Galatians 5.1-25: The Christian idea of freedom
Verse 1: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery
Verse 13: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters
Paul is getting passionate here – because it is about the very heart of the gospel.
FREEDOM FROM THE LAW
He is writing to people he loves, people who have heard his message, who have come to believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God, who have put their trust in him and who have received forgiveness and acceptance, who have become part of God’s family, and received the Holy Spirit – all as a gift. They realise that there is nothing that they have done to deserve it or earn it, but that it is a gift that God has freely given them.
But now teachers are coming and are telling them that they are not proper Christians.
They are telling them that if they want to be proper Christians then they must follow certain rules: the most dramatic of which is that they (or at least the men) must be circumcised.
And Paul basically goes bananas. He tells the Christians to whom he is writing that if they accept that teaching, and are circumcised, then they are going back to a false religion which says that if you want God to love you, then you must follow all the rules.
Imagine a baby who is adopted. He was chosen by a couple. He did nothing to deserve or earn that choice. But they said that to him, and they stood and swore in front of a judge, that they would love him unconditionally and that, from now on, he would be a member of their family.
But then someone – a school colleague – tells him that he isn’t really a member of that family. That to be a member of that family he has to deserve his parents love. They will only love him, and let him be a member of the family, if he does all the washing up, cleans the flat, is exemplary at school and gets 5s in all his exams.
And so he starts to do all the washing up and all the cleaning
He was a son – but he turns himself into a slave.
Listen, says Paul, when God welcomed you into his family, when God made you his son and daughter, it was absolutely free.
He chose you. He loved you. He forgave you. It cost him so much to forgive you – the death of his Son on the cross – but that shows that it is real forgiveness: he has forgiven you. He brought you into his family. He gave you his Holy Spirit. And it was all free.
So please do not go back into the way of thinking that says that now – having received the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the Holy Spirit simply as a gift – that you need to earn God’s love by following certain rules
And I’m going to say something radical
You don’t need to cross yourself, this way or that way, or not cross yourself in order to earn God’s love
You don’t need to pray to Jesus in front of icons or not pray to Jesus in front of icons to earn God’s love
You don’t need to give, or tithe, or even come to church to earn God’s love
You don’t need to confess your sins or fast to earn God’s love
You don’t need to read your bible every day, or ever just read your bible to earn God’s love
You don’t even need to be good, or even half good, in order to earn God’s love
To say that we need to earn God’s love and blessing by keeping the rules, by following the law, is wrong in so many ways
1. What parent is like that? What parent says to their child, I will only love you if you keep all my rules, and do all the washing up? Our son’s room is a mess. It drives us to distraction. We may threaten him with many things if he doesn’t tidy his room –humiliation in church, public execution. But actually, it doesn’t make him any less our son or love him less. And even if he went off, and said that he hated us and never wanted to speak to us, it would hurt like hell, but it would not make him any less our son.
2. And if we think that we can earn God’s love and that it all depends on me, and on me being good enough or religious enough or prayerful enough for God, how can I ever know if I have been good enough or religious enough?
3. And let’s be honest: the rules that we set ourselves don’t nearly go far enough. They just deal with the outward stuff – what we do. Jesus says that if we want to live by rules, then God’s rules apply to our thoughts. He doesn’t just say don’t commit adultery. He says, don’t lust. He doesn’t just say don’t murder. He says, don’t hate another person.
But, you might say, aren’t you then saying that Christians can do whatever they want to do? Aren’t you offering a very cheap Christianity? What Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace.
What about our gospel reading (Luke 9:51-62) about following Jesus to the cross whatever the cost: the rejection we can expect, not having anywhere to lay your head, and putting Jesus even before our parents.
Well no. Because Paul does not just want us to be free from slavery to the law.
FREEDOM FROM THE DESIRES OF THE FLESH
He also wants us to be free from the slavery to what he calls, ‘the desires of the flesh’, ’the works of the flesh’ or simply ‘self-indulgence’
‘Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence’ (v13)
In other words, he is saying, don’t be slaves to the law but also don’t be slaves to your wrong desires.
