I have a 2002 sermon with the title ‘Think’. I use it again here because the obvious title is Aretha Franklin’s 1968 song ‘Freedom’. We have 3 of the 4 times the Spirit uses ‘Freedom’ in Galatians. So Aretha’s addictive, soaring chorus ‘freedom, freedom’ is natural. However, that song is really titled “Think”. When it comes to Christian freedom thought is needed lest we go along with the spirit of our age and believe there is such a thing as Christian cohabitors, murderers, abortionists, drunkards, gossips, homosexuals, or thieves.
Think: Freedom doesn’t mean license but love. Both Paul and Peter warn about this. In our text Paul says, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13). In a similar vein Peter says, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16). Note how with Paul our freedom leads to serving our fellow man and with Peter it leads to serving God. This is the paradox of Christianity: “we can only be free by being slaves to Christ and to one another” (Rossow, Pentecost Six, Lectionary Resources – Series C, 182). Luther stated this paradox in 1520, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (LW, 31, 344).
So when our text opens with Paul trumpeting, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery,” he isn’t sounding a call to license. He is sounding liberty from the guilt, the lifting of a weight, the breaking of the yoke of the Law that always accuses and is never satisfied. Living under the Law leads to the snapping, biting, devouring one another Paul warns of in the text. If you view God as keeping your sins ever before Him, that’s the proverbial burr under the saddle, that’s the Princess and the Pea. Or Biblically, this is the man who “ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake” (Am. 5:19, NET). Or it’s this Bible metaphor: trying to sleep and finding, “The bed is too short to lie on, and the blanket is too narrow to cover you” (Is. 28:20). Under the Law, you’re always agitated, always defensive, always on edge, and so you snap, bite, devour others.
But under the Law is where most Christians think they belong. Most think being a Christian means being constantly alive to the Law. But Consider Rom. 10:4, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” How about Rom. 7:4, “So my brothers, you also died to the Law through the body of Christ that you might belong to another, to Him who was raised from the dead.” And then back to our book Galatians 2:19, “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live for God.” Hear Luther on this: “When you, therefore, believe on Christ, the Law has no further claim on you” (House Postil, III, 252). Hear Chrysostom on this: This 4th century church father goes from the fact that we have the Spirit won for and given to us by Jesus in Word and Sacrament and says, “For he that hath the Spirit as He ought, quenches therefore evil desires, and he that is released from these needs no help from the Law… He [Paul] appears to have pronounced a high and striking eulogy of the Law …(NPNF, 1st, XIII, 41).
There are 2 dangers maybe 3 now before us. Knowing no Law that Jesus didn’t keep in my name; knowing no punishment that He didn’t suffer as me, instead of me, for me: I am dead to the Law’s accusations and free to love my neighbor. But this can devolve into sentimentality which is the gold standard for most people. Mawkishness, schmaltziness, sappiness allows people to claim Christ and their sins. It’s a damning niceness. Paul doesn’t have in mind such mushy, Mr. Roger’s kind of love. If you doubt this, go back to the verse before our text resumes. Read 5:12: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” When doctrine is at stake, not love but truth governs. Paul doesn’t see it as incompatible, let alone as unchristian, to wish false teachers would dismember themselves in one verse and the very next to speak of Christian love.
