There is a good feeling we get when we find freedom, isn’t there?
The capacity to move as we’re meant to move, to be as we’re meant to be, to learn and grow and love as the deepest parts of us know we need to.
Yeah, a free person shines like the stardust we’re made out of, like the lights that we are.
But woah, it’s hard to get there and stay there, isn’t it?
Real talk – how many of you had fun a minute ago?
OK, and how many of you were like: what is happening?
Do I have to get up? Do I have to move? Who’s looking at me? What in the world is Steve doing?
Don’t worry, it was my idea and I was thinking every one of those things. Everyone, don’t worry.
Yeah, we have a lot of resistance to freedom. We want to not be constrained by conventions that don’t suit us. But man, we also don’t want to be that weird person who’s unconventional.
We want to dare to live by our deepest convictions, to flow in the world in consonance with our deepest truths and hopes, but can we? Is it safe? Is it normal? Will it work?
Freedom and resistance – resistance to our own freedom, sometimes resistance to others’ freedom – tend to show up together.
Freedom also isn’t just following every one of our instincts without impediment. Freedom is nuanced. Freedom lives within constraint. With great freedom comes great responsibility, they say. It’s true.
But freedom is really important to us and our flourishing. It’s important to God too. And it’s important to this community you’re in right now.
This month, in our We Are Reservoir series, we’re preaching through our five core values – Connection last week, Everyone, Humility, and Action yet to come. And freedom is up this week.
Here’s how we defined this years ago when we changed our name to Reservoir Church.
We encourage honest exploration of faith over conformity of belief or behavior, trusting that the Holy Spirit reveals truth to all who seek God.
This is a really important value of this community. I think it’s a really important value of Jesus’ whole Beloved Community, what Jesus, in his teaching, called the
the family or the commonwealth of God.
And I think all of us don’t just prize whatever freedom we have, we’re kind of longing for more liberation, yearning to be more free.
So today, we take a glance, from a Jesus-centered perspective, about what freedom is or isn’t and how we get there.
Here’s our text, from one of the earlier letters in the New Testament, written by Paul of Tarsus to the little house churches in Galatia, a region of the Roman Empire that’s now part of Turkey.
It’s kind of the climax of the whole letter. Here we go.
Galatians 5:1-14 (Common English Bible)
5 1 Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.
2 Look, I, Paul, am telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, having Christ won’t help you.
3 Again I swear to every man who has himself circumcised that he is required to do the whole Law.
4 You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace!
5 We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith.
6 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.
7 You were running well—who stopped you from obeying the truth?
8 This line of reasoning doesn’t come from the one who calls you.
9 A little yeast works through the whole lump of dough.
10 I’m convinced about you in the Lord that you won’t think any other way. But the one who is confusing you will pay the penalty, whoever that may be.
11 Brothers and sisters, if I’m still preaching circumcision, why am I still being harassed? In that case, the offense of the cross would be canceled.
12 I wish that the ones who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!
13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.
14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.
You don’t have to, but I want us to remember this line I’m about to say, so if you’re willing can you say this line with me, say it after me:
“For freedom Christ has set us free.”
Here’s what’s going on.
A number of people in this region have heard about the way of Jesus, and they are in. Listening to the words and stories of Jesus before they were even written down. They were learning to worship and trust the God Jesus loved, pray as Jesus taught us to pray, live in love and live by faith the way Jesus taught us and showed us.
And then some people told them:
They were like:
there are customs. There are rules. There’s a whole tradition you need to uphold, to fall in line with to be Christian.
Maybe these were visiting teachers from another church, maybe members of their community that had picked up these ideas, maybe their own local pastor, we don’t know.
But we know that one of the customs, one of the rules, he/they were insisting upon was male circumcision. Male Jews had their foreskins of their penis removed at birth or conversion – it had been so for centuries. It was so for Jesus. It was so for Paul.
And these teachers were like:
you need to do this too. It’s part of the system. You want to be Christian, you want to follow the way of Jesus, getting circumcised, or getting your son or husband or boyfriend or whoever to get circumcised, is one of the things you have to do.
Now I mean, I hate, I hate the way some Christians talk about this text. They call these teachers the Judaizers and act like having Gentiles pick up a few Jewish customs would be this awful thing. It sounds totally anti-semitic to me, and I’m not having that.
