+ ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’
This is the text from Galatians on the Holy Cross ‘welcome statement’ which Vestry has adopted and is on the back of your pew sheet. Paul is speaking to the Christians in Galatia, in modern Turkey, and saying what Christianity is all about – freedom. But what does Christian freedom mean? Many people think Christianity is about restriction, ‘don’t do this’, ‘thou shalt not do that’! What is Christian freedom?
To help us think about this I’d like to ask, what is most important in your life? It’s worth thinking about that. One thing I’ve heard said many times is ‘family comes first’. Does that make sense to you? It is not true for everyone, some families are horrible and some have no family, but for many of us this is true. And it is not just our own families. I can see it in the way I react to news from Ukraine. There are lots of pictures of soldiers getting married to each other on brief rests from the front line, of soldiers’ widows, of old people whose homes have been destroyed and of children made orphans. That these are so harrowing, more so that the simple news that a massive battle on a WW2 scale is happening now in Europe, is, I suspect, because we connect – it could be our family in this situation.
Family is important and is, together with friendship, is central to who we are. But did you notice the theme in todays other readings? The prophet Elijah is told to anoint Elisha as his successor. He finds Elisha ploughing his family farm and throws his cloak over him as a sign he is to succeed him. Elisha understands but says ‘let me first kiss goodbye to my parents and them I will follow you’. In our understanding of a good leader, Elijah should have said, ‘certainly’, but he just says ‘go away’. Not very family friendly.
Then, when we get to Jesus in the Gospel, he is even ruder. Someone wants to follow him in his life as a wandering preacher, but his father has died, so asks to bury him first. It’s a cruel employer who won’t let you go to a parent’s funeral, but Jesus says ‘let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and preach’. That’s outrageous. Jesus often says controversial things but this goes against all normal human values. We remember that he is the man who said, ‘if you don’t hate your father and your mother you can’t be my disciple’. What is he up to? Does this have anything to do with Christian freedom?
Like the parables, I believe these sayings are there to make us think. What is going on in our gospel is that Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’. He’s on his way to die, he knows what’s going to happen, he knows it is for the good of all – and so everything else is secondary. He gives young James and John a good telling off because they want to call down fire on some Samaritans who did not welcome him. If you are heading to the cross to save the world, that is just a distraction from a couple of young hotheads. Jesus is free because he knows exactly what he is doing a puts that first. He is also a model of human freedom to us because he is God, divine as a well as human, and he models God’s freedom in his life.
So, I suspect Jesus’ harsh words about family and bereavement are reminders not to put any human happiness at the centre of your life. It will only fail in the end. If our hearts are fixed on heaven, the things that are above, we are really free. If our centre is there, we are free to really love the things in the world because we are not trying to make them gods. So it is a call to decentre our loves, it is as if he is saying you can only really love someone if you also love God.
To go back to where we started, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’. This freedom is something we have to offer the world. In Galatians Paul has to respond to the complaint that this freedom leads to licentiousness, so he says we should ‘through love become servants to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
Christian freedom is not the freedom to do whatever you want, it is the freedom to love, to do what is right. It is the freedom to go to the Cross for love, if necessary. We can do this if we de-centre our desires, if we centre ourselves on God, on the Spirit. Paul goes on to tell us what it looks like when we do this: ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control… 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.’ This is what the world needs. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’