Galatians 5:1, 13-25
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Freedom, freedom/ Freedom, freedom/freedom is a notion sweeping the nation/ freedom is the body’s ‘magination/ freedom is a full time occupation/ freedom’s in the state of mind.
When I was in the seventh grade, I was cast as “Robert” in the musical Shenandoah. As the youngest of six brothers and one sister in the Anderson family of Virginia, my character was never referred to by name, but simply as “boy.” This song comes from that show, but it wasn’t my song. It belonged to the young man cast as my best friend, Gabriel. Gabriel is a young man of color. And since the play is set during the Civil War, in Virginia, Gabriel and his family are enslaved. The song comes at the opening of the second act. The Yankees of the Union Army have come through and set fire to the plantation where Gabriel and his family live. They tell him he is no longer a slave and is free, so he comes to say good-bye to his friend’s family. And he sings this song. Freedom is notion sweeping the nation. Freedom is the body’s ‘magination. Freedom is a full-time occupation. Freedom’s in the state of mind.
“For freedom,” writes Paul to the Christians living in the Galatia region of what is now the modern-day nation of Turkey, “for freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” For freedom Christ has set us free. Set against Gabriel’s story, I wonder if that means that in his coming, Jesus hasn’t burned down what- the house, the plantation, the institution that would see us enslaved? Elsewhere Paul will say that in Jesus, the last enemy to be defeated is death. So that would make ‘death’ the master whose business Jesus has set ablaze. Death would have us toil in its fields, would punish us for the slightest infractions, would capriciously separate us from our families for no discernable reason other than its own profit and cruelty. But Christ has set us free from that, says Paul. Christ has set us free from a life that is not our own but is rather dictated by the whims of death.
When Gabriel sings that freedom is a notion sweeping the nation, there is a certain irony to it. The play is set in 1864, at the end of the Civil War. As Abraham Lincoln opened in his Gettysburg Address, it had been a full four score and seven years- that’s 87 years for those of you unfamiliar with the parlance- since the Continental Congress approved the Declaration we celebrated this week. It had been 87 years since Thomas Jefferson penned those words about the self-evident truth of our equality, even if it is wasn’t quite evident enough that equality should include the enslaved people of Africa, or the half of the human race that were women. So, our celebration of that day and the document that signaled the birth of a new nation is couched in an understanding that what it promises is something that we have had to grow into. We have had to grow into seeing all people- men and women, of every race and ethnicity- as created equal. And for as much progress as we have made, we aren’t there yet. The goal of our constitution, to form a more perfect union, is still more aspiration than actuality. Even today, some 243 years later, our freedom, as well as the freedom of all who by birth or by choice find themselves here in our land, is sometimes still more of a notion that it is a practice.
The freedom for which Christ has set us free is a different kind of freedom, and the danger comes when we conflate the two. It’s dangerous because we tend to cast the freedom we aspire to as a nation in the kind of terms Paul cautions against. By re-casting our national freedom in terms of rights, we open ourselves to the trap of self-indulgence. We say we are free to speak or print what we want, to exercise our religion, to assemble and petition our government. Free from constraint, it becomes our right to indulge ourselves in this way. But such unfettered freedom is just another form of slavery. We may not be restricted by the power of the state, but we are held captive to the tyranny of the self, our appetites and attitudes, our proclivities and prejudice. So we are free to speak our minds, without regard for the feelings or needs of another. We are free to practice our religion, regardless of who gets hurt or excluded in the process. To use Paul’s language this is the freedom of the flesh and it often produces rotten fruit. It is freedom misused.
The freedom for which Christ has set us free is the freedom to love one another, to truly love one another. We cannot do that while we are held captive to our own desires, indulging our own appetites and opinions. To love another isn’t so much about the romance of hearts and flowers, attraction and affection as it is to wish them well; desiring first not what is best for us, but what will be good for them. It sounds simple enough, but even our own desires complicate love, because we project them onto another and insist that what is good for us must necessarily be good for them. I love my kids and want so many things for them. But at a certain point, the freedom to love means stepping back from what I want for them, what I want them to become, or pursue, to consider and listen to what they want for themselves, and then being willing to support that instead of what I think. The freedom to love in that way is not something that we are capable of generating on our own. That kind of freedom can’t be written into a declaration, or won on the field of battle. That kind of freedom comes from the realm of imagination that can only be inspired- that kind of freedom is generated by the work of the Spirit.
If the freedom of the flesh is one that is overly focused on individual indulgence and entitlement, then the freedom of the Spirit is one that is almost always directed toward the good of another. Just look at the fruit it bears. Love is not love without another to love. And while happiness is an endless pursuit, joy is what finds us when love is shared. Patience is the exercise of loving another beyond our self-imposed constraints. Kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness are all qualities that are expressed toward someone else. And self-control is just that, controlling the self in order to better serve the other.
When Christ set us free from death, he liberated us from a kind of slavery to the self that comes from our fear of death. Without death to fear, we are no longer bound by our need to simply seek our own survival. Our lives are caught up in something bigger than that, something better than the pursuit of our rights in the flesh. Our lives are caught up in the freedom of the Spirit to live with and for others as a full-time occupation. One that generates love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Such freedom is not only a state of mind, it is the open door by which we enter into all that God is doing around us, not as the province of any single nation, but in the kingdom of heaven that blesses all nations.