Glebe Road United Church, June 2022
Rev. Cynthia O’Connell
Galatians 5: 1; 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 slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”Galatians 5:13-15
Love and freedom. It still comes as a surprise when a lectionary scripture seems to be just what is called for on a Sunday. Love and freedom, how appropriate a topic for the Sunday when we celebrate Pride weekend affirming people’s freedom to love.
What is freedom in a Christian context? Paul in his letter to the Galatians is quite concerned about them and their community. While we do not have the complete picture of what is happening in the Galatian community, we do know that there is conflict in the community. It could be conflict over whether converts to this new “Christian” movement need to be first circumcised, whether they are bound to follow the Torah and the law. While this was a common debate within the wider Christian movement, Paul seems to be very specific on what is happening in the Galatian church:
“Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,”Galatians 5:13
writes Paul, suggesting that there is a group in the church with the sense that freedom is solely about autonomy and doing what you wish.
Paul then spends a significant time talking and warning the Galatians about behaviour that is detrimental to the community. Warns them about the power of the “flesh.” It is really important to unpack what the term “flesh” means. Why? Because the history of Christian theology and interpretation has had a tendency to interpret this as a denigration of the body, of passion, of sex.
Paul is not concerned because the Galatians are having sex, and drinking, his concern is behaviour and vices that are self-serving, which gives rise to anger, quarrelsome factions, and jealousy.
We might look at our own context and see rapid consumerism, and egotism as the work of the flesh. In contrast when we turn from the self – when we are open to God and the work of the Spirit – we see a different sort of behaviour or a character that is marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Christian freedom is Christ-shaped; it is a freedom that is active, that has movement. It is marked by a love that seeks to serve and meet the needs of others. It is a freedom that is not defined by coercion or debt, it is grace. Christian freedom, for it to truly be free, leads to freedom for others, not bondage. Jesus did not die and rise again in order for those of us who are Christian to demand, coerce and shame others. Jesus died because he welcomed those that the religious and political powers and institutions shamed and called unworthy. He showed us what God’s realm is like. In Christ’s resurrection, we are made free so that we are freed to serve others, not for glory, or thanks or to feel good about our moral superiority. Loving service is the proper expression and exercise of the freedom we have in Christ.
This loving service is not a vague or general feeling of charity. We are called to love particularly not generally. Paul in his letters to various churches is always concerned about the particular situations of that church. He writes about particular situations, with specific relationships and contexts. All of our scriptures come from a very particular time and context.
Jesus in his ministry met the needs of the people in their particular context, he saw them as individuals. It is ironic how despite this particularity, the church has taken verses of particularity and made universal laws applied to certain groups of people, often the very marginalised people Jesus ministered to, ignoring the wider context and purpose. Take this letter to the Galatians and the list Paul gives as works of the flesh. It is a general list, (fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing) one that represents some of the general vices of his time. Paul himself says this list is not definitive at the end of the list he writes, “and things like these” suggesting there are other things. For those who are tempted to use this list as a litmus test of righteousness, they might be surprised to learn that it is incomplete and thus cannot be an accurate list to which others ought to be judged.
We are called to love particularly not generally, which means we are directed to love actual human beings with unique circumstances, with their needs, pains and interests. This is why Paul writes against what he calls the law, for the law – while pointing to the just and good – cannot be the standard by which God judges us because the law is not about the particular but the general. From Paul’s perspective the law is coercive and thus not truly freedom, however, freedom is not simply doing what you want, because that leads to things like strife, decisions, conflict, anger and jealousy.
If we are to call ourselves Christian and wish to live in community as Christians, then we ought to be open to the work of the Spirit and the fruit the Spirit produces in us. It is not easy living in a community, we will provoke and annoy each other, and there will be conflict. Christian love does not ignore conflict but addresses it head-on, much like Paul does.
Christian love is love for the sake of others. Do we always live up to this standard? We know we do not. On this weekend of Pride, we cannot forget that even though The United Church of Canada has often been a leader amongst churches in welcoming the queer and 2SLGBTQIA+ community we still have much work to do in loving our neighbours. God has given us the Holy Spirit so that we might be our best selves and best allies.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I remember in my home hanging on our wall was a simple craft project, I made it at some church event. It was a long ribbon which had attached to it seven rectangular pieces of wood. On each piece of wood, glued and sealed, was a word, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I would gaze at this little craft and I remember thinking that when I was kind, or felt joy, that was the Holy Spirit, helping me to be a better person. It was a simple theology, and while my theological understanding of the Holy Spirit has grown and expanded since then, I still hold that simple theology of my childhood self.
During this season and time after Pentecost, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit is that which transforms us, that which helps us be the whole and holy people we were created to be. On this Sunday of Pride when we celebrate the beauty of bodies made in the image of our Creator, when we celebrate a love that is specific and tends to the needs of others, when we celebrate passion, when we acknowledge our painful past and recommit to a more just future, may you remember that:
The Holy Spirit is transforming you and is found whenever and wherever there is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Happy Pride. Amen.