What is freedom? How do we live with freedom, particularly in a country that strives to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? What is freedom for? Does freedom have limits, and if it does, is it still freedom? The concept of freedom is something that humans have struggled with for ages. It’s such a huge topic that this is one of those sermons where I left a whole lot on the cutting room floor to keep this within time. Perhaps that means, in the future, we’ll give a few weeks to this topic. But today, we’ll stay narrowly focused on our texts.
We heard freedom in our text from Galatians today. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul writes. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” Already, in just these couple of sentences we see that freedom as a good result of Christ’s work in us, but we also sees that it exists within limits. Ironically, freedom does not have freedom to be whatever we think it should be. It will always run into another’s freedom, which means that freedom always exists within a spirit of concession and compromise.
Elsewhere Paul writes, “‘All things are permitted,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are permitted,’ but not all thing build up. Do not seek your own advantage but that of the other” (1 Cor. 10:23-34). Freedom carries with it the responsibility of how our lives promote the well-being of our neighbors, which means, at times we need to curb our freedoms so others might have the advantage.
Let me share a story with you from when I was around ten years old. It was a Sunday. On our drive home from Wayne Park Baptist Temple, I remember asking my dad about swearing. “Dad,” I asked, “why are swear words bad?” I think he was hoping I was a bit more mature than I was, so he answered me, “Well, Troy, they’re really just words like any other words. They can be used in bad ways, but really they’re just words.” Now, he was right, but I wasn’t ready for such freedom. Here’s what I heard, “Well, Troy, swearing isn’t bad, so you won’t get into trouble if you do it.”
Later that day, my younger brother did something that bothered me—I can’t remember what it was—but I was just looking for a reason to try out all the words I hadn’t been using up to that point. So, I turned to him and yelled out every single swear word that I knew about at him. My dad came running in and was like, “What in the world just happened?” (He probably had some swear words going through his head, I bet.) I thought I had the freedom to say whatever I wanted to my brother, but I didn’t realize both that it was not a good use of those words and that I hurt my eight-year-old brother by swearing at him. I thought freedom meant I could say whatever I wanted. On some level that was true. It’s not like my words were illegal. But my freedom to say what I wanted ran into my brother’s freedom to exist in a world where his brother didn’t rain down curse words over him just because he could. I was seeking my advantage, not his.
Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” I would have done well to have known this passage before swearing at my brother. We would all do well if we lived in a such a way that considered how our freedoms impact our neighbors, our community, and the planet itself. Americans spend a lot of energy arguing about freedom, but Galatians 5 points out to all of us that God is far more interested in what we do with the freedom we have than the fact that we are free. It’s a call to bear fruit. It’s a call to live in the way that God wants us to live, so that our freedom might draw others to Jesus.
Freedom should be for something. It doesn’t exist as an end to itself. Christ didn’t make us free so that we could do whatever we wanted! No, we are now free to be the kind of people who bring the kingdom of God to bear in our lives and world. We are now free to “live by the Spirit” (v. 16), which means our lives bear fruit that comes from the Spirit.
Paul includes this list because it is representative of what a life lived in the Spirit looks like—what fruit it bears—not because it is exhaustive. Still, each of these words, when held up to our lives should reveal whether we are in step with God’s will for us or not. We can tell whether we are deeply connected to the One who makes us free by what our lives look like. The fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Paul says having a law—that is something that would restrict one’s freedom—is not necessary because we have a connection to the Holy Spirit who guides us to use our freedom in ways that promote life and love.
So, we are free to be loving, joyful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. Living in that manner is evident that the Spirit is living in us. Life in the Spirit produces fruit, and the fruit looks like this. Fruit is something that emerges from the very creation God has given us. Fruit gets developed when we humans carefully and responsibly cultivate it. Fruit is the natural consequence of existence. So, too, the fruit we bear is a natural consequence of the freedom Christ has given us to live in the Spirit. Just as fruit nurtures and brings delight, so too our lives when lived in such freedom will nurture, delight, and sustain the community around us.
