Some of you here today are old enough to remember a song that began with these lines:
I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In an octopus’ garden in the shade.
And then a bit later on in the song came these lines which sum up so much of what the sixties were all about:
We would be so happy, you and me,
With no one there to tell us what to do.
‘No one there to tell us what to do’! What a congenial line for our modern ideas about freedom. Slavery means having to do what someone else tells you. Freedom means being able to do exactly what you want. This was the idea that fired up the sixties generation. Cast off the restrains of the past! No one gets to define you except you! Make your own choices, follow your feelings, follow your heart.
Of course, that didn’t always go well for people, even in the sixties. Another very famous song from that era includes the line ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ That songwriter was a little soured on the ideals of the counter-culture, I think! A lot of people who cast off all constraints and did whatever their instincts told them discovered after a while that instincts can make a pretty tyrannical slave-driver. People schooled in the ways of unbridled self-indulgence too often ended up in chronic substance abuse and addiction, and some of the wreckage from that is with us to this day.
So what actually is freedom? Freedom from what? Freedom forwhat? And how do we achieve it? What does the New Testament have to say about freedom, and how we can experience it?
To answer this question, I want to talk to you today about four words and what we mean by them. You can find them all in the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we read this morning. The four words are ‘freedom’, ‘flesh’, ‘law’, and ‘Spirit’.
So let’s kick things off with the word ‘freedom’. In Galatians 5:1 Paul says, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’
Paul didn’t come up with this idea of Christian freedom by himself; he got it from the teaching of Jesus. In John chapter 8 Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (v.31). His hearers are confused; they’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so what can Jesus mean by “You will be made free”? Jesus explains:
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (vv.34-36).
So now we can see what we need to be set free from. Jesus wasn’t talking about a literal slavery with a human slave-owner. He was talking about the inner slavery we experience when we’re under the power of sin. Sin can exert a powerful control over us; we like to think we’re free, but along comes temptation, and with hardly any struggle at all, we give in to it. We get into the habitof giving in to it. Habits are like deep ruts worn in our brains, and every time we travel those ruts, we make them deeper. Once made, they’re very hard to break. Sin takes advantage of that, and it makes us slaves.
I need to say again that I’m not just talking about obvious, spectacular sins like murder or theft or adultery or anything like that. Sin is primarily selfishness or self-centredness. Instead of making God the centre of our lives, we claim that spot for ourselves. But the trouble is, we aren’t very good at ruling our own lives. We have the human propensity to mess things up. We spoil relationships, we spoil good intentions and shining dreams, we mess things up for others and for ourselves. Human history is a long, sad record of how good, well-meaning people screwed things up, for themselves and for others, over and over again.
The word Paul uses for this tendency is ‘the flesh.’ When he uses that phrase, he doesn’t mean what we mean today by the old-fashioned phrase ‘sins of the flesh’. That’s clear in the list he gives in our reading from Galatians; some of the sins he mentions are connected with the body, and they include sexual sins, but some of them are to do with our inner attitudes, too. The list is found in verses 19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
It’s obvious that if we live lives like that, real human community is going to be impossible for us, because human community depends on a willingness to put others ahead of ourselves. And that’s why the Octopus’ Garden definition of freedom will never work. “We would be so happy, you and me, with no one there to tell us what to do.” Well, that sounds fine, but what if what I want to do infringes on the well-being of others? Human history gives us the answer to that question, and maybe our own history does, too. Lasting relationships can’t be built on a foundation of selfishness and self-centredness.
How do we respond to this? How can we be set free from the power of the flesh so we can experience true freedom? Jewish people in the time of Paul would have had a ready answer to that question: we’re set free by obedience to the Law of Moses, which was given by God on Mount Sinai to guide the life of his people.
The Law of Moses included not only the Ten Commandments and other moral laws, but also detailed instructions about how they were to worship God. They were to circumcise their sons as a sign that they were part of God’s people. They were to keep the sabbath day and do no work on it, and observe all the special holy days in the Jewish calendar. They were to stay away from unclean food—there was a great long list of all the foods considered ‘unclean’—and cook the clean food in specific ways, being especially careful not to eat meat with any blood in it. They were to offer all the prescribed sacrifices of animals and grains. And so the list went on.
In the time of Jesus some people had become very legalistic about this. The Pharisees believed that if all Israel obeyed the Law perfectly, God would reward them by sending the Messiah to set his people free. So they worked hard to strictly enforce the Law. And it is hard work! There are 613 commands in the Law of Moses; it’s hard enough to remember them all, let alone obey them!
Paul was convinced that this was a dead end. It wasn’t that the Law was a bad idea; it was just that the flesh was so powerful that it made it impossible for people to obey the Law perfectly. You and I have experienced this; we probably experience it every day. We start the day with good intentions, but it doesn’t take us long to mess up. No external Law can make us good; we need internal change for that to happen.
