Galatians 5.1, 13–25
Fearing that the Galatians might misinterpret their freedom as a license for immorality, Paul offers ethical instructions throughout this passage. In the history of scholarship, some interpreters have considered Paul’s ethical exhortations as inconsequential ‘filler’ with no integral relationship to his theology. On the contrary, Paul’s ethical admonitions ‘are not secondary but radically integral to his basic theological convictions.’ (Victor Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul) In other words, authentic Christian discipleship requires both righteous beliefs and righteous behaviours. — Renata Furst, Connections, Year C, Vol. 2
All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. — Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being
Do you have any favourite bible verses? This is one of mine:
For freedom Christ has set us free… (Galatians 5.1)
See how the Apostle Paul doubles down here? We are set free for freedom, pure and simple! I don’t know, that still just makes me feel excited.
Freedom has been in the news lately, couched in terms of freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. (Everyone seems to have forgotten about the threats to freedom of the press, still a live issue in Australia following recent Australian Federal Police raids on a journalist’s house and on the ABC. Funny that…)
Now, it’s the photogenic Izzy Folau and his right to tell people they’re going to hell while he (allegedly) breaks his multi-million dollar contract with Rugby Australia.
Of course, this is a sermon and not a political speech; though I’m sure I’ll come back to Izzy later. Since I was preparing a sermon and not a speech, I took a look through the New Testament during the week to see where it refers to freedom. Some examples: Jesus says
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release
to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Freedom is release from oppression, however that oppression comes.
[Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
Those who have been bowed down are lifted up.
And this one:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Jesus Christ has ‘set us free from the present evil age’. when I was younger, I might have baulked at using that language, but in a time of
- looming climate change catastrophe;
- people dying in spirit and in fact in Manus and Nauru;
- and potential loss of habitat for species like the black-throated finch if the Adani mine goes ahead (do you remember, God once looked at that finch and declared it ‘good’—have another look at Genesis 1).
In a time like this, I reckon ‘present evil age’ is putting it very mildly indeed.
That’s how we normally talk about freedom: it’s being set free from something, it’s being delivered from something more powerful than we are. Scripture agrees:
For freedom Christ has set us free…
Christ has set us free from this present evil age so that we can live in freedom.
Do you see that it’s powerless people who need to be set free? The Israelites need to be set free from the tyranny of pharaoh, and we all need to be set free from our slavery to sin.
Are freedom of speech and freedom of religion similar freedoms, protecting the powerless? They can be.
If you’re a member of a minority religion in Australia, you might value freedom of religion. Whether you are Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Baha’i or whatever, you would be glad to know you can practise your faith here without fear of persecution.
And it seems to me this is the reason some Christian groups confect a narrative of persecution. You can argue for freedom of your own religion if you believe you’re being persecuted.
Yet are Christians persecuted in Australia? No. Are Christians criticised for being hypocritical? For not being Christlike enough? Yes we are. And rightly!
But criticism is not persecution, and we don’t need to be set free from it.
For freedom Christ has set us free…
When the Apostle Paul wrote those words, this freedom was the freedom of women to be on an equal footing with men, it was the revolutionary freedom of slaves to stand side by side with free people, it was the freedom of newcomers to stand with those who had always been God’s people.
No one had to do anything to measure up. There were no hurdles. Anyone who was drawn into the faith of Jesus was welcome. That’s why we often sing that song:
Who is my mother, who is my brother?
All those who gather round Jesus Christ…
That’s not what we’re hearing in the media at the moment. We’re hearing more that Christians believe certain groups of people are going to hell, and it’s the responsibility of certain self-appointed people to warn them.
But what if people are already in hell? What if the way prominent representatives of the Christian faith are speaking already makes them feel hellish?
Here’s the voice of one who may feel like she’s in hell right now. It’s from an article I found during the week. It’s the voice of a lesbian evangelical Anglican:
I thought we were supposed to be a family. I thought we were supposed to be one, united by the strongest power to ever touch this world. I thought that when one suffered, we all suffered? And that we were meant to dedicate our lives to building each other up?
I see you donate half a million dollars in 48 hours to a brother who lost his job. I see you write article after article about his unfair treatment. I see you quickly jump to his defence on Facebook posts. I see your passion… I see you know what it means to stand in solidarity with your family.
