Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 05.26.2016
Scripture Lessons: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Motorcycling is freedom.
I’ve always thought of it that way, always embraced that deep liberation that comes from being unencumbered by several tons of metal wrapped all around me as I move around doing the things I’m meant to do.
This last week was the motorcyclingest week of my life, as the Big Tan Motor Chicken and I racked up over a thousand miles of summer riding. You are free to ignore your phone, to shut down the endless churn of our compulsive interconnectedness and just be. At the brisk highway pace that’s a thousand cubic centimeter bike’s happy place, you can’t even glance at that text or that email notification. You are, instead, where you are.
I’m also not a herd rider. I see them rumbling by, the loners and the rebels, in their groups of three or five or fifteen, rugged individualists who’ve somehow managed to coordinate their outfits almost as closely as a JV Poms Squad. It’s cool in its own way, like the column of bikers who thundered through town to celebrate veterans yesterday, but it’s just not for me. Riding in a big group requires planning and designating leaders and creating route maps. Next thing you know there are committees involved, rules and regulations and the like, and as I suffer from Post-Presbytery Committee Anxiety Disorder, I try to do as little of that as possible. I ride to be free.
And yet it’s a freedom that brings with it connection, even if you’re riding alone. It connects you to the reality of what you’re doing, as you have to set your pace from the reality of being physically present in the world. It makes demands. You feel the temperature gradients that come as you move towards a glowering, dark-sky storm. It’s the freedom to be sweaty when it’s hot, to be slightly numb when it’s cold.
It’s helpful to remember that sometimes freedom can be complicated.
It always bears with it other dynamics, and we are never truly disconnected. When I was a kid, I can recall chafing at the limitations of childhood. I couldn’t go where I wanted, or do what I wanted. Why can’t a five year old drive? Why can’t an eight year old go hang-gliding? Why can’t a twelve year old ride a moped? I should be allowed to do these things! Aren’t I a person? Aren’t I...and here every child inserts a dramatic pause while looking nobly into the distance...an American? Didn’t God make me free? I yearned for that day when I would be a grownup, because as we all know, grownups can do whatever they want, whenever they want.
Man, did that theory not pan out. Because growing up doesn’t quite work that way. You reach adulthood as a fully fledged, honest-to-God, bonafide citizen of the United States of America. You are at liberty to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Only, for some reason, your boss expects you to get to work at 9:00, and at 7:30 on days when you’ve got a departmental meeting. And you find that you actually have to do that work, and that sometimes that work requires you to be in the office long past the point at which the five o’clock bell has rung. You might want to leave, but for some reason the argument that God made us free doesn’t work with your mortgage lender.
Though we are absolutely free, life fills itself up to overflowing with commitments that seem to demand all of us...to work, to a spouse, and then to kids, who as they get older complain bitterly to you about their own lack of freedom. If you only knew, kid. If you only knew.
There lies the peculiarity of freedom. Yes, we’re all made free. But who among us is utterly free? We’re not. We’re always, invariably, and paradoxically both free and interconnected.
It’s perhaps that point that the Apostle Paul is trying to make in the odd little passage we read this morning from his letter to the church at Galatia. It starts out in a way that should baffle anyone who actually takes the time to think about what Paul is saying. Because remember...Paul likes to mess with our heads, in the same way that Jesus tended to say things that force you to think.
This little passage begins in verse 1 of Chapter five with a ode to freedom that should get every American heart a-fluttering. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” You can just see Libertarian Jesus standing there next to Washington as he crosses the Delaware, the icy breeze making his robe flutter heroically and whipping through his perfectly conditioned shoulder-length hair. It’s enough to make you want to take out a little American flag and wave it. Go Libertarian Jesus!
After this opening statement in his discussion of freedom Paul puts one last eleven verse attack against his opponents in Galatia...which is a bit on the rude side. You can read it if you like, but I didn’t want to offend anyone. After then we pick right back up again on the subject of freedom in verse 13. Paul’s just told us to be free, stand firm, and not allow ourselves to be enslaved. So how does he follow up? Well, he says this:
“For 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.” We’re...we’re supposed to be slaves to one another? But...Paul...I thought you just said we’re not supposed to submit to the “yoke of slavery.” You said we’re free!
Though it might seem that way, Paul wasn’t contradicting himself. Rather, he was playing with words to show us something important about what it means to follow Jesus. Paul understood the nature of the church and what Christ has called us to do. In Paul’s argument with his opponents in Galatia, he struggled against the idea that being a member of the church is about following a series of rules or a system of regulations.
It’s not about what you eat or don’t eat, or how and when you observe the sabbath, or any of the other laws that governed the Hebrew people. It’s not about simple obedience to a particular way of being. It’s a totally different way to approach God...by allowing...through faith...God to live and work in you in the same way that God lived and worked in Christ. Paul realized that this was a revolutionary thing. It was the most important thing that differentiated this new Christian faith from all of the other faiths that moved in the Greco-Roman world. That’s one of the primary reasons that Paul was so very vocal in opposing the folks who wanted to turn back the clock.
But though Paul was declaring our independence from the oppression of the law, he wasn’t saying that we are free from one another. Elsewhere in his letters, he talks about the church and our lives in Christ as one thing, as we’re all made part of Christ. Instead of viewing our in obedience to demands that are outside of us, Paul saw that a life lived according to the love that Jesus both taught and embodied is something different. It is freedom, but it is a freedom that expresses itself through our love and care for others.
Paul reminds us that we are not independent from one another. We depend on others...on our friends, on our families, on our communities. Human beings require other human beings, and though we might like to imagine that we are each our own totally self-sufficient little island, that just isn’t real. That is not how the world is, and when we pretend that the freedom to which God has called us has no boundaries, we deceive ourselves.
What freedom does not mean is destroying or tearing down the very things that build us up. As Paul lists the countless ways we harm and destroy one another, he’s aware that to yield to such things is to become enslaved by them. All those hatreds and angers and bickerings that seek to control us are to be cast aside, because they are enemies of both our unity and our liberty.
The freedom to which we are called has nothing to do with those things. It is a freedom to love and rejoice in one another, to support one another, and to live fully aware that as children of the promise we have nothing to fear.
That is the freedom to which Christ has called us.
Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.