Set Free in Love Pentecost 3C/Proper 8 (Galatians 5)

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

13 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 enslaved to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21  envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.



                In just over a week from now, the United States will celebrate Independence Day for the 246th time. Many of us are concerned about how the freedom we celebrate is understood. Freedom seems to be defined in very self-centered ways. People wave a “don’t tread on me” flag even as they tread on the freedoms and rights of others. We hear people demand freedom of religion even as they limit the religious freedoms of their neighbors. We see this reality being played out, for instance, concerning the responses of some Christians to their LGBTQ neighbors, many of whom are Christians. There are a whole host of other concerns from immigration to racial reconciliation, gender issues, and more. In other words, freedom is all about me and my rights. But is this the way of Jesus? Is this how Paul understood freedom?

                When Paul talks about freedom in Galatians 5, he has in the back of his mind God’s liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Freedom is a gift of God, so don’t take it for granted. Don’t put yourself in a position where you will again become slaves. In this context, Paul is concerned about the problem of becoming enslaved to the flesh, which involves self-indulgence. Rather, become slaves or servants of one another. The key to freedom in this context is the law of love. If love is the key, then freedom will not devolve into self-indulgence. Instead, to be free in Christ is to place ourselves at the disposal of others. Now, this doesn’t mean becoming a doormat, which is why we must be careful in how we interpret this word from Paul. Over the last several decades we have learned how messages like this can be used and have been used to suppress women and people of color. For some reason, many men, especially white men, don’t see this word applying to us. Yet, Paul doesn’t make exceptions for white men or men in general. While Paul writes from within a patriarchal context, we don’t have to apply passages like this in patriarchal ways.

                Central to the conversation in Galatians is Paul’s response to those who insisted that Gentile converts should be circumcised. While Paul sought to bring Jewish and Gentile believers into one unified community, he rejected the claims of those who claimed to represent the views of James and the Jerusalem church. While circumcision isn’t central to this passage it does stand in the background, especially when he speaks here of freedom from slavery to the requirement of circumcision. That is not, of course, an issue for most modern Christians, but other issues can create bondage. So, the question here concerns the nature of our freedom in Christ and how we exercise that freedom.   To be truly free is not to indulge the self but act out of love to embrace and empower the other.

                The principal concern here for Paul is interpersonal relationships within the community. With the debate over circumcision hanging over the church, Paul is focused here on the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians as they struggle to figure out how to live together in this new community of believers. It is good to remember that the Jesus movement is no more than twenty years old at this point.

While he speaks of our freedom in Christ, he puts that freedom in the context of the law of love, such that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is a command derived from Leviticus 19:18 and reframed by Jesus in the Gospels (Luke 10:27). Paul doesn’t mention the first command, the Shema, which calls on God’s people to love God with their entire being (Deut. 6:5; Lk 10:27). If, on the other hand, they continue to act in ways with malice, biting and devouring one another, then they are abusing their freedom in Christ. If they do this, then the future of the community is in doubt. Again, we hear a word that needs to be heard in this moment of division and polarization. We seem to not have learned the lesson Paul was trying to teach to the Galatians.

                The answer to their problem is found in living by the Spirit rather than the flesh. By this Paul is not contrasting an immaterial versus material existence. The flesh here is not the same as the body. Paul is not offering a docetic message in which the body/physical is evil. For Paul, the flesh is an orientation that is rooted in self-indulgence, while to live by the Spirit is to live according to the way of Jesus. In Paul’s mind, the Law might have a degree of value, but the Law is not a sufficient safeguard against the way of the flesh. However, if we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, then we won’t stray from the way of Jesus. That is why Paul calls on the people of God to live by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16).

                As Paul lays out his understanding of freedom in the Spirit, he contrasts the two paths with a list of vices and the famed fruit of the Spirit. The first list describes the kind of behaviors that express the way of the flesh. Paul suggests that the vices he lists should be obvious to us: “sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” So, do you recognize yourself in any of these qualities, which if indulged, means you won’t inherit the realm of God. Our relationship with God may be rooted in divine grace, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. Interestingly, it’s easier to emphasize the undesirability of “sexual immorality” than anger, quarrels, and things like that. 

                After Paul gives us this list of vices, which represent the way of the flesh or Sin with a capital S, he turns to the fruit of the Spirit. While Paul is of the contrast between flesh and Spirit in cosmic terms, flesh and Spirit ultimately are reflected in certain behaviors. When he speaks of flesh he’s not thinking of the physical nature, but an orientation that leads to spiritual death and produces division and factionalism in the community of faith. Thus, while the list is long, the reference to anger and quarrels really gets to the heart of the issue here. You might say that Paul is thinking here in terms of teams. Are you part of the flesh team or the Spirit team? 

                We’ve seen Paul’s list of vices that reflect the flesh, but now we turn to the fruit of the Spirit (note that these are not to be confused with the gifts, which, according to 1 Corinthians 12, differ according to God’s choice). Thus, life in the Spirit is expressed through this fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” When it comes to the fruit of the Spirit (note the singular fruit), we are expected to embody all of the fruit. It’s not enough to be generous, if we do not have love, or to show self-control without also being joyful.

Brad Braxton notes that when it comes to these two sets of contrasting behaviors, each impacts the community, such that these behaviors “either destroy or edify the community. Generally, the works of the flesh destroy unity and community while the fruit of the Spirit promotes communal wellbeing” (Connections, p. 116). Again, while we tend to think in individualistic terms, Paul is thinking communally. In other words, Paul is thinking in terms of the social implications of the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit. So, when we think of salvation, we should think in terms of community not just individuals.

                As the passage concludes Paul brings to bear the cross. He calls on the readers (including us) who are in Christ to crucify the passions and desires of the flesh. Yes, place the way of the flesh on the cross, let it die so that we might live in the Spirit. To live by the Spirit, to be guided by the Spirit is to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. And, as Paul declares, there is no law against the fruit. So, let us live by the Spirit as followers of Jesus, the crucified one, and to do that is to follow the law of love.


Image Attribution: Fichter, David. Potluck Mural, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved June 18, 2022]. Original source: - L. Sabato.


Anonymous said…
Very helpful.

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