This week’s national celebrations in North America give Canadians and Americans opportunities to think about freedom. July 1 is, after all, the Canada Day that at least some people think of as Canada’s birthday. July 4 is the day on which Americans celebrate the anniversary of their declaration of independence from Great Britain.
So one can hardly help but wonder if those who constructed the Revised Common Lectionary weren’t at least peeking at their calendars when they put it together. After all, while some people in Great Britain and Australia follow the RCL, it’s likely that most who follow it are North American Christians.
This week those North Americans may be arguing a bit more than usual about what our nations’ independence frees us to do and say. Americans, for example, wonder if our nation’s independence frees us to do things like own guns or kill pre-born children. What are the proper limits on the freedoms so many that write and read these Commentaries enjoy?
On January 6, 1941 American President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in which he outlined basic principles for peaceful and democratic societies. In a time in which freedom was under near worldwide assault, he gave what’s now known as “The ‘Four Freedoms’ Speech.” Roosevelt insisted that the freedoms of speech and expression, of worship, from want and from fear are essential to human flourishing.
Paul begins this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with talk about freedom. Yet it doesn’t seem to overlap with Roosevelt as well at least some North Americans’ ideas about freedom. Our text begins with verse 1’s bold assertion that it was Christ, not our countries’ founders who freed us. Yet its “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” may seem so redundant and obvious that it’s unnecessary. Isn’t it self-evident that Christ has freed his adopted brothers and sisters to be free?
Yet what the apostle writes in the rest of this Lesson makes it clear that it’s not self-evident that we use the freedom Christ gives us to actually be free. After all, after insisting, “It is for freedom Christ has set us free” (1), Paul quickly adds, “Stand firm, then, and do no let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Verses 2-6 at least imply that the apostle thinks of this return to bondage as re-submission to the rite of circumcision as a requirement for belonging to Jesus Christ. Yet verse 1b’s imagery of a voluntary return to slavery also reminds me of a horrible scene I witnessed while pastoring a rural congregation in Iowa.
Lightning struck and set on fire a barn in which a member of my church housed his pigs. Ed risked his life by going into his burning barn to chase his pigs out of it to safety. He succeeded in rescuing most of them. But even as he worked to prevent them from returning to the still-burning barn, a number raced right back into the barn and their sure death. Those pigs traded life for death, freedom for a kind of yoke of slavery.
Of course, since pigs don’t seem to be the brightest lights in God’s constellation of creatures, we’re not surprised that they might trade their freedom for slavery. Yet by saying, “Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” (13b), Paul at least implies that those whom God has freed to be God’s adopted sons and daughters are also at least tempted to surrender their God-given freedom and return to slavery to sin, Satan and death.
God has, the apostle goes on to writes, graciously freed God’s people to freely love our neighbors as ourselves (14). But by calling Galatian Christians to “stop biting and devouring each other” (15), he’s at least implying that some of his readers are using their God-given freedom to act like wild animals toward their neighbors.
Paul later notes that God has graciously freed God’s beloved children to “live by the Spirit” (16). Yet by listing verses 19ff’s “acts of the sinful nature,” he at least implies that some Galatian Christians are using their God-given freedom to disobey God.
Christians sometimes expend almost endless time and energy arguing about “free will.” But even a cursory reading of Galatians 5 suggests that it’s less interested in the question of whether and when our will is “free” than in what we do with the freedom God gives us – whenever God graciously gives it to us.
While staying sensitive to both the needs and vulnerabilities of those to whom we proclaim Galatians 5, its preachers and teachers will want to spend some time both exploring and appropriately illustrating what Paul calls “the acts of the sinful nature.” Sadly, we probably won’t have to spend much time searching for even Christian examples of those acts.
Yet those who proclaim Galatians 5 don’t want to spend more than about half of our presentation exploring the possible misuses of the freedom God gives us. God has, after all, graciously freed God’s adopted sons and daughters to use our freedom well and wisely. That freedom for which Christ has freed us includes our freedom to love. God has, after all, fully equipped God’s beloved people to “serve one another in love” (13) as well as “love” our “neighbor as” ourselves (14).
What’s more, God has freed God’s people for the freedom that is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” God has graciously freed us for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (22-23). God has, quite simply, freed God’s children to “keep in step with the Spirit” (25).
The old American television program, “Gomer Pyle, USMC” portrayed a bumbling but utterly lovable Marine from North Carolina’s backwoods. Its opening featured Pyle’s struggles to learn to keep in parade step with other Marines. Yet no matter how much Gomer had struggled to be a good Marine during the show, by the end he’d be keeping in step with other Marines – at least until the next show.
Those who proclaim Galatians 5 will want to spend as much time exploring how to “keep in step with the Spirit” and illustrating the truths of “the fruit of the Spirit” as we do the “acts of the sinful nature.” Sadly, however, we may need to spend quite a bit of time hunting for examples of that fruit. It’s not just that we’re personally sometimes more titillated by acts of disobedience. It’s not even just that our culture and media pay less attention to righteousness than unrighteousness. It’s also that even in the Church Christ has freed to be free, we sometimes act more like servants of the evil one than servants of our Savior Jesus Christ.
In doing so, however, we harm the community that is the Church into which God has saved and freed us. The “acts of the sinful nature,” especially sexual immorality, debauchery, hatred, discord, jealousy, dissensions, factions and envy, harm Christian community. What’s more, the “fruit of the Spirit,” particularly love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, enhances the well being of the community into which God saves and frees us to be free.
Cornelius Plantinga notes how the themes of freedom and liberty run throughout Stephen Ambrose’s fine book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. He points out that it shows how Virginia planters at the end of the 18th century were expected to live up to a code. They had to be skilled at riding, hiking, and dancing. They were expected to be adept at the small sword, cards, and fiddle playing. (Thomas Jefferson was pretty skillful on his violin.)
Undaunted Courage shows that Virginia planters also had long political discussions about liberty, and about the combination of liberty and good order — the two treasures always in tension with each other. In it Ambrose writes, “A Virginia gentleman was expected to be hospitable and generous, courteous in his relations with his peers, chivalrous toward women, and kind to his inferiors. There was a high standard of politeness; . . . The unpardonable sins were lying and meanness of spirit.”
Unfortunately, all of these lofty character virtues applied only to and between white men and women. “There was,” writes Ambrose, “a snake in the garden. The glittering social, intellectual, economic, and political life of Virginia rested on the backs of slaves. Those backs were crisscrossed with scars, because slavery relied on the lash . . . Not every master whipped his slaves . . . but every master had to allow his overseers to use the lash whenever the overseer saw fit, or felt like it. Slavery worked through terror and violence—there was no other way to force men to work without compensation.”
Ambrose goes on to note that even the admirable Edmund Burke was bent in his thinking about the matter. He believed that the master, looking at his slaves and comparing their situation with his own, treasured his freedom all the more and became eloquent on the subject: “those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom.” Burke didn’t seem to notice that only free people would be in a position to be proud of their freedom.
“Thus,” says Ambrose, “the sting in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s embarrassing question: ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes’?” It doesn’t take much Spirit-fueled imagination for freed Christians to imagine how some people might ask similar questions about Jesus’ 21st century followers.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 30, 2019
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 Commentary