Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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 neighbour 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.
Freedom for One Another: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Most of the time, when we read about Pharisees in the New Testament, we're reading about how misguided they are. Like the kids taught us a couple week's ago on Children's Sunday, at the very least, they are portrayed as being completely unable to understand Jesus' message. At worst, they are portrayed as Jesus' primary antagonists and maybe even some of the people who actively worked to have him harmed. Generations of Christians who have had no other contact outside of the Bible with Pharisees often understand them to be wicked, overly rigid, and hypocritical. It can be easy to dismiss their wisdom when so often they are portrayed as being foolish. I think it is unwise to completely dismiss the work of the Pharisees. A close reading of the book of Luke shows them seeming to try to protect Jesus from harm a couple different times. And, historians often point to the Pharisees as Jewish leaders who helped preserve Jewish faith and culture in the midst of destructive empires. And, as I have read the book of Galatians over the last couple weeks, I think the Pharisees did something else pretty important, too. You see, Paul had been a Pharisee and I think his time as a Pharisee helped prepare him to follow Christ.
I think the Pharisees taught Paul how to make his faith central to his lifestyle. Pharisees spent a lot of time and energy discerning how best to follow God's law in every aspect of their lives. They understood that the law would shape how and what they ate, how they prayed, how they interacted with family, friends, and strangers. Paul would retain this sense that his faith should affect his behavior long after he stopped being a Pharisee. I think they also taught him how to study scripture and be open to what God reveals in the study. It is very clear from readying Galatians that he knew Scripture well. It is also clear that he was open to new insight that radically changed how he understood Scripture. I think that the Pharisees also taught him that the central ethic of the law is that you shall love your neighbor as yourself. He even quotes the book of Leviticus. Jesus learned that that was the most important part of the law, too. And, I think all this teaching laid the groundwork that allowed Paul to truly embrace the new vision for God's people that he saw in Christ, even though this new vision was so different than that which he was raised in. He knew God would require something new of him. His education helped him to be open to that new thing.
What God showed him through Christ was a new way to live in the law. Instead, Paul learned a kind of law that turned itself outward, into service, through love. Remember from last week's sermon, Paul was certain that Gentiles did not have to follow all of the rules of the law, particularly the requirement of circumcision, in order to follow Jesus. He compared requiring them to do so to enslaving them. While he thought that the law had been necessary at one point, and perhaps continued to be useful for Jewish followers of Jesus, for those who had not first joined in relationship with God through the law, he saw an undue emphasis on the ritual of circumcision and on separation from foreigners as a burden to new Gentile believers. And, more importantly, he found it to be a distraction from the core of the law, the ethic of love. The highly structured lifestyle of the Jewish Christians might have been very appealing to people looking for a way to provide organization for their everyday lives. For Paul, this structure was misguided. It was centered more on separation than it was on love.
Paul found love to be so central to both following Jesus and to properly interpreting the law that he said that followers of Christ should be willing to understand themselves as being enslaved by their love of neighbor. Slavery is a powerful metaphor. That's why Paul deployed it. Slavery wasn't usually a choice. Slavery meant no longer being in charge of one's own life. It meant that an outside force had complete control over your body and your behavior. If I were to be honest, I would tell you that while I understand why he might use this metaphor to describe practice that he found problematic, like asking the Gentiles to be circumcised, I don't really understand why he would use it to describe a practice that he found to not only be good, but to be actually redemptive for humanity. Is it because he'd never actually been enslaved that he can play around with the word in this way? He was an educated man and a Roman citizen. While his religious community carried a historical understanding of having once been enslaved, he personally experienced more freedom than many. Maybe slavery was the closest condition he could imagine that would approximate the level of dedication he thought that one should have to God. Loving one's neighbor should be so integrated into your behavior it is though you have no control over it. It is as though you must do it... are required to do it buy the one who has total control of your body and all your actions. As I said, slavery is a powerful metaphor, if not always a comfortable one.
Or maybe he uses slavery as a way to balance out his sense of freedom. He is very clear that God, through Jesus, is calling people to freedom. He needs, though, to make sure that people don't think that freedom means some libertine, anything goes kind of lifestyle. Freedom is not radical individuality. Instead, it is radical connectedness... a freedom for one another... freedom that binds our futures to the well-being of our neighbors. He said that this kind of freedom is cultivated by living according to the Spirit. The Spirit will show you a way to live bound to your siblings in Christ that is also free of the parts of the law that were once necessary for survival but were always short-term solutions to long-term problems. Jesus provided the long-term solution: love.
Love becomes the law around which Christians organize their lives. Law becomes the defining feature of not only the individual's orientation towards God, but towards other people. Faith is not something that happens simply in one's heart. Faith extends outward, into community, and is cultivated through love in relationship with other humans. Paul says that if you have faith, the Spirit will help you live a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Notice that each one of these aspects of love, what Paul calls fruit of the Spirit, will help you build stronger relationships. One cannot be in genuine, healthy relationship with God, or anybody else for that matter, without these facets of love. Paul compares the fruit of the Spirit to the works of the flesh, that is, the evidence of the corruption and oppression that exist in the world and are contrary to God's intent for humanity. Enmity, strife, jealousy quarrels, dissention, envy, and anger all disrupt relationships. The development of factions simply extends the quarrels to wider and wider circles of people. Drunkenness, fornication, and all matter of licentiousness and carousing are all examples of out of control behavior that damages the self and one's relationship. Idolatry disrupts one's relationship with God, the foundation of love that makes all other relationships possible. Sin is rooted not just in one's individual behavior but also in community. Love allows you to build community that function in the way God intends. Love allows you to turn your attention outwards, mirroring God's own attention to humanity through Christ. This love can structure your daily life. Paul argues that all the strictures of religious tradition don't have to. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Who is your neighbor? Somebody once asked Jesus the same question. We're going to learn more about that next week. Spoiler alert: It's probably going to be someone you aren't sure you supposed to even like, much less love. All the more reason to practice listening to the Spirit and cultivating the fruit of love, because we're going to need all kinds of tools to put this love into action in the radical way in which Christ demands. It will not be easy. It will be a freedom like we have never known before and a burden that might feel like bondage. That is the paradox of faith as Paul describes it. Not freedom from something but freedom for one another and for God. Freedom that is love in action in service to neighbor. Freedom that is rooted in community. Freedom that grows in faith. Do not look back to a life that was only about survival. Look towards a life of liberation and love and faith. That's what Christ was here for and that's his true mission that we will continue. For you are called to freedom. Build that freedom with love.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Alicia Vargas https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2874
Sarah Henrichs: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1684
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=612
Brad Braxton, No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.