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6th after Pentecost C

Galatians 5:13 - “You were called to freedom, brothers; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.

Untouched by 10 devastating plagues, passed-over by the Angel of Death, and miraculously liberated from their Egyptian task-masters through the parting of the Red Sea, God’s ancient Israelite people found themselves faced with the harsh reality of trying to survive in the desert wilderness. But they were free! God intended to lead them to a land where green pastures and richly flowing milk and honey were promised. There would be no more chains of slavery, no more whippings, no more forced labor in sweltering mudpits making bricks, and no more decrees ordering the murder of their children.

Rather than relishing their God-given freedom, though, the people began to bitterly complain about their new circumstances. Rather than trusting God to sustain them, whose Almighty power they had witnessed personally, they actually accused God of intending to kill them in that “middle-of-nowhere.” They wanted to return to Egypt. They spurned the gift of liberty. They cried to go back and live as slaves once more.

That might sound rather irrational, but we actually have the same kind of hearts. We want God’s gifts on our own terms. Undeserved privileges we’ve received are taken for granted. We complain that God’s ways don’t suit our tastes and, in effect, cry to return to the slavery of legalisms and sin from which we were bought and from which we were called to BE free.

We have another example in the Book to the Galatians… St. Paul wrote a letter to be circulated throughout the whole territory known as “Galatia.” He got right to his point after the opening formalities: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you in the grace of Christ and (are) turning to a different gospel.”

That “different gospel” involved a demand to live by traditional Jewish rituals in order to continue being recognized as a true child of God; things like circumcision and adhering to kosher dietary laws. Even Peter hypocritically fell back into setting such an example, and Paul was obliged to confront him for it. We call those who insisted on following the old ceremonial ways “Judaizers” or “legalists,” and Paul identified those who followed such demands as “submit(ting) again to a yoke of slavery.”

This week’s Independence Day observance gives us the proper reminder that we should commemorate and celebrate the blessings passed down to us under America’s democracy. We recognize the government granted freedom the Church has enjoyed and many blessings associated with that freedom, but here it would be best to keep our attention on the spiritual aspect given in the Galatians 5:13 Text…

Turning back to legalism led St. Paul to say: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore…” What kind of freedom did he have in mind?

It’s what Luther called the “Happy Exchange” that took place at Christ’s Cross: All that is ours – sin, death and eternal condemnation under God’s wrath – is laid on Christ. And all that is His – righteousness and the Father’s favor – becomes ours! We truly ARE set free by Christ’s bondage, in other words.

Jesus was taken captive, whipped and brutalized, looked down upon and taunted as though He was just a piece of property like a slave. He was bound in the chains of our sin and nailed by them. His Blood poured out and He suffered hell’s every worst torment. And He died as the final punishment of sin! Jesus took it all on Himself for the very reason of freeing us from it all. No more expectation of living God’s Moral Law perfectly in order to earn our own salvation!

And there’s more, that He rose back to life early on the third day of His death! He beat down and crushed sin and death and Satan. Christian Baptism is God’s special action of uniting us to everything about Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Baptism isn’t one of those “legalistic” rituals, but a tangible pardoning of our sins and mystical union with Christ’s own victory over sin and rising again to a life of eternal glory.

That’s the ultimate freedom: Freedom from the true guilt we bear for our sins, which is taken away through repentance and faith in Jesus being our “Happy Exchange”! Freedom from having to fear any more about what we might face at the time of our physical deaths! (What we’ll face is beautiful Angels carrying us to the bosom of our Heavenly Father, and the promise of new and glorified bodies when Christ returns to earth in glory.) Also freedom from sin’s power to keep control of us any more in this life, because we’ve been granted Christ’s Spirit of freedom in conjunction with our Baptisms and faith in Him!

Who that has ever experienced a converted and right mind and heart would ever want to lose such precious things? Who would want to return to Egypt, so to speak, or submit again to a yoke of slavery? As St. Paul said: “Stand FAST therefore…”

Returning to legalism to try to keep God’s favor is only one way to lose a grip on the Gospel’s freedom, though. The Text points to something just as dangerous when it says: “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” That’s something Peter and Paul looked at in the same way. Peter, too, once wrote: “Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil.”

One of the primary abuses of our own freedom is to blindly assail the feelings and rights of others. St. Paul went on to list 15 types of attitudes and behaviors that characterize self-indulgence in the name of freedom, following-up with the stern warning that: “Those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.” The reason is because habitually pursuing or indulging in things like jealous gossip, sexual fantasies, occult ideas and drunken partying constitutes a deliberate return to the slavery of sin from which we were saved and called to BE free! (There’s of course a difference, though, between falling by reason of our human weakness but sincerely repenting, and callously flaunting a so-called right and liberty with no desire or intention to be holy. ‘Put out that man who’s living in open sin and flaunting it,’ Paul once charged the Corinthians.)

Either we’re controlled by our own sinful inclinations or by God’s Holy Spirit, and the two are directly opposed to each other, Paul taught. There is no in-between neutral state for who or what is in control, in other words.

A Spirit-controlled person isn’t one who never sins, but who is given a constant attitude of humble penitence, who truly appreciates the real freedom of the Gospel and the price of Christ’s Lifeblood by which it came, and whose life therefore evidences God’s Spirit living in him or her. Good fruit rather than rotten most characterizes such a person’s life – and it’s produced automatically by God’s Spirit and not by the person’s own falsely motivated efforts. Fruit like Love, Joy and Peace, and like self-control rather than free license! There is no law against such things.

“Through love be servants of one another,” Paul says. That’s how Christian Liberty is rightly expressed! It takes deliberately living as though everything depends on us, but believing that it all depends on Christ and His Spirit – because it does.

“For freedom Christ has set us free!” – “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,” Paul finished.

To sum it up, then, we need to note the two ways in which the Gospel’s Freedom can become rejected, which are: by appealing to principles of legalism once again, or using our freedom as an excuse to live as we please. The first would put us back under the Law and its curse that requires perfection. The second is a cover-up that seeks to become re-controlled and enslaved by sin, which brings death.

We either live according to our own selfish desires, or we walk by the Spirit of Freedom and Love. To walk by the Spirit is to renew our Baptisms daily through repentance and confession, and to ever be feeding on His Means of Grace in Word and Sacrament. And that we can DO as God’s Spirit enables us!


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