Third Sunday After Pentecost
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
The invitation came across my Twitter feed last week: a prominent evangelical pastor sharing the news about a “Freedom Sunday” gathering to be held at his church on June 30th. In the video that accompanied the tweet, a narrator described the event as “A patriotic service featuring worship, fireworks, and a message from our guest speaker, Lt. Col. Oliver North,” as an enthusiastic crowd waved flags, a large worship band played, and a choir sang, “Oh I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in!” The video ended with the proclamation that this powerful service will provide a wonderful opportunity to celebrate “The freedom we have as Americans, and the freedom we have in Christ.”
As I watched these images play across my computer screen, it was hard not to mentally juxtapose them with a wholly different set of images, emerging from descriptions of life inside one of the detention centers at the U.S. border in South Texas. According to reports, facilities designed to hold 4,000 people are straining to contain upwards of 15,000, many of whom are young children. In many of these centers, even the most basic human needs—nutritious food, attention to hygiene, proper supervision for toddlers–are allegedly being neglected. And as people on both sides of the political aisle point fingers and calculate electoral costs, treating this situation more as a public relations issue than as a crisis of human decency, the atrocities continue to multiply.
When one realizes that these particular centers are simply among the most egregious links in an extensive, nationwide chain of mass incarceration, and that this chain is engineered, in many cases, to provide outsized profits for those who oversee the system, then it becomes clear that every corner cut, every tube of toothpaste or hot meal denied to those being held, is to someone’s advantage. And when all of these realizations add up, the notion of a “Freedom Sunday” becomes more and more absurd, and at the same time, more and more urgent. Perhaps we should be asking some serious questions, on Sunday and on every other day, about the nature of freedom, and how our understanding of freedom relates to the demands placed on us by the Gospel of God’s kingdom.
In the opening lines of Galatians 5, Paul makes it clear that he will be addressing the place of freedom in the Christian life when he proclaims, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” But the Galatian church, like ours, lived in the midst of a political and cultural moment that necessitated some further clarification on what a term like freedom—an ambiguous concept on its best days—might mean. He knows that, for some, talk of freedom will resemble an invitation to a sort of libertinism that honors neither God, ourselves, nor our brothers and sisters made in God’s image. For others, the preservation of freedom will serve as an excuse to fight for what’s ours, to embrace a territorial view of freedom in Christ that sees this new life as a zero-sum game. In order to preserve the freedom I have, this perspective says, I must address all other claims with the same kind of competitive malice that gives shape to the world’s affairs. For Paul, neither of these definitions of freedom are adequate, and therefore both must be overcome.
What is clear from Paul’s words here, and what therefore might properly serve as a guide for any exploration we have of “the freedom we have in Christ,” is that the normative principle is love. In verse 6, not included in the lectionary readings, Paul writes, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Later, in verses 13 and 14, Paul reframes the argument he has been carrying on with his opponents—an argument about freedom, slavery, and legalism—with reference to love: “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 neighbor as yourself.”
When love shapes our understanding of freedom, the two extremes of libertinism and territorialism are avoided. Where love is operative, we don’t simply use our freedom as an excuse to do whatever we want, whatever makes us feel good at a given time. Self-indulgence is excluded, because love does not permit us to express our freedoms in ways that dishonor God’s image in ourselves or others, the very sort of dishonor that results from the works of the flesh that Paul describes.
Further, when our understanding of freedom is rooted in love of neighbor, we resist the urge to bite and devour one another in an attempt to get what’s rightfully ours, and instead submit to one another in service and humility. Rather than expressing our differences through “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, and factions,” and calling this discourse “free speech,” we allow the Spirit to produce the fruit of peace, gentleness, and kindness in our words and our actions.
As Christians, even as those who have pledged to follow Jesus wherever he goes, the temptation will always be strong to embrace our world’s vision of freedom, a freedom that would compel us to want to call down fire on our enemies in the name of our values, our sovereignty, our well-being, ignoring the rebuke that Jesus’ example and Paul’s words direct our way. Rather than yielding to these desires, we must instead allow these perspectives to be crucified with Christ, that we might live in the freedom God has granted us, the freedom to love and to serve God and our neighbor in the manner of Christ, the architect of this freedom we enjoy.