March 17, 2013 - Fifth Sunday in Lent
He poured gasoline
through the window of a house and then threw in flaming rags to set it on fire.
It was an empty house and Randall Lee Church just wanted to go back to prison
about three months after he was released. He’d been incarcerated for 26 years
and discovered he just could not handle freedom. So Church committed and got
himself convicted of another crime so he could return to jail.
That man who couldn’t
stand to be free was named “Church,” but in our chapter for today Paul is
worried that the Church itself, or at least some individual churches, may not know
how to handle freedom. Pretty much the whole message of his letter to the
churches in Galatia is the question, “After you have been set free by the grace
of Jesus Christ, why do you want to go back to the prison of the law?”
Freedom is the last
but not the least of our six Covenant affirmations, the central convictions
around which we live our lives together. “The reality of freedom in Christ” is
the way Covenant people want to do church. It’s very possible that some aspect
of that freedom is what attracted you here to Valley Covenant.
Yet as Phil Anderson,
one of our seminary professors, likes to say, freedom is perhaps the most
misunderstood of affirmations. That should be no great surprise, because
Galatians is a lasting testament to the fact that Christian freedom was
misunderstood from the beginning.
Verse 1 of this
chapter begins with a double emphasis: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” In
other words, Jesus did not die on the Cross to set us free to choose whatever
we like, including the choice to make ourselves slaves again. Christ Jesus did
not come and suffer on the Cross, paying our bail and arguing our defense with
His own blood, so that we could turn around and go back to our prison if
freedom doesn’t work out for us.
Paul pushed it home in
the rest of verse 1, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the
yoke of slavery.” “Don’t go back to prison!” he’s telling the Galatians. He’s
telling you and me the same thing.
But it may seem to us
like Paul is being “Mr. Obvious,” here, like when we tell each other to have a
nice day or to stay out of trouble. Of course we don’t want to lose our
freedom. It’s a no-brainer. It feels obvious to us for a couple reasons that
keep us from appreciating that there are in fact very real threats to our
freedom in Christ.
The first reason, of
course, is that most of us are not Jewish, nor do many of us have any
inclination to think we need to be Jewish. In Paul’s time, though, Christianity
was still very connected to its Jewish roots. The churches in Galatia would have had both Jewish and Gentile members. And there was a constant pull in
the Jewish direction. After all, Jesus was Jewish. The apostles were Jewish.
Why not be like them?
That’s why the
discussion in the next few verses seems so distant to us. For us, circumcision
is a medical decision about baby boys, not a question of faith or identity. But
for those first Christians, raised in or inundated with a Jewish perspective,
it was a huge issue of both faith and identity. Who are we going to be, they
thought? Don’t we want to be the circumcised, the people who obey God’s law
even to the point of accepting His mark upon our bodies?
Galatians is all about
the fact that anyone who comes to Jesus Christ has a new identity in Him and
has been set free from all the marks and requirements of our old identities. To
forget that is to give up our freedom and go back to prison. By talking about
returning to slavery in verse 1, Paul was telling that mixed-race church of
Jews and Greeks that insisting on a Jewish identity would be like the Jews
themselves turning around and heading back to slavery in Egypt after they had
been led out into freedom.
Paul didn’t mince
words. He told the Galatians in verse 4 that trying to have it both ways,
trying to believe in Jesus but also maintain a Jewish identity by acts like
circumcision would “cut yourselves off from Christ.” Notice the indelicate play
on words. “Cut yourself in that old ritual way, and you will cut yourself off
from your Savior.”
The problem with all
this circumcision and Jewish identity business is explained at the end of verse
4, “you have fallen away from grace.” He’s not talking about losing salvation.
He means that if people try to have a relationship with God in any other way
but through Christ, then they’ve forgotten the good news about Jesus, the good
news that our identity in Him is a gift. It’s grace, not our own personal achievement
Verses 5 and 6 are the
positive side of it all. Instead of an identity marked by keeping certain
rituals, eating certain foods, Christians are marked “through the Spirit, by
faith, we eagerly await the hope of righteousness.” Christian identity is not
something we create for ourselves by keeping certain rituals, but by receiving
a righteousness, a new way of life that comes to us through the Holy Spirit, by
faith in Jesus.