And on the surface, it’s no big deal, I would think. I mean what’s wrong with a few rules? Nothing. What’s wrong with giving respect to the ancient faith tradition from which Jesus himself came? That seems beautiful to me, even if it were to involve a painful medical procedure for the men. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Who cares?
Well, Paul, one of the people who ended up writing bits of our Bible cared, and he cared a lot! He himself is Jewish. He loves his culture, his ancestry, the faith from which he came – he’s proud of it. But these teachers of the rules and customs required for belonging, they anger him. He’s like:
brothers, if you want to circumcise these folks, you ought to go ahead and castrate yourselves instead.
Not polite words.
Here’s my take on this.
I think what’s at stake is not at all about Jewish or not Jewish, not at all about rules or no rules. We all need some rules to live by, after all. No, here what’s at stake is at the heart of what God wants for us in Jesus. What’s at stake is freedom.
Jesus set you free so you can keep getting more free. For freedom Christ has set you free.
But we keep putting yourselves in prison, and that is a tragedy.
I want to talk about two sets of ways we tend to imprison ourselves, that Paul uses as sort of the opposites of the freedom for which Christ set us free, OK?
They’re the imprisonment of tower, and the imprisonment of field.
Now this whole prison/slavery language… it’s hard, it’s loaded.
We’re in a country whose real practices of slavery and imprisonment have been brutal and violent and racist, physical horrors we need deliverance from. So we can’t use language like this casually.
On the slavery front, the same was true in Paul’s Roman empire, for what it’s worth – common and brutal and violent then. Some of the members of the Galatian house churches were slaves, and it was awful.
So I don’t think Paul used slavery as a metaphor casually. He was trying to convey the desperate violence and entrapment of all the ways we fail to walk in freedom, saying we need deliverance from the literal imprisonment and enslavement of humans by humans, and we also need deliverance from the metaphorical, internal imprisonment and enslavement of persons by the systems we swim in and by ourselves as well.
So there’s the metaphor. Let’s talk about our two big opposites of the freedom for which Jesus has set us free.
So the first I’m calling the Prison of Tower.
The prison of tower is the need to be correct, stable, and secure. It’s the belief that you’ve got to always be right and better than.
It’s often, the prison of tower, born out of insecurity or pride or both. The idea is: mark out your territory, your safe zone, build your tower, your fortress of superiority and protection, and the resist and judge everyone outside.
For Paul’s opponents, they were like: morally, religiously, spiritually, this is a dangerous world. There are the Romans and the Pagans and the Persians and all kinds of people and beliefs and cultures and customs in the world, and they’re not good. They’re not true.
Uphold the customs, follow the rules – circumcision included – that set you apart, that make you right and pure and pleasing to God. This will protect you, protect you from assimilation, protect you from the displeasure of God and the judgment of your community.
But Paul’s like,
this is not the point of the way of Jesus. Faith in Jesus is not a better moral system to set you apart from the world or make you better than anyone else.
Faith in Jesus is walking with Jesus in a relationship of trust, not a code of certainties.
Faith in Jesus is a living, breathing relationship with the Spirit of God that leads you into right ways in all circumstances.
Faith in Jesus is grace, the gift of knowing you’re loved by God, you’re a child of God, that God is always with you, never giving up on you, and can always guide you into greater goodness, greater joy, greater truth, greater freedom.
Prison of tower still shows up in religious rigidity and superiority. When people say believe the codes we’ve taught you, obey the Bible the way we read it, follow the rules the way we teach them, and you will please God, you will be well, that’s an insecure prison tower. It claims righteousness and honor and safety and superiority, but it’s just smug superiority.
Nationalism is the same. Loving your culture or your country because it’s home and it’s meaningful to you, that kind of pride is cool if you’ve got it. But confidence that your country or your culture are the best, the chosen, the ones deserving the most power or wealth, that’s prison of tower again – pride that builds walls and props up our little egos, but doesn’t bring us or our communities freedom.
Put these two together with religious nationalism, in this country, Christian nationalism, and you’ve got a doubly toxic idolatry, claiming God’s backing and favor for our own petty, selfish, violent project. Paul’s like:
curse that kind of attitude. It will estrange you from Christ, lead you away from God It’s no good.
