So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
In last week’s reading from Galatians Paul was saying, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and I was thinking, “Come on, Paul! Couldn’t you wait one more week to say that? Couldn’t you wait until the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, when we are celebrating our independence?” Because that would have been perfect, wouldn’t it? To read that passage on a morning like this one and then preach on freedom? But maybe it’s not too late, because after proclaiming our freedom in Christ Paul warns, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” and that’s something we probably need to talk about.
Last week Frances Twiss gave me a book called The Sewing Room, by an Episcopal priest named Barbara Cawthorne Crafton.[i] It was on my desk on Sunday but I didn’t have a chance to look at it until Monday. I opened it just to see what the writing style was like and on page 31 I read this line, “Nothing was more important than freedom.” “Well, that’s interesting,” I thought. “I was talking about that yesterday.” So I read more, and what Crafton was talking about was that time in American history at the end of the 1960’s when young people in particular were obsessed with freedom and she, as a young mother living in New York City, was trying to teach her eight-month-old daughter about limits.
She wrote: “One summer afternoon I was sewing. I had spread the fabric out on the floor so I could pin the pattern pieces onto it. There were sharp pins and fragile pieces of tissue paper involved, so when my little one began to crawl over the cloth, I picked her up quickly and sat her down on the floor outside its perimeter. ‘No!’ I said, firmly. She sat there for a moment, absorbing the action and the word. Then she opened her mouth and howled. I watched in awe. This was the first time she had experienced a limit. For the whole of her conscious life, I had been all smiles and applause at her all-fours exploration of the world. And now I was saying ‘no,’ and there was an exclamation point at the end of it, and I was stopping her from doing as she wished. This was the very first time it had ever occurred to her that her wish was not the final word to others that it was to her.
“It was an outrage.”
That was in 1969, Crafton explained, when a lot of people were outraged by limits. “Do your own thing” wasn’t just a slogan in those days; it was part of the struggle against oppression. “Oppression of the poor by the rich, of the East by the West, of the black by the white, of the woman by the man. The overthrow of self-control was also a part of this struggle. The use of mind-altering substances was a statement of personal alliance with the worldwide movement toward liberation. So was the resolute avoidance of a commitment to sexual fidelity. So was a contempt for the business world.
“Nothing was more important than freedom,” she writes. “It was understood to be freedom from restraint. It was freedom from, not freedom to. Freedom to what? It wasn’t always very clear. And when the cost of that freedom began to be apparent, when people began to go crazy and die from doing drugs, when people owned up to the loneliness of their rootlessness and promiscuity, the scaffolding that supported that behavior collapsed. And never arose. You would have a hard time finding someone today who would argue that drugs are a way to a higher consciousness that could transform the world. Or that self-knowledge and self-love are enhanced by sleeping with a lot of different people. But many people thought so then.”[ii]
When I read those lines last week I could almost hear Paul saying, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” But that’s what a lot of people were doing in the late sixties. Sometimes when I hear people trying to compare these days with any other era in American history they end up comparing it to those days: when the war in Vietnam was matched by vocal protests at home; when young people were “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out,” as Timothy Leary advised; when Martin Luther King was assassinated and Black America sent up a howl of grief and rage. Those were tense times, times when we did not seem to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Some people compare those times to these times, and although the circumstances are different I wonder how much of it comes from the fact that we have used our freedom for self-indulgence? It’s not sex and drugs these days so much as it is a love affair with our own opinions and contempt for anyone who disagrees with us. We wallow in our individual rights and dare anyone—sometimes at gunpoint—to take them away from us.
“Don’t do that,” Paul would say. “Don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence but through love become enslaved to one another.” And that sounds contradictory. “Wait, Paul. You want us to use our freedom to become slaves? How does that even work?” “Well,” he might say, “you stop listening to the selfish demands of the flesh and start listening for the whispered voice of the Spirit. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. One way will lead you down the road to ruin but the other way will lead you to eternal life.” So, if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, we will need to learn how to follow the Spirit, not only in that moment when we are set free from the law, but also in everyday life. How will we do that?
Often in Paul’s letters there are several chapters of theological instruction, because these are new Christians he’s writing to: they’re still learning what it means to follow Jesus. But then he concludes his letters with a chapter or two of ethical exhortation: that is, he not only tells these new Christians what to believe, he tells them how to behave. His letter to the Galatians is a good example. In chapter 5 he writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence but through love become enslaved to one another.” You can see that he’s already turning from theological instruction to ethical exhortation, and then, in chapter 6, he gives some examples:
- In verse 1 he writes, “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Did you hear that? This is how people who are led by the Spirit behave. They don’t judge or condemn, they don’t point fingers and wag their heads; they seek to restore their brothers and sisters, and they do it gently. “But be careful that you yourselves are not tempted,” Paul adds. It’s like when someone falls through the ice. You want to make sure that in pulling them out you don’t fall in, too. It’s the same when someone falls into sin.
