By Paul Koch –
This Thursday, on the 4th of July, our nation will celebrate its independence. We will grill food, drink a few beers, and light off fireworks while basking in a healthy patriotism. We will rejoice in what we have come to know as a particularly potent understanding of freedom. Freedom from a tyrannical government, freedom to react in revolution against it, freedom to chart a new course, to set out on a new path of our own making. Freedom, as we know it as Americans, is rooted in a desire to protect the rights of the citizens. After all, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, this is how we understand freedom. Free from any government that would hinder such rights.
But this certainly isn’t the only sort of freedom there is. We often speak of freedom in ways that have nothing to do with a young nation’s independence. There is freedom from addiction or depression. Freedom from abuse. Freedom from slavery and imprisonment. Perhaps even freedom from ignorance or freedom from fear. And along with such expressions of freedom there are countless stories of those who have fought and struggled and scraped to be free from such things. We love these stories; we cheer them on. The drug addict who after hitting rock bottom finally gets clean, finally overcomes and turns their life around. Their battle for freedom is inspiring. The young mother who finally finds the means to control her consuming depression and begins to see and appreciate the joy of the little things in life. We want her to be free, to know freedom to live in it. And yet, far too often, there are stories of those who taste freedom, who press through the struggle and the muck and breath the clean air only to return to their imprisonment. Those who are sober for a while, those who return to their abuser, those who almost seem to prefer their incarceration.
Such darkness lurks in the hearts of men. Which is why, when it comes to freedom of the highest order, freedom from spiritual imprisonment, freedom from eternal death, freedom from your own longings and desires, the solution wasn’t found within mankind. God himself would come to set you free. And as we remember every Memorial Day, freedom isn’t free. This freedom wouldn’t be paid for in the blood of ordinary men and women fighting some sort of temporal tyranny, no this freedom would be purchased by the blood of the only begotten Son of God. So, St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Christ has set you free, he lived the perfect life, he died the sinner’s death, he did what you could not. So, don’t go back to that old slavery, don’t go back to your imprisonment. Paul is concerned because he knows that this is exactly what you will do if left to your own devices.
See, it’s not just that you have been set free. It’s not just that you are now free from sin, death, and the power of the devil. No, you are free for something. Free to be something new. So, Paul continues and says, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” You are free to love, free to look to your brothers and sisters sitting next to you and have compassion, patience, and respect. You are free to be forgiving, to live as a people who know that this age is not all there is. In your freedom, you are given to live in such a way that keeping score and making sure everything is just and equitable and that you get your due is no longer important. What is important is love.
Now, this may seem simple and easy, but it’s not. It sounds like some hippy nonsense of make love not war, but it’s much more. The truth is, and the way that Paul speaks about all this, it sounds more like a war or a battlefield experience than just a change in attitude or posture. He calls you to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh. “For,” he says, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17). The things of the Spirit are the things of love, the things you have been set free to do but in your doing of these things you find that the things of the flesh are close at hand and like an addict returning to his drug of choice you fall back into old habits. The good things you want to do go unfinished, and the filthy things you know you should avoid you take up again and again. While claiming to be children of the light, you have many dark and hidden places where you are still very comfortable.
The temptation is to forget that you are free and so you return to live again like a slave, imprisoned by your flesh and desires. Now we can offer myriads of examples of how the saints have fallen from their seats of honor. There are more stories of the faithful returning to sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, jealousy, envy, and drunkenness than you could possibly recount. But it is not just such blatantly sinful things that seek to bind the children of God. In fact, such a yoke of slavery is not only prevalent among the children of God it is often trotted out as a sort of righteousness you can aspire to. Christians not only head back to their own slavery but they desire to enslave others. They see freedom as a dangerous thing, it is unwieldy and not very well organized. They hoist up the Law again, the very Law that Christ fulfilled, and bind others to it. Salvation no longer remains in the arena of promise and gift but becomes transactional.
If you are to be saved, you must now give enough or pray enough or worship enough. You need to go through the right motions, say the right words, do the right things or there will be consequences. Are you worthy enough to be free? Are you faithful enough to leave your shackles behind? Perhaps not. Perhaps we might need to control you. Perhaps the church might need to establish a strategic program for you to work toward freedom. It happens. In fact, it makes sense. It even sounds like love, but it isn’t.
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Out of all the things that I get to do as a pastor, my favorite thing to do is a Baptism. It is a simple thing, to be sure, water washing over a person’s head in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But what I love about it is that it is a grounding moment, a moment that makes the hopes and dreams of freedom a reality here and now. It is a moment where you are moved from one side of the battle to the other, from the things of the flesh to the things of the Spirit. You, who have been baptized, have been set free. Something has happened to you. It wasn’t your work, your performance, your feelings or your attitude that did this. It was and always has been the working of your God. For freedom he has set your free.
The battle between the flesh and the Spirit has already been won. It was decided by a cross and an empty tomb. Your Baptism connects you to this precise thing. You are baptized into Jesus Christ, into his victory. You then are set free; you are forgiven, and you have received all the promises of God. You can now live as something new, something this world desperately needs, something those sitting around you today need, something you have been set free to do. You can be kind and gracious and forgiving to others. You can bind up their wounds and comfort them in their fears. You can protect and provide. You can do great things, because you can love.