Freedom comes in many shapes and sizes.
There’s an old legend about how freedom comes first with great heartache and anguish and can then be found in grace. The legend is about Judas Iscariot. After his death, Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit.
For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent, he looked up, and saw, far into the distance, a tiny glimmer of light.
After a time, he began to climb up toward the light. The walls of the pit were dark and wet, and time and time again he kept slipping back down.
But finally, after great effort, he reached the top and as he dragged himself into a room; he saw it was an upper room; and he saw people, his people, people he knew, people seated around a table. And Jesus said,
“We’ve been waiting for you, Judas.”
“We couldn’t begin until you arrived.” [ii]
You know I wept when I read that story, because I know freedom comes with great heartache and anguish. I also trust that freedom comes through the grace of god.
When you travel with Paul to Galatia, you meet new Christians for whom freedom in Christ has been given. The problem, however, is they find no joy in their freedom.
Instead they are held captive by unending arguments about the law and food and circumcision – endless conflict and drama taking precedence over a peace based in generosity; all biting and devouring one another given priority over a grace that has already set them free. And it’s found within the community they’re tearing apart. It’s found in the offering of patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s the one single commandment they have yet to accept: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
For Paul, whose Gospel message is the unbound and unrestrained life lived in Jesus, “the Galatians’ fighting was the outward and visible sign of their ongoing captivity. [iii]
And Paul knows all about freedom in Christ because knows about captivity:
- Five times I have received forty lashes less one; he wrote.
- Three times I have been beaten with rods.
- Once I was stoned.
- Three times I have been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea.
- I’ve been in danger from rivers … robbers … my own people
- I’ve been imprisoned in toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst…in cold and exposure. [iv]
- I’ve known the captivity of illness, ill-health, and disease. [v]
The wonder of Paul is that he was able to live, in the midst of chaos and confinement, a life unbound and unrestrained. Sounds like Good News!
Frederick Buechner puts it like this: You see, there was hardly a whistle-stop in the Mediterranean world that Paul didn’t make it to eventually, and sightseeing was the least of it. He planted churches the way Johnny Appleseed planted trees. And whenever he had ten minutes to spare he wrote letters. He browbeat. He coaxed. He comforted. He cursed. He bared his soul. He reminisced. He complained. He theologized. He inspired. He exulted. And everything he ever said or wrote or did from the Damascus Road on was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he’d been bowled over. [vi]
The day Paul found freedom in Christ was the day nothing became impossible.
And this is why he is so distraught over his beloved Galatian Church. They’ve taken the gift of salvation and turned it into a reason for self-indulgence and immaturity. For freedom Christ has set us free, yet we, insist on our own way.
It’s obvious what happens to our lives when we try to get our own way all the time; when our wills run riot, and our pleasure-seeking knows no bounds. Without living in Christ, and with Christ, and through Christ, our days turn into one big Roulette Wheel of “Choose Your Fortune!” Paul lays it out for us – here’s what becomes of us when we deny we belong to the Lord. We become:
- Instigators of crisis and drama.
- Accumulators of mental and emotional garbage;
- Cheaters for grades and advancement.
- Grabbers of attention and limelight.
We show forth our:
- Tempers and frozen hearts;
- Our withholding of encouragement
- Our unrestrained need to judge, gossip, and slander. [vii]
Freedom comes in many shapes and sizes. Lead us. Guide us, Lord. And watch what happens when we set aside our burdens and live as those set free. God grants such calm and simplicity; such serenity, much the same way fruit appears on a tree. Fruits of the Spirit. Amazing fruits happen, in the blink of an eye we grow-up and mature. We gain:
- An affection for others and willingness to stick with people;
- Acts of compassion trip from our hearts;
- We cultivate a conviction that holiness permeates all people, and conflicts have resolutions.
- We find ourselves with loyal friends and we become healthier companions.
- Our manipulation and over-control fades away and we become trustworthy, honorable, dependable.
- We have no need to force our way into other’s lives.
- And our ability to forgive ripens to overflowing. [viii]
We know this from Paul’s own life.
- Paul, the forgiven person becomes a forgiving person.
- Paul the persecutor becomes Paul the compassionate.
- Paul the fragmented and damaged, becomes Paul the knitter of broken spirits and stitcher of disjointed souls.
- And the Gospel blossomed from his branches, like fruit from a well-watered tree.[ix]
- Those are the signs you know: signs of living by the Spirit and not by our self-indulgences, our gratifications.
Lead Us. Guide Us Lord to those gifts found in you:
- Freedom from shame, remorse, regret;
- Freedom from the dark abyss of loneliness;
- Freedom from the agony of broken trust;
- Freedom to love
- To work on behalf of others.
- To worship and speak and sing and pray.
- Freedom of spirit to encourage a son with confidence, a daughter with enthusiasm, a friend with time and attention.
You see, for those who belong to Christ,
there’s not one detail of life that he will not set free
so that we might belong to God body and soul.
And living our days in that kind of freedom is like: Looking up and seeing (far in the distance) a glimmer of light. And climbing up to light, and when we reach the top, we find ourselves in a room, at the table, with people we know, and they’re smiling, weeping, and Jesus turns and looks at us and says:
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
“We couldn’t begin until you arrived.” [x]
[i] Galatians 5:16-25: Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
[ii] Madeleine L’Engle as cited by James T. Moor. A Place of Welcome. Luke 7:36-50. Day1, A division of the Alliance for Christian Media, Atlanta, Georgia, June 17, 2007.
[iii] J. William Harkins. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 3.Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 186.
[iv] 2 Corinthians 11:24-27
[v] 2 Corinthians 12:7
[vi] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
[vii] Galatians 5: 19-21 adapted from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1993.
[viii] Galatians 5: 22-25 adapted from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1993.
[x] Madeleine L’Engle as cited by James T. Moor. A Place of Welcome. Luke 7:36-50. Day1, A division of the Alliance for Christian Media, Atlanta, Georgia, June 17, 2007.