Today in our New Testament reading we reach the climax of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
“For freedom Christ has set us free.” That’s the high point. Paul’s conviction is that through Christ we have been set free, liberated from factors and forces that constrain, diminish, and enslave us. That should be a welcome message, especially in our age, on a Canada day weekend, in a culture that places such a huge value on freedom. It is a gift, in Paul’s language, it is grace. But what is this freedom that has been gifted to us? Are we now living in a world of “anything goes”?
Not at all. If there is one person in recent history who knew a little something about being set free, it would be Nelson Mandela. I remember watching live on TV in 1990 when Mandela was set free from prison near Cape Town after 27 years of incarceration. I remember the cheers, I remember him raising his fist as he walked, and like many, I held my breath. Because Mandela could have chosen to pursue vengeance against his oppressors. Or, he could easily have retreated into private life to do whatever he wanted, he was after all already in his 70’s by the time of his release. He could have joined the international speaking circuit and jetted around the world living a life of luxury. But that’s not how he understood freedom. “To be free,” said Mandela, “is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
You see, we’ve been given our freedom but we have not simply been given our freedom. We have, in Paul’s words, been called to freedom. Notice the difference? We haven’t just been set free, we’ve been called to freedom. Our freedom is a vocation. It has a purpose. Freedom means that we have become people who are capable of acting, not simply of being acted upon. And so we are called to act.
When we talk about freedom, we need to talk both about “freedom from”, which we’re good at, and “freedom for”, which we’re not so good at. The freedom Paul talks about begins with God’s act. God sent us his Son, calls us beloved, forgives our sins, restores us to right relationship and makes us God’s children. That’s grace. How does it set us free? From what does this grace set us free? We have been set free from all the voices that tell us we’re not good enough. We have been set free from worrying about whether we’re going to “make it” in life. We have been set free from not knowing whether we’re worthy of love, honour and respect, we are. We have been set free from rule-bound religion which tries to make us earn our relationship with God. We have been set free from all the conditions, all the strings that so many try to tie us down with. We’re free from all these things because we are children of God, good with God, justified by faith, loved by God and worthy of love, honour and respect.
That’s what we’ve been freed from. What have we been freed for? Why have we been called to freedom? How then shall we live?
That can be a challenging question. Life is easier sometimes when the rules are clear, and there aren’t too many choices.
It makes me think of times that I’ve been traveling, and I’ve rented a car at the airport in a busy city that I’ve never been to before. At first it’s easy. You go the car rental lot, fill in the papers. The attendant says sign here. You follow the instructions to get to the car, get in. The rental parking lot is well marked. Just follow the lanes and the arrows and the direction markers, and at last you drive out the exit and go over those big metal spikes embedded in the road, you know the ones that will let you out, but won’t let you back in. And that’s where the challenge begins. Here we are at last, free to head out onto the open highway, with all those other cars whizzing past and the lane changes and intersections and we’re not even sure where we’re going or whether we need to turn left or right to get out of the rental car lot.
Sometimes freedom is terrifying. At the very least it can be unsettling or confusing. Life is sometimes easier when someone just tells you what to do.
At a very minimum, it seems to me that in order to respond to this call to freedom, to head out onto the open road, we need two things. The first is fuel in our tank, ‘cause without that we’re not going very far. And the second is a roadmap or a GPS, a guidance system, something that at least gives us the lay of the land as we head out onto the open highway.
And those are precisely the two things that God gives us and that Paul calls to our attention in today’s reading.
The gas in our tanks is the Spirit of God who lives in us. Live by the Spirit, says Paul. That’s our fuel, that’s the fire within us. When we are led by the Spirit, amazing stuff happens. What amazing stuff? Love happens. Joy happens. Peace happens. Patience, kindness and generosity happen. Faithfulness happens. Gentleness and self-control. Is that the sort of stuff you want in your life? Is that the sort of stuff we want in the life of this community?
Yup. Be Spirit-led. That’s our fuel.
And the roadmap? What’s our freedom for? Here’s what Paul’s got in his letter to the Galatians. It’s pretty simple really. You were called to freedom so that through love you become slaves to one another. You’re asking how you should live? Live like this: Love your neighbor as yourself. That pretty much sums it all up.
Now, I like that, but if it was up to me I’d also like a little more to go on. A few more details, maybe some examples. I mean, I know Paul that you’re big on this freedom thing and you don’t want to give us a whole new rulebook because that would kind of defeat the point of the gospel of grace and freedom. But can’t you give us a bit more to go on?
And you know what? I think that we weren’t the only ones to ask for a bit more to go on, a few more details, if you like, on the roadmap. Because two years later, in a letter that Paul wrote to the Christian community in Rome, he does gives the longer version. It goes like this:
This is how you should live:
Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to the stranger; bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody.
Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it." Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if she's thirsty, get her a drink. Your generosity will surprise them with goodness. Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. (Romans 12.9-21, based on The Message translation)
That’s the roadmap. Three comments:
First, this roadmap flows directly from who we are. The way of life described here flows directly from your identity and my identity as a child of God. This is how we live in the family of God, this is what makes us who we are. Love from the centre of who you are; don’t fake it!
Second, none of this is a way to earn God’s love or to be justified with God, or to become a child of God. We don’t have to do anything to be a beloved child of God, good with God for all eternity. That’s a given. Everything else, all the roadmap stuff, comes after. It’s our response to our calling.
And finally, this is what your freedom is for. By the grace of God, you were called to freedom, so that you could live as a child of God, fueled by the Spirit. Love one another.
Homily: Yr C P13, June 30 2019, St. Albans
Readings: 2 Kgs 2:1-2,6-14; Ps 77.1-2,11-20; Gal 5:1,13-25; Lk 9:51-62
Image by Britt-Knee, Creative Commons