Our New Testament reading for this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We heard from Galatians last Sunday, and we’ll hear from it again next Sunday. But that’s it for Galatians on Sunday mornings, which is a shame.
I encourage you to take some time this week to work through the whole letter. It’s just six chapters, so you could read a single chapter each day and finish by next Sunday. It’s well worth the time.
But our reading for this morning summarizes Paul’s main point in the letter. It’s all about Christian freedom. Paul says, “for freedom, Christ has set us free.” Paul adds, we are “called to freedom.”
Paul set up his teaching on Christian freedom in the reading we heard last Sunday. There Paul called the Old Testament law our “disciplinarian.” Paul means the law was like a tutor or a parent for a child. The law kept us in check when we were too foolish and irresponsible to make good choices for ourselves.
But now, Paul continued, now that Christ has come—this is still from last Sunday—“we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian” (3:24-25). It’s like we have grown up. In Christ and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we have been given the opportunity and the responsibility of making our own decisions about how to live.
So, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” We have been “called to freedom.”
But there are obvious dangers in all that freedom. What if we don’t make good choices?
As many of you know, I had my thirty-fifth college reunion a couple of weeks ago. It has me thinking about the time in my life when I was first set free from my disciplinarians, when I first had the opportunity to decide for myself how I wanted to live.
My parents were not unusually strict. But through my high school years, they provided a clear structure to my life. So did school and, in summers, work. I occasionally tested the limits, but mostly I followed the rules without much thinking about it. I was kept “disciplined.”
Then I went off to college, and life changed. No more disciplinarians for me. As long as I stayed out of jail and out of the hospital, I could do basically whatever I wanted. Classes and homework took some time. But I had hours every day when I chose how to spend my time, with essentially no adult supervision and no obligations. That was a lot of freedom for an eighteen-year-old. Life was good.
You will not be surprised to hear that some of my choices that year were… unwise. I ate poorly, quit exercising, stayed up too late, drank too much beer.
I will not belabor my mistakes. But there were at least two moments when I was forced to see what I was doing.
A high school friend came for a visit about a month into my first year. I warned him our room was not clean. He assured me that it couldn’t be worse than his. But when he walked into our bathroom, he retreated in disgust and asked incredulously if we actually bathed in there. It was bad. But that was where we got “clean.”
At the end of my first year, I pulled out my neglected bicycle for a ride. Until then, I had always been fit, but a year of poor choices had taken their toll. After just a couple of minutes, I couldn’t breathe. I was shocked to realize how out of shape I had gotten.
I was young and resilient. I didn’t suffer any long-term consequences of my folly, at least not that I know of. But I wasn’t using my freedom very well.
Looking back, I can see deeper issues, too. It had been a fun year in a lot of ways. But that kind of freedom wasn’t as great as it seemed in the abstract. I don’t just mean that I was living in unhealthy and self-destructive ways, although that was obvious enough. I mean that I had lost any sense of direction. I had come unmoored. I had good friends, but no responsibilities and no one in my day-to-day life who was responsible for me. And that was unsatisfying at some deep level.
I could do what I wanted when I wanted. But even then, I knew that things weren’t quite right, that something was missing. That’s one of the reasons I drank too much. Now I can name it. I had no purpose, no real community in the truest and deepest sense of the word, and no connection to God.
In one sense, I have never been freer than I was back in college. But in the truest sense of the term, I wasn’t free that year. And if I had kept living the way I was living for much longer than I did, I would have become less and less free, more and more trapped in a way of life that offered no real and lasting meaning.
We are called to freedom, but not the kind of freedom of my first year in college, not the kind of freedom where we just do whatever we feel like doing. That’s not true Christian freedom.
Now skip forward a decade or so in my life. Carrie and I were married. We had a new baby the same year I started a new job that was important to me. I had a LOT of responsibilities and virtually no free time.
To be perfectly honest, I would have LOVED an occasional day with the kind of freedom I had in college. But as I entered my thirties, my life was much more rewarding than my life had been when I entered my twenties.
By my thirties, I was, at least some of the time, making meaningful choices in response to God’s call to me.
As a result of those choices, I couldn’t stay out late drinking beer anymore. I wasn’t free in that way. But my job and my family set me free in a different way. They helped to free me from my own worst impulses. They helped me to become a little more like the person God called me to be. They helped me grow a little bit more in love towards God and my neighbor.
Paul tells us that we are called to freedom. That’s the big point of Galatians. And, Paul adds, “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
This is the great paradox at the heart of Christian living. It turns out that self-indulgence is not freedom at all. It turns out that true freedom means choosing to serve each other. True freedom means loving our neighbor as ourselves. True freedom means fulfilling the spirit of God’s law.
Christian freedom doesn’t mean doing what I want. Christian freedom means choosing to do what God wants.
We are often remarkably poor at making good choices. Thankfully, God sends the Holy Spirit to help.
And when we live by the Spirit, when we follow the guidance of the Spirit in an intentional effort to choose what God wants, not what we think we want in our more self-indulgent moments, our lives are full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those fruits of the Spirit are what Christian freedom looks like in practice.
I give thanks to God for giving us freedom in Christ, and for helping us to live it by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan