Proper 8 (June 26-July 2)
Texts: Gal. 5:1, 13-25;
What makes for real freedom? For ultimate freedom? We’ve been reading through St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians for several weeks now, and that truly is the question that he has been driving at all along. What makes for real, ultimate freedom?
St. Paul has some Jewish brothers and sisters in the churches in Galatia who have tried to answer that question with: the Law. The Law makes for real freedom. And, as we might have been able to gather from our readings the past several weeks, St. Paul answers a decided “No!” to their answer. The Law is not the ultimate answer to real freedom. The Letter to the Galatians represents Paul’s most passionate writing. Jesus Christ is the only ultimate answer to the question of what makes for real freedom; and, as he says in our text this morning, anything less than that is to fall back into slavery. Living according to the law is slavery compared to living in Christ.
This is a very timely theme for us to consider this morning, as we enter this week of our national celebration of freedom. On Wednesday we celebrate the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate our very real freedom that we enjoy in this country. But is it the ultimately real freedom? Or one that still pales in comparison to the ultimate freedom in Jesus Christ? Is the freedom we celebrate on Wednesday still slavery compared to the freedom we know in Jesus Christ? I think that we must take seriously the freedom represented by the Jewish Law, the Torah, to appreciate this question. Compared to anything of St. Paul’s day, it was by far the best in giving his people a sense of freedom, even in the face of political tyrannies and oppression. The Jewish Torah has remained such a source of freedom right until this day. It has survived two thousand more years of political tyranny, the latest being the unbelievable Nazi Holocaust of the Jewish people. Yet St. Paul tells his Jewish brothers and sisters that even their great Torah is slavery compared to freedom in Jesus Christ. I think we need to take this very seriously as we celebrate our national freedom this week, that even the freedom of the United States of America is still basically a freedom under the Law, and so — as good as that freedom might be compared to all other nations to go before us — I think that St. Paul would be no less adamant that our American freedom is slavery compared to what we are offered in Jesus Christ.
Our first clue might be what we also observe this week, beginning today: the 138th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. Abraham Lincoln would say, at the first anniversary of that battle, that that terrible war must be considered as a “new birth of freedom.” Well, if the freedom this country represents regularly requires such terrible bloodshed as continual rebirths, then we should perhaps get a clue that something is wrong. Can this be ultimate freedom? Perhaps the fact that we even need a rebirth should be a clue to us. If this was the ultimate freedom, then it wouldn’t need to be reborn. And the Civil War wouldn’t be the last time we would need to resort to such violence in order to experience a new birth of our brand of freedom.
Christ himself would submit to this kind of bloodshed in order to expose it. In order to be clear about this, we must not see the cross as playing the same sort of game as we do, in any way, shape, or form. Jesus was not taking anyone else’s blood to defend freedom. Jesus was not playing the game of taking someone else’s blood. He was submitting to that game and letting his own blood be shed. In this morning’s gospel, as Jesus sets his face resolutely to his mission in Jerusalem, his own disciples are into the age-old game. They want to rain down fire from heaven on their enemies, the Samaritans. Jesus will have none of it. He rebukes them. He has come to expose that game we play, not to play it. He will submit to that kind of bloodshed in order to ultimately free us from it.
St. Paul had been confronted on the road to Damascus with just this same deadly game of his. Notice carefully again what Jesus says to Paul at the point of his conversion: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus makes St. Paul see that he has been killing people in the name of the Law, in the name of the Torah. As long as we continue to do that, we will never ultimately be free. As long as there continues to be Gettyburgs in our history — and there certainly has been many more! — there will be the continued need to rebirth our kind of freedom. And it will remain a slavery to the blood that occasionally needs shedding in order to keep our freedom alive.
Christ came to finally free us of that. How? By suffering it in love, and by offering us the key to a new way: forgiveness. We are forgiven so that we might begin to live by the Spirit, rather than living by our old way of doing things, what St. Paul calls living by the flesh. God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ sets us free to live by the Spirit.
