August 18, 2013

What Does it Look Like?

For seven weeks now we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the believers in the province of Galatia in modern-day southern Turkey.  Throughout his words to his friends there, Paul has focused on the issue of freedom.  How is it that we can live as freely as is possible.  The reason for this is that his brothers and sisters in Christ there were being tempted by some so-called Christians (as Paul reckoned them) to rely on the Law of Moses instead of their enacted faith in Christ to keep them in good standing with God and thus, again, according to Paul, free.  Well, this drift toward rule-keeping fit naturally with how they understood religion to work, but it was diametrically opposed to reality regarding a right standing with Him.  Paul has used two different lines of argument in making his case.  The first line was personal.  He drew from his own personal experience to demonstrate the insufficiency of a system of rules to accomplish the thing for which they are all designed, namely, to put us in a right relationship with God.  Rules have never and will never make right our broken relationship with our Creator.  And, apart from a right relationship with God we are slaves to one thing or another.  There is no freedom anywhere else.

Paul’s second approach was more theological.  Using the history of God’s interactions with Abraham, Paul argued that systems of rules have not only never been the plan for making people right with God, but they actually render Christ Himself meaningless.  This was a pretty serious charge for Paul to make, yet he was right in doing so given that we attempt to drift back into the rules rather than leaning into Christ as a way to keep God happy all the time.  When we don’t pay attention, rule-keeping is the direction we naturally drift.  We need a wakeup call to keep this from happening.  My seventh grade social studies teacher was named Mr. Dudley.  Mr. Dudley had taught for about 100 years when I had him and was by then famous, or perhaps infamous, for his curmudgeonly demeanor and entertaining antics.  At one time his hall pass was a bowling ball in order to discourage kids from carrying it any further than the bathroom located about 50 feet from his classroom.  He was known on occasion to roll the ball down the halls just to get a reaction.  One morning—I had him for zero hour which was an extra class session before normal school started for the nerdiest of the nerds to get our fill of learning each day.  Anyway, one morning some students in the front were dozing off (and lest you think it was me, his seating chart was always alphabetical placing me in the back of the room and away from the trouble).  He grabbed a four foot piece of 2×4 he had on hand for some reason and smacked it on an empty desk so hard it echoed in the small room.  It was just the wakeup call they needed to pay close attention once their teeth stopped rattling.  Paul’s words to this point in the letter have served this same sort of purpose.  They were a wakeup call to some believers who were in danger of drifting in a potentially harmful direction.

Getting more to the point, Paul has been going on about the importance of living by faith instead of living by the rules as a way to please God for four chapters at this point.  And by the way, you can pick whatever rule system you’d like to be in Paul’s crosshairs here.  He happened to be talking specifically about the Jewish Law, but the same principles apply equally well to any other rule system.  The point is that whatever your rule system happens to be, you don’t keep it very well.  Anyway, through all of this discussion, there has been a question building: what does living by faith actually look like?  We’ve seen some examples in the generic.  I said a few weeks ago that the two different approaches to life may not look at that different from one another in the externals.  It’s what’s happening on the inside that makes all the difference.  But still, there has to be some way to know whether we’re living by the rules or living by faith.  I mean, as I said a few weeks later, we don’t like lingering tension in our lives and this question of whether we’re living by faith—and thus are in a right relationship with God—or living by some set of rules—and thus are not in a right relationship with God in spite of what we might think—surely seems to qualify as a source of lingering tension.  Are we right with God or not?  That question can be paralyzing to us if we’re not careful.  Putting the question in a slightly different way given that faith in Christ brings freedom: how do we know when we are really free?  I told you a few weeks ago that Paul was eventually going to come back around and give some concrete examples of what this looks like.  Here we are.  So if you will, open your Bible, or your Bible app, or pull out your bulletin insert, and we’ll take a look together at Galatians 5 to see how Paul makes all this a bit more solid for us.  What exactly does it look like to live in the freedom of faith in Christ?  Let’s find out.

