Scripture: Galatians 5:1-6, 13-25
A week ago, yesterday, I woke up with the flu. It didn’t take me very long to realize that I would not be able to lead worship the next day. And so, a communication immediately went out to all of my retired colleagues in the congregation to see if anyone was in a place to step in at the last minute. And, obviously, Bob Chapman walked up to the plate and pinch-hit for me and did a great job.
Last Monday, the carpet in the church office was scheduled to be cleaned. On the Thursday or Friday before, I heard Debbie mention that she’d be in first thing Monday morning to move everything out of the office next to mine. To her surprise and delight, she discovered that someone else had beat her to it; everything had been moved out into the hallway. Someone else’s kindness resulted in Debbie’s Monday morning burden being altogether lifted.
On Wednesday morning, I had my very first opportunity to make a hospital call since arriving in Port Huron a year ago. I met Tom and Jean in pre-op at 6:15 before his procedure to have a pacemaker put in. I can tell you from my own experience of being on the patient side of this scenario how helpful and comforting it is when someone else comes alongside you to pray for you before going into surgery. There’s something about knowing that other people are there for you in your moment of need that makes it a lot easier to handle.
The next day, Thursday, our car was scheduled to have some work done on it which, of course, required getting it to the shop. Getting it there and dropping it off is easy. One can do that all by themselves. The issue is, getting back home after dropping it off. Clearly, this isn’t a problem if you live within walking distance. But that wasn’t the case for us. The solution is easy, but it does require a second person. Two cars go to the shop and both persons return home in the second car.
These are four real-life examples which took place this past week of someone coming alongside someone else in order to help ease their burden. I can tell you for certain that these are only four of many examples I was either a part of (on both the giving and receiving end) or witnessed taking place between others. If you were to consciously stand back and pay attention, I think you’d see that burden-sharing of one kind or another happens all the time.
Today is July 4th. The Fourth of July. On the calendars hanging up on our refrigerators, at our desks, and on our digital devices, what’s the official name for the national holiday we’re celebrating today? Independence Day. I’m tutoring a man who’s preparing for his immigration test, and one of the questions he’s very likely to be asked is Why is it called Independence Day? The answer, of course, is it’s the celebration of our nation gaining its freedom from the control of the King of England. Winning the Revolutionary War resulted in us gaining our national independence.
Independence is a very interesting notion. Culturally speaking, what eventually became The United States was founded on the desire to be independent of another. As the nation expanded westward, those who migrated in that direction purchased land by the thousands of acres so that the nearest neighbor would be miles and miles away. The elevation of rugged individualism has been a common theme in American film from the very beginning of filmmaking, especially in Western’s. There’s something we as a nation admire about the rugged, independent cowboy out there on the prairie, battling the snow and the rain and the sun with nothing but his horse and personal gear. Or the homesteader who cuts down the trees to build his own home and lives off the land and defends his family against those who would come and try to take it from them.
Our high regard for the independent life is summed up in the well-worn proverb, God helps those who……help themselves. The thinking is: before God will step in and help, you have to show him that you’ve already tried everything you can to do it yourself. Keep in mind that he’s pretty busy solving other peoples’ problems, and needs to know that you’re not just being lazy and trying to get him to do what you can do on your own. (That’s the logic of the proverb.)
I said a moment ago that independence is an interesting notion, but here’s an interesting fact. From what I can tell, independence as we understand and admire it isn’t really a Biblical concept. In fact, the Hebrew word for “independence” is relatively new to the Hebrew lexicon. The word is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. As it concerns the New Testament, the word “independent” occurs in only one verse and it’s presented in the negative. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul’s addressing questions about the relationship between husband and wife. In verse 11 he writes, “In the Lord, woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman” (1 Cor. 11:11). To state it in the positive, marriage is a relationship of dependency on each other.
So, while our modern concept of independence is probably considered antithetical to the Christian faith [in that our faith tells us about our need first for a Savior and then for one another who will become companions on our journey of faith and then become disciples themselves], what IS a Biblical, and even Christian, concept is FREEDOM. Freedom is something we can claim and something we can proclaim.
The story of God’s people, all the way back to the Book of Exodus, is the story of God giving them their promised freedom. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it seems like every time you turn the page, they’re retelling the story of Moses leading them out of their Egyptian slavery through the Red Sea. Then, some 800+ years later, Jerusalem is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and nearly everyone is put in chains and hauled off where they spend the next 70 years in Babylonian captivity. Fortunately, the story of God’s people doesn’t end there. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us that Cyrus, king of Persia, overthrows Babylon and frees the Israelites. Over the course of many years, they return to their homeland, rebuild the Temple, and rebuild Jerusalem.
Of course, the story of God granting his people their freedom has a modern instance as well. The end of World War 2 brought about the “return” of 3.5 million Jews, either from literal captivity in Concentration Camps or those who had otherwise survived or were hidden or had escaped to territories outside of Nazi control.
