5For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The first six months Carol E. Holtz-Martin lived overseas after college, she was awash in loneliness; late each weekday afternoon she would buy a paperback mystery and read it to make endurable the solitary evenings.  Over the weekends a clump of US teachers would meet and critique the culture that functioned so different from their own.  Sunday nights the homesickness sharpened as she found her way back to the flat she shared with a mattress on the floor and increasingly unrealistic memories of home.

Finally, it was make-or-break time.  She would cut ties that bound her to her discontent and try her host country on its own terms.  With little enthusiasm, she stayed in town to visit a church near her workplace.  The second time she showed up, the head usher remembered her, his kindness startled her to tears.  The third time she did not duck out during the final hymn and gained an invitation to a home for Sunday lunch.  The effect of that loving, laughing, singing congregation’s connection to Jesus Christ would come to permeate every aspect of her life.  It was a community living out it’s call to love their neighbor.

The apostle Paul, writes to a very different community.  A church family that is having difficulty living into Christ’s freedom.  A community that feels free to do whatever they want. Paul pivots to saying that God has set us free in Christ but not free to do whatever feels good or whatever we want. No, freedom is to be in service to others and in service to God above all and what that means is that there are a whole lot of things you simply cannot do as a baptized follower of Christ.

Hear Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase of our Galatians text about how that church was living: “It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time:

  • repetitive, loveless, cheap sex;
  • a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage;
  • frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness;
  • trinket gods;
  • magic-show religion;
  • paranoid loneliness;
  • cutthroat competition;
  • all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants;
  • a brutal temper;
  • an impotence to love or be loved;
  • divided homes and divided lives;
  • small-minded and lopsided pursuits;
  • the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival;
  • uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions;
  • ugly parodies of community.
  • I could go on.”

This list, describing how the community in Galatian lived, is a whole category of things called the works of “the flesh” and these have no place in the Christian life. Sexual immorality, orgies, witchcraft, temper tantrums, getting roaring drunk, envy and pride and other community-ripping stances: all of these must be avoided. Christ did not set us free to be jerks. Christ did not set you free to be a self-indulgent party people.  Christ did not set us free to be self-focused and selfish.  Christ sets us free to live another way.

One commentator has said that Paul is reminding us that Christ’s perfect freedom engages us in a call.  That call carries obligation to neighbor as well as to God, to invest ourselves in the community of faith, to put up with the sandpaper of fellow congregants’ wearisome ways again the rough edges of our own unholiness.  That call impels us to prepare our hearts for worship, so that we must be fed or know sharp hunger; to exist in community with such openness and generosity that our neighbors’ well-being is part and parcel to our own.

In the mid 1970’s, my father served three churches in West Virginia.  While dad was moderating a session meeting, a request to have a local gospel choir come sing during worship was presented to the session.  The choir was approved, but the Session voted against collecting a free-will offering for the singing group.  The was vote was 4-5.  That next Sunday, an entire side of the congregation was empty–it was the 4 elders who had lost the vote, and their families.  Another Sunday passed and an entire side of the congregation was still empty–again it was the 4 elders who lost the vote and their families.  During that second week, the matriarch of that family was killed in a car accident, and the church members began showing up with food and sending cards.  The church was packed for her funeral, and gradually after the funeral, those families returned to the congregation due to the “winning” side showing God’s love.

I remember the incident because of the readiness, promptness and sweet humility with which peace was made.  I remember it because of its rarity.  I remember it because Christians are charged with giving and receiving such love. “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself.”

What must happen is as simple as Paul’s clarion call to forget everything but Christ!  Paul’s call is to love others as you love yourself!!

Commentary provided by Mark Douglas, Carol E. Holtz-Martin, Alicia Vargas, Scott Hoezee, Joanna Adams and NT Wright.