At the beginning of chapter 5, Paul sets out to answer our question.  He does so, though, by first answering a different one: why did Christ bother to set us free?  Follow along with me starting at 5:1: “Christ has set us free to live a free life.  So take your stand!  Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.”  Perhaps many of you have heard this verse more familiarly phrased: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  And at this point in the letter after the why question has been building for so long we hear this banner declaration from Paul and want to jump up out of our seats and shout, “Yeah!”  A church whose preacher I enjoy listening to recently did a series called “Free” that had this verse as the banner for the whole series.  But after that initial excitement cools a bit we’re left standing there going, “Huh?”  Paul’s basically saying, “Jesus made you free to be free so don’t make yourselves not free.”  Huh?  What on earth does that mean?

Well, Paul goes on to explain what he means, but let’s think for just a minute about this.  Think about what Paul is and isn’t saying.  Remember, he’s not telling us what freedom looks like yet.  He’s telling us why Jesus made us free.  We have to know the purpose for our freedom before we can understand what it looks like.  So then, what’s the purpose of this freedom we’ve been talking about how to access for the last six weeks?  Well, according to Paul right here, the purpose of our freedom is to be free.  If that’s still not clear, think about what he’s not saying.  We weren’t set free to do anything in particular.  We could have been set free from the enslaving power of sin for the purpose of serving Christ and doing what He says.  After all, He is Lord.  He did save us.  But, of course, this would have only traded one form of slavery for another.  I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Pinocchio when he has run away from Geppetto to join Stromboli’s circus show and experience the fun and freedom of being on his own.  He sings the classic song, “I’ve got no strings, to hold me down.”  The irony of the moment is thick in that while he thinks he is free, he is really only a slave of a different kind.  The real freedom was found back in his father’s house.  Are you with me?  Indeed, the only way to really be made free is to be set free for the sake of freedom itself.  If we’re set free for a specific purpose then we merely move from the fryer to the fire.  Accordingly, Jesus didn’t set us free for any purpose beyond our enjoying freedom.  It’s like a scene from one of those movies where a kid has accidentally adopted a wild animal, fallen in love with it, and then has to release it just when the animal is starting to like him.  He carries the creature out to the edge of the forest and when it refuses to leave he starts to try and scare it or otherwise chase it into freedom.  It’s not like that with Jesus.  He carries us to the edge of the forest and says, “Okay, you’re on your own.  You can keep walking with Me, but that’s entirely up to you.”  When we’ve been set free by Christ we really and truly have the choice to remain free by walking with Him in faith or to re-enslave ourselves to something.  It is for freedom and nothing else that Christ has set us free.

Look, starting in v. 2, at how Paul describes this: “I am emphatic about this.  The moment any one of you submits to circumcision or any other rule-keeping system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered.  I repeat my warning: The person who accepts the ways of circumcision trades all the advantages of the free life in Christ for the obligations of the slave life of the law.”  Got all that?  Paul’s getting pretty serious here.  When we take up any set of rules—whether circumcision as part of the Jewish Law as the men in Paul’s audience were considering or anything else—as a way to please God, it’s like we take the gift of freedom we have from Christ and throw it away.  People often talk about being on a road to Heaven or Hell to communicate the idea that we are gradually moving toward one or the other.  It’s not like that with freedom and slavery.  We’re either totally free or a slave of something.  To take up any system of rules, even for a moment, makes us a slave to that system.  And so there isn’t any confusion, to commit a sin is to take up a rule system that says such and such behavior is against the rules.  Think about why this is: if it’s not against the rules then it isn’t a sin.  People living fully in their freedom, therefore, don’t sin.