But what about your brother who didn’t just lose his job, he lost his life? What about your sister who has been treated with absolute disdain. What about your siblings, Church, your LGBTIQA+ family who are drowning out here? Where are you?
Why haven’t you been our family, too? Why haven’t you been standing up to defend us? Why haven’t you rallied to prevent our suicides? Why haven’t you invited us in to ask about our pain? And genuinely listened to us?
WHY HAVEN’T YOU REMINDED US ABOUT UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND GRACE? And judged us by our faith not our works? Why haven’t you raised funds for our mental health support services? Why haven’t you written articles and jumped to OUR defence on social media feeds?
We’re trying to live out here, church. We’re trying to survive out here. I thought we were supposed to be a family. And we’re drowning out here. We need you.
So, where are you, Church family, where are you?!
This woman wants to know what ‘one in Christ Jesus’ actually means. We need to make it mean something, and we’re trying to do that here at West End by being an open and affirming congregation.
Another voice: just on Friday, I was speaking with a straight woman I know who belongs to a suburban Uniting Church here in Brisbane. Its church council is meeting this week and one of the items on the agenda is whether same sex marriages will be able to be celebrated in that church. She was quite nervous about it, and said she and her husband may have to find somewhere else to worship if they didn’t go the inclusive route and allow same sex marriage.
For freedom Christ has set us free…
The freedom Christ gives isn’t only freedom to avoid sin. You may think that, listening to the list Paul gives of ‘the works of the flesh’. We should be aware of a few things here:
Just over half are the kind of things many if not all of us do or have done:
People become enemies and they fight; they become jealous, angry, and ambitious. They separate into parties and groups; they are envious… (from Galatians 5.20–21, GNB)
I’m guilty, according to this list. Are you? You only have to have done one of these things…
Secondly, while Israel Folau claims to be basing his own list on these words it’s very clear that ‘homosexuality’ isn’t there in Galatians. In fact, homosexuality isn’t in the bible at all. What some people take has references to homosexuality are more about paedophilia or rape. There was simply no concept of a loving, committed same sex relationship in ancient times. There was just no concept of the spectrum of sexuality that we are so familiar with today.
But freedom in Christ is much more about avoiding doing bad things. It’s about being a new person, being part of the new creation that Jesus Christ the risen One has brought into being.
It’s called Canticle, but it I also see in it the Tree of Life. And for me freedom in Christ is supremely about being a tree of life, with the Holy Spirit flowing through us and producing fruit.
…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5.22–23)
Paul had a list of fifteen works of the flesh. How many fruits are there? Trick question!—there is only one fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit produces this fruit in us who are in Christ, who are planted in his heart, who allow his grace to shine upon us like the sun.
So we don’t find people with the fruit of love, but who totally lack generosity. We don’t find joyful people with no peace, or patient people with zero self-control. The Spirit’s fruit is revealed in us in varied ways, but it is the one fruit of the one Spirit of Jesus Christ.
And it is relational fruit. It’s not fruit that we keep to ourselves, it’s fruit for sharing. The ‘peace’ isn’t inner peace, but peace between people. The ‘joy’ is the joy of someone who makes you feel glad you know them.
This is precisely the dimension lacking in our current news cycle about Israel Folau and Rugby Australia. What is religious freedom and freedom of speech when it’s divorced from the love, joy, peace of the Spirit? I read only this week of a twelve year old boy from a Christian home who has realised he’s gay. Hearing that he would go to hell—not true!—he attempted to kill himself.
We can’t expect our social commentators to get this. We have to raise our voice. We have to realise that our words have consequences.
In 1 Corinthians 13.1–3, Paul says this:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
This is our freedom: to live with the Spirit of Jesus flowing through us. To be planted where we can receive that love. To be grounded in prayer and in the life of the church.
For freedom Christ has set us free…
Israel Folau and Rugby Australia will continue to argue, and may go to court. The commentariat will continue to argue about freedom of speech and religion, and whether we should have a bill of rights.
And we need to feed into that, by supporting the powerless, by walking with the marginalised, by sitting with the discouraged and just downright sick and tired of the whole thing.
And we can do it, because the Spirit flows through us. And Christ has set us free, for freedom.
West End Uniting Church, 30 June 2019