Sunday, June 30, 2013


Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Joanna AdamsPaul J. Nuechterlein, and Frederick Buechner for their insights in preparing this week's sermon.

Janis Joplin sings, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." It's kind of fitting, when you think of it - when our security and sufficiency is found in Christ, what could we possibly have to lose? Do we not then have all the freedom we need to love - egregiously, abundantly, lavishly and joyously?

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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

How do you define “freedom?” It’s an appropriate question as we in the United States prepare this week to celebrate Independence Day.

To be sure, the Founding Fathers defined “freedom” as a release from oppressive taxes, levied with no concern for or representation by those being taxed, and above all national self-determination, the ability of a people to control their own national destiny. Within that template of national freedom, there was an acknowledgement of personal freedoms as well, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is a view of freedom as a grand design, and one that has guided this country’s subsequent leaders to do both wonderful and terrible things in its name.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of “freedom,” his focus is both personal and eternal. He sees freedom as the ability to choose among alternatives, or to act in certain situations independently of natural or social restraints. Because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, we who are called by His name are no longer enslaved by the Law or by fear of death.

We talked last week about the people who had come into the church at Galatia after Paul left, insisting that the members of that body of believers adhere to a Jewish belief system, embracing circumcision and dietary laws as a prerequisite for following Christ. In effect, demanding that spiritually free men and women enslave themselves to a Law which had been fulfilled and nullified by the blood of Jesus Christ.

To be sure, there is something comforting, something reassuring about being enslaved to a Law or to a code or to an order.  There is a kind of security in knowing that there are specific requirements and expectations, and in return one has assurance of belonging, of not having to think for one’s self.

Under the rule of Great Britain, the thirteen colonies could rely on the protection of King George III. They knew what was expected of them, even if those expectations were unfair and oppressive. There was safety in that enslavement. But there came a point when many realized that security was not worth the price. They determined, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, that “[t]hey who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The Law of Moses taught that we must perform certain works in order to become righteous enough to merit God’s favor. In Christ we learn that we already benefit from God’s favor, that good works aimed at attaining salvation are not only unnecessary, but are in fact a detriment to our relationship with one another and with God. We are free from the Law.

When we move beyond theocratic constructs such as the Law of Moses, we are in uncharted territory, forced to make constant, day by day and even moment by moment choices: choices between giving in to our basest desires, conforming to social expectations, acting as if we are the center of our own universe; or following the Law of Love, where our desires are secondary to the needs of others, where the Holy Spirit rather than society determines our thoughts and actions, and where God and God alone is the center of our universe.

We cannot serve two masters. When we serve the flesh, we see certain things happen, which are the polar opposite of the things which grow from a life whose focus and center is God. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when he writes that the works of the flesh are obvious, he immediately starts with the kinds of things our minds kind of naturally go to when we hear that phrase, “works of the flesh”: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, and let’s don’t forget drunkenness and carousing while we’re at it.

These are the marks of a person whose focus is pleasing oneself, and other human beings are tools, object whose sole purpose is fulfilling the basest desires.

Then there are some more obvious bad things:  idolatry and sorcery. These are the tools of one who seeks to manipulate forces beyond their comprehension, to bend the forces of the universe to do their will.

And of course we who follow Christ know that these things are not marks of a Christ-centered life. These things destroy not only our relationship with the living God, they destroy the spirit. They devour the soul… leaving an unfulfilled, sick, pitiful, hollowed-out shell of a person. We can, if we want to, be kinda smug about it – after all, those are things that other people do, that’s a problem for them over there, not us over here.

But there is more to the list, isn’t there? Paul warns about another kind of erosion, another form of destruction: biting and devouring one another, and he points to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy as core works of the self-interested, self-indulgent flesh.

There is a cartoon where a girl is watching television commercials, and her mom comes in and turns off the TV. The little girl protests, saying, “How will I know what I want?”

We get our desires by imitating one another. We copy each other's desires, or we wouldn't really know what to desire. That's the way we are made, so it's not bad in itself. We have the ability to copy, to imitate, to image God's desire. The problem is that instead of imaging God's desire, we image each other's desires. And when we do that we end up desiring many of the same things. And when we end up desiring the same things, what happens to us? Why, we compete with one another, we envy one another, and we get caught in the conceit of thinking that we deserve what we desire more than the next person. We claw and scratch and bite and devour, because, after all, there is only so much power, so much popularity, so much money, and when it runs out there isn’t any more… so give me mine now, or else!

This is no healthier for the individual, and it absolutely destroys community on every level. Not only is the individual soul destroyed, family and friendship and fellowship fall under the murderous knife of self-indulgence and self-interest as well. And this is often much harder to detect within ourselves, far more difficult to resist because it is how we have been conditioned by society and culture and media.

There is one remedy, one solution: to choose, in our freedom, to walk in the Spirit of God, to place God at the center of our universe.

Do you notice, Paul uses different words for the effluvia of the flesh and the product of the Spirit? Works are things that are done – effort and toil and sweat and blood and time and immersion to push, gouge, tear and fight something into existence. And such small, insignificant, temporary things, decaying even as they are completed.

Fruit, though… fruit happens. Fruit is the product of soil and temperature and moisture and sunlight and time and patience. A pecan falls from a tree in the right spot if we do nothing at all, in time we have a pecan tree. As the pecans fall from those trees, we again do nothing at all and in time we have more pecan trees, and more and more.

When we choose the life of the Spirit, we choose the law of love: when we choose to love our neighbor as ourselves, we move into a place where our neighbor is the focus, rather than a tool to attain power and security and influence and money. Rather, power, security, influence and money become tools employed for the benefit and enrichment of our neighbor. And make no mistake, the wording Paul uses is very focused, very individual, he means our neighbor, that one, right there right now, whoever he or she is, whoever he or she loves, whatever he or she looks like or thinks or believes, that person right there.

And what grows from the life of the Spirit? The fruit is a stark contrast to the works of the flesh” love, joy, peace, and patience, which nourish and enrich the soul; kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, which enrich and heal and grow family and friendship and fellowship.

Each generation of Americans must learn anew what our Pledge of Allegiance maintains; that civil liberty is a function of fidelity to justice. In the same way, each generation of Jesus' followers must learn anew that Christian liberty is a function of fidelity to the law of love.

This is the kind of love Jesus spoke of – the kind Jesus lived. When he gave us the Great commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, he was emphasizing ethics over emotion, fidelity to love rather than enslavement to self.

The great 20th- century religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way: "Basically love means… being responsible, responsible to our family, toward our civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind."

To be free really means to be liberated from the prison of "me, myself, and I". To be truly free is to be able to move beyond the self and, as one wise person put it, to move into the risk of love and to give oneself to the demand of service. To be free is not to be free from responsibility but to be free for responsibility. Christ Jesus had everything in the world going for himself-power, status, safety – he who was and is God chose, freely chose, to empty himself and take on the form of a servant for the sake of the world.

What could we accomplish if it didn’t matter who got credit? If it didn’t matter who died with the most toys? What if we really didn’t care who had the most money or power or influence or security? What if it made no difference who wins, because we finally realized, once and for all that love wins? What if we used the freedom for which Christ freed us to choose to walk by the Spirit, to make ourselves servants of one another?

Would we not then be free indeed?

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