You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. [Galatians 5:13-25]
Freedom is a word that you often hear these days. There are many different forms of it, and many different people advocating it. Certainly people around the world want political freedom – from Africa to Asia to the former Soviet Union to Scotland. Then there are the economists who believe in FREE trade, the lifting of tariffs. There are the capitalists who dislike central controls because they hinder FREE enterprise, and then there are the communists who say they want to set the proletariat FREE from capitalist exploitation. Just now, with regard to Brexit, there are the Remainers who want to have the FREEDOM of belonging to Europe to enjoy travel and trade. And there are the Brexiteers who want the FREEDOM of NOT belonging to Europe, because of all the laws and regulations.
President Roosevelt way back in 1941 summed it up well when he listed four kinds of freedom that politicians should aim to deliver:
freedom of speech everywhere,
freedom of worship everywhere,
freedom from want everywhere,
freedom from fear everywhere.
What sort of freedom is Christian freedom? Paul talks about it a lot in our reading from Galatians this morning. So what is it? Primarily it is a freedom of conscience. According to the Christian gospel no one is truly FREE until Jesus Christ has rid them of the burden of their guilt. So Christian freedom is freedom FROM sin, not freedom TO sin. We have freedom to approach God without fear, not freedom to exploit our neighbours without love. Indeed, the reading this morning makes it clear that with regard to others, we do not have the freedom to even just tolerate them. We are commanded to love them, and because of that, to be willing to serve them, to act in their best interests. It is a remarkable paradox – we are free in relation to God in that we can approach him without fear, but we are slaves in our relation to others, in that we need to always consider their needs as well as our own. We are not to be destructive, but in Christ we are to be constructive towards others.
But how is that realistically possible? We all know the pull of the lower nature in our lives. Paul looks in some depth at the constant warfare that goes on between what he calls the flesh and the Spirit. He urges us to be aware of this constant pull downwards on us. He urges us to actively repudiate the it evil, selfish urges that will harm both ourselves and others.
Paul says we will only succeed if we stay close to the Holy Spirit. In fact, in our reading this morning Paul mentions the Holy Spirit seven times by name. He is called our Sanctifier who alone can oppose and subdue the sinful flesh, and He alone can cause the fruit of righteousness to grow in our lives.
Paul lists some beautiful traits that make you wish that you knew a lot of people who had them: these nine Christian graces together portray the beauty and attractiveness of a Christian life. The first triad, or three, if you like, is LOVE, JOY and PEACE. These Christian virtues primarily describe our proper attitude towards God. For our first love is for God, our chief joy is our joy in God, and our deepest peace is our peace with God. The second triad of graces are PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GOODNESS. These are, if you like, the social virtues, looking towards others rather than Godward. Patience is longsuffering towards those who aggravate us. Kindness is a question of our disposition towards others. Goodness is doing words and deeds which benefit others. The final three graces are FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS AND SELF-CONTROL. Faithfulness is a description of the reliability of a Christian, gentleness reflects the humble meekness of Christ, and self-control describes personal inner strength, the very opposite of personal weakness.
So ‘love, joy, peace’ is God-wards, ‘patience, kindness, goodness’ is towards others, and ‘faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ is self-wards in that it describes a Christian’s character in themselves. And all of these are fruit that comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.
If only it were easy to allow such beautiful characteristics as these to bloom in our lives! But we all know that it is not easy, and St Paul was above all a realist. He spoke in quite savage terms about the on-going struggle it will be, and was adamant about how we should treat our baser desires. He even said we should ‘crucify’ them – in other words, make a stern, decision to utterly reject the wrong, to put it firmly away from us. And we can look for help to the Holy Spirit. For Paul says we are to be led by the Spirit. The Greek verb which he uses for led, was used of a farmer herding cattle, of a shepherd leading sheep – in other words, a relationship of everyday calm familiarity, and of total trust and confidence based on on-going experience. We are to be led, and we are NOT to suddenly take off down the road on our own, as a cow did recently on the Silk Road on my way to Poynton. And Paul goes even further. He urges us to actively ‘walk with the Spirit’ – and the verb he used here is of moving forward actively, with purpose and direction. If you have ever walked a Jack Russell dog, you will know what he meant.
As one well-loved Bible scholar urges us: To keep our Christian freedom, and to enjoy it, we are to make it our task each day to take time to remember who we are. We belong to Jesus Christ, and his Spirit dwells within us. So we can actively decide to cooperate with Him each day, and ask Him for guidance when the way is not clear. Remember – we are FREE to do so.
So – finally – coming back to Brexit, with regard to our Christian lives, you can have it both ways this morning. With regard to the rule of sin in your life, be a Brexiteer – get yourself free of it and deny its control on your life. With regard to other people, be a Remainer, and make the decision to love others and be willing to help them.