Freedom in Christ is the only true freedom
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 the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 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 keep in step with the Spirit.
(Galatians 5:1,13-25 ESV adapt)
My guess and my experience is that if people tried to summarise what being a Christian is about day-to-day, ‘freedom’ is not going to be high on the list of descriptions. Christianity over 2,000 years is very much associated in the world’s eyes with do’s and don’t’s – being good and not being bad – and the idea of freedom which is equal to ‘doing what I want’ just doesn’t seem part of Christianity for many people – including many Christians.
How many of us in our teenage years, if we were Christian, struggled with all the rules whether from the church or the ones we put on ourselves – to read the Bible more, pray more, be nice more? How many of us still struggle with following Jesus – and freedom isn’t in the picture here?!
In fact it can come as a shock to people that Paul’s furious and exasperated letter to the Galatians – he had just heard that someone had come to them after him claiming an ‘updated’ or ‘corrected’ Gospel that the Gentiles had to become Jews first to become Christian – and so Paul has whipped off this letter to refute this false teaching and to anchor them in the Gospel of Jesus, the grace of God; they are justified by faith and are children of God. And when he comes to the ‘so what?’ section of the letter – the ‘what does this all mean day to day?’ section, people can be genuinely surprised with …
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).
Paul is claiming that in Christ, people discover that there is a freedom when one is not a slave to sin and guilt – the Gospel is about forgiveness and new or restored or reconciled relationships. Now the freedom people crave is the freedom to be god – to do what we want and others around us have to cope – and many times we’re not going out of our way to hurt others but … the freedom people crave is that they are free to do what they want when they want and to receive what they want and that means my wants over you. This freedom people crave is ultimately lonely.
And people – we ourselves find – don’t live like gods but rather we live in relationships which involve give and take and freedoms are somewhat curtailed because we all understand that life is better with others and there is a time when you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours whether I want to or not.
Living in relationships, however, has its own issues because a group – whether family, classroom, factory floor, country – likes conformity – good order – and rules challenge freedom. This is why people crave assets and wealth and power because when living among others, wealth and power give you the freedom to do what you want when you – even to whom you want – and this craving is its own entrapment. In fact that’s what living is often describes as – trapped – in our bodies, in our poverty, in our society, in our past behaviours – with limited freedom. We can’t be gods and living with others is more a jungle, a survival of the fittest, not to mention how quickly life can be snuffed out – this isn’t much of a life!
But it is into this world – our world – our life that Jesus came. It is to the people of this world – you and me today – that Paul speaks about Jesus who has established a new relationship between God and people and who has given us life with him to live each day in the lives we live each day. Paul declares us ‘free in Christ’ – Jesus says that ‘his word and his truth will set us free’ (John 8:31,32). There is freedom in a relationship with Jesus because he doesn’t want anything from us – he has no agenda to use or abuse us – his goal is what is best for us – which we think we know but he will even guide us in learning. Hence the freedom we have in Christ begins with his Word – hearing it, knowing it, trusting it – that Jesus loves us, that Jesus is with us, and picking up one’s cross and following Jesus in the world – living for others – is the most free and liberating way to live!
And this lifestyle of freedom is summarised in the word ‘love’ – serving others – and we do have ideas about what we want and what is good for us, so let’s make that – as guided by God’s Word – the starting point about how we engage with others. Paul knows that this freedom is tough going because people are always struggling with what imprisons them – our selfishness, our sin, our fear, our defining of things and rejecting what Jesus says – and Paul describes this as the tension between our sinful self and the Holy Spirit. When our sinful self is guiding, relationships worsen and when the Holy Spirit is guiding, relationships can be restored and the person is at peace – free from sin and guilt – growing in God’s grace.
Paul spoke against certain behaviours – sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these – without any other details – and so they to be defined by Jesus and not by us. Such behaviours are not freedom, they are not listening to Jesus.
Paul spoke in favour of certain character traits, attitudes, perspectives – he used the term ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – as defined and seen in Jesus so that what flows from these fruit is freedom – increasing freedom for those in Christ and those whom they serve.
It is easy for me to talk these words – we can read Galatians again – but the living out of this freedom is always under the cross – and there’s the paradox of Christianity again – because when you’re nailed to a cross you are not free, you are stuck. It is a good picture of human living – trapped and stuck. But because it is Jesus we are seeing on that cross for us, who used his freedom to die for us, who was raised again so that we might be set free, Christians also engage in a paradox that living with true freedom means we crucify our sinful selves each day to follow Jesus – not to get life or a reward but because that is the life we have received from Jesus in Baptism, through his Word, and strengthened at Holy Communion. This life with Jesus is lived with a freedom to grow closer to him and as we do what is right for those around us. This doesn’t make us their ‘doormats’ because we are following Jesus first which means we determine how we serve – and maybe we say ‘yes’ to whatever or maybe we say ‘no’ to whatever because our goal is serving others following Jesus.
It doesn’t sound ‘free’, does it?
And yet the longer we are disciples of Jesus, the more we realise and grow that the fruit of the Spirit give us such scope, such breadth, so many options because we find them again and again in Jesus. Jesus is our peace, our confidence, our hope, who sets us free to struggle with our sins and to serve others, and to rejoice and praise God. There is no better way to live!
- Galatians 5:1 - 1
- Galatians 5:13 - 25