A few weeks back I was privileged to preside over the installation of the new pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newbury Park. Now, a pastoral installation is the rite we use to confirm for a congregation that a given man is going to be their established pastor. It affirms he is the one from whom they will expect to receive faithful teaching, preaching, and administration of the Sacraments. I do not know if you have ever been to an installation service but there is this time which is usually quite striking. It is a moment when the other pastors from the surrounding churches of the fellowship come forward and pray over this newly installed pastor. The custom is usually to quote a particular verse from Scripture which is offered as a guide or reminder for their ministry. Although I have been to countless installation services and while I sometime choose a different particular verse, I have found I tend to use the same verse each time I offer a word of blessing to a pastor, or at least I use one verse far more than any other. The verse is Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
For freedom Christ has set you free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Stand firm. This is the heart of the blessing: Stand firm. The reason I tend to go to this verse over and again is because it is a word I too need to hear; I too need to be reminded of. For though we live in the land of the free, though we speak often about our love of freedom, at the end of the day it is not really freedom we love. This verse exposes that truth. The call is to stand firm because there is a real pull, a real desire, a real longing to return to the slavery we have been delivered from. While it may seem crazy or counterintuitive, trust me my friends, this return to slavery is real and there is heartbreak when it happens. Christ has given you freedom. He gives you freedom for freedom, to live in freedom and not return to the slavery. But freedom is risky. Freedom comes under fire when there is misuse of the freedom. Add to this how freedom does not work well to promote strong institutions and the building of a legacy and there remains a slouching-back toward the old, familiar, well-defined slavery which gives us the illusion of control.
As Saint Paul lays this out for us in his further discussion of the topic, there seem to be two ways freedom, even the freedom of the Gospel, is lived out in the lives of those set free. Paul says, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” So, in this way, those who are set free in Christ, that is those who receive salvation not as a work of their own doing but as a free gift completed by Christ, are now faced with the question of how they will now live? Will they act in a manner that seeks to satisfy the desires of the flesh? Will they use their freedom selfishly? Or will they use freedom as an opportunity for service?
When I think about this it feels a little like the fears, concerns, and trials a parent will struggle with as their children leave their influence and control. You raise your children, you pour yourself into them in whatever fashion you are capable, and you no doubt have imaginings of what they will be and what they will do with their life. So, you set them free to live. Some will use that freedom to do good, to serve others, to live out their lives in the identity in which they have been formed. Others will serve their flesh. They will go their own way which is often widely astray from the path their parents had impressed upon them. Christian parents see this when children who were raised in the church, baptized, and confirmed, wander far from it, seeing little use for the very things their parents saw as crucial.
The reality is even though identity is given in Christ, though we are set free from the bondage of the Law in the gifts of Christ alone, sin still remains. Sin still easily entangles and twists our intentions, desires, and goals. Therefore, freedom can be used to devour one another instead of loving one another. Consequently, Paul exhorts the Church saying, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.” The challenge is how one walks, how they carry out their life in the gifts they have been given. Do you sin? Of course, you do. Do you sin daily? Yes. But sin is not the fruit you seek to bear, it is not the goal of your life. So, there is repentance, there is sorrow, there is grief over what you have done and the sinful desires which fill your thoughts and words. If there is no repentance, then there is only rejection of the Spirit’s work and the corrosion of your faith.
It is the reality of sin, the reality of all those things Paul speaks about: “Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy,” etc. They tempt us to return to our former slavery. That said, when Paul is speaking about slavery here, he is not speaking about simply the desires of the flesh. Rather, slavery is a return to the Law as a means to overcome the sin, a way to manage life under the scrutiny of God’s justice. One returns to the slavery of the Law when the Law is held out as our savior. That is our secrete desire. This is what we long to do. It is what we deeply love. It is natural to us. It is just and fair. The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. There is an established pattern for living, a way to navigate life which makes sense to outsiders. The children do not need to be set free but guided. They do not need to be delivered but directed in precisely what is good and God-pleasing every step of the way.
So, every pastor will be faced with a desire to beat them down with the Law when things do not go as planned. Every Christian pulls up the Law to try and control the wrongs they have endured, to bring justice to their situation. After all, the Law drives people into themselves, into their own work, their own effort. It at least requires them to try and make improvements. The Law holds out the hope that you might improve, love better, care more, be more conscientious, more charitable, or more devout. Yes, the “do’s and the don’ts,” the “right and the wrong,” these things will pave the way to a more equitable existence. It will create a sustainable institution that will be a beacon for what goodness and decency look like. To all of this hope Paul shouts, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
In the end, such slavery will only cause you to bite and devour one another. It might seem like freedom for a moment, seem like you finally have control, but it remains a slavery to the Law.
An old professor of mine used to speak to us about the Law as a wolf you have on a leash. It may look tame, look at times like you are the master of the wolf, having it seek and destroy only what you aim it towards, but do not be fooled. For just as it will attack the wayward sinner in your path, so too will it soon turn around to attack the hand holding the leash. You are not the master of the Law. You are its slave.
For freedom Christ has set you free. So, walk in that freedom. Saint Paul says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” In freedom, all this is open to you without limit, without slavery. As I said at the beginning, this is about a call to stand firm in Jesus’ freedom. Stand firm, in the Gospel. The desire will be to return to the slavery of the Law. Instead, proclaim the gifts of Christ. Speak to one another about forgiveness. Tell them of the love of Christ. Come alongside one another with mercy, patience, gentleness, and kindness.
This is our call, my friends. This is who we are, and what a joy it is. For we are free in Christ. Let us then walk in the Spirit.