“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.”
Most of you will recall those powerful words in Braveheart,that William Wallace shouted to the Scots, as they faced battle with their English oppressors. But these words pose an important question. Why then, and indeed throughout all of history, has freedom been so precious to men that they were willing to die for it?
I believe this passion for freedom comes from being made in the image of God. There is no more free Being than Almighty God. No one or nothing can compel Him to do anything and no one or nothing can keep Him from His perfections. So as His sons and daughters it is in our spiritual DNA to also seek to be free. In our lesson today St. Paul tells us that is exactly what Christ has accomplished for us. He says “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
Note first that St. Paul puts this in the past tense. We are not awaiting our freedom, Christ has already set us free. Free from what? Free from condemnation. Romans 8. There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Free from guilt and shame. Psalms 103 “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” And how does He remove our transgressions? Hebrews 9 “For if the blood or goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ….purify our conscience from dead works to serve a living God.” Free from unholy fear, I John 4. “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear.” Free from slavery to sin. Romans 6 “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.” The list of our freedom goes on. As Jesus Himself proclaimed, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Thus we are free indeed but St. Paul goes on to warn us not to lose our freedom and then he goes on to tell us how to properly use it. How do we lose our freedom? He touches on two primary ways. First, as he argues all throughout the letter to the Galatians, we lose our freedom when we return to the law to earn our righteousness. As Gentile Christians we don’t really have the great temptation to returning to the law of Moses but we certainly make up for it with our propensity toward legalism.
At the time of Jesus the purity and holiness code had become complex and moved way beyond the 10 commandments. We get a smattering of this in the Gospels as Jesus enemies confront Him about His disciples not washing their hands or healing on the Sabbath or hanging around certain people.
When I was in Jerusalem I took the stairs to exit the hotel and there was a sign on the exit door that if you opened it on the Sabbath it would be a violation. Also in parts of the city there is a wire overhead that indicates that if you walk past it you would violate the Sabbath because the walk would turn into work.
Please don’t misunderstand. I am not poking fun at this form of Judaism. In fact I wish more Christians too their more seriously and had half their zeal to please God. But my point is that keeping up with so many rules and codes puts a huge burden on someone who seeks God’s face. And so Jesus comes along and gives us the Great Commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor and that is why He could say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Years ago I struck up a conversation with a bank teller, who was Church of Christ, and he asked if we could study Scripture together. I think that he was hoping to convert me but I agreed and we met many for weeks to study and talk. We could not have had more different approaches to God. His approach was that you had to keep the letter of the law or God would be displeased with you. Following St. Paul, my approach is that I have been accepted in the Beloved and so all things are lawful to me but not all things are profitable. So we don’t go through our day asking “What am I allowed to do?” we go through our day asking “What it the next best thing to do?” His legalistic approach to God made God seem more like the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz and yet Jesus has come so that we can call God Abba. Don’t lose your freedom to legalism. “…you are not under the law you are under grace.”
The second way that we lose our freedom is through licentiousness. This is when we take our freedom too far and mistakenly think that since grace abounds where there is sin, then we are free to sin more so that there will be more grace. That may sound like a ridiculous agreement, because it is, but I continually see articles written you young hipster evangelicals, confronting them about the very list of sins that St. Paul refers to as “the works of the flesh.” Where St. Paul was taking his argument is that if there is no difference between our lifestyles and beliefs and the lifestyles and beliefs of the world, then Houston we have a problem. Our core calling is to be a peculiar people and a holy nation.
But again, St. Paul’s antidote to living according to the desires of the flesh is not legalism. It is walking in the Spirit and He points out that the desires of the flesh are at enmity with the Spirit. One will cancel out the other. So if you want love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc. then you cannot walk in impurity, jealously, anger, selfishness etc. We have to make a conscious choice if our lives are going to be led by the Holy Spirit or if our lives are going to be led by the desires of the flesh.
Then after warning us not to lose our freedom, in classic biblical paradox, St. Paul tells us how we are to use it. He says, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.”
In the John Belushi and Bill Murry era I watched Saturday Night Live. One night the guest musician was Bob Dylan and he sang a song that stopped the show in its tracks because there was no way to follow it. The song was called “Serve Somebody” and these were some of the words.
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
You can see how the truth that no matter how you cut it you are going to serve somebocy did not exactly fit Saturday Night Live but that does not make it any less the truth. Just as St. Paul said that we are either going to walk by the Spirit or walk in the flesh so Dylan is rightly saying we are either going to serve the Lord or we are going to serve the devil but we are going to serve. We use our freedom to make the right choice.
Don’t miss the motivation for our service. St. Paul said ‘but through LOVE be servants of one another.”We don’t serve to make God like us more, we don’t serve because its our cross to bear, we don’t serve to get brownie points in heaven, we serve because we love and we love because God first loved us. We serve because our cup runneth over.
St. Paul goes on to call love the first fruit of the Spirit. I believe that the image of love being a fruit is significant. If love were a grace then you would either have it or you wouldn’t. You would ask God for it and presto you are a loving person. But as we all know it doesn’t work that way. Just as you can watch fruit bud and grow and mature so will our love, except its not quite that predictable and linear with us. This is how Eugene Peterson described it. “We have spurts of love, passionate risks of faith, impressive episodes of courageous caring. But then we slip back into indolence and greed.” (Run with the Horses, p.50,51). Sure it can be discouraging that our love ebbs and flows and that it is particularly difficult to be loving before the first cup of coffee but don’t despair. The longer we walk in the Spirit the more that fruit will mature, so “through love be servants of one another.”
Right after St. Paul calls us to serve one another he quotes the Great Commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves. This expands our call to love and serve beyond just doing it for one another. As we promise in our Baptismal Covenant we are to seek and serve Christ in all people.
I have a friend who I have been helping to journey from a non-denominational pastor to being an Anglican. As I have heard so many times before he started reading the Church Fathers and that put him on the Canterbury Trail. Sadly the church that he was pastoring folded and so he is currently surviving by being an Uber driver. Of course the best money to be made is late at night in Nashville so he was a driver a couple of weekends ago during the Gay Pride event. He saw things that are best not described in polite company and he was having an internal battle about being there and feeling Pharisaical, ready to cast the first stone. But as he was driving some folks around he said that he heard a voice, and he said that he knew it was not audible because he was the only one who heard it, but the voice said, “And I died for these folks too.”He said that he knew that the Lord was working on him to learn to love more deeply. Of course being loving does not mean that we have to compromise our beliefs and approve of every behavior but it does mean that we don’t get to decide who is worthy to be called our neighbor. Parents learn very quickly that you can love someone and totally disapprove of their behavior. Our heavenly Father gets a lot of practice at that.
There is a collect in the Book of Common Prayer that I hope they have preserved in the new one coming out for the ACNA. A line of it reads, “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom….”Freedom does not come to us by allowing us to do whatever we want to do. That path only leads us back into the bondage of sin. Freedom comes from living God’s way and walking in love. Freedom comes in serving God and serving our neighbor because servanthood is love in action. That is certainly what Jesus taught and lived. Further love and service are no more a threat to our freedom than two tracks to a locomotive. The more we lay down those tracks the further we can go and the freer we become. It was “for freedom that Christ has set us free.”