Galatians 5: 1; 13-23
The Apostle Paul was not the last one who commented on the idea of freedom.
Other famous people have said the following:
Author Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead wrote: “Freedom: to ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.
President Franklin Roosevelt said, “In the truest, sense, freedom cannot be bestowed, it must be achieved.”
Author William Faulkner wrote: “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”
Philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote “Life without liberty is like a body without spirit.”
And finally, these poignant words from a man who was in prison for years—Nelson Mandela. He wrote: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
This week we think about freedom as we celebrate a time in America known as Independence Day. The colonists were looking to be free from the tyranny of kings and queens in a way similar to Jews wanting freedom from the Caesars in the first century B.C.E. and C.E. What we learn, however, is that just as a disciplined imagination—not a free-wheeling all over the place imagination— helped us bear fruit in the study of the book of Revelation during May, so Christian freedom should not make us feel free to annihilate others or run rough-shod over their rights. Even as far back as the book of Deuteronomy, guiding words have been there for all to consider: The Lord God said: “I call heaven and earth as witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death; blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live ….[30:19] So the gift of life includes remembering how precious it is. And the gift of freedom perhaps should include guidelines from God and from people like the Apostle Paul. American leaders would do well not to stray from principles of responsibility regarding freedom.
Back in 1941, when our nation and Japan were at war in part because Japan didn’t honor the lives and property of Americans as they dropped bombs on the naval fleet in Pearl Harbor, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures given at Edinburgh University were published as a large volume, The Nature and Destiny of Man. In it, this Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Seminary in New York wrote profound words that influenced the rest of the 20th century and beyond. Listen to what he said about freedom:
The essence of man is his freedom. Sin is committed in that freedom. Sin can therefore not be attributed to a defect in his essence. It can only be understood as a self-contradiction, made possible by the fact of his freedom, but not following necessarily from it. [Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York: 1964, p.17
Now let’s examine what the Apostle Paul said about it in his Letter to the Galatians. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.” [5:1] Those words have doubtless been a rallying cry for colonists and immigrants who escaped the tyranny of slavery and oppression in their own countries. Many came to our shores—most of them your forebears and my forebears—seeking the freedom to establish their own laws and claim a piece of a piece of the world where they could live freely. People were, and still are, hungry for that kind of freedom! But as we learned, freedom comes with responsibility. Dr. Charles Cousar, in his commentary of Galatians, wrote:
The language of slavery and freedom undoubtedly suggests itself to the New Testament writers as an apt description of God’s Word in Christ because of the history of the Jewish people. Israel became a nation by God’s liberation of her from the bondage of Pharaoh and his leading her to a new land…. “Christ has set us free” means that God’s decisive salvation has been accomplished and a complete change of allegiances has been effected.(sic) No longer bound to task-masters like sin, the law, and death, Christians are set in the service of God…” [Interpretation: Galatians; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p.106, 107.]
Cousar goes on to say some activities we usually think of as freedom. He says at a ballot box we are supposed to be free to choose a candidate who we wish to elect. People of faith also choose their religion and what commitments they’ll make to honor its deity. And, he says, it is also good that we are free to choose our partners in marriage and do not have them chosen by our parents (although some parents wish they had chosen the partner for their child!) Freedom can also bring emotional and physical peace, a gift that is appreciated by those who find it. Freedom is a precious gift to be used not only for one’s own peace, but also to assist others in finding peace and justice.
Let’s look exactly at what Paul says: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” [5:13]
Paul then sets up a dichotomy that others have affirmed in their human existence. Even before American psychologist Abraham Maslow diagramed a human being’s Hierarchy of Need—with physiological needs as most important for survival, then safety, then a sense of belonging and love, then the feeling of self-esteem, and finally the most evolved persons reaching a level of self-actualization, showing full potential and creativity. Paul in the Bible described the human lower levels as “carnal.” As he says, “What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit.” [5:16] Those who stay in the flesh—in the lower levels of actualization—do things that are included in this alarming list, refreshingly re-translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message: This is what the flesh desires:
Loveless cheap sex, a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cut-throat 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.
Does that list describe the way we act even today? In some way I think it does!
Part of our problems today are caused by our carnal desires; those of the flesh. When we do that, the results do not honor God.
But there is another list, says Paul. A way to live in freedom and to honor God! It is traditionally called “The Fruit of the Spirit.” People who truly honor God, who truly follow Jesus, can be identified not with their membership card, but with these qualities: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
and self control.” [Galatians 5:22]
What a different list that is! If you want to exercise your freedom, you can do so exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit! That’s the way to let freedom ring! That’s the way to let Christ’s light shine! The way of darkness is the way of the flesh; turn away from it and fight those constant temptations!
Commentators have called Paul’s letter to the Galatians the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty. What a perfect week to think about liberty and freedom.
May God shed his grace on our land, and on each one of us.
Jeffrey A. Sumner `June 28, 2019