Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection at Virginia Theological Seminary
Text: Galatians 5:1,13-25
Day: 6Pentecost, Proper 8, Year C
“Freedom from what, for what?”
Like the apostle Paul and the church in Galatia in our second reading, we today in our country have been having a protracted conversation about freedom. For us, particularly since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in 2001, we have wondered how much of our personal freedom we are willing to sacrifice to ensure public safety. At first the conversation was about whether to allow public safety organizations—the police, Homeland Security, and various intelligence agencies—to monitor our private communications without probable cause of wrongdoing or even a specific warrant authorizing the intrusion.
Of course, as incidents of mass public terror have increased throughout the years, our conversation about freedom has intensified. Most recently, the killing and maiming of 103 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in the name of the terrorist group ISIS has intensified our political conversation about the lengths we should go to protect public safety. Unfortunately, from my perspective, this conversation all too often is about the desire to limit the freedom of OTHERS for the increase of MY safety. All too often, when our fears increase, our human tendency is to “circle the wagons” and “tighten the circle” of who is worthy of protection and who is the enemy. In other words, when we feel threatened, we draw a tighter circle around us of who is IN and who is OUT.
If all that sounds political, this strain of our conversation today about freedom IS political. In Paul’s day the conversation was political, as well, although we might not recognize Paul’s “freedom” teaching as political. In Paul’s day, because there was no separation of church and state, anything that threatened the church was political. In Paul’s day, the debate was about how much new followers of Jesus had to observe the 365 laws of Judaism to join the Christian Church. In Paul’s day, some new Christians thought that all that was required to be a Jesus-follower was to have the correct knowledge about God and about Jesus and they would be assured of eternal life. Those Christians, whom we call Gnostics, therefore thought that their actions had no bearing on their salvation. They thought that they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted, to take whatever actions they desired, if they just knew the secret knowledge of Christ.
There were other new Christians, Jewish Christians, who rightly felt threatened by this perspective. After all, without Jewish law, the whole tone and structure of Jewish life would be threatened. After all, if knowing and following the Messiah doesn’t make a difference in how we act, why follow Jesus? Unfortunately, these Christians who felt threatened drew a very tight circle around them, insisting that to follow Jesus meant also to follow all of the Jewish law, as well.
Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia reminded everyone there, in both camps, that knowing and following Christ sets us free from the law IN A WAY. After all, hadn’t Jesus’ detractors pointed to the many ways in which Jesus violated Jewish law? He ate the wrong things and with the wrong people. He healed on the wrong day. His followers didn’t wash their hands in the right way. Yes, Paul said, Jesus set us free from the law.
But then, Paul says, we have a responsibility to use our freedom in the right way. And Jewish law had a higher purpose than rules. Jesus himself summed up Jewish law this way: love the Lord our God with all our hearts and soul and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. How, Paul asked, can we love our neighbor as ourselves if we “bite and devour one another” in our fear and by our political arguments?
Instead, Paul points to what we know as “fruits of the Spirit” of Christ: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Paul points out that there is no law against these things, and that when these fruits of the Spirit are evident we know that the Spirit of Christ prevails. It’s not that we can’t “circle the wagons,” if needed, but HOW we circle them.
Paul also contrasts the fruit of the Spirit with their opposite actions, what he calls the “works of the flesh.” Paul says that the works of the flesh are: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Notice that there are a lot more works of the flesh than fruits of the Spirit. And in a very real way, our actions tell others whether we are Christ-followers or not.
So how can we use this information today? We are embroiled in a very heated public debate about our freedom, the limits of our freedom in relation to our security, and what should be done to decrease our fear. Should we tighten the circle of safety around us at the expense of freedom? I would argue that wherever your thinking is on these issues of our day, the way that we listen to each other, the way in which we hear each other, reveals much about our state of grace.
The questions for us today are: freedom from what, for what? And the answers that Paul suggests are freedom from fear to use our freedom to increase the fruit of the Spirit of Christ among us, not only in our church but in the public square. If we die to the flesh and live for Christ, we will abound in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We are Resurrection are very good in abounding in the fruit of the Spirit in our actions, maybe not so much (I wonder) in our political debate, both private and public. What if we were to use our freedom to show the world Christ’s love?