The Gift of True Freedom
The second reading this week from Galatians centers around the concept of freedom, an idea at the core of American identity. At this current moment in America, freedom is also a word that invokes incredibly divisive views of what it means and should look like for all citizens. Even the phrase “American freedom” can easily incite angry protestations over the need to defend particular freedoms OR trigger painful memories of experiences where freedoms have been cruelly denied. In today’s readings, the apostle Paul speaks directly to another culture ripped apart over arguments surrounding the definitions and implementations of freedom.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul writes to the members of the brand new Christian church in Galatia (in modern day Turkey), to address arguments about whether or not they should have certain freedoms as new Christians or if they should keep the same restrictions the Jewish law requires. In that time, non-Jewish converts to Christianity would likely have relied on the Greek definition of freedom, one that sounds surprisingly familiar to us. Greek philosopher Epictetus defined freedom as: “He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end.” Total free will, with no one stopping us from getting what we want. Sounds very American, doesn’t it?
Yet, Paul flips that definition of freedom on its head. He says, “For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:13,14).
Paul’s language is especially strong, as his use of the word “serve” was the same term used for those who were enslaved. So in other words, he tells the irate Galatians to “serve each other as slaves,” right after he reminds them that all Christians are set free because of Christ. His counterintuitive advice, however, actually transforms the meaning and context of freedom. Becoming “slaves to one another,” where the acts of service are mutual and by choice, redefines the concept of freedom as service. We are most free when we serve others’ needs instead of demanding our own wants. Paul says that Christ’s redeeming love sets us free in order for us to willingly bond ourselves in service and love to all others in the community of God.
Imagine with me what that would look like today. Imagine Christians choosing to serve each other lovingly instead of continually rage-shouting their “truths” at each other across political aisles. Imagine both far right and far left followers of Christ choosing to lovingly and humbly serve “the least of these” as Christ did because we see the image of God when we look at people, instead of the “enemy.” Imagine a Church more interested in following Christ’s example of seeking out the outcast and ushering them into a loving Holy Spirit filled community than they are in being proven “right.” Now, I’m not saying that we drop all our ideals and just pretend everything is ok when it’s not. What I am saying is that maybe Paul’s radical call to lovingly serve our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we most disagree is exactly the kind of choice Jesus exemplified for us. That maybe if we choose to “love our neighbors as ourselves” in this divided moment in history, we’ll realize a freedom full of hope and joy that lifts us above the divisions and forms us into true Christ followers.