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” (Gal. 5:1). What does freedom mean to you? When white Americans think of freedom, we tend to think that freedom means we can say whatever we want and do whatever we want, and, especially here in Wyoming, we want the absolute minimum of government regulations interfering with our ability to say and do whatever we want. African Americans, however, may be keenly aware of the history of their ancestors, who actually endured slavery, and so when they hear the word “freedom” they may think of actual freedom from actual slavery, freedom to be their own person and to determine their own destiny. Other groups of people may hear the word “freedom” and understand it in different ways, and associate it with other things. But, generally speaking, we Americans understand freedom as the ability to live our lives as we please with a minimum of interference from others.
But, we need to hear these words of Paul about freedom first in the context of his letter to the Galatians, before we can see what kind of meaning it has for us as Christians today. If you remember from the last several Sundays, Paul was writing to a group of Gentile Christians in the area of Galatia that all they need in order to be right with God is to believe in Christ Jesus as the one who gave his life for them, and who, by his faithfulness, brought both Jewish believers and Gentile believers into one group of people under him. Paul is upset with the Galatians because they are now listening to a group of teachers who say that, in essence, Paul’s message is right, but that they still need to become Jewish first in order to truly be Christian, and that means that the men must be circumcised. So, when Paul is writing about freedom here, he is not talking about the freedom to do what you want and to be who you want without interference from others. Instead, he is talking about freedom from following the requirements of the Torah, the Jewish law. In the section of chapter 5 that our lectionary skips over today, Paul says that if the men allow themselves to be circumcised, then they are obligated to follow the entire Law, which means, for example, that they would have to follow the dietary laws in their eating and observe all of the Jewish festivals. Paul says that none of that is necessary, but that the only thing that counts in Christ Jesus is faith working through love. In the next paragraph, Paul then gets angry and frustrated with both the Galatians and those who are misleading them, and he finally says, in verse 12, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Yes, Paul really said that, which is probably why the lectionary skipped that part.
But then, Paul resumes talking about freedom in verse 13, “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.” Wait a minute—that’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it? We usually think that, because we’re free, we’re free—and we shouldn’t become slaves again. Isn’t that what Paul just said earlier? Don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery? So, what does he mean by saying that Christ set us free to become slaves to one another?
In the movie, “The Princess Bride,” the character Inigo Montoya is set on revenge. He knows that a six-fingered man has killed his father, and he has vowed to find the six-fingered man and kill him in order to avenge his father’s death. Through a series of events in the movie, Inigo finds the six-fingered man, Count Rugen, has a duel with him, and finally kills him. At the end of the movie, Inigo says to Westley that he has been in the revenge business for so long, he doesn’t know what to do with his life now. Westley suggests that Inigo would make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts, and Inigo appears to consider this. We don’t know if he took Westley up on the suggestion or not. But with the death of the man who killed his father, Inigo is set free from the bondage of revenge, and now is unsure what to do with his freedom.
My point is that God did not create us to be idle and to sit around and do nothing. And once we realize that we are freed, that we do not have to do anything to become right with God because, in fact, we can’t do anything to become right with God—it’s all a gift of God’s grace and love for us—then we want to do the things which God has urged us to do. And all of these works of the law are summed up by Paul in that great command which Jesus has also taught us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And remember that love is not a feeling, it is an active verb. Perhaps for those of us who speak English, a better way to say this great commandment is, “You shall show love to your neighbor as you would show love to yourself.” And how are we to do that? Paul tells us in verse 16: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Now, we might hear that as law, especially when Paul goes on to name the works of the flesh and we squirm and think about how, at one time or another, we’ve all done one or two of the things on that list. But an actual better translation of verse 16 would be, “Live by the Spirit, I say, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” When the Holy Spirit is what animates our way of life, rather than the “works of the flesh,” that Paul names, then yes, we may fall into those sins on occasion, but we know that Jesus has died for us and forgiven us, and that the Holy Spirit will continue to urge us to repent and to move forward.
And how do we know that we are living by the Spirit? Well, it’s kind of like that song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love”. Just as the song talks about working side by side, praying for unity, and people knowing we are Christians by our love, Paul says that we will know that we are living by the Spirit when we display the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What is interesting about this is that, most of the time individual Christians take this list to be virtues that they should strive for. And these are good virtues to try to have, but I’d like to challenge us all a little bit. When Paul was addressing the Galatians, he was not addressing them individually. Rather, he was addressing them as a congregation. As a congregation, these virtues are what other people will see when you live by the Spirit, he tells us.
Now, here is my challenge question to us as a congregation: does the community of Powell see these fruits of the Spirit in us as a group? If so, how? The reason that I’m asking is this: I was updating our webpage this week to include a list of activities that we offer here at Hope. And I listed all of the things that we do during the school year, and some that continue year-round: our quilters, our WELCA circles, our Sunday school and confirmation classes, our Bible studies and Vacation Bible School with the Methodists and Presbyterians. But then I came to community service, and I had a harder time with that. The reason being that I know many of you are active in different service organizations as individuals: Backcountry Horsemen and Kiwanis, for example. And that’s wonderful—please continue in your service in these groups. But the only thing that I came up with that we kind of sort of do as a congregation are the food drives for Loaves & Fishes. Most of the time, if there is a need in the community, we as a congregation give money to it. And again, that’s very good—I’m very pleased that most of the time I don’t have to nudge you all on financial stewardship. But I think that we need to be better at stewarding our time and our talents as a congregation, giving of those for the sake of the community of Powell and of the world. Because I think that Powell needs to see the fruit of the Spirit within us not just as individuals, but as a congregation.
So, here is the assignment that I’m giving to us for the rest of the summer. We as a congregation have been through exercises helping us to find our identity in the Lord. We have chosen three Bible stories that we think describe us and our calling: the feeding of the 5000, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the commissioning of the disciples in the first chapter of Acts. I want us to be thinking about and planning a continuing project for the community of Powell that we can commit to doing as a congregation that fits in with who we think we are in one or more of these Bible stories. Study and meditate on these three stories and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. Do not let money be a barrier—let’s dream big! When you think of ideas, come to me or one of the members of the council with them. We’ll be happy to sit down with you and begin to hammer out details. Now I know that we’ve had good ideas in the past. Some we’ve tried and had some success with, while others have fizzled out into the ether. This time is going to be different—those of you who see a need in the community that we might be able to fill, I want you to commit to taking the lead on it and seeing the idea through. Because Powell needs to say, “Hope Lutheran Church is not only a friendly and welcoming place to worship. They are a congregation who shows the love of God in the service they do for the community.”
Last year in the fall, when I went to Luther Lectures at Chico, the professor who was teaching the class took the ELCA’s tagline, “God’s Work. Our Hands” and changed it a bit. He said, “God’s Work. Our Hands—so we don’t get bored.” The good news is that Christ has set us free for freedom. And that freedom is the freedom to become slaves to one another—not because we have to in order to get right with God, but because we want to, so that we can show God’s love to one another. We have not been set free to do nothing, we have been set free to do what God is calling us to do: to show love to our neighbor as we would show love to ourselves. And yes, so we don’t get bored while we’re waiting for Christ to return. So let’s get active and plan something big—we just never know what kind of exciting things God might be calling us to do. Amen.