More than manners

Passage: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Date: July 01, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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Weeks dragged into months, waiting for news. What he heard must have seemed dreadful, because his letter back virtually smoked with bitter polemic. It was a critical time for definition, for understanding. And, from his point of view, they were getting it all wrong. The conflict was pivotal: how to live, what were the requirements. Others were insisting that former regulations were still in effect, that the old rules remained in place. This directly contradicted his determined perspective. So, the letter shot forth.

Yes, there were deep conflicts as the early Christian community, spreading itself in tiny groups around the Mediterranean, sought to define itself. Remember, these fledgling congregations were engaged in a never-been-attempted enterprise. They struggled to understand what it meant to follow Christ, before seminary trained preachers, before the New Testament, before church school and adult ed materials, before traditions and forms and governance. They were starting from scratch. Add to that their illiteracy and extreme diversity: Jews and gentiles, slaves and free, men and women, a variety of nationalities and languages and religions and economic conditions-all coming together because of the crucified and risen Christ, both greatly enjoying and painfully wrestling with what that meant. Never before, never before had people crossed so many huge boundaries, attempting to become community around a new loyalty. It was to congregations in Galatia, what is now the nation of Turkey, that Paul desperately wrote.

For four chapters, he attacked, argued, cajoled, and theologized with these people about whom he was so concerned. Finally, in traditional letter form, he moved to the so what, the ethics. Today's epistle reading, while undergirded with his theological argument, focuses on Christian ethics, what it means to be Christian. Listen, with openness to what God's Spirit may be saying to you, to us. (Read)

"For freedom, Christ has set us free...for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters..." In three days, we'll tap our feet to "Stars and Stripes Forever." Politicians will wax eloquent, or not. The Boston Pops will play the 1812 Overture (by my favorite Russian composer-I have never understood how that gets into our party.), picincs and bar-b-ques will abound, and fireworks will brighten the skies, from sea to shining sea. (I like fireworks.) And we will all feel good about our freedoms, we who claim this land as our own. Some, especially those of ethnic minority status, will remember the inspired words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "let freedom ring," and know that while we have come a distance, we have a long way to go until there are "liberty and justice for all."

Freedom. "For freedom, Christ has set us free..." Paul proclaims. While gentile hearers would miss it, Jewish listeners would connect with their own past. God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had set their ancestors free, free from that deathly slavery in Egypt. When a person of Jewish faith described God, the words always began with, "Adonai, God, heard our cry, and led us out of the house of bondage in Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land." First and foremost, this is our God, the one who freed us.
When most of us hear the word, freedom, I suspect we think of freedoms. Many would point to our freedom of choice. This may mean the freedom to choose to sit for a couple of days, waiting to purchase the new i-phone, or to choose one's spouse or one's school or occupation or how to celebrate the 4th, or what religious tradition to embrace, or what color car to have. That is, for many in this land, one of the cherished freedoms is choice. When I thought about that this week, what I began to realize is that most of our choices are not that free. That is, many of our decisions are conditioned, deeply colored by our gender, our age, our racial backgrounds, our education, our growing up families, by advertising and social conditioning. For example, if I lived in another part of the country, I would not be nearly so engaged in sustainability, recycling, and organic foods. I would not have those choices. But the conditioning of this northwestern culture, plus theological writings and traditions come together here in unique ways, opening and pushing possible choices toward me, particularly if I am affluent. Oregon's governor learned that when he could not choose to eat healthy food while on food stamps. Choice is never free.

"For freedom, Christ has set us free..." For us as Christians, true freedom is not in the choices we make. Rather, Paul reminds us, freedom comes in God's choice. It was God who chose to free the slaves in Egypt. It was God who chose to work on behalf of humankind in Christ Jesus. It is God chooses to call us into relationship with Christ and with each other. Only God has the absolute freedom to do such things. Paul is clear: there is only one reason why God would choose so: Unabashed love, holy love. If God is love, God can act in no other way. God chooses to be God to us, and that can only be in deeply compassionate and joyful love. Why else would any God suffer on our behalf, grieve on our behalf, long on our behalf? Today's paper, CNN, nearly anywhere we turn-these are filled with news of how we screw up the world, how our choices wreck destruction and pain. Only divine love could choose to keep reaching out, to keep bringing the possibility of new life, to keep envisioning the power of justice.

"For freedom, Christ has set us free..." I suspect that if we talked this week with each other about what freedom means, we would also say that it means independence, autonomy. We fought a war to get free from England. It is the Declaration of Independence, after all. It means the freedom not to live under an oppressive government, but to be able to decide who governs. More, it is my freedom to do as I please, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. Of course, that gets a bit fuzzy when we talk about things like motor cycle helmets: I want the freedom to decide to wear one or not; but, consider the damage to others if I do not, and crash and am badly head injured. American freedom: independent, autonomous. Yes.

For Paul, from his Jewish roots, he knew that in Christ, we are not free to determine our own destinies. We are not autonomous at all. To be in Christ is to establish a new loyalty, a new dependence. His ancestors in faith were not freed by God from slavery to do as they pleased. No, they were freed to new life and to responsibility: to be a light to the nations, a community set apart by God, for God. Paul knew that there is no such thing as a freelance Christian. To be a disciple of Christ is to be incorporated into the community of faith, and to be given holy work. "Through love become slaves to one another," he admonished.

Did you notice that list of the works we do when we are not in relationship with God, when we live independent of God? Many of them are from Jewish and Greek lists. But, in the middle, there are eight which Paul added, and they all have corporate implications: "enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy." On the other hand, his list of the fruit (noticed the singular, not fruits) of the Spirit is only communal: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control."

For me, most important: Paul does not cajole us to strive for these qualities, to beat ourselves over the head in trying to achieve them in our life together. These are not human accomplishments. All are the fruit of the Spirit's presence in and among us, changing us, shaping us, together. Listen carefully. "Walk by the Spirit of God," he says. The gift of God's transforming power will dwell in us and through us when we do.

Something I did not notice until I read it this week: Paul does not give a list of rules about how this freedom in the Spirit will play itself out. No regulations here. The demands of freedom are not detailed. The limits of love are not prescribed. We are called to fill in the blanks, to determine the shapes and forms of freedom and justice and love. How does that feel? Ours is a call to imagination and to risk, for Christ's sake.

Surely this is not about listing bad and good manners. So much more, before us opens an adventurous way of life in Christ Jesus. "Stand firm in this freedom," he commands. And together, trust God's Spirit for guidance. How fun. May it be so among and through us.