For freedom Christ has set us free
Galatians 5.1, 13-25
We’re still on a journey through Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia.
Remember that people had come who were wanting the Galatian believers to obey the Jewish laws like eating only certain foods, being circumcised and keeping the Sabbath. The Apostle Paul would have absolutely none of it, because he had discovered that the law he had loved so much was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, now his Lord and Saviour.
Now the centre of Paul’s life was Jesus and not the law.
Jesus had brought one new people into being, a people in which
there is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
This new people is the Christian Church. It’s the Body of Christ, it’s the fellowship of the baptised.
Paul’s concern in the later parts of this letter is what it means to be this one new people in Christ.
And in Galatians 5.1 he gets right into it:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Why have we been set free? So we can be truly free! We have been set free from the ‘yoke of slavery’. This ‘yoke of slavery’ is not the ‘easy yoke’ that Jesus promises when he says:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
This ‘yoke of slavery’ is obedience to law. It is living rule-bound lives. So does that mean we Christians are law-less? Can we disregard the law? Can we do what we like? We are free, after all!
Hang on, says Paul. It’s not quite like that. You are free; but freedom doesn’t mean doing as you like. There is a place for law in the life of faith. Christians are not lawless.
But what is the place of law? Most of us probably assume that law, that rules, tell us what to do at all times. But is that so?
There’s a well-known thought experiment in which you imagine a woman bursting into your house and asking you to hide her, saying a man is trying to kill her. A few minutes later, the man comes in with a rifle and asks if you have seen the woman. Do you lie and say you haven’t seen her? Or that she ran out of the back door? What about the danger you put yourself and your family in? What does it mean to love your neighbour as yourself here? Can you always love your neighbour as yourself by following rules or obeying laws like ‘Do not lie’?
If we can’t always rely on following rules to know what to do, then what is the place of law?
Paul describes the place of law in the Christian way in Galatians 5.14:
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
Christian freedom is the freedom to love our neighbour. That’s the Christian law in a nutshell. But this is a different kind of law.
Law can only get you so far. Normal laws don’t tell you how or how much to love others. They don’t command a joyful, hope-filled life. They don’t bring healing and wholeness. They don’t teach you how to care.
Most laws tell us what not to do, where not to go. They tell us what the limits are. If you go beyond these limits, you’ll be punished. The speed limit is 50 km/hr in a built up area. Keep going at 80, and one day you’ll get into trouble.
This law tells us to love our neighbour. This law doesn’t give us rules for loving our neighbour. And more than that, this law doesn’t exactly say what the limits are. The only ‘limit’ is ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. I’m not sure about you, but I usually stop well short of that. I often don’t love my neighbour as I love myself. I cut myself more slack, I make more excuses for myself, or I simply put ‘me’ first.
It seems to me that ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ means ‘don’t put limits on your obligation to love others’. And if the law is about loving others without limits—well, I for one do put limits on my love for others. Which means, I break this law all the time. Perhaps you do too?
If we’re not ‘subject to the law’, what are we subject to? Surely, people who don’t stick to the rules end up behaving in dreadful ways?
Paul says ‘no’. The alternatives are not obey the rules or fall into licentiousness. The alternatives are live by rules or live by the Spirit.
We don’t live in a closed world. We’re not alone. God is with us. The Spirit of Jesus teaches us the way of Jesus, and the Spirit grows more of Jesus within us. As we accept the spiritual practices of prayer and study so that we look to the Spirit for guidance, we find the fruit of the Spirit grows within us. Sometimes we don’t notice it so much, but others do.
The fruit of the Spirit is different from the gifts of the Spirit. The gifts are given to various parts of the Body—one may be a teacher, the other offers hospitality, a third can really pray. No one has all the gifts, and so we need each other so the Body of Christ can be healthy.
But the fruit of the Spirit is different. It’s one single fruit with many aspects. It’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You hear people talking about the ‘fruits’ (plural) of the Spirit. There is no such thing as the fruits of the Spirit. No one can say ‘My fruit is joy’, or ‘My fruit is patience’, as though you can have one without the other.
The Spirit wants to grow Jesus within us. The Spirit’s fruit—singular!—is all of these things together because Jesus has them all—love, joy peace and the rest—in superabundance.
Don’t forget the spiritual practices that we talked about during Lent. Living a life of regular prayer and study, being a person who worships the one true God and confesses sin when it arises will mean that you show the fruit of the Spirit. This is living by the Spirit. A person who lives by the Spirit will begin to sense where the Spirit is guiding them. This person will begin to love their neighbour as themselves just because they live with the flow of where the Spirit is blowing them.
For freedom Christ has set us free…the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’…Live by the Spirit…If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
Let us pray in the words of St Anselm of Canterbury, who lived in the eleventh century:
O merciful God,
fill our hearts with the fruit of the Holy Spirit,
with love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Teach us to love those who hate us,
to bless those who curse us,
and to pray for those who abuse us,
that we may be the children of our Father:
who makes the sun shine on the evil and the good,
and sends rain on the just and unjust;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.