Sermon Pentecost 4 (Ordinary Sunday 13) Year C [RCL Resources Index] | DBHome |

Freedom and self-indulgence

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. -- Galatians 5:13

One of the saddest things about the public image of Christian teaching is that so often people are led to believe that the Christian life is one of following many restrictive rules. It is typical of the media and popular entertainment that loyal church members, priests, pastors or representatives of the church are presented as rigid adherents to rules which make people less than human. How often have you seen a little human warmth presented as a triumph over such inhuman restrictions? So we are often told 'It is love the matters, not the rules'.

Now that is very strange, because it is exactly what St. Paul said -- you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters ....

Or at the beginning of the chapter:

Paul understood the work of Christ as liberating. Through faith in him we are able to move to a more mature relationship with God than was possible before. Previously people were like dependent children under instruction and subject to a controlling discipline.

In last week's lesson from the epistle:

The struggle for freedom

Paul had been fighting a battle with traditional teachers who wanted to have new Gentile Christians placed under the strictures of the old Jewish law. It was the critical point of dispute that had to be settled as the church expanded beyond its Jewish origins. It gave rise to some sharp words between Peter and Paul and to a special conference in Jerusalem -- the first ecumenical council which we read about in Acts 15. In some ways it was a little bit like the situation of missionaries in recent times in the Pacific being confronted with the question of how much of their own culture they should expect their converts to take on, and how much new believers should be able to respond in terms of their own culture, wearing their own clothes, singing their own music and perhaps maintaining their old family and tribal customs to some degree -- but it was not a simple question. Some things did need to change. In Christ, liberation comes with transformation. The way we live is always changed when people respond in faith; but the problem was that some people thought it meant taking on another set of rules.

The readiness of the Galatians to submit to the Jewish law instead of working out their own way of life in freedom was a cause of exasperation for Paul, who cried out in his letter to them:

The old moral and religious law was seen by Paul as a thing of the flesh while the new freedom that comes through faith was a thing of the Spirit. That is very interesting. In popular romantic thinking, as in the entertainment industry, the flesh is not contrasted with the spirit but with the moral law. It is popular to make the law yield to the desires of the flesh rather than to see both as having the same effect. The old law and the flesh were similar in their capacity to imprison people. Both were contrasted by Paul with the freedom of the Spirit that comes through faith.

Liberation was a very powerful experience of early believers, just as it has been the experience of new converts in recent times when people, for example in Papua New Guinea, have been liberated from fear of witchcraft and evil spirits which had previously dominated their lives. Haliday Beavis, for example tells in her book My Life in Papua (from which I quoted a few weeks ago) of how she had to confront this question at the beginning of her long missionary experience in Papua even on her trip out from England in 1929:

In the course of her work the young missionary soon discovered the terrible fears from which people needed to be liberated and the great joy of their liberation. At the same time she learned their language and the value of much of their culture. I have heard accounts recently of the same kind of freedom from fear given by one of our present day missionaries, Rosalie Rayment, a Uniting Church minister from Victoria, who was then serving as in Thailand with the local church. It is a great freedom for new Christians there to be able to name the name of Christ as their own in defence against the fear of evil spirits.

These accounts of spiritual liberation with faith remind us of the experience of the Galatians to which Paul could appeal in his desire for them to rely on faith:

They knew that knowledge of God through Christ was a powerfully liberating experience, but they were in danger of falling back into their old ways. So are people today in danger of falling back into to the old kinds of slavery to 'elemental spirits' and the things of the flesh. Indeed modern pagan spirituality has much in common with the old bondage from which the early Christians were released, as new believers are still today.

The results of self-indulgence and the fruits of the Spirit

When we talk about being enslaved to the things of the flesh we are not only talking about sex and other bodily desires, although it does include slavery to those desires and practices. For Paul it was any kind of self-indulgence: ... you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love ...

The Spirit desires love in the service of one another, while devotion to the flesh is self seeking, as exploitative aggressive manipulation tends to make people damage each other. The flesh understood in this way is clearly opposed to the Spirit:

While freedom in the Spirit leads to fulfilment and maturity in community, self-indulgence leads to destruction of the person and the community. That is what is happening today in the worship of the flesh.

