Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Free To Be Free
July 5, 2015
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
For purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee.
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
So are the words of the familiar patriotic hymn we all know and love. This hymn, although it was written a long time ago, is still popular for us and its sentiments of love for country, love for God, and a desire that we and our nation be blessed by God are still important to us. We all love America, and on this July 4th weekend, the day after we celebrated the 239th birthday of our great nation, we are proud to be citizens of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We wish and pray for God to bless our nation in every way.
Americans love to celebrate Independence Day, to flaunt their freedom before the whole world. Thomas Jefferson’s bold assertion that each individual has an “inalienable right” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” still sounds sweet to our freedom-loving ears. Despite the imperfections and foibles of our political system, we still enjoy tremendous economic freedom, political freedom, religious freedom, personal freedom and communal freedom.
But before we get too carried away with our patriotic fervor here, let’s remember what today is. It is not just July 5th, the day after the 4th of July, it is Sunday. Sunday, the day when we gather together to worship God and give praise to God . Sunday, the day when we focus on God and what God has done for us. It is not just a day to continue our patriotic fervor but it is also a day to reflect. It’s a day to reflect upon God and our country, and God’s will for our country. Let’s be careful that we don’t define the freedoms we enjoy so much solely as “freedom from” forgetting that the real test of freedom’s value is how we use our “freedom to.”
Paul’s caution to the Galatians in the passage from Galatians 5 we are considering today reminds us that sometimes our greatest liberation can be found in our commitments, or what I call “our freedoms to”. There is our freedom to gather together for the benefit of others, our freedom to love and serve each other and our freedom to express our feelings, concerns, hopes and aspirations for our community, neighbors and friends. Remember that the same philosophers and statesmen who boldly announced this country’s “Declaration of Independence” were also the ones who worked long and hard to craft our Constitution , a document that sculpts our freedom along the prescribed guidelines and responsibilities necessary to make freedom work. Our freedoms to govern, to serve, to defend, to protect, to honor and to be loyal are essential freedom to us as Americans.
Even though we celebrate freedoms as Americans, the Fourth of July weekend is a good time to think about and celebrate what is really the paradox at the center of the Christian faith: We are most free when we are most bound to Christ. Through Jesus Christ’s supreme example of freedom in service, we all become the most free when we bind ourselves to Christ. Christ freely divested Himself of His divinity so that He could make the ultimate sacrifice for our sake and for our freedom.
We must take care not to confuse this freely offered liberty for license. The long list of what Paul calls in Galatians “fleshly works” is what results when we let our “freedom to” become “freedom from”.
The freedom to love can become fornication.
The freedom to worship can become idolatry.
The freedom to serve can become factions.
The freedom to inquire becomes can become enmity.
The freedom to discuss can become quarrels.
The freedom to disagree can become dissension.
The freedom to thrive can become envy.
The political and personal freedoms we celebrate always remind us that with freedom comes responsibility. For our freedom to “work” we must be good citizens. We must vote, pay taxes, obey the laws, respect property, be loyal and keep the peace. The freedom we enjoy every day of our lives as Christians demands of us only two things: faithfulness and love. Despite the long list of fleshly “works” versus spiritual “fruits” Paul gives us here, he takes care to preface these with a single reminder: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14).
When Thomas Jefferson listed the “pursuit of happiness” as one of humanity’s “inalienable rights,” perhaps he should have called it more accurately an “unattainable reach.” Christ’s mandate of freedom through service reveals that the only way to achieve happiness is to love and serve others. Pursuing happiness, focusing solely on the self and its personal pleasures, will never bring genuine joy or the fulfilling happiness of peace. When we pursue happiness for the self, it is like looking for the ending point of a rainbow. As soon as you think you’ve reached its touch-down point, your perspective changes, and the rainbow’s end has moved again.
There is a tremendous amount of focus today on “self-esteem.” Carl Rogers was a Psychiatrist who was among the first to popularize this focus as he called for the need to “actualize the potential” of one’s self through “unconditional self-regard.” This psychologically based school of thought has even borrowed the short-form Torah that Paul cites in today’s epistle lesson and claims that Jesus’ reminder to “love your neighbor as yourself” was essentially a mandate to focus on loving yourself. It is true that there is no place in Christian theology for self-hatred or self-persecution or self-disrespect. But loving ourselves was not the goal Jesus had in mind for us when He freely gave His life for our salvation. We can’t hold out a hand to our neighbor when our arms are wrapped around ourselves. The love Christ calls us to is agape love, a sacrificial love bonded to Christ, and therefore cannot be self-directed. Only when offering ourselves in sacrificial service for others will we run headlong into the “happiness” we thought we had to pursue. The movement of the Christian life is from self-centeredness to centeredness in self to centeredness in God.
Try this test. When do you feel better about yourself? Do you feel better about yourself after a long, admittedly restful afternoon as a “couch potato” watching football games or after a long, admittedly exhausting afternoon coaching a Little League game? Do you feel better about yourself after whipping up one of your favorite desserts in the kitchen or after delivering it to a shut-in member of your church? Do you feel better about yourself after a special “night on the town” or after an evening helping others? The pursuit of happiness comes in serving others, not in serving ourselves.
I heard a story about the Christian apologist Joseph Parker who found himself listening to one of those infamous “self-made men” tell the story of how he became a “self-made man.” After his presentation was over, he remarked to Dr. Parker, “What did you think of my story?” To which Dr. Parker replied, “My dear man, you have just relieved Almighty God of an enormous responsibility.” You see, self-serving is an oxymoron! We are neither human enough, nor divine enough, to serve ourselves, and in the end, if that is what we use our gifts for, we will come up empty.
A nine-year-old girl observed a friend at school shivering in the playground during an especially cruel cold snap. Realizing that her friend didn’t have the money to spend on a warmer coat, this little girl promptly promised to buy a coat for her. But when the little girl showed up at the local Goodwill outlet to make her purchase, she was surprised that the cost was more than she had anticipated. Nevertheless, she was determined to keep her word to her friend even though the coat ended up costing her every single coin she had saved up in her piggy bank. This splurge of her carefully saved funds caught her parents by surprise and caused them some concern. But when they questioned the wisdom of their daughter’s actions, she defended herself by simply stating, “But I promised her, and she needed it!”
Her parents were silenced and impressed by their daughter’s free spirit with her money which had been driven by her bonded, sacrificial love for her friend, her “neighbor.”
Do you want the happiness Thomas Jefferson wrote that we are to pursue? Then pursue Christ, pursue serving others, pursue a relationship with Christ that moves you to serve others as He served and calls us to serve. Our freedoms as Americans, our freedoms as Christians, do not come by serving ourselves and doing what we want. Our freedoms as Americans and our freedoms as Americans come from living the life Christ taught us to lie.
Celebrate our freedoms as Americans, especially on this July 4th weekend. Be proud and glad to be Americans and to be blessed by the freedoms we have in this great country of ours. But most especially celebrate the freedom we have in Christ to live as His people, serving Him and others. If we will do this, then indeed we can also sing:
America! America! God shed His grace on thee.
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. Amen