Now, there is one other key ingredient to living in this freedom that has its birth in the cross and resurrection of Christ: namely, the way his love can begin to tame our desires so that they lead to the fruits of the Spirit rather than the desires of the flesh. Our lives can begin to be sanctified so that they are ordered increasingly by love, God’s brand of love, rather than ordered around envy, dissension, conflict, and the like.
If we had more time, I could ‘flesh’ this all out for us this morning, too — it relates to what we said last week about our human desire being mimetic. I could also show how the Law falls short with this aspect of helping us to achieve freedom. There are many Christians today, for example, who think that adding God’s Law, the Ten Commandments, is still the way — that if we added God’s Law to our American law, then real freedom would finally be achieved. But St. Paul shows how this is also a false hope, because Christ’s law reduces even the Ten Commandments down to one law: love. Love your neighbor as yourself (Gal. 5:14). I could show all this if I had time. But we are already running a bit long, so I would instead like to finish with a story for you to take home, one that I hope will sum all this up better than I could otherwise.
It is a story that Lutheran writer and teacher Walter Wangerin, Jr. tells about his son Matthew when he was in elementary school. (1) Matthew had developed a problem with his desire for comic books such that he was stealing them. And Pastor Wangerin tried on three occasions to use the law in getting Matthew to stop stealing comic books. But, as Pastor Wangerin once put it: the Law can shame you, the Law can blame you, the Law can restrain you, but it cannot change you. It cannot give you real freedom.
The first time Pastor Wangerin discovered that his son Matthew was stealing comic books was during one of their nighttime prayer times. He glanced down to see Matthew’s bottom dresser drawer ajar, and filled with comic books. He knew that he and his wife hadn’t bought Matthew so many comic books, and so he needed to investigate. He leafed through them to find that they were all stamped with the Evansville Public Library stamp. In other words, his son Matthew had been checking these books out without bothering to check them back in. He was stealing them.
So Pastor Wangerin called the librarian to tell her what his son had done and to ask if she could help by laying down the law to his son. She was a very good librarian. So Matthew traipsed across the street under his burden of many comic books, and Carolyn Outlaw, the tall, stern librarian excellently explained the law to Matthew.
But Matthew did not stop stealing comic books. The second time they discovered this fact was after having spent a summer in St. Louis where Pastor Wangerin had been a guest lecturer at the seminary. Matthew had apparently spent his summer going to the corner drug store and stealing comic books; and he had even somehow managed to smuggle them all back to Evansville. So explaining the law to Matthew had to fall to Pastor Wangerin himself this time. It was no longer practical to return these books to their rightful owner several hundred miles away, but neither was it right for Matthew to keep them. So Pastor Wangerin started a fire in the fireplace and began to preach to Matthew on the Seventh Commandment, “Thou Shalt not Steal,” while dramatically tossing those comic books into the fire one at a time (the flair for the dramatic being something he learned from his mother). Did the raging fire perhaps remind Matthew of … hell?
When they discovered Matthew stealing comic books a third time, Pastor Wangerin and his wife Thanne were beside themselves. How could they make their son to understand the law? How could they make him to follow the law? Pastor Wangerin decided it was time for drastic measures, something they rarely resorted to: spanking. He brought Matthew into the room and explained again to him the law against stealing, and its dire consequences, and then he spanked him. Matthew’s body went stiff as a board, but he did not cry or show signs of remorse. Would he finally change? In his despair, Pastor Wangerin left the room, and he cried.
It was a number of years later and Matthew and his mother were driving in the car, having one of those discussions in which many of the sentences begin, “Remember the time….” Suddenly Matthew mentioned the times he had been stealing comic books, noting that he had finally stopped. But he followed with a curious question: “Do you know why I stopped?” “Sure,” said his mother, “Dad finally spanked you.”
“No!” said Matthew. “It was because Dad cried. Dad cried.”
The Law can shame you, the Law can blame you, the Law can restrain you, but it cannot change you. It cannot give you real freedom. Only God’s love in Jesus Christ can begin to change us, can begin to give us real freedom. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, June 30-July 1, 2001
1. See, for example, the version of this story in chapter 17 of Wangerin’s The Manger Is Empty (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), “Matthew, Seven, Eight, and Nine.” I have also had the privilege of hearing him tell this story in person on at least two occasions.