The Third Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 8 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 26 June 2022

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 | Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 | Galatians 5:1, 13-25 | Luke 9:51-62

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who sets us free.

“For freedom Christ set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” These are St. Paul’s words to the church in Galatia, and these words are for us too. Christ came to set us free. We serve a liberating God who wants us to get free and to stay free. In God’s dream for us, we are free to move through the world unhindered, in all the glory God gave us, free for love and joy and peace.

Our scriptures are full of liberation stories. God leads God’s people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom by the hands of Moses and Aaron and Miriam. The prophets sing songs of hope for the time when God will liberate God’s people from exile and bring them home. Our God is a God of liberation.

Our God breaks chains over and over again in scripture. Mary sings about this liberating God in the Magnificat. Jesus proclaims that his mission is to bring liberty to the captives and let the oppressed go free. The writer of Revelation imagines a world where all the powers that hold people down will fall into the ocean and are destroyed.

And God’s liberation didn’t stop at the end of the Bible. People working for freedom (people like Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Oscar Romero and Bree Newsome) have called on this God of liberation generation after generation.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. And we look to the saints and heroes of our faith to see people who took that freedom to heart, people who did not submit to a yoke of slavery, people who wouldn’t stop until the promise of freedom was a reality for everyone. We serve a God of freedom, and our faith places us in a legacy of faithful liberators that goes all the way back to Moses.

It is for freedom that Christ set us free. It’s important to remember that truth now, in a time when many freedoms are in question.

There are a lot of different feelings in the room today about the Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday to overturn abortion rights. Many of you knew the world before Roe v. Wade. I didn’t know that world, but I grew up in a religious community where women did not have freedom in reproductive healthcare, and I understand how much it costs in women’s lives to live like that.

Today I’m feeling anger and grief and fear. I want us all to be free, and from where I’m standing, it looks like we just lost a lot of ground on that, and we might lose more. I realize not everyone feels the same, and if you’d like to have a more detailed conversation about how reproductive freedom squares with our faith, I’m here for it. The leadership of the Episcopal Church believes that access to reproductive healthcare is an issue of justice and human dignity.

And I believe that our liberating God wants us to live in a world where the important decision whether or not to bring another beautiful life into this world can be made freely, with care and integrity and good faith. I believe our liberating God wants us to live in a world where just having a uterus doesn’t make me or any of us less free than others.  

It is for freedom that Christ set us free. We serve a God who cannot stand to see any of God’s children trapped, a God who breaks chains over and over again. And yet, religion so often becomes a means of taking away freedom rather than giving it.

Sometimes in Christianity we get caught up in rules about what to do and what not to do, and questions of whether we’re good enough instead of God’s grace. Even worse, we sometimes get stuck on deciding who is in and who is out, and even using faith to control what other people do, instead of to come closer to God ourselves.

Faith can become a powerful tool of oppression when it becomes about controlling people’s bodies, and using that to control whole communities. That’s a big problem with the way Christianity often operates in our national life these days.

And that’s also the exact problem that St. Paul was worried about in Galatia when he wrote the letter we read from today. “It is for freedom that Christ set us free. So stand firm and do not submit to a yoke of slavery,” Paul says. And he says that because of a particular situation that had come up in the early church.

Here’s what had happened. Jesus and all his disciples and the whole first wave of Christians were Jewish. So, there were new things to adapt to and work out as the early church added Jesus’ life and teachings to the rich faith they already had, but people were also kind of comfortable together. And then, the Holy Spirit had to go and give Peter a vision and say that this new faith was open to non-Jews too, open to everybody, and things suddenly got really complicated.

Everybody had different rules about how to eat and who to hang out with and what it meant to be a pure and good person, and so even though they all wanted to follow Jesus, it was hard to figure out how to be in community together and even celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.

So, some people thought that it would be easier if new believers would just convert to Judaism first and then become a Christian, and that way everybody would be on the same page, and you wouldn’t have to worry about the person next to you at the table. For male Christians, the ritual of circumcision would be a symbol of becoming Jewish before coming into Christian community, to make things simpler.