Now friends here at Reservoir, some of us have left prisons of tower. We were once part of Christian cultures, churches, ways of doing faith that we now see as fence-building, wall-building, narrow, rigid, smug, or judgmental. In our honest exploration of faith, we’ve walked away from conformity of belief or behavior. Maybe we believe the Holy Spirit is revealing some truth to us as we seek God.
I believe that the Spirit of God has been revealing truth to this church, for instance, about inclusion, about good fruit in our lived experience as an important litmus test for healthy, liberating faith. I celebrate the paths of change and renewal going on here and in other places in the Body of Christ.
But if we’ve left behind prisons of tower. Or if we’re offended, scandalized, angry about other systems of tower we maybe were never part of, I think we’re encouraged to two things, though.
One, spend our energy on our own journey of love, faithfulness, and freedom. Don’t get caught up judging the places we come from, or the tower-making, fear driven projects we were never part of.
Once on Twitter, I made a comment about the really bad behavior and imprisoning tower thinking of some American Christians. And the phrase I used was “so-called Christians.” And one of you messaged me, and you were like:
Steve, that so-called Christians language is smug and judgy, and you’re better than that, and our church is better than that too.
And I was like:
thank you. You are right. And I try not to do that. Judge not, lest you be judged.
And then two, don’t trade one tower for another.Don’t trade white supremacist Christian nationalism for rigidity or fundamentalism in more liberal convictions, for instance. Speak your truth, live by your convictions, follow the way you believe God is leading, but stay generous, stay loving. Be curious, not judgmental, you know.
And don’t trade religious rigidity for rigidity about your diet or exercise or politics or whatever. It’s good to have convictions, it can be great to have rules to live by – I have mine. But don’t make the rules with the truth, your way in this moment with the way. None of us ever sees all truth. None of us has a God’s eye, complete perspective. We all see in part. We all live by grace. We all find our freedom best when we stay humble too, when we seek to live in love.
Alright, so that’s the prison of tower. I’ll be briefer here, so I can wrap up, but Paul also contrasts the freedom for which we’ve been set free with another prison, what I’ll call Prison of Field.
I made up this phrase, prison of field, but here’s what I mean by it. Unlike the tower – this fortress of rules and custom and superiority and pride that hides our insecurities, prison of field is like you see the whole field, you see everything you don’t have, and you need it all.
Prison of field is the need to have new and more and better people, experiences, and wealth. It’s like being a good American consumer – I want that, so I’m gonna get it.
It can be born of lack. Like I’ve had so little, so now I’m going to get what’s mine. Or it can be born of entitlement, like I deserve all that.
Prison of field is thinking: I’ll be happy when….
I’ll be happy when I have more money or better stuff.
I’ll be happy when I have a new or better job or lover or house.
I’ll be happy when I’m not sick anymore.
Or even I’ll be happy when my kids are happy, or when my kids have no problems, or when they achieve this or that. I call that notion in myself the idolatry of the perfect child.
It’s not fair to you or your kids and doesn’t bring us freedom.
Paul says don’t let your freedom in Christ
– your I’m beloved, God is with me no matter what –
don’t let that be an opportunity to be all about your own selfish impulses.
Instead, serve one another in love. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Pursue the well being of friend and stranger and enemy as you pursue your own and then you’ll stay free.
Because we’re not free when we’re living by compulsion, when we’re imprisoned by the endless discontentment and hunger for more that all the marketers want us to have.
And we’re not free when we all can’t get free together.
When my consumption hurts your land, when my need for a new and better phone every two years piles up toxic trash in your backyard, we’re not free. When my ungoverned appetites for food or sex or whatever subject other creatures to my violence or my lustful gaze, then we’re not free. When my never quite enough feeling means I can’t ever commit to a person or a place or a calling, then I’m not free, right?
For freedom Christ has set us free.
Wherever the Spirit of God is, there is ever-increasing freedom.
Friends, with all its flaws, best as we’re able, we’ve grown this church to be a place where conformity of behavior or belief is not expected. We’ve grown this church to be a community that encourages us all to honestly explore God and goodness and faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit reveals truth to all who seek God.
And Jesus has lived and died and lived again to set you free. To call you a child of God. And to inspire and guide you toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against these things there is no law.
Don’t settle for prison of tower or prison of field.
Walk with God, listen to the Spirit, live by faith, and love, joy, and peace will be yours.