Lucy often asks me about what it was like when I was her age. She specifically wanted to know about my part-time jobs when I was in school. Like most young people of that era I worked as a paperboy. My last “paperboy” job was standing on the corner of Oxford/Liverpool Streets selling newspapers to drivers on their way to work. I remember the first time I laid eyes on the New Hampshire license plate. I asked my history teacher why this state would choose these words for their slogan. He reminded me that the United States was born as a nation of emancipation (at least for some people; white male landowners) and further that war had led to their independence. Thus “live free or die” was a narrative statement of belief and history.
Canada’s emergence as an independent country was less revolution and more evolution. No war of independence or emancipation was fought, we evolved from colony to country in a slow and steady fashion. Tradition, compromise and pragmatism have been the hallmarks of our nation’s history. But more recently we Canadians have developed a sweet tooth for “freedom” like our neighbours to the south, we have own version with the Charter. While we might not use language like “live free or die” we now would resent and likely strongly oppose any effort to curtail or neutralize any of our freedoms identified in the Charter.
So on this Canada Day Sunday the question that I have for you is this, how does our Christian faith inform our appetite for freedom? What does faith in Jesus have to do with the freedoms afforded to us as citizens of Canada? Our text today is Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 5 verses 13-25. In Galatia, Paul makes it clear-by God's grace we are free, but it's an interesting kind of freedom, a freedom that is not just, "Okay I can do anything I please." Our freedom in faith is framed by a covenant, by a love of God. Freedom is not license. It is freedom to act within the context of a relationship with God, a relationship of love. Paul reminds the people of Galatia that we are called to respond to a loving and graceful God by loving our neighbour as ourselves.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… 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 neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
To be free really means to be liberated from the prison of "me, myself, and I". To be truly free is to be able to move beyond the self and, as one who is wise has put it, to move into the risk of love and to give oneself to the demand of service. To be free is to be free for responsibility, not from responsibility. I think of how Jesus who had everything in the world going for himself-power, status, safety-how he chose, freely chose to empty himself and take on the form of a servant for the sake of the world. Now that is freedom.
The Galatians, all converts from paganism (they never practiced the Law of Moses) were confused by preachers who advocated the adoption of that Law and the practice of circumcision in order to become true Christians. So what should the behavior of Christians in the world be? Should there not be a law to clarify it? Paul responds to this anxiety, “Follow the guidance of the Spirit and you will no longer do what the flesh desires.” “If you are led by the Spirit, you are no longer subject to the Law.” “If we live by the Spirit, let us also follow the guidance of the Spirit.”
Paul knew well the dangers of freedom. Even Christians “bite and devour one another” (5:15), fall prey to conceit and envy, and provoke one another (5:26). Does freedom inevitably destroy community? According to Paul, true freedom is precisely the foundation for community, because it means freedom from sin as well as from law. Community is destroyed not by freedom, but by bondage to the desires of the flesh (5:19-21). True freedom is produced by the Holy Spirit; it is expressed in love for the neighbour and in the joy, peace, patience, etc., which build up the community. Such love is impossible precisely for those held captive by the flesh.
I think this latter point is so important, if we only exercise freedom as an itch to do as we please we lack the purpose or mission for this beautiful gift from God. God does not give us freedom “to do as we please”, we are given this opportunity to find deep within ourselves the connection to something bigger, larger, more compelling than any temptation our minds and hearts can conceive. We know freedom when we meet the purpose for which we were created. In short when we meet our mission, personally and collectively as faith-filled people, we are free to respond and love and share in deep relationship.
I was born in 1963 and for my mother the world of parenting was very different than it had been for her parents. My grandparents had their children in the midst of a depression, a war and the fear of a contagious disease. Life was short, life was fragile and survival as a virtue was prized in a way my generation can never fully appreciate. Thus to get by, to get through, to make ends meet, there needed to be clear rules and expectations, there needed to be dos and don’ts, and everyone had to be on the same page. But in the 1960’s these restraints were no longer necessary and people were asking why we needed to be so resolute and uncompromising and uniform without a war or depression, where people were healthier, wealthier and more aware of the wider world around them.
My mother and father would tell their three sons, “you can be anything you want to be”, “there is no limit to your potential” and “you are special, you are gifted, you are amazing.” We grew up with this mantra and the choices afforded by a middle-class lifestyle, an encouraging family life and the absence of war, poverty and disease gave us the confidence that anything was possible.
But along the way I learned some important lessons. Having the freedom to do anything was a difficult undertaking. The culture of success, popularity and material wealth was everywhere around me. It was a constant temptation to assume the freedom I had been given must somehow lead to these cultural perks.
I was blessed to have had a mother who almost became a missionary, someone with a deep faith and a strong desire to serve. She believed her life was a ministry and she used her freedom to creatively connect her gifts to the needs of the community around her. Hers was not a freedom from responsibility but a freedom for responsibility and none of the impediments, distractions and barriers highlighted by Paul in this letter were going to get in her way. My mother was free, free in Christ to accept the covenantal relationship with her Creator and thus to love as she was loved, to perpetuate and pass on this loving union, free to be all she was meant to be.
I pray all of us live into this freedom, give thanks for this freedom and exercise our freedom for one another. Our nation’s laws call us to respect and honour one another’s freedom. Our faith calls us to live this freedom out as an act of discipleship and relationship, with God, with each other, listening always to the Spirit in love.