A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on June 30, 2013.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Freedom. Freedom is a word that is almost synonymous with America. We Americans love freedom, especially during this time of the year so close to Independence Day. Something deep within us resonates when we hear the word “freedom.” Today, in the book of Galatians, Paul begins chapter five with this soaring, inspirational statement: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
When we think of the word “freedom,” often we think of “freedom from”: freedom from oppression, freedom from other people telling us what to do, freedom from slavery. In our culture, “freedom” is often understood as being totally unencumbered by constraints, obligations, and responsibilities. Kids out of school for the summer are free from the obligations of homework, exams, and school rules. We Americans are not the only ones who think of freedom as casting aside responsibilities and limits. Apparently, there were some in the churches in Galatia who thought the same thing. When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he said, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.” However, Paul quickly added, “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” For Paul, freedom did not mean having no constraints, and doing whatever one wants to do. Instead, true Christian freedom is “freedom for”; freedom for service to one another in love.
The Greek word for “serve” that Paul used can also be translated “to be a slave, to submit, to yield obedience.” For Paul, true Christian freedom entails trading one form of slavery for another form of slavery. True Christian freedom is being liberated from our enslavement to the “flesh,” so that we may be freed to be a slave to God’s Spirit. According to Roger Olson, the great church theologian Augustine taught that true freedom is not unlimited choice or a lack of constraint; rather, true freedom is being what you are meant to be. Humans were created in the image of God. True freedom, then, is found not in moving away from that image but in living it out. The closer we conform to the true image of God, Jesus Christ, the freer we become. The farther we drift from God’s image, the more our freedom shrinks.
In Galatians, Paul taught that there are two realms of power and authority, both at war against one other. There is the power and rule of God’s Spirit, which is the realm of the kingdom, and there are the principalities and powers of this world, which is the realm of the flesh. Paul exhorted Christians to live by the Spirit, rather than to live by the flesh. Paul then gave a list of the acts of the flesh: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. Paul then made this statement, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
At first glance, this passage seems straightforward. It is obvious that sexual immorality, idolatry, selfish ambition and the like are bad. Most of us would agree that true Christians still struggle with sin, but we should not persist in the acts of the flesh. In our lives, there should be evidence of a trajectory of holiness due to the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.
However, I don’t think this passage is as straightforward as most of us seem to think. In his day, Paul found it obvious and easy to list what he considered to be the acts of the flesh, but it might not be so obvious to us today. Early Christians believed taking oaths or pledging allegiance to Caesar and other earthly rulers was idolatrous, and Paul lists idolatry as an act of the flesh. But would we say that pledging allegiance to the flag is idolatry because it elevates the United States over the Kingdom of God? Similarly, Deuteronomy 23:19 prohibited the charging of interest in loans to fellow Jews, and following this teaching, for centuries the Church prohibited the charging of interest. Should we also condemn the charging interest in loans as immoral and selfish? As late as 1930, the use of contraception, even in marriage, was seen as immoral by both the Catholic and Protestant churches, a clear act of the sexual immorality that Paul decried. But within a few decades, most western Protestants – Baptists included – came to see the primary purpose of marriage not as creating and nurturing children, but as providing mutual support and companionship between spouses. This redefinition of the purpose of marriage went against almost two thousand years of church teaching. However, for us today, is it obvious that married couples using birth control should be condemned for committing acts of sexual immorality and debauchery? “I warn you,” says Paul, “that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
And yet, even though we might think differently than Paul about what may be considered a work of the flesh, I wonder, are we willing to allow the past to teach us something about the present? Perhaps the prohibition of oath-taking by the early Church can teach us how to be free from idolizing America to the point that we cannot see our country’s failings. Similarly, God’s Kingdom challenges all political parties and administrations, and we are in danger of idolatry when we always defend one political party and criticize another. Perhaps the prohibition of usury by the medieval Church can raise our awareness of how the power of money is woven into the very fabric of modern life and how we are enslaved by our passions and desires for material things and by the shackles of debt. Perhaps the church’s historic teaching against contraception may challenge our assumption that marriage and sex has no higher calling than just the pleasure of two people. If we’re not willing to be challenged by the voices of our brothers and sisters in Christ from our past, how can we expect non-Christians to hear our voices of challenge today?
I bring this up because, without knowledge of the history of Christianity, we lose an awareness of the differences in ethical thought and teaching in every age and in different communities. We read Paul’s letters written during the time of the early Church and we wonder why he didn’t condemn the institution of slavery, or why he seemingly has a low view of women. Every age and every Christian community has its blind spots, and all – individuals and social systems alike – have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. When we focus on the acts of the flesh, it is obvious to me that all of us – non-Christian and Christians alike – all of us are still enslaved to the flesh in one way or another, and as such, none of us will inherit the kingdom of God.
But I’m grateful that Paul’s list of the acts of the flesh is not his final word. Paul continues with the word “BUT.” “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Ah, what a word of grace! Paul is telling us that because of the saving work of Christ, we become free when we let God do the work of bearing fruit in our lives, molding us into the image of God. Because God is love, we human beings grow in freedom when we love God and others in the same way that God loves us. Paul echoes the words of Christ when he says that the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I remember a story that Keith Smith, former Senior Minister of UBC, used to tell. Keith was about to head off for college, leaving the confines of his home, beyond the watchful eyes of his parents. There is great freedom in going off to college, but how was Keith going to use that freedom? In the midst of the hugs and good-byes with his parents, there was no time to recount all the rules of behavior that Keith’s parents had instilled in him since he was a child. Therefore, one the last things that his mom told Keith was, “I love you, Keith. Remember who you are.” Similarly, I think when we truly remember who we are, when we embrace our identity as the beloved children God, we are led by God’s Spirit living within us, and we live are under the power and authority of God’s Spirit and not the law.
Jesus once told a story about a father who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate, my share of the inheritance.” The father divided his property between the sons and not long after that, the younger son gathered all he had and set off to a distant country – in the realm of the flesh – and he spent his wealth in what he thought was free living. But in fact, he was enslaved by it, and his life went down in a spiral as a result. When he hit bottom, he came to his senses. He had squandered his last dollar of his inheritance carousing and partying, and he came to realize that even his father’s servants had more than he did. So he set out back home to tell his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants. I’ve crucified my passion and desire to be ‘free’ from you, and I’m returning home to live as your servant.”
But the father would have none of that. Lovingly and graciously, the father embraced the wayward boy and clothed him with all the accoutrements of a bona-fide son.
Meanwhile, the older son was out in his father’s fields tending to the livestock. He was responsible and morally upright, and he did not go to the distant country or spent his life in wild living. Ahh . . . but he also lived in the realm of the flesh, for he saw himself as a slave to his father, bound by all the work and routines and rules of running the estate. There was little love, only duty. There was little joy, only toil. There was little peace, only jealousy and a fit of rage when he heard that his Father threw a welcoming party for that good-for-nothing son who had returned home in destitution and shame. He wondered, how could my father have killed the fattened calf for a homecoming feast for my brother, when he never even gave me a young goat for a party with my friends?
The father had to go out into the fields to find his dutiful son. He pleaded, “My son, all that I have is yours. The inheritance was already yours; at any time, you were free to take a goat or a lamb or a steer or anything else you wanted. All of it was yours. But you did not believe me and you lived as if you had not inherited my property. You’ve enslaved yourself to duty and lived more like my servant than my son. Crucify your passion and desire to be seen as righteous. Come home, son, and join the party.”
There is freedom in grace.
Grace sets us free from false identity – either imposed by others or by ourselves – so that we may be free to become who we are created to be: the beloved children of God.
Grace sets us free from exile – either out in the far country or out in the fields – so that we may be free to return home to the embrace by our divine parent.
Grace sets us free from our spiritual poverty – either out of our profligacy or out of our pride – so that we may be free to enjoy our divine inheritance.
Grace invites us to keep in step with the Spirit in order to join in the feast as one family.
This is the good news at the heart of Galatians, God’s Gracebook. There is freedom in grace. Believe it. Receive it. Live it. Amen.