Freedom is an important Christian concept as well, but with Paul, it takes on a different look. In his letters, there’s definitely a sense of there being a freedom from something. Almost always, a freedom from sin, or freedom from the power and control of sin. Of course, this is a good thing; it’s something we Christian’s celebrate on a regular basis – weekly, if you will, every time we come together to worship!
But Paul is quick to point out that true freedom goes beyond getting out from under the thumb of someone or something else. In addition to being made free from, Paul reminds us that in Christ, we’ve also been made free for. In Christ, we’ve been set free from sin for a purpose. And this is exactly how he launches the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians. “Christ has set us free for freedom” (Galatians 5:1). Here are some different wordings of this statement.
- It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
- Christ has liberated us to be free.
- Christ has set us free to live a free life.
- So Christ has truly set us free.
OK, freedom for what? Freedom from oppressive persons or systems we get. Freedom from the power of sin we understand. But for what, exactly, does our freedom in Christ give us? Well, maybe the better question is, and the one Paul’s ultimately getting at, is: What are we going to do with our freedom? That Christ has given us true spiritual freedom is a given. Now there’s a choice to be made. What will each of us choose to do with it?
This is where things start to diverge from our civil understanding of the purpose of our national freedoms won for us on the battlefield with bombs and guns. Written into our Declaration of Independence is this wonderful statement which stands at the core of our national identity:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
We place a very high value on the right to live life the way I see fit, the way that makes the most sense to me, the way that makes me the happiest. As a citizen of this country, those are my rights. From this perspective, my freedom is about me and what I want to do.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with living my life my way. But Paul does take the opportunity to let his readers know that our freedoms can serve many others beyond ourselves. In verse 13, writes, “You were called to freedom; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses.” You’re free, yes; but don’t limit yourself to simply using your freedom for your own benefit.
In fact, Paul found himself addressing this same issue with a different congregation, the one in Corinth. I’ll paraphrase what he wrote. “You say, ‘In Christ I’m no longer under the law. Therefore, I can do anything I want because all things are lawful for me.’ But I say, ‘Yes, but not all things are beneficial.’ Again, you say, ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I say, ‘That may be true, but I will not be dominated by anything’” (see 1 Corinthians 6:12). A contemporary parallel might be a motorcyclist saying, “I choose to ride without a helmet because it’s lawful to do so.” To which many would probably say, “Sure, but you’re your chances of survival are a lot better if you’re thrown from the bike and hit your head on the pavement if you’re wearing one.”
All things are lawful, but not always beneficial.
This is why Paul says, “Don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love (v. 13). You see, the ongoing battle we fight is not the war for independence, but the battle against self. We’re certainly behind enemy lines in the culture in which we live, a culture of self. Day after day, we’re told to think first about ourselves, but the Spirit invites us to think first of who and how we can serve. Paul describes this battle as one between flesh and spirit. But he doesn’t mean that we should mortify the flesh, that any attempt to find pleasure or satisfaction in our bodies or in the world in which we live is a negative thing. This sort of interpretation of this battle between flesh and spirit is what led to the idea that Christians can’t have any fun, that there’s no joy in our faith, that it is all about the drudgery of service that feels like slavery.
On the contrary, Paul claims that it’s the self-centered life that leads to drudgery, isolation, and brokenness. Compare the lists that are presented here in our text: sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that (5:19-21). That’s quite a list! Take a closer look and you’ll see the inevitable selfishness behind these words. They’re about pleasing the self at the expense of others.
All of those words divide, or they take, or they abuse. This’s what Paul means about pleasures of the flesh. Those actions and behaviors and attitudes that push people away separate self from others. They’re words of individualism. It’s all about me.
In contrast, the second list is about joining together, about relationships and about building up the other. The words love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23) are about interdependence and caring, building up the community of faith and the wider world – including our so-called enemies. This way of living is full of joy, full of pleasures of all sorts. But they’re pleasures shared; they’re joys experienced in community; and they’re burdens lifted in companionship.
Friends, this is the freedom Paul celebrates in our text. And it could be the freedom we celebrate as we commemorate Independence Day. It’s the freedom to care for others, the freedom to see all people as equals in the sight of law and the eyes of God. It’s the freedom to serve not because you have to but because you get to; not because you have a duty to fulfill, but because you have a love to put into action. We’re free not to live independent of one another, caring only for ourselves, but we are free to acknowledge our interdependence and how our own personal good comes to us from many others, even as we contribute to the good of others.
This week, I can guarantee that if you’re paying attention, you’ll become aware of the dozens of opportunities to help someone else, whether in big or small ways. That joy you’ll feel when you help them, that’s actually the Holy Spirit in you smiling! Let’s pray.