All those worries
about Jewishness don’t touch us very much. None of us have much concern that
there’s a Jewish-Christian rule of hygiene or that our identity in Christ is
tied to what sort of food we eat. In fact, because of our American identity, we
are pretty likely to think we have a good handle on freedom. We enjoy it and we
will fight for it. We’re not going to give it up so easily.
But that’s the other
reason we may not appreciate enough what Paul is saying here about freedom in
Christ. Our American identity, and some of our other identities may get in the
way of our connection to Christ as much as Jewish identity did for those first
believers. That’s why we need to come to verse 6 and hear how strongly Paul
tells us, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts
for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working in love.”
Paul’s been saying
this all along in Galatians. Turn back to chapter 3 verses 27 and 28. He tells
them, if you’ve been baptized, if you’ve “clothed yourselves with Christ,” then
that’s who you are. It’s not about being Jew or Greek, slave or free, not even
about being male or female. Which by the way was a separation highlighted by
the rite of circumcision. No, says Paul, you’re fighting with each other about
all these things that have nothing to do with who you really are. And that’s
like going back to prison.
Put it in our terms
and we need to say that here in the church, here in Christ, our identity is not
American or Japanese, not college-educated or working-class, not Republican or
Democrat, and still, not male or female. None of that counts here. None of that
matters here. “In Christ Jesus… the only thing that counts is faith working in
Galatians 5 is the challenge to take that kind of freedom seriously, the freedom to be free
from our old identities and to live out our new identity in Christ, in faith
which is demonstrated and made visible by genuine and awesome love toward each
We try. In the
Covenant we try to live that “neither male nor female” bit by calling women to
any leadership position in our church: deacon, church council, pastor, any of
it. We try to live the “neither Jew nor Greek” part with congregations that are
both open to and sometimes deliberately multi-racial and multi-cultural. And
“neither slave nor free” means for us that we hear a call to reach across
economic and class boundaries and be one in Christ with the poorest people in
So we try. But like
the Galatians we have to admit we have a long way to go. The thing is to be
headed in the right direction. We don’t want to turn back toward Egypt, back to
the old imprisoned way of thinking that says we need some other sort of
identity, some other way of justifying ourselves in this world. That’s why
Paul’s language gets even less delicate in verses 7 to 12.
Verse 7 says the
Galatians were running well, running in the right direction, toward freedom in
Christ. But now they’ve forgotten the truth about who they are in Jesus. And
like teachers sometimes do, Paul gets frustrated with his students then. By
verse 11 he’s wondering why he’s suffered so much to preach this Gospel of
Jesus, this good news of grace, if they’re only going to turn back to a
different way, a different identity. Then he explodes in verse 12 to say, well
then, let those trying to turn around toward circumcision and such go the whole
route, let them “castrate themselves!”
Wow, the man was
really upset. What was at stake here wasn’t just a little church squabble. It
was the whole message of the Gospel. It was what faith in Jesus is about. Is it
going to be about Christ and grace and love, or is it going to be about
Jewishness and circumcision and conflict? For you and me, is it going to be
about Christ and grace and love, or is it going to be about nationality and
politics and individualism?
Paul is just saying
what a prophet said to God’s people 700 years earlier in our reading from Isaiah 43, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I,” says God,
“am about to do a new thing.” That new thing was Jesus. He created a new identity
for anyone who believes in Him. And all our old identities must not and cannot
compete with our identity in Jesus Christ.
That freedom to find
our identity in Christ and in Christ alone is what Christian freedom is about.
We may miss that because our American idea of freedom is more about personal
liberty, the opportunity to make individual choices about all sorts of things
like where to go to church or whom to vote for or what to wear or what music to
listen to or what to say about ideas or policies in our society.
Personal liberty is a
good thing, a very good thing. It’s right to cherish it as much as we do here
in America. But let’s be clear, as we will see here in a moment, personal
liberty is not the same thing, not at all, as Christian freedom. Personal
liberty is not freedom in Christ and freedom in Christ is not personal liberty.
That is why, all over
the world, in places where there is very little of what we Americans would call
liberty, people are finding freedom in Christ. People who can’t vote or choose
different color clothes or a different job or even whether they will have
enough to eat, are still being set free by faith in Christ. It’s happening in Iran and in Pakistan and in China and in Mali and all over the world. No personal liberty, but
wonderful freedom in the grace of Jesus Christ.
The fact is, the way
we use personal liberty may even be a hindrance to our freedom in Christ.