So we have the great contrast of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit:

What are called works of the flesh are largely acts of self-indulgence and those that are the fruit of the Spirit, bringing liberation, include self-control among other signs of thought for others. The point is that self-indulgence limits our human capacity and results in strife of various kinds, while the life of faith, in the power of the Spirit, is liberating and fulfilling -- in that way we have power to become what we have the potential to be, children of God, children who are free citizens of the Kingdom and not slaves -- it is a destiny that is shut off from us while we follow the self-limiting ways of self-indulgence.

So it true after all, fornication and the like are to be avoided. Like all forms of self-indulgence, they stand in contrast to the fruit of the Spirit. Far from being expressions of freedom, they represent imprisonment to desires and spiritual forces which limit our development as children of God. People still need to be liberated from these false gods. It is one of the saddest aspects of life in a society that values freedom so highly that this message has been abused to the point of being turned up side down. The way of slavery has been taken up as the way of freedom, and the way of freedom has been represented as limiting the full development of the person, while the opposite is true.

The example of marriage

As an example let us contrast the freedom of marriage with the slavery of self-indulgence in casual uncommitted relationships. Marriage as one of the means of fulfilling God's plan for creation, which is that all things might be brought into a unity in Christ [Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 1:9-10]. Some regard marriage as inhumanly limiting, and it must be admitted that some marriages as well as other relationships are exploitative and damaging -- those exploitative relationships have all the marks of self indulgence and show the works of the flesh as clearly as does fornication, and with the same consequences. It is when love is expressed in serving one another that the purpose of marriage is realised. In this sense marriage is the same as other aspects of life that can be made to serve God's purpose through faith and in the power of the Spirit.

Paul even spoke of love through being slaves to one another [the word used here can mean both slave and servant] and it raises nice questions in these days of concern with equality and with a high degree of independence for the free development of each partner. It might not be a popular view to see marriage partners as servants of one another -- but note that this is a two sided relationship; not one being the servant and the other being the master. Both should serve each other, neither rules the other. Paul's word about not submitting again to slavery would apply here. But it is through the kind of love in which we gladly serve each other that both partners are fulfilled.

Faith is a relationship. Paul put it in terms of knowledge. Our knowing God and his knowing us. Faith in Christ relates us to him. Indeed marriage is one of the ways in which we are related to him. Such relationships of trust are gifts of grace. These covenant relationships are means by which our lives can be transformed.

The Christian experience of marriage and the teaching of the church through the ages is that marriage is a means of grace like the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper. The covenant that a man and a woman make with each other is one of the ways in which people develop a relationship with God. Marriage too is a sacramental means of grace. Just as God takes the ordinary food and drink brought to the Lord's Table and gives himself to us as heavenly food for our pilgrimage to eternal life, so too he takes the ordinary stuff of human relationships and through them relates himself to us. So the fellowship of believers is called the bride of Christ, and the great celebration of the Kingdom at the end of time is the wedding banquet of the Lord, the lamb of God (Revelation 19:7ff;21:2); of which the wedding at Cana was a sign and which every wedding anticipates.

Yet, though marriage has a heavenly purpose, it is very definitely part of our life in the earth. It does not exist in heaven. It is part of the natural order of creation, and it is therefore more than a mere human convention subject to the fashion of the times: it is a gift of God based in our nature as sexual beings. When Jesus was asked about marriage he referred back to the story of creation:

The point is that there is a given character to marriage that arises from the fact of gender in the way we are made: we are not free to do with it whatever we please. It is part of God's plan and purpose in creation. It is a gift of God for a purpose. It is inescapably related to our nature as human beings who are made male and female, and it meets human needs through our sharing in a life long partnership as well as in providing for the birth and care of children. At the same time it is intended in God's grand design to be one of the means of achieving his spiritual purpose for human life. He intends that everything should be brought into a unity in Christ. So our family relationships, between wife and husband, and between parents and children, relationships which must eventually pass away, help us to enter into the same kind of relationships for eternity.

The freedom, then, that is exercised in marriage, while serving one another in love, is liberating and fulfilling, a means of bringing us to spiritual maturity, in contrast to the slavery of self-indulgence and exploitation which a false understanding of freedom might encourage.

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.

Note: For more on marriage see | Sermon at a marriage service | Arise, my love, my fair one | One Flesh | Divorce and Christ's humanity, | Loyalty in the body: sex and faith. See also Flesh and Spirit.

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