The Life of Freedom
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, June 30, 2019
Galatians 5: 1, 13-25
Tomorrow on Canada Day we will be celebrating our country, and one of the biggest factors in our national pride is the celebration of our freedom. We’re really grateful that we live in a “free” country. So I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what what the Bible tells us about freedom. I’ll begin with a question: What does “freedom” mean to you? What do you think of?
Is it the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want, with no concern for any repercussions? You can live wherever you want, make your own choices about career, family, faith. I’m very conscious that we are blessed with the freedom to gather here and worship God, while many Christians in the world put themselves at great risk just for being Christians.
Or maybe, for you, freedom is simply a fast car, an open road, and no speed limit.
If you’re a runner, like me, maybe a fast trail through the woods in High Park gives you that glorious feeling of freedom. As a woman, I’m very aware that there are still countries in the world that would not allow me to run, so I’m grateful for this freedom in Canada.
At bachelor and bachelorette parties, buddies tell the bride and groom to “enjoy their last night of freedom!” Is that what freedom means: not having to consider anyone else or be committed to another person?
In the 1980s, London Life told us that we could have freedom at the age of 55. If we invested wisely, that’s when we could retire and our time would be our own, to do what we want instead of having to go into work every day and answer to someone else. Is that freedom? Not having to work, as in not being dependent on the income?
For several years now OLG commercials have been enticing us to “Imagine the Freedom” we would have if we won a few million dollars in Lotto 6/49. I think a lot of people associate freedom with having enough money to do or buy anything we want and that a lack of money prevents us from doing those things; a lack of money restricts our freedom. I’ve certainly imagined what I would do if I won the lottery (first, I’d be in shock, since I almost never buy a ticket). This was a great marketing strategy on the part of OLG because lots of people – even people who never buy tickets – started to imagine what they would do with the money if they won the lottery! And then guess what they do…they go and buy a ticket (even though winning will almost certainly remain a purely imaginary event).
Most people don’t imagine winning the lottery being the way Markham High School teacher Craig Henshaw experienced it, according to a Toronto Star article, after the bells went off and he thought he’d won $21,000. “No, Mr. Henshaw,” the store clerk told him, “you’ve won $21 million!” And over the next few weeks his world became, not the dream of freedom that he had probably “just imagined,” but a whirlwind of broken friendships and financial scams. Henshaw couldn’t even go to his own home after winning, and lived in a hotel for a few weeks to avoid the media and stalkers.
He is quoted as saying, “Six hours after I won, some scam artist had already managed to get my credit card number. My email inbox was full, and my phone was flooded with text messages. People were asking me to pay off student loans. I got 365 text messages in the first day.”
Even though teaching was his passion, and he was considered a gifted and well-loved teacher, he was forced to resign from his position, as his workplace had become toxic with colleagues demanding money from him to pay off various bills. He had to say goodbye to about 25 per cent of his friends because they were acting inappropriately, asking for money for all kinds of things, and being really pushy about it. As a consequence of all this, the article reports, Henshaw now wrestles with his very sense of identity.
Imagine the Freedom? Is that what freedom looks like? Not according to the Apostle Paul in today’s scripture reading.
According to the Apostle Paul, the life God calls us to as Christians is a life of Freedom – just imagine! But Paul didn’t imagine the freedom of the Christian life in terms of money or time or circumstances. For Paul, the freedom of Christians transcends all of these external circumstances.
As Paul and Peter and John and the others spread out across Europe and Asia after the ascension of Jesus, they began proclaiming to all the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and the freedom from spiritual death that He had won on their behalf. I mean really: Just imagine! Sinners of all kinds who had been cut off from society because of their “uncleanness” were now told that they had been set free from the punishment for their sin and could interact with others just like anyone else. They could eat with their friends; they could buy food in the marketplace; they could be part of a community. None of them had aspirations of retiring or winning the lottery; for them, this was winning the lottery, and it was a possibility for everyone!
Not only that, but the good news got even better – because of Jesus’ death, all people – even upright Pharisees like Paul - were now free from the obligation to earn their righteousness before God by fulfilling the Law of Moses, which had, over the years, expanded beyond the Ten Commandments that we know about to a detailed list of over 600 rules and regulations – there were rules for every minute detail of life, each of them having to be fulfilled in order to stay in right relationship with God.
