Sermon from June 13: Claim Your Freedom
Claim Your Freedom
Pentecost III; June 13, 2021
Maybe you already got a sense, from what we read, of how passionate Paul was when he dictated this letter. I imagine his secretary struggling to keep up as the words flowed out of his mouth, piling up one emotion over another. And with good reason: someone was giving these folks “a different gospel” and Paul is worried about what it will do to them.
Here’s the story. The Apostle Paul traveled extensively in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, preaching the Gospel of Jesus. He would always go to Jewish communities and invite them to know Jesus as their Messiah, but he also would speak to non-Jews, to Gentiles. I told you the story before about the Church in Jerusalem deciding that Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to be saved by Jesus; keep that always in mind. That was a monumental decision: for centuries Jewish people had believed that to be part of the people of God meant you either had to be born a Jew or you had to become a Jew. Those of you who have been reading the Bible with us have seen that stated repeatedly in many ways. And it is not irrelevant that the mark you wore, if you were a man, that you belonged to the people of God is that you were circumcised.
But as I told you before (20210228: Those Who are Turning to God), the Church in Jerusalem decided that Jesus had overturned all of that. People were showing signs of the work of the Holy Spirit without being circumcised. People were faithfully following Jesus without keeping Jewish dietary laws. That doesn’t strike you as at all strange, but for the Jewish people of the first century this change was monumental. And it was with that idea in mind that Paul would invite Gentiles to become followers of Jesus. And many did.
During his first missionary journey Paul visited a region called Galatia; it is in modern-day Turkey. In many towns in Galatia he would persuade people to follow Jesus; he would baptize them and help them organize themselves into churches. That way they could continue to worship and pray together and encourage one another after he moved on. The churches of Galatia were thriving and were showing signs of the Holy Spirit as they followed Jesus and served one another and the people of their communities.
But some preachers came from Jerusalem and told them they were doing great but needed to do one more thing: the men had to be circumcised. It says in Genesis (17:9-14) and Exodus (12:48-49) that circumcision is forever the sign of God’s people, so clearly you have to be circumcised in order to be saved. No circumcision; no salvation.
Why am I telling you this? Not only because it will help you understand the message in Galatians, but also because there is so much diversity in American Christianity that similar talk is everywhere. You have to do THIS to be saved. You have to become THAT or you’ll burn in hell. Do THIS: speak in tongues. Be baptized when you are old enough to profess your own faith. Become THAT: heterosexual. Evangelical Protestant. Look, we’re telling you this for your own good, because we care about you: become who and what we tell you so you can be saved.
You steadfast, longtime Presbyterians may be highly resistant to such talk. But fairly recent converts, such as the people of Galatia, are not. And our own young people are not. Teens and young adults are also highly susceptible to such talk: you cannot be saved as the person you are, but you must do THIS or you must become THAT. Sometimes the attraction is the scriptural argument. Sometimes the attraction is killer music. Most often the attraction is a sense of belonging, of being part of a group that is more interesting, more committed, more exciting in its devotion than the one we grew up in. Do THIS: be circumcised, speak in tongues, be rebaptized as an adult; become THAT: Evangelical, heterosexual, Catholic. To really belong to God, you are not free to do otherwise; you are not free to be otherwise.
So when Paul heard that people were saying that sort of thing to the people of Galatia – look, Paul’s a good guy and all, but his message isn’t enough for you to be saved; to be saved, you have to become like us: circumcised – he was furious. “That’s not the Gospel you heard! Look at everything the Holy Spirit has done among you! You didn’t need to be circumcised for God to do good things among you (Galatians 3:2-5) so why should you need to be circumcised now!” And he curses the people who are preaching this “other Gospel,” the Gospel of “You have to become like us.” His language was pretty strong in what we read to you, wasn’t it? He gets even sharper; I’m not going to quote it but you can look it up: Galatians 5:12.
But he reaches his high point at 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” So many people say that the United States flag makes them think of freedom. Not me: I think of freedom when I see the Cross of Jesus Christ. I think of the freedom to be a follower of Jesus, despite public pressure around me to conform. I think of the freedom to be who am I am, as God created me, despite all the words that tell me that I have to be someone different.
Have you struggled with this? I know that I have. Just about everybody has an option about who the pastor should be, what the pastor should want, and how the pastor should think. Sometimes I wonder who I really am, what I really think, what I really want, because of the pressure all around from other people to be who they say I should be, to think what they tell me to think, to want what I’m supposed to want. If that makes any sense to you, then listen to Paul: Claim your freedom. Don’t give in to the pressure from those who say that you have to do THIS or you have to become THAT. Claim your freedom.
There is one implication for us stalwart Presbyterians that I should mention. We American Presbyterians have often said of more recent immigrants that if they want to become part of the Church, they should become more like us. To be a Christian with us people should like the music we like, speak our language, submit to our way of doing things. That is, people should be more white, more middle-class, more suburban.
Now, Paul is clear that liberty isn’t what they used to call “libertinism.” The freedom Christ has won for us is the freedom to be who God made us, to do what Christ calls us to do. It isn’t the freedom to do whatever we happen to feel like doing. It can be a hard thing to navigate, this freedom; it is certainly a lot easier simply to have a list of things that we must and must not do. Because my freedom to be myself does not include the freedom to trample all over your rights or your feelings. Paul works that out in this book, too, and I’ll talk about that a little more next Sunday. Still, mostly I would like to leave the “Yes, but” aside for now, leave it for next week, and reiterate Paul’s basic message: Christ has set you free; claim your freedom.
His argument is beautiful and passionate and a little over-the-top sometimes, and I’ll leave it for you to read it and we can talk about it some more at Bible Study on Wednesday evening. Remember the core message: Christ has set you free; claim your freedom.
Consider what our ancestors have endured in following Paul’s exhortation, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Christian people have stood firm in the face of oppressive governments and refused to submit to a yoke of slavery. We have stood firm despite the hostility of neighbors, who didn’t want people of our sort around. And many of us have stood firm even when the Church itself tried to make us think that we were wrong, that God made a mistake in creating us, that we had to become something else for God to love us.
“If anyone proclaims a contrary gospel, let that one be accursed!” I won’t go so far as Paul did, but I have neither his personality nor his authority. I am sad that there are so many forces in our society and in our churches that proclaim a contrary gospel, a gospel that says that faith in Christ is not enough: you have to do THIS; you have to become THAT. I will pray for them. Paul can do the cursing.
Is it any wonder that slave-owners in the United States were reluctant for their enslaved persons to hear the Gospel? “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Sure, some of them thought that becoming Christians would make enslaved Africans passive and obedient. To a great extent, they were wrong. I am certain it is no accident that the abolitionist movement found such support from northern churches. It is certainly no accident that in more recent history the rallying places for civil rights movements have been churches, African American churches where they sang, “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh, Freedom!” and “Exodus.” “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Well, Paul said it: If anyone proclaims a contrary gospel, let that one be accursed. Me? I think I’ll pray for them.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master