Rev. Dan Haugh
PLEASE READ: Galatians 5:1,13-25
Four days from now, on Thursday July 4th, Americans around the world will celebrate Independence day. Later this month, French will celebrate Bastille Day, marking the beginning of their historic revolutionary overthrow of the government. I love these celebrations, although I admit mostly for the fireworks display, parades and massive quantity of hot dogs consumed. I also must admit that the 4th of July celebrations here in France left much to be desired and I can only imagine that Americans celebrating this holiday in England is probably subdued! I am glad that ACP will host our own time of fellowship and celebration and invite you all to attend.
What commonly gets lost in these celebrations of freedom, liberty, and life is the realization of how bloody and deadly these moments actually were. I grew up in the Boston, Massachusetts area and my father’s home was in Lexington. The Battle of Lexington and Concord was, for the young Americans, what the Bastille was for the French revolutionaries. It marked the beginning of our Revolution and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his "Concord Hymn", described the first shot fired by the Patriots at the North Bridge as the "shot heard 'round the world."
Many lives were lost in these struggles for freedom and I am grateful for the sacrifices of countless men and women throughout history who bravely fought and died to maintain these. At the same time I am aware that not everyone in our world experiences the same freedoms we share. In many countries, people’s land, wealth, health, and even their lives are at stake under oppressive rule or policies. If you were here on Thursday evening you are aware of the injustices done in places such as India and China, depriving millions of infant girls the right to live. Even in more civilized nations, basic human rights of life, love, and liberty are constantly threatened and attacked, marginalizing entire demographic groups and polarizing citizens.
I am also keenly aware that, as important as these issues of liberty and freedom are, they are not what truly threatens us as people and societies. There is an oppression enslaving us and also a freedom not marked by legislation or celebrated with public parades.
In our first lesson, the apostle Paul continues his letter to the churches of Galatia as his tone changes from theological to ethical. In the previous four chapters he has argued in favor of grace and against the compulsion for Christians to maintain particular religious traditions or rituals in order to earn God’s favor.
Paul is also addressing a direct and complex situation within the churches in Galatia. More than likely this strife resulted from competing theological views of the “legalizers” coming into churches and preaching a different kind of gospel. Paul maintains his assertion that God’s grace alone is what saves. Faith in Christ and the guidance and power of the Spirit, not legalistic adherence to religious rules, is what matters.
As we have heard in the past few Sundays, Paul is preaching a new and radical message about God’s grace. The danger of this message of is the misconception that we can now follow our inclinations and do as we want, since the law is gone and grace ensures forgiveness. Paul is writing to two groups of people, explaining how our lives should be impacted by God’s Spirit. We have an obligation to God and to our fellow man. We are free not to sin, but free from sin. Life in the Spirit is neither legalism nor license. Paul makes it clear that both of these paths are not in line with the Holy Spirit’s guiding and will degrade God’s kingdom working in and through us.
There existed a group of legalistic rule followers known as Judaizers. They were smug and kept on pointing out the sins of others and insisting their doctrine to be correct. They claimed that Paul’s message fostered immorality. Many had left the church and were causing others to leave as well. It is to this group that Paul intentionally states that dissensions, factions, church-splits are not from the Holy Spirit, but in direct contrast to God’s work in the world. John Calvin writes in his commentary on this passage that when the devil tempts us to disputes, the disagreement of members within the Church can lead to nothing but the ruin and consumption of the whole body. These are words we desperately need to heed today.
We can either live for ourselves or for others, seeking to bless and build up or tear down and destroy. Selfishness in the end does not exalt a person; it destroys them. Paul is describing sinful nature as what a person is and is capable of doing apart from the unmerited intervention of God’s Spirit. Scripture indicates that since the fall of humankind all people have inherited this sin nature. I confess at times I wrestle with this doctrine, especially when my two sons were born. I saw pure, naive innocence in them and I mentioned this to my mentor, I will never forget his response. “Dan, just wait!”
Paul writes to the churches about temptations that threaten us, acknowledging we are driven towards vices that separate us from God, others, and our true identities. In Paul’s list, which he writes is not exhaustive, he includes various categories of sexual, religious, and social ills common in his day. Make no mistake about it, each one of these temptations exist today. The main source might have changed and we may call them something else.
For instance, today we might not bow down to images carved in gold or wood, but how about to shiny titanium devices we wear on our wrists or the sleek metallic constructions we drive. We can make idols of anything and anyone that complete for allegiance to God, including a house, bank account, holiday destinations, the clothes you wear or even the image of yourself you try to maintain, sometimes at any cost.
Another example is immorality. In the Greek the word is literally porneia. While the issue was extramarital sexual relations with temple prostitutes, today pornography is ruining countless lives and marriages and has become a powerful addiction devouring so many. Some of the “works of flesh” are easy to observe while others can remain hidden for many years or take the form of destructive attitudes and mindsets.
Perhaps for the Church today the issues of factions, strife and enmity are keeping us in slavery and bondage from God’s kingdom breaking forth in power. Enmity existed between classes, nations, and individuals back then as it clearly does today. Dissension literally means “a standing apart” and is the natural outcome of enmity; the external result of the internal attitude that brings divisions. However, as Pastor Scott preached on last week, in Christ all of those divisions have been broken and therefore hatred or even dislike of the “other” has no part in the Christian life.
Paul is urging his readers to act in love for one another, for this is the true way to keep the law. If we have the Spirit then we must be guided by the Spirit and walk in that direction. Christians should live in response to the new being that they have received. Jean Paul Sartre said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
The good news is that there is hope. We have been set free by the work of Christ on the cross and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit whom descended at Pentecost. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. Living in the Spirit implies being guided towards a life characterized by these qualities and not the other ones.
What the Spirit guides towards is in opposite direction of the flesh. Faithfulness is the opposite of immorality and being lead by one will you lead away from the other. Being guided by self-control will help overcome addictive patterns and habits. One who seeks peace will not easily fall prey to divisive conversations. Experiencing true joy breaks the chains of envy, jealousy and unhappiness that plagues so many. If we are known by patience and peace, then fits of rage or intolerance have no place.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus makes it clear that these attitudes and actions are not tolerated and that the Spirit is ushering in a new modus operandi. Jesus offers an extension of friendship to a people who were considered enemies. In contrast, James and John, like so many today, were holding on to old ways of thinking based on how God operated in the past. Anger, quarrels, retribution, exclusion, the need to always be right...these are works of the flesh and have no place in God’s kingdom. We are freed from these and empowered to live a life of love, kindness and benevolence.
A wonderful example of an American leader for freedom is Abraham Lincoln. Once he was criticized for being too courteous to his enemies and reminded that it was his duty to destroy them, to which he gave the great answer, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
In the Spirit we are free to love, even our enemies for we realize that the only enemy we truly have is the one who pits us against ourselves and one another in hopes that we will destroy and devour each other. We are in a battle, as Paul mentions in his letter to the Ephesians, but it is not against flesh and blood, a battle of who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s welcomed and who’s excluded. No, this is a battle agains the powers and principalities working against us from being the people God create us to be.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” This is what Jesus did for us. On the cross, he sacrificed his life and demanded that we be set free from our oppressor. As the Scriptures declare, “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
This is the true independence celebration and freedom parade that has the power to change the world forever. May we live in the freedom of the Spirit not to indulge ourselves and our desires, but rather be set free be the people God has creates us to be and to love and serve others in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. Amen.