Freedom is a Christian concept. If you read through the introduction page for this service, you saw the declaration that “independence” isn’t really a Christian concept. It might even be considered antithetical to the faith. Our faith tells us about our need first for a Savior and then for one another who will become companions on our journey of faith, to be made into disciples of Jesus Christ.
But freedom is something we can claim and something we can proclaim. Paul launches the fifth chapter of the letter to the Galatians with the word freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” For freedom. What does that mean exactly? For Paul, freedom is not simply a gift we are given, but a responsibility placed in our hands.
The question isn’t really “Are you free?” or “How free are you?” For Paul, the question is, “What are you going to do with your freedom?” There is a choice to be made. What will you choose? Here again, Paul talks about what his understanding of what a gift that comes from the Spirit, or from Christ, really is and what it isn’t. First of all, a true gift of the Spirit isn’t for you. It isn’t about making the recipient better or more whole or more holy. A gift is given to build up the community of faith. That’s the test of the spiritual gift: Is the whole body of Christ enhanced by this gift? If it makes the receiver somehow better but doesn’t affect anyone else, then it isn’t really from God. God’s gifts are meant to be shared. They are meant to be used for others.
The gift of freedom is to be used in service to others. Paul even goes further; we are to become slaves to one another. That seems like the opposite of freedom. And this grows out of the law, which Paul sums up as, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14). Of course, he understands that is only half of the law, but it is the half he is dealing with now. How do we live in human relationships or in community with one another?
The ongoing battle we fight is not the war for independence, but the battle against self. We are certainly behind enemy lines in the culture in which we live, a culture of self. Day after day, we are told to think first about ourselves, but the Spirit invites us to think first of who and how we can serve. Paul describes this battle as one between flesh and spirit. But he doesn’t mean that we should mortify the flesh, that any attempt to find pleasure or satisfaction in our bodies or in the world in which we live is a negative thing. This sort of interpretation of this battle between flesh and spirit is what led to the idea that Christians can’t have any fun, that there is no joy in our faith, that it is all about the drudgery of service that feels like slavery.
On the contrary, Paul claims that it is the self-centered life that leads to drudgery, isolation, and brokenness. Compare the lists that are presented here in our text: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these (5:19-21). That’s quite a list. Take a second look and you will see the inevitable selfishness behind these words. They are about pleasing the self at the expense of others. (As an aside, that word “sorcery” comes from a Greek word that also gives us words like pharmacy or pharmaceutical. It’s about potions and substances that are supposed to give wisdom and inner vision. If you want a text about mind-altering substances, here it is.)
All of those words divide, or they take, or they abuse. This is what Paul means about pleasures of the flesh. Those actions and behaviors and attitudes that push people away separate self from others. They are words of individualism. “It’s all about me.” In contrast, the second list is about joining together, about relationships and about building up the other. Words like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23) are about interdependence and caring, building up the community of faith and the wider world. This way of living is full of joy, full of pleasures of all sorts. But they are pleasures shared; they are joys experienced in community.
At the end of the second list of attributes, Paul writes “there is no law against such things.” Supposedly, Augustine said in order to sum up the law, “Love God and do as you please.” That seems a risky premise, that “do as you please” thing, except that the proviso to first “love God” means that what pleases you is what pleases God; therefore, there is no need of a law since your every motivation is to please the one you love. Paul’s argument is if you love yourself most, then you will do what pleases you, regardless of how it affects everyone else. But if you love God most, then you will do what pleases God, which includes loving neighbor.
This is the freedom Paul celebrates in this text. And, it could be the freedom we celebrate as we commemorate Independence Day. It is the freedom to care for others, the freedom to see all people as equals in the sight of law and the eyes of God. It is the freedom to serve not because you have to but because you get to; not because you have a duty to fulfill, but because you have a love to put into action. We are free not to live independent of one another, caring only for ourselves, but we are free to acknowledge our interdependence and how our own personal good comes to us from many others, even as we contribute to the good of others.