“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Martin Luther once wrote that “the whole Scripture of God is divided into two parts: rules and promises.”  By this, he meant, at one level, the division between the Old and New Testaments: the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, if I can put it that way.  And while that may be a simplistic way of looking at the Scriptures, it bears some resemblance to the outlook of Saint Paul when he was writing to the new Christian Jews in Galatia, some of whom were demanding adherence to Jewish law, including circumcision.

Paul (and Luther after him) believed that rules – like the requirement of circumcision - had served their purpose by pointing God’s children toward his promises from generation to generation.  But with the death and resurrection of Jesus the dawning era of promises-fulfilled became plain.  And Jesus had only one rule: love one another as I have loved you.

For Paul each and every other rule was wiped off the slate by the pronunciation of the law of love in Jesus Christ.  And to continue to spend time and energy following the old rules could only ever be a distraction from learning how better to live the law of love, and a hindrance to drawing more people into the expanding circle of God’s promise.

Freedom, in this context, was freedom not from some foreign power but from a self-imposed slavery of doing things: keeping the right feasts, avoiding the wrong foods, and the insistence on male circumcision.  These were all fine and well in their time, when they kept a good Jew’s heart pointed toward the earthly Jerusalem.  “But the Jerusalem above is free,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “and she is our mother….  For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

No one had been better (in his own humble estimation) at keeping the rules than Paul had been.  No one had had his heart set more firmly, so to speak, on the earthly Jerusalem and all that it meant to live as a Jew in God’s promised land.  And no one worked harder to enforce those rules than Paul did, making a name for himself, before his conversion, as a persecutor of Christians, who quite clearly were not following the rules.

All of which might begin to suggest that Paul was something of a libertarian encouraging people to live and let live.  But this he was not.  He was convinced however that it meant something different to live in the midst of promises-fulfilled than in the midst of a system of rules.  And this difference he was determined to work out and to teach, because freedom matters.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever known captivity – which Paul knew was a part of the heritage of every Jew.  Others might take freedom for granted, but not those who have lived under the yoke of slavery.  In Egypt the Jews had been enslaved to Pharoah.  In Babylon they had lived in enforced exile.  And in their slavery, in their exile, they had kept the rules as best they could.  Kept the rules to keep their hearts pointed toward home: toward Jerusalem.

And in Jerusalem the promises of freedom were born when Jesus set his face toward that city and the drama of God’s promised salvation unfolded.

Jesus himself had been somewhat famously loose with the rules.  He had not come to abolish them, he said, but to fulfill them.  In him, every rule was transposed into a promise: a trick every child knows seems impossible.  Because in Christ the horizon shifted from the possibilities on the ground in Jerusalem – possibilities that would be especially disastrous for him – to the possibilities in the heart of God, in what Saint Paul calls “the Jerusalem above.”

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.  Paul sees how likely we are to take slavery on ourselves.  And in some sense it is just this that Paul is trying to teach the Galatians to avoid: the yoke of slavery that dims the promises of the Jerusalem above.  

It’s not that the rules are bad in themselves, it’s just that they keep us rooted in doing this or not doing that.  These were the rules that allowed, even encouraged, a priest and a Levite (holy men!) to pass by the bleeding body of man on the side of the road, leaving him to be cared for by a Samaritan (who, by the way, the rules encouraged us to think pretty little of).  These are the rules that would have prevented Jesus from eating with sinners and with tax collectors – that would have prevented the physician from visiting his patients.  These were the rules that threatened to obscure the promised freedom of new life that had been gained for all people by Jesus when he conquered death.  And if the rules got in the way of the promise then clearly the rules would have to go.

Today very few of us stand in danger of obscuring the promise of new life in Christ because of our adherence to kosher laws.  But today we are just as likely to submit to a slavery of our own choosing as were those early Christian Jews in Galatia to whom Paul wrote.

Today we readily embrace the laws of the marketplace, for instance, following rules that are designed to make us good consumers.  These insidious rules allow us to feel good about everything we have thanks to the global village, while we pass by the bloodied bodies of our neighbors in that village, far over on the other side of the road.  We have become expert in our slavery to these rules at waiting for some good Samaritan to come along in our wake.

Or in another manifestation of the phenomenon of our willing submission to slavery, we see how terror tempts us to protect ourselves with more and more layers of rules, making terrorism a doubly effective weapon since it also threatens to shut out the law of love.  We can feel the grip of these rules tightening even now, in the uncertainty of threats in Britain, and it is our own hands tightening the grip.

And just days before we celebrate our independence as a nation, as we prepare to revel in our freedom, don’t we have to wonder if we are really free?

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Like so much else about Christian faith, we have to learn the paradox of freedom.  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  This is that profound lesson that the Prayer Book puts so concisely when we say that service to God is “perfect freedom.”

For freedom Christ has set us free!  This is not some libertarian manifesto, rather it is a declaration of promises and a shout for joy that free people can live differently than those enslaved by rules.  Love teaches us to live freely.  The rules said we had to avoid that bleeding man in the street (which was a good thing because we wanted to avoid him anyway!)  But the law of love compels us to go to him and bind up his wounds, and to discover as we go that by doing it freely we are changed because we are living not by the rules but by the promise.

Freedom matters to us because we know that it is just as disastrous to be slaves or our own selfishness as it is to be slaves to a foreign power.

Freedom matters because it teaches us how to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh.  Ask any recovering addict how much this freedom matters – or ask someone who is reaching for recovery and struggling to get there.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever been enslaved – which is most of us.  Slavery shuts out love – whether it’s old-fashioned economic slavery, or addiction to a substance, or the relentless slavery of economic rationalism, or the slavery to fear that terrorism tries to instill.  Slavery shuts out love.

Slavery whispers rules into our hearts that we can often spell with two words that are the enemies of love: Keep Out!

Slavery clouds our vision so that we can hardly see the promises.  

Slavery has built a Jerusalem of warfare, violence and bloodshed where the grip of ever tightening rules threatens never to know peace.

Freedom matters to anyone who has ever prayed for the peace of Jerusalem – or peace anywhere in the world.

Freedom begets love – overcoming our worst tendencies to use and abuse one another.

Freedom whispers promises in our ears that make things possible that the rules could never have allowed, spelled out in words of welcome.

Freedom opens our eyes to see the promise that love holds out for us.

And freedom is born of the Jerusalem above who is our mother, and who begs to know – if we want to sing about freedom at this rather awful moment in history – what kind of children we shall be.

Pray, God, make us truly free!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
1 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia

Posted on July 1, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.