While we were out running errands at Target, Annie and I got a good laugh at one of those aisle endcap advertisements. It was a bunch of American-flag décor items from plates to sunglasses, and above it was a sign. In big, bold, red-white-and-blue letters it had “July 4th” and below that, in the little part giving you an idea of what this stuff can be used for, it said “For your parties on Thursday, July 4th.”
When else did they think we were planning on celebrating it? I mean, come on, they could’ve at least had the big sign say “Independence Day.”
This week is a big celebration around the country; one that emphasizes all the best things about our country: the freedoms we share, our can-do attitude, our collective love of blowing things up—as long as it’s colorful. But the prime object of our celebrations this Thursday will be for our freedom.
There’s a lot of talk about freedom these days. We’ve gotten into a national conversation of what that freedom looks like—does freedom of speech extend to Nazis? Does freedom involve a minimum wage or access to healthcare? Can we still be free if we regulate ownership of guns? What does religious freedom look like? And on and on. But the common frame of our conversation about freedom is the Bill of Rights. As a country we keep looking back at that list to figure out what freedom looks like.
Well Paul talks about freedom in his letter to the Galatians. See, Paul has caught wind that the churches of Galatia had been visited by Christians who were convinced the only way Gentiles could be saved (even as Christians) was to first become Jews. And that involved following the regulations of the Law. And Paul was, to put it mildly, super annoyed by that. He saw that it was undermining the power of Christ to say there was something besides Christ that saves. And at the point we are reading this morning, he has masterfully taken down the argument of these other missionaries—who he sarcastically calls “super apostles”—and caps his argument with the proclamation “For freedom Christ has set you free!”
So we’re free! And in the midst of this week, it can be easy to transfer all the things we think about freedom in the American sense into scripture, into what Paul is saying. It can be easy to imagine that the freedom God gives to us in the Spirit through Jesus Christ basically looks like our Bill of Rights. God is a great champion of liberty—I’ve said it multiple times from this pulpit. We even talked about God freeing us from all the chains that bind us just last week. And there will be churches this week where Paul’s words will be draped in red, white, and blue. But the freedom Christ brings us to enjoy isn’t the same as the freedom we’ll be celebrating on Thursday.
Because the gospel freedom is for the purpose of God’s kingdom, rather than from any restraints to our personal lives.
Paul makes that clear in the very next sentence. “For you were called to freedom…; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Freedom isn’t meant for self-indulgence. It’s not meant for us to fulfill all our desires without any attention paid to how it affects others. Instead, freedom in Christ is meant to free us to become slaves to one another in love.
It’s a paradox that Martin Luther talked about in his pamphlet The Freedom of a Christian. In it, Luther proposes two statements that seemed to contradict each other: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” And “a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” In Christ, we are no longer bound in chains by sin, always failing to fulfill the obligations of the Law. We aren’t subject to the fear of being outside God’s salvation because we can’t do the things that make us righteous before God. Instead, in Christ, we are freed because we are made righteous by God—and because we no longer have to worry about working for our salvation, we can do the works of the Law because we want to please God, and not because we are trying to earn salvation.
So what are these works of the Law? Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Treat others in the same way you want to be treated. That’s it. That’s the whole thing, top to bottom. Even Hillel, a rabbi from the time shortly before Jesus, said that the entire Law could be summed up in the phrase “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary.” And in the Spirit we are freed to actually love one another, not out of obligation, but out of an outpouring of grace from God.
And Paul encourages us to practice this freedom for the sake of the kingdom. He warns against allowing freedom to become an opportunity for self-indulgence; but that word “opportunity” in Greek is closer to meaning a launching point or base camp. What kind of base camp will we use our freedom for? Will we use it to build up the body of Christ, or will we use it to gratify our own desires? Paul describes a long list of acts of the flesh—from adultery to sorcery to carousing—and a list of fruits of the spirit—from goodness to generosity to self-control. And we have to ask ourselves, what will we practice? What will we make a habit of in our lives? What shape will we make this freedom we’ve been given?
In undergrad I remember they were doing a lot of construction on campus, and because the construction happened right in the middle of everything, basically every student had to walk through a particular stretch of sidewalk. Well, beside the sidewalk was a patch of grass. And by the end of the third week of the semester, that grass was all gone from the thousands of feet that stepped on it every single day.
The more we act in a certain way, the more we make a path to what we’re doing. If we use our freedom to indulge our desires to belittle others, or prioritize our rights over others’ lives, or use others for our own enjoyment—that’s what the base camp of our freedom will become. But if we use our freedom to care for others, sacrificing what by right is ours for the sake of the freedom and life of others, that base camp will look very different. We’re called to live out our freedom in such a way that the guidance of the Spirit is obvious to everyone.
It’s why Paul concludes with saying “if we live by the Spirit, let us be guided by the Spirit.” And being guided by the Spirit looks like loving others as we love ourselves—using our freedom for the sake of others, so that everyone can have as much life as we who have been freed in Christ have. It looks like giving up self-indulgent things because we have the freedom to do so for the sake of the kingdom. Just because we have a right doesn’t mean as Christians we should exercise it.
So let your base camp be one of goodness and freedom in the Spirit. Let your actions be shaped by the freedom you’ve received in Christ for the sake of others. Let the way you exercise your freedom give hope and liberty to those who haven’t found it. Because when your freedom looks like loving others as you love yourself, you are living in the freedom of the Spirit.
Thanks be to God. Amen.