Some years ago, a colleague of mine, preaching on this passage, posted his sermon title on a signboard in front of the church: “Love Slaves” he titled it, and I guess is attendance was way up that Sunday!
Paul sets up an intriguing premise in this passage: You have been set free to become slaves to one another. Now most of us have read about slavery and seen it portrayed in movies and on TV, but none of us have actually been slaves; or have we? Phillip Brooks wrote: “No man in this world attains to freedom from any slavery except by entrance into some higher servitude. There is no such thing as an entirely free man conceivable.”Phillips Brooks (1835- 1893), Perennials. One of the invisible things a slave looses is power over the self; the ability to control his or her own actions or destiny. As Paul will argue later in the text, without Christ, we are slaves to the desires of the flesh, and it is those desires that control us.
This is one of those weeks when what isn't in the day's lectionary reading is, perhaps, as important as what is. The lectionary skips vss. 2-12, likely because its discussion of circumcision seems superfluous, and can be, for some, comfortable and embarrassing to speak about. But it sets up the reason behind Paul's argument, and the urgency of it.
Paul is writing to a gentile church; people who had converted to Christianity from the pagan religions around it. But somewhere along the line, a group of by the book Jewish Christians had come along and informed the Galatians that, before they could be true Christians, they must first become fully Jewish; including the circumcision of all the men. The division of Christianity into sects and denominations is not a new phenomenon. Paul is furious. You can almost hear him shouting and see the veins on his forehead standing out as he writes: “Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you allow yourselves to be circumcised, it means that Christ is of no use to you at all. Once more I warn any man who allows himself to be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the whole Law. Those of you who try to be put right with God by obeying the Law have cut yourselves off from Christ. You are outside God's grace.”(Gal 5:2-4) The Jewish Christ, Paul says, calls us to a new life that does not require such things. This kind of legalism is exactly what Christ has freed us from. We are no longer subservient to laws that have become archaic and inapplicable. And heaven knows we have lot of those:
In Lexington, Ky., there is an ordinance forbidding anyone to carry an ice-cream cone in his pocket.
In Waterloo, Nebr., barbers are forbidden to eat onions between seven a.m. and seven p.m.
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts it is against the law to eat peanuts in church or to use tomatoes in making clam chowder.
In Kansas an old law states that you cannot eat snakes on Sunday or rattlesnake meat in public.
In Los Angeles you cannot bathe two babies in the same tub at the same time.
In Zion, Ill., it is illegal for anyone to give lighted cigars to dogs, cats and other domesticated animals kept as pets.
In Carmel, N.Y., a man can't go outside while wearing a jacket and pants that do not match.
In Gary, Ind., persons are prohibited from attending a movie house or other theater and from riding a public streetcar within four hours of eating garlic.
In Hartford, Conn., you aren't allowed to cross a street while walking on your hands.
And of course, one of my favorites: In Nicholas County, W. Va., no member of the clergy is allowed to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit during a church service.
As Paul writes, he becomes more and more furious until he suggests “that the people who are upsetting you would go all the way; let them go on and castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:12)
To those who argue that we should worship on Saturday, because that is the Sabbath, I reply: “If your going to obey that law, you must obey the whole law.” To those who argue that the Old Testament Law prohibits eating certain foods, I reply: “If your going to obey that law, you must obey the whole law.” To those who remind us that the Law of Moses states gays shall be stoned, I answer: “If your going to obey that law, you must obey the whole law; and that includes stoning children who talk back to their fathers.”
Even though we have been set free, cautions Paul, “do not let this freedom become an excuse for letting your physical desires control you.” Freedom, or Liberty as Maxie Dunham translates the Greek, is NOT license. We have not been set free from the confines of law to follow the ways of the flesh. Oh yes, we can choose to do just that, but if we do, we are no longer free; we have merely sold ourselves to a different master.
Toad baked some cookies. "These cookies smell very good," said Toad. He ate one. "And they taste even better," he said. Toad ran to Frog's house. "Frog, Frog," cried Toad, "taste these cookies that I have made."
Frog ate one of the cookies, "These are the best cookies I have ever eaten!" said Frog.
Frog and Toad ate many cookies, one after another. "You know, Toad," said Frog, with his mouth full, "I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick."
"You are right," said Toad. "Let us eat one last cookie, and then we will stop." Frog and Toad ate one last cookie. There were many cookies left in the bowl.
"Frog," said Toad, "let us eat one very last cookie, and then we will stop." Frog and Toad ate one very last cookie.
"We must stop eating!" cried Toad as he ate another.
"Yes," said Frog, reaching for a cookie, "we need willpower."
"What is willpower?" asked Toad.
"Willpower is trying hard not to do something you really want to do," said Frog.
"You mean like trying hard not to eat all these cookies?" asked Toad.
"Right," said Frog. Then Frog put the cookies in a box. "There," he said. "Now we will not eat any more cookies."
"But we can open the box," said Toad.
"That is true," said Grog.
Frog tied some string around the box. "There," he said. "Now we will not eat any more cookies."
"But we can cut the string and open the box." said Toad.
"That is true," said Frog. Frog got a ladder. He put the box up on a high shelf. "There," said Frog. "Now we will not eat any more cookies."
"But we can climb the ladder and take the box down from the shelf and cut the string and open the box," said Toad.
"That is true," said Frog. He climbed the ladder and took the box down from the shelf. He cut the string and opened the box. Frog took the box outside. He shouted in a loud voice. "Hey, birds, here are cookies!" Birds came from everywhere. They picked up all the cookies in their beaks and flew away.
"Now we have no more cookies to eat," said Toad sadly. "Not even one."
"Yes," said Frog, "but we have lots and lots of willpower."
"You may keep it all, Frog," said Toad. "I am going home now to bake a cake."
Ray and Anne Ortlund, Renewal, 1989, Navpress, Page 73-74.
Our selfish desires are in opposition to the ways of the Spirit. Selfishness leads to promiscuity, moral corruption, idolatry, drunkenness, drug addiction, fighting, obsession, the demand for instant gratification, partying, conflict, hatred, xenophobia, racism, and so on. To follow our own desires is to enslave ourselves to the evil of this world. Or as Thomas Huxley put it: “A man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.” Thomas Huxley, "Address on University Education," Collected Essays, 1902,
“Instead,” counsels Paul, “let love make you serve one another.” While we have been freed from the letter of the law, the spirit of the law: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” still stands. The freedom we have been given is the freedom to love and serve others without worrying about our own wants and desires. The freedom to love one another is the freedom that brings us such things as love, joy,peace, patience, faithfulness, self-control, and gentleness; to name just a few.
We have been set free to be servants of each other; to reach out not just to those in this congregation; not just to those who call themselves Christians; not just to those who are citizens, or legal residents of this nation, not just to those who look, speak, think, act, eat, and smell like us; but to every human being on earth. It is a basic tenet of our faith that each person is a child of God and entitled to be free and be treated with dignity. This article of faith is echoed in out Declaration of Independence which reads in part:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And again in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights begins with the statement: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” As we approach the240th anniversary of the Declaration, and as we celebrate our own freedom, let us never forget that with that freedom comes responsibility. And let us celebrate that freedom by freely serving one another. AMEN.