Freedom means responsibility, doesn’t it? Going all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, God created everything and placed humans into the creation. God blessed us to be a blessing. We were charged with cultivating the creation. We had freedom to do anything, which included the freedom to choose NOT to live under God’s blessing. God gave space for that kind of freedom, but the consequence of rejecting God’s blessing so that we can stretch freedom beyond where it is still good for us has meant all sorts of ill.
God continues to grant us this freedom today. God blesses us with a wonderful creation. We are free to do with it as we will, but we are also free to reap the benefits and consequences of how we treat the earth. Freedom is always for something. It is there for loving our neighbors. It is there for treating the creation gently and responsibly. It is there for being a people who display the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We can think about it this way—there is a big difference between wild and domesticated dogs. Wild dogs are certainly free. They’re free to be exactly who they are by nature. Free to roam. Free to eat whatever they can. Free to attack. Wild dogs are dogs. But so are domesticated ones. They have a master. They are under the charge of someone, but wouldn’t you think that the freedom they have to live under that master makes that dog’s life fuller? They are free to live inside. They are free to accept food and kindness from the household. They are free to play in the yard. They get treats and know love. They are free to be dogs who live freely under the benevolence of a caring owner.
That’s the kind of freedom Paul is writing about. The freedom of the Christian is like the freedom of a domesticated dog. That freedom is in connection to a loving Lord who cares for it and calls it to a new way of life. It’s a life that produces fruit that resembles the master. There is freedom apart from the Spirit, but it resembles the freedom of a wild dog. It acts from its own impulses and energy. It can do what it wants, but the works it produces are from its own independence. These works have no connection to a higher calling.
I think this is why Paul calls these “the works of the flesh.” That’s life apart from God.” Unlike fruit that by nature emerges from a healthy life, works like these are evidence of a life not rooted in the Spirit. Used as a lens through which we can see the world, there is a clear difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. Debauchery. Strife. Anger. Quarrels. Factions. Envy. Carousing. There really isn’t any overlap between these works and the fruit is there?
I’d even encourage us to view our lives and the things we surround ourselves with these two lenses. Do they look like the works of the flesh or the fruit of the Spirit? Use this lens as a spiritual check-up to see how you’re doing. How’s your parenting? Angry or gentle? How do you relate to your next door neighbors? Your co-workers. Your spouse? Does the news you watch or listen to inspire loving, positive action, or does is make you think maliciously about others? Does your life produce the fruit of the Spirit or not?
So, why is it so easy to excuse ourselves to live according to the flesh and not the Spirit? Why is it we are willing to overlook such ungodly things in our leaders? Why is it that we can rationalize our own behavior, believe that we’re not as bad as someone else? As Christians, we should look for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit and go that direction. We should also be careful of places we see the works of the flesh. We shouldn’t endorse or overlook them but we should work on redeeming them. That’s the freedom Christ has set us free for!
Freedom actually is for following. To touch on our gospel text, three people want to follow Jesus. The first proclaims, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but Jesus pushes back. The second Jesus invites to follow, but this one has household responsibilities tying him up. The third offers to follow but needs time to say goodbye to loved ones. Jesus pushes back, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Yikes, right?
But what is interesting is that we never know whether or not any of these three felt that resistance and pushed through to the freedom of following. Jesus puts up resistance, not because he doesn’t want followers but because he recognizes that following is hard. It’s hard to leave the supposed freedom of the old life behind. The way to life is narrow and challenging. The gravitational pull of the world is strong. But true freedom ultimately comes when we relinquish what we thought was freedom—the ability to be who we want, how we want, regardless of others—so that we might come to find real freedom in God’s household. This freedom finds confidence in knowing God’s love and call on our lives. It’s a freedom that lays aside its own advantage for others. It’s a freedom that looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. It’s a freedom we need a whole lot more of in our world today. Thanks be to God it’s available for those who seek it. Freedom is found in following. Freedom is found in accepting you are a part of God’s beloved household and called to live like Jesus. That is freedom.