Sunday, June 26, 2016

Free to Love

Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
June 26, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

As you’ve heard for the last several weeks, the Galatian Christians have been confused by some teachers who have told them, contrary to what Paul has taught them, that they need to follow Jewish practice as part of their faith. Paul has been sorting this out for them, explaining the importance of the law but emphasizing that faith is more important. Now, as his letter is coming to a close, he points the Galatians toward a more concrete understanding. You have been set free from slavish compliance with the law, he says, but you have been set free so that you may place yourself in servitude to a greater law – the law of love. If you live into that freedom, being led by the Spirit, Paul tells us, your life will demonstrate it with the fruits of the Spirit. Let’s listen for the message of Christian freedom in Galatians 5:1, 13-25:

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.
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
If, however, you bite and devour one another,
take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit,
and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh;
for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, 
licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, 
anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, 
carousing, and things like these.
I am warning you, as I warned you before:
those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
 kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus
have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

In our Gospel reading today, we continue journeying with Jesus, heading south to Jerusalem, where he faces potential conflict. Along the way, he visits a Samaritan village, where he is rejected, and his angry disciples ask if the village will now be destroyed. Jesus rejects the suggestion and rebukes them. Next, Jesus turns down some conditional offers to follow him. Jesus speaks in direct and challenging terms about the decision to follow him, no matter what. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up,
he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
And he sent messengers ahead of him.
On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;
but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
When his disciples James and John saw it, they said,
"Lord, do you want us to command fire
to come down from heaven and consume them?"
But he turned and rebuked them.
Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him,
"I will follow you wherever you go."
And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests;
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
To another he said, "Follow me."
But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead;
but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home."
Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for the kingdom of God."

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

As I sat down to write this sermon, the news was filled with items about “Brexit” – the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. By some, this move is hailed as “freedom’s last chance,”[1] for England. They see it as economic and regulatory freedom. By others, it is lamented as a loss of freedom – freedom of movement, freedom to live and work in other countries, freedom to welcome immigrants who want to do the same. As we approach Independence Day, we too are contemplating freedom. It’s worthwhile, as we do that, to make a clear distinction between American freedom and Christian freedom. As Christian Americans, we sometimes tend to confuse one with the other. Paul’s letter to the Galatians helps us untangle those ideas.

He begins with a declarative statement: “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”
Yay! Christ has set us free, to do whatever we wish!
Well, yes……sort of….

One of the defining features of the American story is the “quest for religious freedom.” The story we learn in school is that the brave Puritans came to these shores seeking the freedom to worship as they saw fit. And that’s true. However, the freedom to worship they sought was for themselves. They weren’t terribly interested in securing that freedom for others.

Fortunately, the framers of the constitution were committed to that ideal – contemplating other faiths beyond Christianity, specifically including Muslims in their discussions of the meaning of religious freedom. Even then, the Bill of Rights originally applied only to the federal government, and not until the fourteenth amendment was adopted in 1868 did the Bill of Rights apply to all of the states. So, in America today, we have freedom of religion – the absolute freedom to practice our religion as we see fit, or to practice no religion at all.

But what does that freedom mean to a Christian?
Often, when someone wants to justify a certain action or belief that others have criticized, they will say “It’s a free country!” The reasoning behind that is that if something isn’t illegal, it is permissible. This is true, in the abstract.

Does it mean that we can withhold the rights and privileges of citizenship to those who are not Christian? Does it mean that we can impose our beliefs on another American? Paul did say “for freedom, Christ has set us free.” But Paul has set for us, in this letter, a higher standard. “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.”

Elsewhere Paul discusses how for a follower of Christ, freedom is limited by the needs of others in the community – you may be perfectly free to go to a certain place or engage in a certain behavior, but if exercising that freedom harms another, or if your behavior causes a weaker brother or sister to stumble, you are not free to do it. Just like your mother told you – your freedom to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose! As Paul says, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

So if we are to become slaves to one another,
we are subject to the rule of love,
we are free, but not free.

The law of love, the one Christ called the Greatest Commandment, is a demanding master.
It calls us to a higher loyalty than self, than country, than religion. Christ has set us free to love – not to compel others to love, but to love others – whether or not they are lovable – love our neighbors, even love our enemies!

It’s a tall order, this kind of freedom. It comes with an enormous dose of responsibility. In our Gospel story, Jesus’ disciples want to punish those who reject him. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” They have utterly rejected the savior – of course they should be given what for! Let’s rain some fire down on these unbelievers! But Jesus honors the free will of those Samaritans, and instead rebukes his disciples.

Others claim they want to follow Jesus, but they are not really available, at least not until they fulfill some other conditions. Jesus lets them go – he neither compels them nor prevents them from their choices.

You can see why those people in the gospel story were hesitant. To follow Jesus was to give themselves over entirely to his leading, to live guided by the Spirit. As Christians, following in the path of Jesus, we are like a train on a track. We can jump the track if we want, but then we are not on a journey, we are a train wreck![2]

To paraphrase Martin Luther, from his treatise on Christian freedom:
"A Christian is the most free - lord of all, and subject to none;
a Christian is the most dutiful-- servant of all, and subject to everyone."[3]

Like the Galatians, we have been emancipated from slavery to sin set free from bondage to self, and given a new identity as free people – free for the purpose of following Jesus, sharing his love, extending his grace, telling his good news.

Those who crafted the documents that established America – the founders – were also purposeful. “They believed that the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty, and property from what they called the depravity of human nature — from man’s innate capacity to do the kinds of violence that slave-owners, to take just one example, did every day.” They understood that electing representatives to govern was no guarantee of maintaining that purpose. They foresaw that what was needed to maintain the American ideal, was people who were self-reliant, who love liberty. Constitutions are all very well, the Founders often observed, but they are only ‘parchment barriers.’”[4] The true guarantee of American liberty is the American love of liberty.

This freedom that Christ gives us is purposeful – it is directed toward the fulfillment of the great commandment of love. The Christian community was founded for the purpose of protecting us too, from the depravity of our own nature – from the violence and oppression and judgment that lurk within each of us. Paul names some of those negatives as “works of the flesh:” enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it is extensive.

Just as our new country required the nurturing of a love of liberty, our new citizenship in Christ requires nurturing the liberty of love. Our new culture in Christ nurtures reliance on Christ, and love of God and neighbor, a new identity. That new identity, as it grows, becomes visible by the works of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Not just one of them – all of them.

Love of God and others, friends and strangers and enemies alike.
Joy in the Lord, in every circumstance.
Peace that passes all understanding.
Patience to wait for God’s time, and patience with one another.
Kindness, even to those who don’t deserve it.
Generosity of spirit and with generosity with every good gift we’ve been given.
Faithfulness, trusting in the God who has been so faithful to us.
Gentleness- the humility of a servant’s heart.
Self-control, resisting the temptation to put let ego take over.

And they all start with love.

Friends, we are so blessed to live in a country where freedom prevails.
We are even more blessed to have been set free in Christ Jesus.
We are free to love.
Thanks be to God that we have been set free.


[1] Gaffney, Frank, AP, “Brexit: Freedom’s last chance in Europe.” 2016/06/22

[2] Olson, Roger, “The Bonds of Freedom. Christianity Today, October 5, 2012

[3] ibid

[4] Magnet, Myron, “The Vision of the Founding Fathers” National Review, July 3, 2015.

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