That’s what the rest of this chapter is more or less about. In verse 13, Paul
says, “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your
freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” Literally, “an opportunity for
the flesh.” I’m going to say he means “as an opportunity for unbridled personal
In other words,
Christian freedom is never, never, never the opportunity to believe or do just
whatever you want. It’s freedom from an old identity as a people lost
and separated from God and from each other by sin. It’s freedom for a
new identity in Christ as people brought back into loving relationship with God
and with each other.
So after telling us
not to use our freedom to indulge our flesh, our old sinful desires, Paul goes
on to say that instead of our old slaveries we are through love to be slaves to
each other. Instead of following an old law of identity in things like race, we
are in verse 14 to obey God’s law summed up in a single commandment, “You shall
love your neighbor as yourself.”
Christian freedom is
not individual liberty, because one individual’s liberty always bumps into
another individual’s liberty. That’s what was happening in Galatia. They were, as Paul put it in verse 15, “biting and devouring each other.”
Freedom in Christ is
not getting to do whatever you want. Instead of that, we have verse 16: “Live
by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Don’t just
do whatever you want, because it’s when we’re doing whatever we want, just
following all our desires, that we are most like slaves.
Think about the
smoker. As she lights up her next cigarette, she’s doing exactly what she
wants, exercising her personal liberty. But we all know she’s a slave to her
desire for nicotine. Or consider the man surfing porn sites on his computer.
With each click he is going after just what he wants, but in the process he’s
enslaved to his desire for the instant gratification he finds that way.
Doing whatever you
want is not Christian freedom because doing whatever you want makes you a slave
to your desires, to what Paul calls the flesh. And the outcome is what he calls
the works of the flesh in verses 19 to 21, a long list of slaveries like
impurity or idolatry or strife or jealousy or envy or drunkenness. Paul is
saying that living by the flesh, doing whatever we desire, makes us slaves to
all sorts of evils, slaves like any addict is a slave.
Opposed to all that is
the life of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who comes to us and
lives in us when we are set free by the grace of Christ. Verse 17 says the
flesh and the Spirit are opposed to each other. It’s especially the case that
the Spirit is opposed to the flesh “to prevent you from doing what you want.”
Did we hear that?
Christ didn’t come to
make us free to do what we please. He came to set us free in His Spirit to do
what pleases God. So when we are really free in Christ, we are bound to Him by
faith and by the Spirit, and the outcome is totally different. The outcome is
that beautiful list of nine gracious virtues in verses 22 and 23, “Love, joy,
peace, patience, kindness, generosity or goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
and self-control.” Our lives in Christ are like well-pruned, well-watered,
well-cared-for trees bearing gorgeous fruit.
Take a look at the
fruit on the apple tree in our church yard this fall. We mostly let it grow
wild, grow wherever it wants. We don’t prune it back or spray it for diseases
or bugs or control it any way. And the fruit is small and wormy. That’s life
when we grow wild, doing as we please. It’s only when the grace and love of God
in Jesus gets us under control, prunes us back, treats our sins, that we bear
the best fruit.
So verse 24 says that
“those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions
and desires.” We don’t do whatever we want. We act in love toward God and
toward each other. We live by the Spirit and so, as verse 25 says, we are
guided by the Spirit.
About 300 years after
Paul a bunch of barbarian raiders out of the west came and captured a sixteen
year-old Roman boy named Patricius. They hauled him off to be a slave on the
island we call Ireland. He was put to work tending sheep. He never before paid
attention to his faith in Christ, but as a slave he began to pray. After six
years he heard God speaking, telling him to run. He escaped and boarded a ship
back to Roman territory.
At home Patricius
studied. He learned all he could about following Jesus Christ. He became a
priest, then a bishop. Then God spoke to him again, told him to go back to the
last place he wanted to go, back to Ireland. But he didn’t do what he pleased.
He did what pleased Christ. Patrick sailed back to Ireland and brought the real
freedom of faith in Christ to the people who had made him a slave.
No matter what anyone
tells you, you won’t find freedom by following your own desires, doing whatever
you please. It’s only when, like Paul and Patrick and Mary in our Gospel
lesson, that you believe in and love Jesus and do as He desires by loving
others that you will find real freedom, the freedom of peace, love, joy and all
the rest of His Spirit’s fruits.
May our Lord grant you
and all of us here that great and glorious freedom which is ours in Christ.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj