Christ Has Set Us Free
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
The church in Galatia is in a moment of crisis, and Paul is once again writing another letter to a former church to offer them words of encouragement. There is a growing division within the Galatian church about what actions make you a true Christian. The church in Galatia was made up of gentiles that did not know the laws, traditions, and customs of the Torah.
Paul, who was a Jewish Christian and prior to his own conversion was zealous one at that, was not concerned about their lack of Jewish understanding when he founded the church. However after he left it seems someone came, probably Jewish Christian missionaries like him, who convinced many in the church that in order to receive God’s blessing you must follow all the rules of Mosaic Law found in the Torah, including if you are man you must be circumcised. This led to this new church having not only great debates about what laws and procedures you follow or not follow if you want to be a follower of Christ, but an identity crisis about what it means to be a church and community of faith.
In response to this division about which law and custom is the best to follow Paul writes these words of encouragement about the mindset the church should have as Christians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
A powerful reminder to this young Church that when they are lost in what is right and what is wrong, lost in heated debates and ugly divisions they can remember that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Christ’s love has set them free from the burdens of human agenda and laws, and Christ love will always be the guide to what it means to be a follower of Christ.
When we as Americans read this text with our individualistic mindset we might read this as being written to help someone with their individual faith as they struggle with desires of the flesh. Paul is actually using the plural when talking about flesh so he is talking about communal struggle with desires of the flesh. It is also worth noting that desires are not a bad thing for Paul. Paul concern of the flesh is not that it desires, but that its desires are distorted at times, either wanting too much, too little, or the wrong things.
Paul has list of just some of those distorted desires that are causing harm to the community. Some are communal distorted material desires like envy and drunkenness, and some are communal distorted spiritual desires like idolatry and sorcery.
These communal distorted desires are collective forces that is causing a yoke of slavery to the community’s identity. Yoke is word that can have different meanings and might not be a word we use often in our modern vocabulary. In the Bible it often means a way of life or pattern of behavior that causes oppression or bondage. These collective forces of distorted desires is causing division and causing the church of Galatia to reject one another instead of loving one another. The collective forces of distorted desires are a yoke of oppression that is destroying the very community of faith Paul helped start.
When we look back at world history we can see those moments when collective forces of distorted desires attacked entire cultures and institutions. Just in our nation’s brief history of almost 250 years you can look back now and see how our distorted human agenda, schemes, and desires were a powerful collective force that sought a pattern of behavior in our culture and in our institutions that chose the yoke of power over love.
The collective forces of distorted desires in our nation throughout the last 250 years have attacked our culture and institution of government and church and established periods of time when human beings were the property of other humans, human beings were denied rights to be treated as equals to those in power, and human beings were denied the right to make decisions for their own health and well being. Throughout our nations history the yoke of bondage were those times when our nation chose power for some over love of all.
It has been tense last few weeks, honestly last few years, that has been filled with emotional debate and division in our nation. I was pondering this week if Paul were to write a letter of encouragement to the church that is situated in the United States in the year 2022 what would he say to us?
Would he write to us about desires of the flesh as he watched the ads during primary season when all sides of the political spectrum want to point out the distorted desires of their opponent using words of fear and scarcity. Would he still remind us that if “you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another?”
How would he describe the communal yoke of slavery known as gun violence that oppresses us? I asked my self this question last Saturday I went to a sporting goods store to prepare for Living River’s Elementary camp and I could not believe the number of people buying guns. At first I thought there was a hunting season I missed, but sadly I began to make the assumption they were buying guns in response to gun violence at St Stephens and the possible bipartisan gun reforms becoming law. What would Paul have to say about this, would it qualify as distorted desires of the flesh?
In a week where the highest court in the land ruled that rights first recognized almost 50 years ago no longer exist for millions of Americans, would Paul still proclaim to us that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as you yourself”?
There has been a lot to take in as a nation these last few years. We might all have our own emotional thoughts on what kind of letter Paul would and would not write, so I am grateful to have his words that he wrote to a church and community in distress. May these words speak truth to us in our time of distress and division.
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
“Christ has set us free”—is a gospel claim that God’s love reigns and overcomes all things. Christ’s love for us frees us from the task masters of sin, human schemes, and death. The Good News that “Christ has set us free” also has “a missional calling for us. To live a life in the assurance that Christ has set us free means our purpose for living is to love the world in a way that our lives and actions are to reveal Christ’s freedom of love towards others. The freedom we experience through Christ’s love does put us in some exclusive club where we no longer have to worry about the things of this world and can ignore the brokenness and pain that our neighbors are facing.
Dr. Charles Cousar a beloved New Testament professor at Columbia Seminary who a number of years ago taught the Rev. Jim Foil when Jim was at seminary wrote a reflection on this passage years ago about what our calling to love one another looks like and does not look like. He writes, “suppose the one in need whom I am called to love is mired in a hopeless situation of oppression or poverty or exploitation. It is not Christian love if I ignore the social, economic, and political forces which have created the condition under which one lives and offers only palliatives or perhaps spiritual support…In such instance, love demands justice, and acts of love are transposed into efforts to bring relief from a form or forms of tyranny.”
Dr. Cousar is reminding us that the freedom we experience through Christ’s love is to be a feature in our relationships with one another. That feature is a love that serves others in our community with our actions and seeks social wholeness, especially towards those in need.
Paul’s letter of encouragement reminds us that in times of crisis and division our actions of love matter. Neighborly love and desires founded in love will lead us to social wholeness. That is not to say living a life of neighborly love and life where our desires are driven by love will be easy. When letting love define our life instead of the distorted desires we will realize that sometimes what the world says is right is actually wrong. When we allow love to guide our life we will realize that the status quo that seems to have clearly divided the things in the world into clear answers is actually full uncomfortable and complicated answers.
As Dr. Cousar goes on to say more about our calling to love, “There may be contexts in which it is difficult to determine what love demands, but there are no occasions where the command can be set aside, no conditions under which Christians are obliged to do something less.”
The good news of today’s text is we have Christ’s love and the gift of the Spirit to guide us to social wholeness. We can let love lead us to those desires of the spirit that brings social wholeness to a world in need.
As we process and reflect on all that is happening in our nation, there is no doubt we are surrounded by a nation in need of love. Some are angry, some our joyful. Some are anxious and scared, some are determined to be in control.
May this moment in our nation’s history be a time when we are reminded once again of our calling to love our neighbor, especially our neighbor who is a woman seeking what is best for her well being and the well being of her loved ones. May we remember our calling to love our neighbor, especially our neighbor who is a child that needs adequate health care, food, education, and love.
May we not use our freedom to love as an opportunity for self-indulgence, may we use our freedom to serve those who are in need. When the world wants their distorted desires to ignore them and even oppress them, in their moments of need may we offer them those communal spirit led gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. May our love serve a world in need. Alleluia Amen!