Dear People of Bethlehem,
Happy 4th of July holiday! As we celebrate our freedom this first weekend in July, we are concluding our reading from the book of the Bible that’s most passionate and insightful about freedom: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. (See Proper 7C, Proper 8C, and Proper 9C.) Paul has taught the Galatians that, living under the shadow of the Roman Empire, they can be most truly free in Jesus Christ. But there are new Christian teachers, who have arrived since Paul left them, that are teaching that life in Christ requires circumcision and converting to the Jewish Torah (law). Paul emphatically says, “No!! That’s going back to slavery.”
In Galatians, perhaps more than any other place in the Bible, we can come to understand how fragile the paradox of human freedom is. Paul wrote this letter as a passionate appeal to the Galatians to maintain their freedom by giving their lives over to Jesus Christ. A paradox. It’s not a matter of being free from somebody else’s power, or free from higher powers like the Flesh (Paul’s name for the ways in which our human nature can bind us). There is never a perfect version of “freedom from.” But if we submit our lives to Jesus Christ and his Higher Power of Love, then we find a special “freedom for.” We find ourselves, in God’s love, free for serving others and the creation, just as we were created to do (Gal. 5:13-14; 6:2).
Martin Luther, heavily influenced by Galatians in writing his book On Christian Liberty, stated this paradox:
The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
The Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.
We find our relative freedom from others by being subject to the love of Christ, and in so doing we find an amazing freedom for serving. That we human beings finally fulfill our created purpose is so spectacular that Paul proclaims it as “new creation” (Gal. 6:15).
Any other choices we make lead us into further enslavement to powers we don’t understand until we live in the freedom of Christ’s Spirit. In my favorite commentary on Galatians, New Testament scholar Louis Martyn puts it this way:
. . . because there is no such thing as an autonomously free will, “freedom from” easily becomes nothing more than a transfer from one form of slavery to another. Specifically, the Galatians could shed the tyranny of the Law only to become subject to the tyranny of the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh (v 16). Freedom that is both true and sufficiently powerful to stand the test of daily life is also “freedom for,” and specifically freedom for service of the neighbor (v 14).
Next week (July 10; Proper 10C), we read one of Jesus’ greatest parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus gives us the example of true service of the neighbor as fulfilling the law. On this holiday weekend, let us celebrate the freedom we enjoy in this country by re-dedicating ourselves to serving our neighbors in the love of Christ. Any other version of freedom ends up sinking us back into enslavement. Let’s let the paradox of Christian freedom help us to sort through the conflicting messages about freedom in our current national situation. It’s not about “freedom from”; it’s about “freedom for” serving in love as followers of Christ in the new creation.
Peace, Pastor Paul