fish6.gif - 0.8 K

A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Galatians 5
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 or activity.

         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 love.”

         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 other.

         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 our society.

         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 liberty.”

         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
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated March 17, 2013