This freedom from the law, the freedom to be accepted by God without having to constantly worry if you had inadvertently made yourself “unclean” was the Good News of what Jesus had done for all people, and it was particularly GREAT news for the early Jewish Christians, who began eating formerly forbidden foods and welcoming people into community who had previously been outcasts.
But Galatia was a Roman city and the Galatian Christians were gentiles who had never been subject to Mosaic law. There was previously no hope at all for them to come before God unless they converted to Judaism. What we learn in is this letter is that while Paul was preaching a gospel of freedom for Jews and Gentiles alike, another apostle – whose name we don’t know – had come to town in Paul’s absence and began teaching them that in order to become Christians, Gentile men had to be circumcised like the Jews, and thereby convert to Judaism.
At this time, Christianity was not a separate religion, but was considered to be a sect of Judaism. Circumcision identified Jews in a unique way as God’s chosen people, a people who were committed to living under the law of Moses. But Paul says, “No! Circumcision identifies us as people of the law – it’s the first step in submitting to the law – and we are no longer people of the law, but people who have been set free by Christ; and he calls these people who had come to Galatia after him and who were confusing the Galatians, “agitators.” They were stirring things up and robbing their freedom.
So Paul sent this letter as a strong response to their confusion about whether Christians were still subject to the Jewish laws and traditions, and whether those gentile Christians were required to convert to Judaism.
I can understand their confusion. If I was introduced to Jesus and told that He had set me free, that I was offered the gift of grace; and then I was told that – oh, by the way - I now have to live by this list of rules to really be considered a Christian, I’d be confused too. But it still happens all the time in the church. There are still “agitators” who think that, rather than being about having a relationship with Jesus, Christianity is about living according to a specific set of rules; and while we tend to be disdainful of what we now call “right-wing fundamentalists,” these “agitators” can be found on both sides of the socio-political spectrum within the church.
But it’s not just about what other people might tell us about being a Christian. We get confused by the whole idea of grace as well; because we’ve been told that God’s gift of grace has set us free, but even without other people trying to impose a set of rules we don’t really feel free, do we? As you think about your life, would you say that you feel free? Or do you feel plagued by insecurities; or weighed down by guilt and shame over things that you did in the past? Things that you wish you hadn’t said or done, and now they can’t be un-said, or un-done, and you cringe every time you think of it. We get that God forgives us – yeah, yeah – and yet we don’t dare forgive ourselves.
Canadians now are wealthier on average than at any other time in history, and have greater civil liberties, yet more and more people report feeling exhausted, stressed out and overwhelmed than ever before. We’re working longer hours, and packing in more activities that we think we need in order to be complete, well-rounded human beings. We feel pressure to succeed, to have it all together, to make the most of our lives.
The thoughts we carry around in our heads constantly remind us that we’re not really free; thoughts like, “I blew it!” or “I screwed up again! I keep making the same mistakes;” or “I’ll never be good enough or as smart as this other person.” We hear about grace but we keep on condemning ourselves.
This is why a list of rules can be very appealing to many Christians, why it kind of makes sense. Rules and laws give us structure and reassurance. If we can tick off all the boxes (or as many as possible), we can feel good about ourselves. If I’m a good law-abiding Canadian, then I must – in consequence - be a good Christian. I love it when people say, “I just live by the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount,” as though by doing this they can be perfect Christians and earn their way into Heaven. Except that those are just about the two hardest parts of the Bible to actually live by.
Seeing Christianity as a list of rules can also be a good excuse for people who want to reject Christ. If you see Christianity as a set of rules (rather than as a relationship with Christ) then you can reject that list of rules and make up your own list of rules for your life that you feel you can live by, so that you can feel like a good person: “I recycle, I eat organic, I bike to work, so I’m a pretty righteous person.”
But Christianity is not about being a good person. Because no matter how many boxes we can tick off the list of rules, we can never live up to God’s standard of perfection. We can never be as perfect as Jesus. Christianity is not about becoming a better person, it’s about becoming a NEW person in Christ.