- In verse 2 Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” I don’t know if you caught it, but Paul, the one who is celebrating his freedom from the Law of Moses, is now talking about fulfilling the law of Jesus, and the law of Jesus is simple: it’s the Law of Love. So that when you see a brother or sister struggling under a heavy load you say, “What if that were me?” You love them enough to help them carry it.
- In verses 3-5 Paul talks about doing our own work and carrying our own loads with humility, not pointing out the faults in other people’s work, and not whining about the loads we have to carry. It’s interesting to me that the same one who said we should bear one another’s burdens now instructs us to bear our own. Yes. Until we can’t do it anymore, until we begin to stagger under the weight. Then we will need some help, and if it works the way it’s supposed to some of those same brothers and sisters we have helped along the way will help us.
- In verse 6 Paul continues, “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher,” and I don’t think that needs much explanation. It might need some appreciation, and this might be a good time for me to say to you thank you for providing for my material needs so that I can spend my time studying the word in order to share it with you. Thank you.
- In verses 7-9 Paul writes, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked; for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh you will reap corruption from the flesh, but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” Maybe you could think of it like this: How are you using your time? To indulge the flesh or to follow the Spirit? If you thought of minutes as seeds that you could scatter in one kind of soil or another, where are you scattering them? What’s coming up? And when the time for harvest comes, what will you reap?
- And finally, in verse 10, Paul writes, “So then, whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially those of the family of faith.” Especially the family of faith, he says, but not only the family of faith. Our freedom in Christ has set us free from the kind of divisions that turn the world into us and them. From now on we can look at others—all others—as people who are made in the image of God, and for that reason we can treat them like family.
For some time now, and not only as I’ve contemplated this sermon series, I’ve been wondering why Christians couldn’t simply be the best people we know, the best people anyone knows, the kind of people you would want to move in next door. It’s not always like that, is it?
- Christians can be judgmental to the point that their neighbors no longer feel free to enjoy a cold beer on the back deck at the end of a long day, knowing that the Christians might be over there peeking through the blinds, casting judgment.
- Christians can also be so sweet that nobody wants them to move in next door. We used to call this “saccharine sweet.” Saccharin was the first of the artificial sweeteners, before Splenda or Equal, and that’s what we meant: that it was the kind of sweetness that seemed artificial. I don’t think anybody wants that kind of neighbor either.
- But, worse than that, Christians can keep completely to themselves, not even bothering to get to know their neighbors. I’ve been saying for years now that instead of trying to “reach” our neighbors here in the Fan we should just try to love them, but I’ve also said that we can’t love what we don’t know. We begin to love our neighbors by getting to know them.
That seems unusually relevant in my case because right now, even as I speak, I have some new neighbors moving in next door. I stopped to talk to one of them yesterday as he was carrying empty cardboard boxes out of the house. I said, “Hey, I’m Jim. I’m your next door neighbor!” We talked for a few minutes and found out that we have a lot of things in common, including two grown daughters who live in Richmond, and then I said goodbye and let him get back to his recycling. But now he knows: he knows his next-door neighbor is named Jim. And he may be watching me to see what kind of neighbor I am.
There’s a well-known quote from Tertullian, a North African Christian from the Second Century AD, who described the customs of the early church, the church we are trying to learn from as we build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of. Tertullian marveled at the way they “supported and buried poor people, and supplied the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and cared for old persons now confined to the house.” In other words they cared for the poor, the orphaned, and the elderly. And they cared for one another so beautifully, so selflessly, that their pagan neighbors exclaimed, “See how these Christians love one another!”[iii] I don’t hear many people saying that about Christians today. But they could. Why can’t we be the best people anybody knows? Why can’t we learn to follow the whispered voice of the Spirit instead of the urgent demands of the flesh? Why can’t we open our hearts to the hearts of others, and open our minds to different points of view, and open our hands to those in need, and make our feet swift to share the Good News? Why can’t I live in such a way that the guy next door would say, “That Jim Somerville is the best neighbor I’ve ever had, except for his wife, Christy: she’s even better.”
If we’re going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we will need to build it like that. We will need to use our freedom not for self-indulgence, but through love to become servants to one another. So that we develop this kind of reputation in the world. So that our neighbors and people we don’t even know will say, “See how those Christians love one another! See how they love all kinds of others. See how they love us!”
Yes. That’s the kind of church I want to be part of. How about you?
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, The Sewing Room (New York: Viking, 1993).
[ii] Ibid., pp. 30-32.
[iii] Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 39.