What Are We Free To Do?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Preached at Zion UCC, Arendtsville PA, June 27, 2010

Pastor Kim Blocher

“What are Free to Do?”

Because we have been saved by Christ, we do not have to earn our way into heaven through works of the law.  We are a free people released from bondage to the law.    This point is made by Paul again and again in Galatians.  The question we may well ask is: what are we free to do?  What are we free from?

This past week Larry and I watched a wonderful movie called “Afghan Star.”    The movie was a documentary about a wildly popular Afghan TV program like our “American Idol”.    Literally everything stops on Friday night when the show airs, and it is estimated that a third of the country watches this program.  Music has always been a huge part of Afghan culture, although it was basically banned under the Taliban rule.    Once again music is heard on radio and on TV, but it is an uneasy truce with Islamic clergy still basically disapproving.   In these dangerous in between times, contestants and show staff risk everything to entertain people, to bring joy to a people sorely in need of it. 

The people of Afghanistan are celebrating the return of more personal freedom, liberated from total Taliban rule of the country.    But of course the Taliban still hold sway in many parts of that vast country, and there is life and death struggle for the soul of the Afghan people.  Which ideology will win out…democracy and more western ways, or sharia law and Islamic fundamentalism?

Amazingly, several of the contestants on  “Afghan Star” were women.  They risk a lot for their music.  At the final round, one young woman, Setara,  actually danced on stage…which is completely forbidden in that traditional country.  Taliban rule or no…that is crossing the line.  She went from being one of the favorites to receiving death threats.  The movie film crew interviewed men in the streets (there wouldn’t be any women in the streets).  One young man was asked for his opinion and said, “she should be killed.”  All the heads behind him in the crowded street nodded in agreement.

There is no avenue for redemption in that religious climate.  In that climate one can only justified by keeping the law, and she did not do that.  Setara will forever be the girl who danced on stage and therefore outside of grace.  One of my favorite theologians, NT Wright, interprets Paul as saying that if you want to be justified by the law alone, you have dropped out of grace.

If he were writing his letter today, I wonder if the situation portrayed in this film is something that Paul would use as an example.  I try to not sit in judgment of another faith, particularly one embedded in a culture that we will never fully understand–but it seems to me that the attitude of that young man who thought Setara should be killed– is a great example of what Paul calls  slavery to the law.  Such a glaring modern example helps us to understand Paul’s argument.

So maybe we understand what Paul is saying about slavery to the law.  But do we understand what is to be free in Christ?  As Americans we feel as though we’ve written the book on freedom. 

Can anybody name the five fundamental freedoms guaranteed to us in the first amendment? Well, I pulled this off the internet:

Speech

The First Amendment says that people have the right to speak freely without government interference.

Press

The First Amendment gives the press the right to publish news, information and opinions without government interference. This also means people have the right to publish their own newspapers, newsletters, magazines, etc.

Religion

The First Amendment prohibits government from establishing a religion and protects each person’s right to practice (or not practice) any faith without government interference.

Petition

The First Amendment says that people have the right to appeal to government in favor of or against policies that affect them or that they feel strongly about. This freedom includes the right to gather signatures in support of a cause and to lobby legislative bodies for or against legislation.

Assembly

The First Amendment says that people have the right to gather in public to march, protest, demonstrate, carry signs and otherwise express their views in a nonviolent way. It also means people can join and associate with groups and organizations without interference.

Considered  within the context of the rest of the world, we are a very free people.   But what are free to do?  Pretty much anything we want, within the boundaries of laws set by local, state and federal government.  Actually, we are free to commit all of the works of the flesh that Paul enumerates in his letter to the Galatians.  In his argument, Paul moves past slavery to religious laws…to discuss a different kind of slavery that trap even the most free of free people.

Paul lists these works of the flesh:  fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.    Within certain limits, and not very restrictive limits…we can do all those things and not break the laws of this land.  And we do do all these things.

For instance, you can drink to excess every night…destroy your life and that of your family’s…but as long as you don’t drink and drive you’re free to do that.    You can make an idol of money and be celebrated within a capitalist culture.  You could even idolize money to the point that you would be willing to make predatory mortgage loans that have destroyed the lives of people and nearly brought our country to its knees.  And it was legal.  

So works of the law and works of the flesh are one and the same as far as Paul is concerned. Now Paul turns his argument to the point he wants to hammer home.  At our baptism we die to ourselves, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  Slavery to the law, and sinful works of the flesh no longer have me in their power. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m still free to commit all the works of the flesh I choose.   But as a Christian I start with a clean slate each time I turn away from sinful preoccupations. 

The two stage process of justification and sanctification that we have been exploring in Galatians now starts to take root in our lives.    As new beings in Christ:  we are free to bear the fruits of the spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

These things (this second list) are the purpose for which we have been made free.  NT Wright, uses the following illustration[1] in explaining that freedom. Compare a beautiful Christmas tree with an orchard tree.  The Christmas tree is adorned with pretty lights and decorations.  It glitters and makes us happy when we look at it, and it looks alive.  But really nothing is growing on it.  It looks beautiful but it is not real.   And when its time passes it gets taken down, stripped of its lovely ornaments, and thrown on the burn pile.

The fruit trees don’t look nearly as beautiful.  They have seasons and they change with each season—sometimes beautiful and sometimes not.  But if cared for in the way that the many orchard growers in this congregation care for their trees, they will go on bearing fruit year after year.  Those trees will fulfill a purpose way beyond momentary pleasure and feeling good for today. 

The two lists presented by Paul in Galatians are offered for our consideration.   We are free to do either.    That’s the kind of God we have.  But a society that is enslaved either to works of the law or works of the flesh is not going to be the kind of  community that helps to bring in the kingdom of God.

Paul is announcing the gospel, the good news, that we are a redeemed people.  Neither the flesh nor the law determines who we will be as new creations in Christ.   The Spirit leads to a new order of freedom, in which Christ has set us free to serve others.  And Christ has also set us free to be loved by God.  What a gift!  What a God!


[1] Paul For Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, NT Wright, WKJ Press, 69-72.