Freedom in Christ comes in many shapes and sizes.
There’s a legend about how freedom first comes with great heartache and then is 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 remorse, and when the tears were finally over, 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 cried when I read that story because I know freedom in Christ can come with great anguish and miraculous surprises.
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. We meet a church biting and devouring one another; tearing each other apart, and completely turning their backs on a grace that has set them free. For Paul, whose Gospel message is the unbound and unrestrained life lived in Jesus, “the Galatians’ fighting is the outward and visible sign of their ongoing captivity. [iii]
And Paul knows all about freedom in Christ because he knows first-hand about captivity:
- I’ve known the captivity of illness, ill-health, and disease, he says.
- Five times I have received forty lashes less one; he wrote.
- Once I was stoned.
- Three times I have been shipwrecked.
- 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]
The wonder of Paul is, in the midst of chaos and confinement, that he was able to live a life unbound and unrestrained.
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. [v]
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.
So Paul writes with agitation and worry and with the soul of a pastor. You can hear the furious scratching of ink on papyrus:
- God has set us free in Christ – but not free to do whatever feels good or whatever we want.
- No! Freedom in Christ means to be in service to others and in service to God.
- There are a whole lot of things we simply cannot do and have no place in the Christian life: Sexual immorality, witchcraft, temper tantrums, getting roaring drunk, envy and pride, and community-breaking posturing.
- Christ did not set you free to be a jerk. Christ did not set you free to be a self-centered party person.
- Instead of indulging in your selfish misery, there is Gospel Medicine in the form “Fruit of the Spirit.” Nine beautiful, healing, restorative character traits, each flowing out of the one before, and altogether making up a matched set:
Love, becomes joy, and grows to be peace,
peace turns into patience.
Kindness leads to generosity and flourishes as faithfulness.
And finally, gentleness is the key to self-control.
Unlike Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians where his Gifts of the Spirit — differ from person to person — these Fruits of the Spirit are to be common to all. You cannot say you are called to the fruit of kindness, but that patience is not something you need. No. Each fruit implies the other eight fruits and together they make up our Christ-like identity.[vi]
Isn’t it obvious what happens 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’s freedom, our days turn into one big Roulette Wheel of “Choose Your Fortune!” We are stuck in the slimy pit and are:
- Perpetually instigators of drama.
- Accumulators of emotional garbage;
- Cheaters for advancement.
- Grabbers of attention.
- Our tempers burn out our hearts;
- Our unrestrained judgment poisons our souls. [vii]
But my friends, watch what happens when you’re willing to set aside the misery that keeps you trapped. God grants such calm and simplicity; such humility and serenity. It’s much the same way fruit appears on a tree. We bud, we grow up, and we mature. We gain everything:
- A willingness to stick with people;
- Acts of compassion trip from our hearts;
- We cultivate a conviction that people of good conscience can disagree.
- We find ourselves with loyal friends and we become healthier companions.
- Our manipulation and over-control fade away and we become trustworthy, honorable, and dependable.
- We have no need to force our way into others lives.
- Our ability to forgive ripens to overflowing. [viii]
- And the Gospel blossoms from our branches, like fruit from a well-watered tree.[ix]
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 to the light,
reaching the top,
you find ourself in a room, at the table,
with people you know and love,
and they’re smiling, weeping,
and there is our Lord, who looks at you and says:
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
“We couldn’t begin until you arrived.”
[i] Galatians 5:13-25: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 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] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
[vi] Scott Hoezee. “Galatians 5:1, 13-25 Commentary.” Center for Excellence in Preaching, cepreaching.org, June 26, 2016.
[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.