At this point you might be thinking, “Well, I didn’t mean to become a slave again.”  Paul anticipated this reaction.  Look at v. 4: “I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens.  When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace.  Meanwhile, we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit.  For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard for religion amounts to anything.”  And really quickly let’s think about why this is.  If we are committed to religion then we are necessarily keeping a set of rules, meaning we’re slaves, meaning we’re not right with God.  Because, if we were right with God we wouldn’t be slaves.  But, if we try and get cutesy with the argument that we’ll just reject all religion, we’ll still operate on the basis of some system of rules because apart from Christ that’s all there is.  Thus, whether you’re super-religious or anti-religious makes no difference.  If you’re not with Christ then you’re a slave.  So what does matter to Jesus, then?  What does it look like to be free?  Look at the end of the paragraph: “What matters is something for more interior [remember the internal distinction we talked about?]: faith expressed in love.”  With that, Paul gives us a clue as to where we’re going, a clue as to what freedom actually looks like.  But, before we can get there, he gets personal with the Galatians yet again.  Let’s look quickly at this rather humorous interpolation.  Stick with me at v. 7.

“You were running superbly!  Who cut in on you, deflecting you from the true course of obedience?  This detour doesn’t come from the One who called you into the race in the first place.  And please don’t toss this off as insignificant.  It only takes a minute amount of yeast, you know, to permeate an entire loaf of bread.  Deep down, the Master has given me confidence that you will not defect.  But the one who is upsetting you, whoever he is, will bear the divine judgment.  As for the rumor that I continue to preach the ways of circumcision (as I did in those pre-Damascus Road days), that is absurd.  Why would I still be persecuted, then?  If I were preaching that old message, no one would be offended if I mentioned the Cross now and then—it would be so watered-down it wouldn’t matter one way or the other.”

Now, at this point, Paul’s obviously pretty passionate about the whole thing.  But this next line reveals just how seriously he takes all of this: “Why don’t these agitators, obsessive as they are about circumcision, go all the way and castrate themselves!”  I almost wish I could go back and stop Paul at this point and say, “Whoa there, Paul.  Easy.  Down boy.  Church people don’t like this kind of talk in their sermons.  You’re getting a little too worked up about all this.”  To which Paul would probably respond: “THIS IS EXACTLY SOMETHING TO GET WORKED UP ABOUT!!!”  And by the way, if you are one of those people who think the Bible was largely written by a bunch of boring, saintly guys perhaps you should try reading it sometime.  I don’t know too many boring, saintly guys who would announce that their opponents should consider castration as a better use of their time and energy.  Before this all completely unravels, though, let’s move on.

With his composure back, Paul launches into the big finish for our passage this morning.  Verse 13: “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life.  Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom.”  Okay, stop there a minute.  Isn’t that what freedom is?  Doing whatever we want?  That’s certainly what our culture teaches.  But that’s not the opinion of guys like Paul.  More importantly, that’s not the way the world works.  Think about why this is for a minute.  Imagine that you were able to do whatever you wanted to do for a week without fear of any consequences save guilt.  What would you do?  Be honest now.  Would everything on your list be totally honoring of God?  Would you do anything that might, say, be categorized as sin?  You see, thanks to the lingering rebelliousness of Adam and Eve in us, we naturally want to sin.  We know we shouldn’t, but we want to.  And because we want to, we do, because we invariably do what we most want to do unless someone helps us do otherwise.  But here’s the point: when we do “whatever we want to do,” usually sin is somewhere in the mix which destroys our freedom.

Perhaps thinking about it like this will help.  When we sin and we just feel really bad about it and seek to make it right, there’s a good chance that the reason for this reaction is that we’re aware we’ve broken a rule.  Stay with me now.  If we know we’ve broken a rule, that means that somewhere in our worldview framework we are living according to a rule (because you can’t break a rule you aren’t trying to follow in the first place).  But if we are living according to a rule, then we are necessarily slaves and therefore not in a right relationship with God.   For someone living in the freedom of faith in Christ, the problem with sin, the problem with doing whatever we want to do, is not that it’s against the rules.  The problem with sin is that it breaks the heart of the one who loves us more than anyone else in the whole universe.  For the person who is free, you don’t sin not because it’s against the rules.  You don’t sin for the same reason you don’t cheat on your spouse.  You don’t do that not because it’s wrong—although it obviously is—you don’t do it because such an act betrays the person who loves you most in this world, the one with whom you’ve made a covenant of fidelity, and that doing so is going to enslave you to a host of trouble you simply don’t want to be in.  Do you see the difference here between this and the reasons we normally have not to sin?  This is the reasoning a free person uses.  It’s a total change in worldview, a renewal of our minds to borrow Paul’s phrase from his letter to the church in Roman.  The world doesn’t think like this.  But free people do.  And unless we start, we won’t ever really be free.

