God gives them the law – “the best ways to live”.

And the Jewish early Church faces the same crisis – free from the law, how will they decide how to live? And so, just as some of the Hebrew people grumbled against Moses and wanted to go back to the security of Egypt, many in the Church throughout history have wanted to go back to the security of law.

But the Spirit, Paul says, has called them to freedom. And they now have the choice to express that freedom in love.

There are two little phrases tucked away in the contrast Paul sets out which I think we tend to skirt over, but which give form to the whole. And they bracket the two lists.

So Paul writes “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law”, and then he lists the behaviours of self-indulgence; then by contrast he lists the fruit of the Spirit, and concludes “There is no law against such things”.

If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law… and …there is no law against such things.

You are not subject to the law, he begins, if you are led by the Spirit. The authority of the law has not been negated for all, but only for those who are led by the Spirit. Refuse the leading of the Spirit, and the law is still needed – for it is the law that exists to curb those self-indulgent destructive impulses that he then proceeds to name – enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels and the rest.

But if we are led by the Spirit, what we see is the opposites: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Self-control – the perfect place to close the contrast which begins with self-indulgence.

And then he concludes: There is no law against such things. Live in this way, this way of the Spirit, and you won’t be breaking any law of God – for, as he said right back at the beginning of this passage, the whole law is summed up in a single commandment “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

There is no law against love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control: but there is also no law for them. No way that law can impose those virtues, those characters, those fruits of the Spirit. Which, in a sense, is the whole point of the argument. You can’t legislate character, you can’t legislate goodness. You can legislate against what is wrong, against what is hurtful and harmful, but you can’t make laws that command people to love, to patience, to self-control, to joy, to peace.

This is the ultimate failure of law; and the whole point of freedom. That the things that matter most cannot be demanded by law but only freely given by love.

This is the freedom we are called to: freedom from the constraints of law which keep us safe in the slavery of avoiding doing what is wrong, and into the freedom of the Spirit to choose to do what is loving.

Wouldn’t it be good if this is what we, God’s people, were known for? Not for what we speak against in a desperate clinging to the simple certainties and securities of law, but if Jesus’ words were true: “By this, all people will know that you are my followers, if you have love for one another.”

Amen

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