Many people will see the list of what Paul calls “the works of the flesh” and think that we have a list of rules – you can’t do this, you can’t do that - and that as Christians we miss out on all the fun, that we LOSE our freedom.
A life of drunkenness, of sleeping around, of angry outbursts, etc., is that a life of freedom? These kinds of behaviours and choices are usually the result of some deep-seated insecurity or unhappiness inside of us. These things are not a sign of freedom. They are signs that something is enslaving us; we feel trapped in some kind of situation that we feel we can’t get ourselves out of, and we think that getting drunk or having an affair, or having all the “stuff” our neighbour has will make us feel better about ourselves. But they never do.
Yet Paul says those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Isn’t that like a list of rules, that if you don’t do them you’ll be punished? It’s important to understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is. In the Bible, the KofH not a place you go after you die if you’ve been good, and if you don’t go there you go to Hell because you’ve been bad. Living in the Kingdom of Heaven and all its freedom happens already – in this life – when you choose to make God the sovereign ruler of your life. You can live in the Kingdom of Heaven in this life, and it is the true life of freedom.
It’s hard for us to comprehend the idea that in Christ we’re free of condemnation, and many Christians actually recoil at the idea. If a list of rules for morality isn’t in place for us, then won’t everyone just go berserk doing whatever they feel like doing? But that’s an erroneous understanding of freedom. Freedom is not that we can just be selfish and do all of the depraved things our hearts desire. No, freedom is love. Vv. 13-14: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul’s point is that although for centuries, fellowship with God was established by the keeping of the Law, now Christ has fulfilled the requirements of the law once and for all, and so no laws, no rules are required anymore for anyone to come into fellowship with God. We are set free to be in full, loving relationship with God and others, relationships that are not defined by laws and rules, but by unconditional love.
A Bible teacher I listen to named Jim Leffel hit the nail on the head when he said, “Love is the one thing that only FREE people can do. You can’t program a robot to love, only free beings can love.”
When Paul lists what he calls “the works of the flesh,” he’s not setting up rules for Christians. He’s saying that these things are the opposite of freedom, because these things are not loving. They’re not benign – somebody always gets hurt, either ourselves or the people we love, or our relationship with God.
The works of the flesh are not a list of forbidden activities or rules that we have to live by; they are a list of behaviours that all of us are free to engage in – even as Christians. It’s our choice. As long as you understand that these things will gobble you up and rob you of true freedom, as Paul says: “If you bite one another, be careful you don’t get gobbled up by one another.” Following a list of rules will not bring you spiritual growth, and spiritual growth is the point of the Christian life. Becoming more like Jesus Christ is the point of the Christian life.
So Paul moves on to what he calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” As Christians, rather than focusing on a list of rules - such as these “works of the flesh” – we switch our focus to being led by the Spirit. If we are being led by the Spirit – living our lives in the Kingdom of Heaven with Jesus as the true Lord of our lives – then the works of the flesh will not even be a temptation for us because we will begin to experience these nine “fruit” in the depth of our hearts, souls, and minds.
If there were more children here, I’d have them sing it for you because the fruit of the spirit is one of their favourite Sunday School songs! Can all of you name the fruit of the spirit?
Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-control.
Good fruit doesn’t grow on a tree because the tree follows a list of rules; the quality of the fruit grows out of the quality of the tree.
So the Fruit of the Spirit are not just another list of rules to live by – you must be patient, loving, joyful, etc. - because as soon as freedom is taken away then Love – the very first fruit – is not there.
What we can do with this list of fruit, though, is assess how we’re growing spiritually, by observing whether we’re growing with regard to these qualities. Am I becoming a more loving person? Am I exercising greater patience with myself and others? Am I getting better at controlling how I express my anger. Growth in these areas will not come by trying harder. Lord knows, I can’t make myself be more patient or peaceful! I can’t will myself to greater joy.
But the more we are led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ the more we will experience those qualities in our lives. Because Jesus is the Vine and we are the branches; the branches don’t produce good fruit on their own, but by being connected to the vine, the source of life and nourishment. When we connect to the vine, we begin to experience all the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives – more joy, more peace, more love – and that is when you will know true freedom. Amen.