By Paul Koch –
It still gives me chills when I go to a ballgame and all the spectators stand up, all the men take off their hats and place their hands over their hearts as the singing of our National Anthem rises over the crowd. The picturesque language of Francis Scott Key’s poem swells the heart with pride as we can almost see the triumph of our flag through a war torn night. “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there; O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” The land of the free and the home of the brave. If we are anything as Americans, if we value anything, it is certainly freedom. We love to talk about freedom, we love to sing about freedom, we love spread the message of freedom around the world in hopes that others might be as free as we are.
Yet, what do we mean when we speak about freedom? When we proudly sing about being in the land of the free and the home of the brave, just what do we mean? What is our freedom and is it necessarily a good thing? For many, I suppose, freedom really means autonomy. Freedom means that I can do whatever I want with my own life so long as I don’t impinge on the freedom of others to do the same thing in their lives. And so all the controversial issues on our political landscape from abortion, to same sex marriage. to defense against terrorism deals in the issues of how we understand our freedom.
The thing is, we like to talk about freedom in this country. We love to have these conversations. In fact, we talk about it so much that the quest for freedom influences our daily lives. Almost anything can fall under the cause of freedom; and if freedom is autonomy, then not all of it is good. While we may love to sing The Star Spangled Banner and give thanks to God that we are citizens of this great country, there are ramifications to this type of freedom. More times than I care to recall I have had discussions with people about the desire for freedom in their relationships. They could be married for a few years or many, with no kids or several, but they’ve grown unhappy. Whatever the underlying causes, their unhappiness is an affront to their understanding of freedom. How could I be free if I’m so unhappy? And freedom is everything; so you best do what makes you happy.
On the other side there are those who, though they love to talk about freedom, are quick to shut it down once its acquired. Freedom, after all, is good for me but what would you do with it? I don’t think freedom would be all that great for you. Perhaps this is just an overly powerful parenting sentiment that continues through our local and federal government. We want our children to be free but we are terrified about what they will do once they have it. So we limit their freedom. My oldest daughter just got her driver’s license and I’m thrilled she has it. She’s a good driver and a responsible girl but along with that license comes a whole bunch of rules. Beyond the regular rules of the road, she can’t drive around with her friends or drive too late at night for the next year. She has some freedom but not total freedom. And that’s a good thing, I think. After all I didn’t have those rules when I got my license at 16 years of age and I was an idiot on the road. Limits to her freedom will help keep her safe.
But what does all of this, what does the abuse of freedom or the desire to control freedom have to do with Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia? A lot, actually, especially when he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
That word is perhaps one of the most cherished in the New Testament, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Throughout this whole letter Paul has beat the drum of freedom in Christ alone. He has declared to you again and again that you have died, you have been crucified in Christ, and so now live this new life of freedom. A freedom far surpassing that of the home of the free and land of the brave. But we know from our own experience that freedom might very well lead to destructive behaviors. If there is no law laid down upon the people, if there is no restriction on their freedom, they might devolve into anarchy and shameful lusts. And so Paul says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
And here we think, finally Paul is going to reign it in a bit. He has been declaring you free in Christ but now that he has made his point he is going to pull it back and give some wise and common sense instruction on how to live our lives as Christians. He’s not going to just set us loose on the road with a new driver’s license without a few rules to go along with it. The temptation is to latch on to these words and use them as sort of checklist to keep the body of Christ in line. After all, it is accompanied with that stern warning that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But is this really what he is doing? Does Paul now give you a new law to replace the one that Christ freed you from? If so it sounds as if Paul himself is a bit confused, for he just proclaimed that we should not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
Rather something more is happening here. Something is given to you who are freed in Christ. For St. Paul is not idiot or removed from our world. He knows full well that this new life you’ve been given is a struggle. He knows that within each and every one of you there is a battle being waged between the new life in Christ whose Spirit dwells within you and the old sinner who still clings to your flesh. And that battle will cause us to begin to doubt the promises of our Savior. In response to that battle we will take up the yoke of slavery again. We will return to the system of the law to navigate by our own hands the ways of salvation. We will either use our freedom as an excuse to sin and set out to satisfy the desires of the flesh or we will get out our checklists and make sure that every is following the narrow line.
But what Paul is proclaiming to us today is that either of these options is a return to the yoke of slavery and a rejection of our freedom in Christ. Instead he urges us to walk by the Spirit, to trust that you are the children of God redeemed and secure in the blood of the Lamb. You are declared free in Christ alone. You are forgiven in his mercy and welcomed into heaven by his deeds. You then are free to love your neighbor, free to care for one another, free to give thanks and praise to your God. You don’t need your own works. You don’t need to work through the checklist nor are you a slave anymore to the desire of the flesh. Your life of freedom is one that produces fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This fruit is not produced by the law, by the yoke of slavery, but by the free gifts of Christ alone.
Your struggle is not that you don’t do the right thing at the right time. Your struggle is that you begin to doubt the promises of your God. When the battle between your flesh and your new life in Christ begins to really rage, when you find yourself caught up in old sins you thought you had long since left behind, you are tempted to think that your freedom has gone awry. You doubt that you are the sons and daughters Christ has declared you to be. But I say to you, don’t take up that yoke of slavery again. Don’t turn from the Word that was declared to you as it washed over you in the waters of Holy Baptism. For there your sins were crucified with your Lord. There his righteousness became yours. There his Spirit was sent to live within you. You belong to Christ your savior, and those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with is passions and desires.
This battle will not cease until the return of our Lord, a day that we pray for with great longing. And I urge you from this day until that don’t wander from the gifts of your Lord. Don’t stumble back into the yoke of slavery. For you are the baptized, the crucified ones, those who are given the promises of the only begotten Son of God. For freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.