Look what they do: vv19-21:
It is our sinful desires of the flesh which mean that we treat each other simply as sexual objects who are there to satisfy me - and we devour each other: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, carousing
We try to be in control of what we should not be in control of. Maybe we don’t have many idols today, but what about sorcery? Superstitions, horoscopes, little rituals that get a grip on us. They eat us up. They put so much pressure on us, because we are trying to control the uncontrollable. There is a story told about an early English king who thought that he was so powerful that he could hold back the tide. So King Cnut went to the seashore, ordered his servants to place his throne at the edge of the sea and forbade the tide to come in. He got his feet wet.
Forget it. Just talk to the God who loves us, who knows all things, and who does have authority over all things.
And it is the desire to have more and to be more that leads to the enmity, jealousy, envy, anger, strife, quarrels, dissensions, factions
And things like drink are great, a gift from God. But when they get a grip on us, when they control us, they destroy us. Last week I received a letter, full of shame and self-loathing, from someone whose life and the lives of those who love him have been devastated because of his drinking.
In the end it is the desires of the flesh which mean that we bite and devour each other, and end up being eaten up ourselves (v15)
Paul wants us to be free from the slavery to the law and free from the desires of the flesh.
THE SECRET LIES IN THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
When a person chooses to turn to God, to reject the works of the flesh, and receives the free gift of forgiveness and acceptance, they also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And it is the Holy Spirit who comes into us, and who begins to work in us, who begins to change our desires: so that we begin to want to do the things of God
Paul is not saying that when a person becomes a Christian, when we receive the grace and goodness and mercy of God, that we will immediately become perfect. We may begin to desire to be perfect, to desire to be holy and blameless and true and righteous – but this is something that will take time.
He talks of the fruits of the Spirit. Fruits take time to grow. But once the seed has been sown, then provided that we freely want it to grow, it will grow. And in time it will produce these beautiful fruits in the garden of our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
And so as we ‘live by the Spirit’ (v16,25), are ‘led by the Spirit’ (v18), and are guided by the Spirit (‘keep in step with the Spirit’) (v25) so we will begin to change. Not only what we do will change, but our desires will begin to change. What we want will begin to change.
Augustine famously said (it is a bit of a mistranslation, but it gets the gist of what he is saying), ‘Love God and do what you will’.
Let me illustrate it like this.
There aren’t the ten commandments of life: Thou shalt breath; thou shalt eat; thou shalt sleep. Those things come naturally. We freely do them.
So, when we receive the love of God and God puts his love in us, then we longer need – for instance – the ten commandments, the law.
Not because the things they tell us to do are wrong, but because the law is now unnecessary. If the love of God is living in us, we will want – by nature – to do what the law is really all about.
That is what Paul means when he says in v14: ‘The whole law is summed in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.
Now please do not get me wrong.
I am not saying that there is no need for discipline or duty in the Christian life: it is simply about doing what we want to do.
Paul and the NT writers would never say that
There will be many times when – even as a committed Christian - you do not want to talk with your heavenly Father, or come to church, or give, or read the bible. It may be because you have had a great hurt or bereavement. It may be because you are clinically depressed. It may be because you are exhausted.
And it is times like that when you need to cling on with your finger nails, and the rules of the church become helpful: reading a psalm, praying the Lord’s prayer, meeting with others, receiving communion.
I watched an interview when the Archbishop of Canterbury was talking about a time when he had been captured by rebel militia in Nigeria. They threatened him with death. He said that he was in too much turmoil to pray freely, but that what was incredibly helpful was that he was able to say morning prayer.
And as CS Lewis said, often in the Christian life we have to do something today as a duty, in the hope that tomorrow we will do it freely and with great joy.
And of course, in this life there will always be a battle between the desires of the flesh and the Spirit. That becomes inevitable when you accept the love of God and the gift of the Spirit and declare that you want to be free from slavery to the destructive desires of the flesh. And you will be torn in two. And you may well fail, and give in, and mess yourself up and mess others up. And you will hate yourself for it.
But – and this is the important thing that I want to stress from this passage today - it makes no difference to who you are in Jesus.
If you have come to him, if you have ‘crucified the flesh with its desires’, if you have said yes to his love, and living for him, and no to living for this world, if you have received his forgiveness and Holy Spirit, then you may be unshaved and smelly, your room may be a total wreck, but he still loves you, and you are still part of his family