Well fine then, but if that’s not what freedom looks like then what does it look like?  Finish the passage with me: “Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.”  Take just a minute and reflect on how counter-culture an idea that is.  Freedom grows by serving others.  The more we serve, the freer we are.  But not just any service.  Again, the heart matters.  Service in love grows freedom.  Let’s read just a bit more and then we’ll unpack this.  “For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself.  That’s an act of true freedom.”  There’s the answer to our question.  What does it look like to live in the freedom of Christ?  This is what: Love others by serving them.  How can you tell if you are really free?  Here’s your litmus test: Am I loving others by serving them?  What does someone free look like?  Here’s your picture: They are actively loving others by serving them.  Indeed, freedom is found in loving service.

Think about that.  Loving someone else is an act of true freedom.  Freedom is found in loving service.  Really?  But I always thought that freedom was getting to do what I wanted?  Nope.  That makes you not free.  If we are doing things primarily for the benefit of ourselves, then we are a slave to ourselves.   Doing things with ourselves in mind puts us in a tiny little box framed by our desires which even if grandiose are not grand compared with what God desires for us.  Now, someone might object that no one can make us do something for ourselves, but this isn’t quite true.  Our own desires can.  We are not strong enough to defeat our desires on our own and so we can be enslaved to them—talk to an addict sometime.  But making an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God designed them to be (which is the Biblical definition of love) and acting on that, no one can force that.  No one.  We can be made to serve someone else, but our goal then is not to see them become fully who God designed them to be, it is to avoid the punishment coming should we refuse.  The act may look the same, but the heart makes all the difference.  That’s why freedom is found in loving service, not merely service.  This also why Paul wrote a few verses earlier in this letter that there is no distinction between slave and free in Christ.  It doesn’t matter what our physical circumstances are.  We can serve one another in love whether we are free or slave, black or white, old or young, rich or poor, male or female, or any other distinction you might think to add to that list.  No one can force this.  Freedom is found in loving service.

So then, think through the implications of this with me and we’ll get out of here to do something about it.  We now know what freedom looks like.  Freedom is found in loving service.  There’s one question remaining for you to answer: Do you want to be free?  If you do, there are two steps to take.  First, place your faith in Christ.  He’s more than proven Himself worthy of such a gift.  He’s the one, the only one, who has the power to pull you out of the clutches of slavery.  It might be a messy release depending on the particular nature of your slavery, but He will faithfully pull you out and make you free.  Second, start serving others in love.  Don’t do it out of duty.  Don’t do it out of guilt.  Don’t do it because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do (indicating the presence of a rule).  Don’t do it because your mother or father or a grandparent would like that.  Do it out of love.  Freedom is found in loving service.  Work intentionally to see the people around you become more fully who God designed them to be.  And by the way, keep in mind that Paul said we are to love others as we love ourselves.  If we are not working intentionally in our own lives to see ourselves becoming more fully who God designed us to be, meaning we are working with the Spirit to sin less, we will be incapacitated in our efforts to serve others because we won’t have a dependable well from which to draw.

Freedom is found in loving service.  Jesus lived His entire life for the benefit of the people around Him.  This doesn’t mean He was a doormat—do you want to call Jesus a doormat?  I sure don’t.  He wasn’t a doormat because He made the free choice to serve.  Freedom is found in loving service.  If you want to be free—and you may not because you find slavery more comfortable—this is how you do it.  Any act you perform which is not done for the benefit of seeing someone else become more fully who God designed them to be is an enslaved act.  So love the people around you by serving them.  Get involved with our efforts here to love our community by serving them.  I don’t care how you do it, but lovingly serve others.  Freedom is found in loving service.  Don’t be a slave.  Be free.