The second danger is harder to see because it’s a disfiguring of Christian truth rather than a bold denial. You’re very familiar with it; perhaps you even buy into it especially when it comes to loved ones: you can be a Christian and practice your sins because you are sorry for them. You are so sorry, but that is the way you are, or that is the way you are because of genes, upbringing, poverty, war, hardships, abuse. Chrysostom some 1,700 year earlier rejected this idea that sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like could belong to nature and not to bad moral choices. He points out that Paul says in our text “they who practice these”. If it wasn’t “their fault”, if it was a sickness of body, mind, upbringing or experience, Paul, says Chrysostom, would have had to say, “They suffer” (NPNF, 1st, XIII, 42). Paul warns about believing that those who practice these things can inherit heaven; they can’t. Paul is even more plainspoken in 1 Cor. 6:9-10: “Stob being deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor those submitting to homosexuals nor homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Don’t you see? The Devil, the World, and our own sinful Flesh sets us up to be the Rich Fool of Luke 12 or the Rich Man of Luke 16? Over 40 years ago I remember hearing a seminary professor depict these men. They sang Pippa’s Song in life: “God's in His heaven - All 's right with the world!” Their delight in riches, eating, drinking, and happiness in the world prove this. But now and again, they’d have troubling dreams that they really were damned, in hell, lost. They’d shake themselves awake with, “It’s only a dream; it’s only a dream”, and a dream it was because all was right between them and God, they’d tell themselves. And they’d comfort themselves with Goethe, “If God had wanted me otherwise, He would have created me otherwise.” Once a year, sometimes twice, they had The Dream. And here it came again. They stirred in bed; they tried to awake; they repeated their mantra over and over, “It’s only a dream.” Then God thundered: “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you.” And they cried, “‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in misery in this flame.’” But Lazarus was never sent to hell; they were.
Is it hot in here or what? Think – Freedom is not just a detached concept to sing like Aretha in ever soaring strains. And Bobby McGee is wrong as well: Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose. True freedom comes from the Spirit. And not just any spirit: But the Spirit of Jesus. In Rom. 8:2 Pauls says, “In Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” Unless through Jesus the Spirit has set you free, you’re still in chains. And though Goethe was wrong earlier, he was certainly right in saying, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” And Isaiah warns in the same chapter he speaks of the perpetually uncomfortable bed and blanket, “Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the realm of the dead will not stand…. Now stop your mocking, or your chains will become heavier” (28: 18,22).
Paul says, “By the Spirit walkabout and the lusts of the flesh you will in no way complete.” He doesn’t say you won’t have them. This is Luther’s the Christian can’t stop the birds of lust from flying over his head but he can stop them from nesting in his hair. But what about the reality Paul mentions here? “The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish” (NKJV)? Only the Spirit can deal with this, and He says the answer is to “walkabout by the Spirit.” This is the same walk of Rom. 6:4, “Just as Jesus was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too walkabout in a new life.” Baptism rebirths us by Water and the Spirit into a new reality where we walkabout as free from Sin, Death, and the Devil as Jesus has been since Easter morning. But here in the face of the Rom. 7 reality of not doing what I want to do but what I don’t want, Paul escalates our relationship with the Spirit from walking to being led: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” This can be translated: “Now since you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.”
We’re not done with the Spirit yet. I should say the Spirit is not done with us. Paul, in our short text, goes from walking by the Spirit, to being led by the Spirit, to concluding that, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” In Gal. 4:3 Paul said while we were under a schoolmaster, the Law, “we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.” “Basic principles of the world” is stoicheion of the world. Paul says here since our new reality is living in the Spirit, it’s with, by, through the Spirit we also stoiche?, ‘keep in step’. If you like computer code: the analogy is your software is changed to the Spirit not the world, not the Law. If you like politics, you are an ambassador from the realm of the Spirit not from this world, this reality you’re temporarily serving in. Hear Chrysostom on this: “What he means by ‘walk by the Spirit’ is let us be content with the power of the Spirit, and let us not seek to augment it with the Law” (ACC, VIII, 87).
Listen to this verse from our sermon hymn in another translation: “Think what Spirit dwells within thee/ Think what Fathers smiles are thine/ Think that Jesus died to win thee/ Child of heaven, canst thou repine” Look up the hymns author, Henry Lyte. He rethought his life and ministry when ministering to a fellow clergyman who was dying “whose faith was clouded” (Handbook to TLH, 539). That was about 1820. He wrote the hymn in 1824. Evidence of his new thinking. And may it be ours as well. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (20220717); Galatians 5:1,13-25