OH, FREEDOM! (Sunday, July 7, 2013)
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Text: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
“Oh, freedom over me…before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave…” What do you imagine that song is about it? Who do you think first sang it and why? It was a very popular song of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the mid 1960s. What famous document was signed into law 150 years ago? What did the Emancipation Proclamation say and do? That’s right it outlawed slavery in this country and freed the slaves from bondage. “Oh freedom over me!”
So what exactly is freedom? What does that word mean to you? How many of us are free today?
If freedom means “the quality or state of being free: as a: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action; b: liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another; c: the quality or state of being exempt or released, usually from something onerous” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), then what is its opposite? Is it slavery, bondage, constraint? Yes, but some would also argue that freedom is also opposed by license, that it is actually not true freedom to say because I’m free, I can do anything I want.
The fellows who wrote the song I sang at the beginning of the service about wishing to be free, do you think they were longing to be free to do anything they wanted, to live a life with no rules or expectations, no compassion or love for others? I like that song because it speaks so strongly of a desire to be connected, for you to understand me and me to understand you. “I wish I could share all the love in my heart; remove all the bars that still keep us apart. I wish you could know what it means to be me, then you’d see and agree that we all should be free.” “I wish I could say all the things that I should say…” “I wish I could give all I’m longing to give.” Doesn’t sound much like someone who is self-absorbed, who wants to be free just to do whatever he pleases, who wants only what she wants when she wants it, usually at the expense of others.
I think this is what Paul is writing about when he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Yes, this freedom in Christ is truly a freedom from whatever has bound us, made slaves of us, unduly restricted our lives. But it is not just a freedom from, it is also a freedom to. In particular, it is a freedom to love and be loved. “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.”
Uh…wait a minute, “slaves to one another”? What’s that about? Well, good old Paul does love a dramatic contrast. It surely got our attention, didn’t it? How can we be free and be slaves at the same time? A paradox indeed! I suspect that Paul did not literally mean slavery in its crassest, cruelest sense. Often that word is translated as “servants” rather than “slaves.” The basic point is that the freedom for which Christ has set us free is the freedom to love. It is a freedom to take on a great and meaningful responsibility. It is the freedom that allows us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Paul says all the ancient Jewish law, all the rules and regulations that can tie us up in knots and keep us longing to be free, all the demands and expectations we impose on ourselves and others, must be reconsidered and reconfigured in the light of the great commandments to love God and neighbor above all else.
Long ago St. Augustine said something like “Love God and do what you will.” Some people find that statement very worrisome. They’re afraid it will lead to lots of bad behavior and chaos in the world. They’re more than willing to come up with intricate definitions, lists of rules, and binding laws to spell out what Augustine did and did not mean by “do what you will.” Unfortunately what they miss, the wisdom inherent in Augustine’s saying is that love for God comes first. When you truly love and give your life over to God, everything you do and say and feel will be rooted and grounded in that love. That’s the freedom to which Christ frees us, to live immersed in that kind of loving relationship with God and neighbor.
Now Paul goes into some detail here about what it means to love God in Christ and to love your neighbor as yourself. He’s got a little sermon about not “gratifying the desires of the flesh.” Sometimes we get hung up on that term. We think of flesh as our bodies and we make it seem as if Paul hated bodies and bodily functions, thought they were all nasty and evil. But that’s not really true. The word that gets translated as “flesh” has a much wider and more important meaning than just our physical bodies. What Paul is really warning against is self-absorption, “me first” or “it’s all about me.” Elisabeth Johnson writes that “Flesh (sarx) for Paul is not merely the physical body, but the whole self under the power of sin, with its self-serving desires and motives. This self is never satisfied, it seems, never has enough esteem, status, wealth, pleasure, or whatever else it is seeking. Self-indulgence easily becomes a new form of slavery.” We know enough about obsessions and addictions today to understand how the freedom to do as we please can lead to awful, deadly forms of slavery that affect not only our own lives but the lives of those around us. Johnson sees with Paul that “Christ frees us not only from the law, but from the sinful self. Freed from self, we are free to serve the neighbor, to ‘become slaves to one another’ through love” (Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010, workingpreacher.org).
Paul has a list of sins, of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that get us into trouble, that serve the law, the flesh, or both. What are some things you might add to the list? Or perhaps you have different words for naming things on Paul’s list? Some of those things are about the abusing the body but most of them are about attitudes and the poor ways we treat one another. Paul is arguing that when we get hung up on these things, we are not free. We are surely not free in Christ. What do you think?
So then, when we are free in the freedom for which Christ has set us free, what are we to be like? What sort of characteristics and qualities are we to take on? Paul has another list at the end of today’s passage. Remember a few weeks ago, we looked at this very list. Pastor Tripp had printed these very words on strips of paper and the children and youth made sure we all had one. Do you remember which word was yours? Here’s mine – “kindness”. I kept it as an important reminder of one “fruit of the Spirit” that I am free to exercise when I encounter my neighbors of every sort. Again, are there any values you would add to Paul’s list, any fruits you would graft to his tree, any thoughts about how you might name them differently?
Somebody I read recently suggested that this list should be read daily. I think he might be onto something. Those of us who wish we knew how it would feel to be free, those of us longing to live beyond whatever might enslave us, those of us who want to claim the freedom for which Christ has set us free could do worse than to consider on a regular basis what it might mean to be free for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” to be free to love our neighbors as ourselves.” Just in case you agree with this suggestion, I’ve printed out the list. You can take it home, post it on your refrigerator door, bathroom mirror, file cabinet next to your desk, fold it up and carry it in your purse or wallet. Feel free to do with it as you will, and at the same time feel free to love one another, your neighbors, the world, in the freedom for which Christ has set you free. Amen.