Enter our friend St. Paul with his THOUGHTS. Paul argues that this plan is a complete betrayal of the grace and freedom Jesus offers. He says that Jesus offers salvation freely through his death and resurrection, and so to say that people have to follow a different set of rules first in order to get to Jesus is missing the whole point of the Gospel.

Now I want to be clear that this isn’t about calling Judaism itself a legalistic religion. It isn’t. For Paul, the problem wasn’t with practices like circumcision in themselves—these practices were (and still are) meaningful ways to be close to God within Jewish communities. But context matters. Circumcision became an unnecessary extra rule when some Christians tried to make it a barrier between new believers and Jesus.

So that’s what a lot of Galatians is about: Paul proclaims that our faith is about God’s grace, and not anything we earn or any laws we follow. Paul insists that Christ offers us true freedom, not just new and better rules, not just forgiveness when we break the rules.

Grace is a whole different thing. It’s God inviting us into God’s own love and freedom so that we can be transformed from the inside out. It’s about the Spirit leading us so that we can be the glorious, liberated people God made us to be.

It’s about faith working through love. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

That’s what the verses our reading skips are about. You might have noticed that we go from verse 1 straight to verse 13. And I don’t like the choice to cut out those verses, because it makes it sound like Paul goes straight from “you’re free” to “but wait a minute, let’s be careful with all that freedom.” That’s not the rhythm here. Paul actually takes his time about why freedom is key to the integrity of the Gospel.

The part we skipped includes Paul’s heartfelt plea that the Galatians not get stuck in a faith that’s about following the same rules one part of their community is used to, and not about grace.

The skipped part also includes Paul’s very rude suggestions about what else the pro-circumcision crowd could do with their anatomy while they’re at it, so maybe that’s why the lectionary skipped it. Our friend Paul isn’t always polite company.

Y’all, I’m not always polite company either when I think about all the ways Christianity has been used to control folks, the ways it’s missed our God’s vision of grace and freedom. It’s okay to be angry, and we’re in good company when we’re angry about things like this. St. Paul was.

But after the anger, Paul gets to that vision of grace and freedom. This is something so good and beautiful that it’s worth getting angry about. Yet this good and beautiful vision of freedom is also something that can motivate us more deeply and more sustainably than just anger and fear. This vision is part of how the Spirit leads us onward.

In the rest of our reading, Paul goes on to tell us something about what our freedom looks like. It looks like a world where we don’t bite and devour each other, but we all serve each other willingly and care for each other’s needs. In this kind of freedom no one is alone, and yet no one gets gobbled up in the process of serving others. It looks like a world where love is the vital force behind everything we do.

It looks like a world where we don’t have to tamp down our stress with short term solutions that leave us hurting and hollow, and we don’t have to stake out our turf by being petty with other people.

It is for freedom that Christ set us free. That looks like love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is the vision. This is what it’s like to be free. This is what it’s like to be led by the Spirit.

And just a couple of notes here so that we don’t miss Paul’s point about grace and freedom after all this.

First, the language Paul uses about “the flesh” is a little confusing here. Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” with “the fruit of the Spirit.” What does Paul mean by that? A lot of New Testament scholars have wrestled with it, and we’re not going to figure it all out today. But we can be pretty sure Paul is NOT saying that our bodies are bad or suspicious or leading us astray.

When Paul uses this word for flesh (sarx) scholars think he’s talking about a particular kind of worldly impulse. There’s a totally different word for body (it’s soma), and Paul has other things to say about that, usually positive things. The theologian Paula Gooder has a great book about this.

So, Paul isn’t setting up a contrast here between material wants and impulses that drag us down, and some kind of ethereal spiritual realm that helps us move beyond all that. Let’s be clear that our bodies are a gift from God, and not something we need to be freed from.

The second caution here is that we don’t get stuck in rules mode again about the lists of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit. We might think we just have to figure out what exactly all these vices and virtues mean (and some of the Greek words here are a lot to unpack), and then once we’ve done that, we go about our day and make sure we don’t do the bad ones, and we look for opportunities to do the good ones. And that might be a good idea.

