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Speaking Differently: Freedom
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
26 June 2022
Last week was Pink Dot and it was amazing to finally be able to gather in person after two years of Pink Dot online. Hong Lim Park was packed with snaking queues around the park, and finally at the end, the buzz and energy when we came together to form the dot and raise our placards was electrifying. My hope is that as a society, we will grow increasingly inclusive, and that government policies will be put in place to reflect this growing inclusivity.
As the only progressive and fully inclusive/affirming church in Singapore, I believe we play a unique and important role. Our voices, our lives, our lived experiences, can make a difference now and for future generations. We had a special Pink Dot service last Sunday and if you missed it, you can find it in our FCC youtube channel.
At Pink Dot, we often talk about the “freedom to love”. But have you ever wondered what is freedom from the Christian perspective? I think it’s no coincidence that one of our lectionary passages this week (the week after Pink Dot) is from Galatians 5, and it’s about freedom.
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1).
Question 1 (Word Cloud)
What does freedom mean to you?
Free from…and free to….
We often think of freedom as the ability to do and say whatever we want, without interference from anyone. But is that the best definition of freedom? What about the impact of our actions on others? Our freedom is always in tension with the freedom of the people around us. When we think of our neighbors, freedom isn’t just the ability to do whatever we want, especially if that action puts our neighbors at risk. So what is the kind of freedom Paul was talking about when he said “For freedom Christ has set us free?”
Paul begins with this amazing proclamation in his letter to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). The verses 13-25 set out the nature, meaning, and parameters of that freedom.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,[c] but through love become enslaved to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ[e] have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
The very first thing we see in v. 13 is while we were called to freedom, we are not to use our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become enslaved to one another. That’s pretty strong language.
What this means is that we have not been set free to believe that “I am the center of the universe and deserve to get anything I desire”, like a four-year old. We have been set free to realize that there is only one rule of the universe: Love. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'(v. 14)”
To truly love yourself is to realize that I am a good and valuable part of God’s beautiful creation, but I am not the center of creation. I am a part of an intricate web of interdependence to which I can contribute something valuable, and from which I am dependent for life. Therefore, to love myself is to value and love every other part of creation. That is what Paul means when he says, “through love become enslaved to one another.”
We are not to submit ourselves again to a yoke of slavery but we are to become enslaved to one another through love. How paradoxical and yet profound! So please let me share some interesting and sometimes paradoxical notions of freedom from the Christian perspective:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).
For the Galatians, to submit to the “yoke of slavery” in 5:1 is to return to a system in which one places trust in obedience to the law. The Galatian believers were new converts, and they were eager to take the next steps in their faith journeys. If you read Gal 5:2-12, Paul was trying to explain to them that they didn’t need to be circumcised in order to prove their faith in Christ. They thought they had to be circumcised and to adopt new food practices to show their piety. They wanted tangible markers of their new existence in Christ. And in their misguided enthusiasm, they had welcomed and listened to false teachers who taught them a distortion of the gospel — “You have to do this, and do that, and if you follow the law, you will be considered children of God.”
Does this sound familiar? Even in modern day, we hear messages like this – “Yes, God loves you, and we welcome you, but….you cannot stay gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer. You need to cut this part of you off to show your faith in Christ.”
But fragmentation is not freedom. When our identity is fractured in some way, it is difficult to pursue authenticity and wholeness in faith. So what Paul tells the Galatians is also relevant to us today. He says in Galatians 5:6,
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
Turn to your neighbor and say, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.”
Paul reminds them that the Spirit is at work transforming them into a new creation—into people who are more loving, gentle, and kind. Their transformation is tangible, and it is holistic—not confined to genitalia or what food they eat. Ultimately what counts is faith working through love.
So the question you need to ask yourself is: Is faith working through love in me? Is the Holy Spirit helping me to express my faith in love?
Richard Rohr says, “Jesus’ notion of the Kin-dom is a different understanding of freedom than that of most religious and secular leaders today. We think of freedom as not having to do what we don’t want to do, but divine freedom is the capacity to be fully who we already are, to develop our inherent and true nature, as much as possible—really wanting to do what we know we have to do. Only God can create that freedom inside of us. Love can only proceed from such inner freedom. A mustard seed, yeast, and light—that all develop from within—are some of Jesus’ central metaphors for this freedom-loving Reign of God.”
Secular freedom only creates individualists and private freedom, but not a society. It never gets around to the common good, which is a central principle of the Gospel and Christian social teaching, which instead demands from you and demands for others—while ironically giving you all that you really need. Then you become who you most deeply and truly are, a member of a family, a neighborhood, a society, and a planet. – Richard Rohr
This leads me to my next point.
“For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” (v. 14)
Our gospel passage in the lectionary today tells us in Luke 9, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” As we know, Jesus was walking into a death-trap, and yet he set his face, stone-like in the Greek, towards Jerusalem. He knew what he was getting into, and yet he moved toward Jerusalem because he had the freedom to love. Jesus was determined to love the whole world, including the people who actively rejected him. This is the ultimate freedom, the freedom to love those who do not love us. The ultimate freedom is the freedom to love our enemies.
“Love of Enemies does not ease tensions; rather it challenges the whole system and becomes a subversive formula.”
― Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation
And that’s what Jesus came to do – to teach and show us a completely different way of doing things. Freedom to love our enemies is empowered by the Holy Spirit; it cannot come from our own willpower or self-determination. We can practice this kind of freedom when we are filled with the Spirit and begin manifesting the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Only the truly free can live out this fruit, and love our neighbour as well as our enemy.
“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.” (Gal 5:13, MSG)
Through Christ, we have been set free to serve one another in love. The cross teaches us what love looks like, and that love is expressed in action through service. The work of God’s Spirit in us is the only way that we are ever going to be free from our own selfishness to exhibit a fraction of that kind of love toward anyone—let alone people whom we do not like.
Jesus said that our litmus test should be the fruit we bear (Matthew 7:15-20). False disciples will produce bad fruit. True disciples will produce good fruit.
And we all know what the fruit of the Spirit is—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We often place the list of 5:22-23 into some kind of inventory (like a checklist), and we think “I’m not so good with patience but I’m better at kindness, etc.” but that grossly misses the point. Paul uses the word “fruit” in the singular. In other words, the result of the Spirit’s work is all of the above and more. We don’t get to pick and choose which one we want to nurture and work on. When the Spirit is at work in you, the transformation is holistic.
So that’s how we know we are being transformed – by observing how the fruit of the Spirit is growing in us. And I want to point out that the fruit of the Spirit can only be expressed in community, not individually.
We are free in Christ—free to serve and do good things, and not to indulge our desires to control other people or have power over them. Each of us is free in Christ to be for the world what Christ was for the world: an agent of reconciliation and love.
The great civil rights leader and women’s rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, noted that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
If we want to live in a truly just society, we all need to support each other in the fight for equality. To obtain equal rights for all lgbtq people, we have to fight for civil rights, and women’s rights, and immigration rights, and disability rights … and so on. When it comes to equality, there’s no hierarchy of oppression.
It’s a powerful and important idea: We won’t achieve full equality by merely focusing on our own struggles and ignoring causes that don’t seem to involve us. As Nelson Mandela said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Our freedom is inextricably intertwined with one another’s freedom.
This is not just a modern concept. It’s a biblical concept that originated with God, as spoken through the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 58:5-9 (MSG)
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, GOD, would like?
“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The GOD of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, GOD will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
From the beginning of time, we hear from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible that the widows, the exploited, the marginalized, those who experience injustice, are all on God’s heart. That is why they need to be on our hearts too, even as we think about freedom.
Question 2 (Word Cloud)
Who comes to mind when you think about those who are not free?
The US Supreme Court on Friday (June 24) took the dramatic step of overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognised a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion and legalized it nationwide. The Roe v. Wade ruling happened in 1973, the year I was born, and what just happened on Friday, after almost 50 years, is that the US Supreme Court has stripped away the constitutional right to choose what happens to their own bodies from millions of women.
What this ruling does is make access to safe abortions harder, especially for poor and marginalized women. And as a result of Friday’s ruling, “from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A state can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs,” explained the liberal justices who were outnumbered.
This may be happening in the US but women all over the world are standing up in solidarity with women in the US. This is because we recognize that one is truly free only when everyone is free.
An example of how intertwined our lives are, regardless of whether you’re a man or woman, straight or queer, is the fact that one of the judges on the Supreme Court has made it very clear that this is just the beginning. He said it’s time to revisit and possibly overturn past rulings on same-sex marriage and contraception, etc. And whether we recognize it or not, what happens in the US has significant cultural impact on the rest of the world.
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
The theme song for this year’s Pink Dot was Fight Song, and I found the lyrics moving and inspiring when we were singing it last week at Hong Lim Park. Yesterday, I happened to listen to it again and realized it continues to challenge and inspire, whatever the issues we are facing in our world today. Our fight for freedom as Christians is recognizing that because Christ has set us free, we are called to be invested in the freedom of others too.
I think Kwok Pui Lan, a deeply respected post-colonial feminist theologian, eloquently expresses what redemption looks like to me and our church community. She says,
“Redemption comprises, therefore, not only personal and spiritual reconciliation with God, but also liberation from bondage, the opportunity to develop one’s potential, the well-being of one’s family and community, the freedom from warfare and other forms of violence, the availability of a life-sustaining eco-system and a sense of hope and security for the future.”
In our community, we understand this state of well-being as shalom – the restoration of all things and relationships to what they were meant to be. In many ways, this is what we aspire to as a community in the kin-dom work we are involved in, as we co-inspire with others here in Singapore and beyond.
Today, I want to end with us singing and listening to ‘Fight Song’ by Rachel Platten as we carry the people that God has placed on our hearts, and reflect on what God may be calling us to do. “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 enslaved to one another”. (Gal 5:13) Through the power of the Holy Spirit, our power is turned on and we’ve got a lot of fight left in us!