Sunday, November 2, 2014
1Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
16-18 My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?
19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.
22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Once again our McLaren resource has gifted us with a rich selection of texts. We can choose among the stories of Moses and how he came to lead his people to liberty or John’s account of the woman caught in adultery or Paul’s riff on freedom as he tries to straighten out the good folks of First Church, Galatia. All of this is gathered under the theme of “Freedom!” The challenge is that each of these texts approaches freedom from a different perspective.
We considered the call of Moses not long ago, the story of the burning bush, Moses’ reluctance to go and God’s promise to go with him to set God’s people free. McLaren writes that this story “makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims. God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners! God does not uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future may come” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 39). Once again, McLaren shows us how the God of Israel is distinguished from other gods of the ancient world who would have been firmly on the side of the ruling classes. Shockingly good news! The living God, the great God of the universe, is for the oppressed and downtrodden. God hears the cries of those who are bound by chains of every sort.
The Moses story is about freedom on a grand scale. It’s about the liberation of a entire people, a people with whom God has covenanted to be their God as they will be God’s people. This is a tale of God’s desire that these people live together with one another and with God in peace, harmony and well-being. It holds a promise of the restoration of the rich, abundant life that God laid out in creation. This story has held hope for enslaved people in all generations, from the slaves of the ancient Greco-Roman world to the African slaves brought to US shores, from contemporary structures of apartheid to the poor, downtrodden people of slums and barrios everywhere. The song that begins, “Let my people go,” ends with the refrain, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty. I’m free at last!”
Still, as we know only too well, the road to freedom is long and arduous. The Children of Israel go grumbling and complaining, dragging their feet through forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God may desire that God’s people live free, but we make it difficult to find fulfillment of the promise. Take the story of the woman caught in adultery. Her wrong-doing, her sin is not in question here. She is guilty and she knows it and she feels it. The point of the story is the self-righteous judgment of the community that wants to keep her bound to her guilt rather than offer her the liberation of forgiveness and restoration. The great irony is that the community’s self-righteous judgment has them tied up knots as well. They are bound to the letter of an ancient law that serves neither the woman nor the community.
Jesus sees through the hypocrisy and offers freedom to all. But the road to freedom is challenging. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Well, well, that’s not exactly what they were expecting from the teacher. He has turned their blood lust back on themselves. I wonder if, after they have slunk away and spent some time considering his words, they didn’t find some freedom in Jesus’ challenge. Humbling, yes, but liberating as well. “You mean it’s enough to take care of the log in my own eye without worrying about the speck in my neighbor’s eye?” Can you feel the release in not having to carry the burden of another’s sin and guilt along with your own? And, in the process, are we not freed to work together then for the welfare of the whole community? As Richard Hays writes, “freedom in Christ manifests itself through the formation of concrete communities where the old barriers of nation, race, class, and gender are overcome in communion at the one table” (Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI, p. 310).
“For freedom Christ has set you free.” What a word of hope and promise! Paul is writing to a congregation caught between some who insist on adherence to the law, to certain religious rules and practices in order to secure God’s favor, and those who insist that they are free of any such rules and practice. It is not unlike the situation with the community that comes to Jesus ready to stone their neighbor. Keep the rules or you’re headed for hell. But that sort of judgment is beyond our pay grade and, in fact, Jesus has liberated us from such a burden.
Remember how Jesus summarized the law – love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself, the irony being that he drew these mandates directly from the ancient texts. This is a liberating word, easy to remember, enough to focus the practice of a life time. Love God, love neighbor.
In his teaching on freedom, Paul reinforces this liberating word, “…everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” Then, in case they don’t get the full import, he adds a timely warning, “If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”
Just to be clear, he reminds the members of First Church, Galatia, that the freedom he’s talking about is not license. The freedom we find in Christ is freedom that comes with responsibility. As a reminder of our exploration of “Rivalry and Reconciliation,” Elisabeth Johnson tells us that “Self-centeredness inevitably leads to seeing others as rivals rather than beloved children of God. The resulting behavior is the opposite of loving service and destroys life in community” (Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010,” workingpreacher.org).
We’re not free to do whatever we want, certainly not without consequences. Paul says the road to freedom leads to a crucial fork. If you take the fork toward getting your own way all the time, you’ll find yourself wandering through “…repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
The other fork leads to the freedom to serve, the freedom to care for one another and the community, the freedom to love as we are loved. It’s not cheap freedom. It comes at a price, but is well worth it in the end. Here we find ourselves immersed in “…things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity…a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people…involve[ment] in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, [the ability] to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”
Well, there you go, the road to freedom. Walking this road has implications for people and nations and creation itself. It also has implications for you and me and First Baptist, Palo Alto. When we come to that crucial juncture in the road which route will we take, the one to self-interest, self-righteous and selfishness or the one to love for God and neighbor and ultimate freedom? “It’s a long road to freedom, awinding steep and high, but when you walk in love with the wind on your wing and cover the earth with the songs you sing, the miles fly by.” Amen.