But I don’t think it’s Paul’s point. Remember where we started: “It is for freedom that Christ set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.” Everything else in this part of the letter is about that. So if we make it into another list of rules, we’ve gotten off track.

What these lists of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit can actually do for us is provide two contrasting visions of what our life together could be like.

There’s a life where we bite and devour each other, a life where we haven’t been able to get free from our worst impulses. Paul describes what that life looks like in terms that are familiar to him. We might use different words, and draw on different experiences. But we all know something about that; we’ve all been there ourselves, and we’ve all seen groups trapped in this world where we can’t seem to shake off our fears and aggressions well enough to be decent to each other.

But another kind of life is possible, and we see a vision of that life with the fruit of the Spirit. It’s possible for us to act based on love and not fear. It’s possible for us to find joy and peace when we flourish in who God made us to be. Then we can find patience and kindness and generosity for each other. We can act with integrity. We can find helpful ways to channel our anger. And we know something about this life too; I’ve seen it in action in this community. The fruit of the Spirit show us what it’s like to be free in Christ.

Okay. So where does all that leave us today? What can this freedom mean for us in political uncertainty, in a violent world, in a continuing pandemic, amid all of the frustrations and griefs and hopes we carry with us? What can freedom mean for us at St. Paul’s as we welcome new members and share food with our neighbors and cope with conflicts and dream for our future? If we really believe that it is for freedom that Christ set us free, then what’s our next move?  

It’s easy to revert to the to-do list. We could figure out what rules we need to follow to make the world better or to keep our church strong.

We could make ourselves a great plan for all the good things we want to do. And there’s a place for structure, for sure, and there’s definitely a place for planning out how to act on our faith for good in the world. That’s part of the picture.

But freedom in Christ is so much more than that. The grace Paul defended so fiercely is so much more than that. So, I wonder what would happen if instead of figuring out the rules, we asked the question: “How do we come together and be free?” I wonder how we could help our neighbors be a little more free. And I wonder what would happen if along with doing good stuff for other people, we deeply trusted that God’s liberation is for us too.

Friends, we serve a liberating God who wants us all to be free. This is beautiful, and it’s also difficult. Freedom is uncharted territory, and list of rules might be easier sometimes. For my leadership nerds, this is adaptive change rather than a technical fix, and it’s hard to keep at it. But it’s where the Spirit is leading us. For freedom Christ set us free.  

    So, I wonder what would make you or your neighbors a little bit more free today. Maybe it’s taking time to do something joyful or creative, something that makes you feel like yourself. Maybe it’s releasing someone from an expectation that’s starting to hurt them. Maybe it’s telling a new truth about yourself to someone you trust, or becoming a safe person to come out to. Maybe it’s speaking out for freedom at a protest or a council meeting, or running for office. Maybe it’s setting a boundary with a family or work situation that’s been chipping away at your peace of mind.

It might mean saying no to another volunteer commitment, or it might mean saying yes, depending on where you are. Lots of us need to liberate our calendars from oppression. Some of us would find freedom by taking more breaks from the internet. Maybe we can help each other be free by connecting and celebrating each other’s gifts. Maybe we can use our money for freedom by helping someone find safe housing or get out from under crushing debt.

Liberation is a gift God wants to give to us and to all creation, and it can take many forms. So how might we accept that gift? How can we all move toward freedom together? Maybe there isn’t a simple answer, and sometimes there’s liberation just in expressing hurt or confusion or hope out loud; Holly and I would love to talk with you.

A lot seems overwhelming these days, but maybe there are a few chains we could break right now. None of this is going to magically fix the world. For a lot of us, it’s going to be a long and difficult road toward freedom, and we may not see the outcomes want as soon as we hope.

But friends, we can walk that road together, and we can walk it in confidence that the Spirit leads us. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, even in the midst of trouble. We are God’s flock, and God leads us to liberation through the great waters. It is for freedom that Christ set us free.


Marc Chagall’s Crossing the Red Sea (1955), an iconic scene of God’s liberation