Today there are religious people who forget about that, and become legalists. Some of them are moral legalists: they try to live up to strict standards—usually about sex—and look down on others who don’t measure up. Actually, deep down inside they know they’re not measuring up too, and this terrifies them. Their idea of God is the angry schoolteacher with the big stick, standing over them, waiting to punish them for every single failure. God is a vindictive perfectionist.
Some religious people are ritual legalists. In Paul’s day they were sticklers for circumcision and keeping the sabbath and the food laws and observing all the prescribed rituals of Judaism. And today people can be obsessed with how exactly to follow the church year and the details of liturgy and worship, and neglect the more important parts of the teaching of Jesus.
Let’s step back for a minute. We’ve seen that freedom is what God made us for, but that freedom has been severely impacted by what Paul calls ‘the flesh’—our human propensity to mess things up. Some people try to address this issue through legalism: just give me some commandments to obey, and I’ll work hard, grit my teeth, pull myself up by my own collar, and make myself a better person! ‘Good luck with that!’ says Paul. ‘I tried that, and it didn’t work!’ So what’s the answer?
Paul does two things here: he clarifies the goal, and he tells us how to reach it.
In verses 13-14 he says, ‘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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ This is what we were designed for: to love one another, not just a feeling, but a decision to do good for others, to serve others, to be a blessing to others, whether we feel like it or not, whether they deserve it or not.
This is what we were designed for. A railway train is never more free than when it’s running on tracks. That’s what it was designed for, so in running on tracks it’s being true to its own nature. If the train had free will, it might get frustrated by this and decide to attempt to jump the tracks and run across a field. But as soon as it tried that, we know what would happen! A train wasn’t designed to run across a field. Freedom is doing what you were designed for, living in harmony with the nature God gave you.
So we will find true freedom by giving ourselves to others in love. But the flesh doesn’t like this. The flesh is selfish and self-centred, and we’ve discovered just how strong it is. How do we overcome it? Paul give us the answer: God helps us overcome the power of the flesh by giving us access to a greater power, the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. Look at verses 22-25:
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the one who breathes God’s life into us. In John chapter 3 Jesus tells us that we are born again by water and by the Spirit. We can’t control the Spirit, Jesus says: the wind blows where it will, and that’s the way it is with the Spirit of God. But you can pray for the gift of the Spirit, and God loves to give that gift. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit came on the church with power; Jesus called it being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’. The same experience appears several times in the pages of the book of Acts, and in his letters Paul encourages us to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Jesus says, “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11.13)
So we need to pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we then need to ‘live by the Spirit’. I actually love the way the NIV translates verse 25 of today’s reading: ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ And if we do that, the Holy Spirit will gradually grow in us the fruit of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (vv.22-23).
But he won’t do this by magic. He’ll do it in the school of hard knocks. Let me tell you how this works. You’re driving home from work, and you find yourself stuck in heavy traffic. The flesh gets upset; all those drivers are in my way! How dare they slow me down! So when we live by the flesh, we’re going to get angry and swear at them. We know the Law of Moses doesn’t approve, but the Law’s no help in restraining our bad temper.
So what do we do, as Spirit-filled Christians? We pray that God will fill us with the Holy Spirit and help us be patient, and then we fix our minds on God and take advantage of the opportunity for a bit of enforced leisure time! Maybe the Spirit whispers in our ear, “Hey, you’re always saying you don’t have enough time to pray. Well, you’ve got a few minutes here, and God’s listening!” And as we keep in step with the Spirit, day in and day out, we find the Spirit growing in us his fruit of patience. That’s how it works.
Today we baptize Malachi and Josephine, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will bring them to new birth in the family of God and mark them as God’s children. We pray that the Holy Spirit will fill them and help them grow as followers of Jesus. When they face struggles and difficulties, we pray that the Holy Spirit will guide them and help them become more like Jesus day by day. We pray that the Spirit will teach them that being a Christian isn’t just about obeying rules and hoping we’ve done enough to avoid God’s punishment. The Christian life is about having the breath of God in us, the Spirit of God, the power greater than ourselves and greater than the flesh. In John’s Gospel Jesus breathes on his disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Today, we pray that he will breathe on Malachi and Josephine, not just now, but every day as they grow and learn to follow Jesus.
But what about us? Are we living in that freedom that Jesus promised us? This is the reason we became Christians. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ says Paul in verse 1. So let’s pray every day for the Holy Spirit to fill us. Let’s turn to him for help when we struggle with our human propensity to mess things up. Let’s ask him to grow his fruit in us and then co-operate with him as he answers that prayer. And as we do this we’ll experience a growing sense of true freedom: not freedom to do whatever we want, but freedom to do what we were designed to do—to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. May this be so for you and me as we keep in step with the Spirit.