"Bound By Freedom"
Scripture: Galatians 5:1,13-26


I took a number of different philosophy courses when I was in college. I enjoyed philosophy because I like the challenge of thinking about big ideas that don’t have any obvious resolution. I also thoroughly dislike philosophy… Because all that philosophy does is challenge you to think about big ideas that don’t have any obvious resolution.

Early on in my study of philosophy, I was introduced to the idea of a paradox. I imagine that most of you are familiar with paradoxes, but just in case you need a refresher, my good friend Merriam-Webster defines a paradox as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense, and yet is perhaps true.” It can also be “an argument that reaches self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises.” Sound confusing? If so, I’m not too surprised – after all, it is philosophy. Let me give you a few examples:
The Socratic Paradox is attributed to Socrates, and states, “I know one thing – that is, that I know nothing.”
Another paradox, called the Omnipotence Paradox, asks this question: “Can an omnipotent being create a rock that is too heavy for itself to lift?”
And then there is my personal favorite paradoxical question: “What happens if Pinocchio says, ‘My nose will now grow’?

You know… I probably should have used this illustration later on, because now all of you will be thinking about Pinocchio’s nose rather than listening to the rest of the sermon. Oh well.

Paradoxes are a fun thought exercise, so long as they don’t really impact the way that you live your life or understand the world around you. They’re not quite as much fun if there is actually something at stake in them.

For an example of a paradox that I really wish was more clear, I have to look no further than the Galatians passage that we just heard. In verse 13, Paul says, “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.” In other words, to become truly free, we must become bound to one another.

Freedom Bound

Well, thanks a lot for that, Paul! He’s always so helpful, isn’t he?

Paul’s advice to the Galatians, that they take up an attitude of mutual slavery and become servants to one another, would have sounded bizarre, and possibly even quite offensive, to his Greek audience. The cultural ideal at that time was to “attain a position of autonomous detachment” from other people.[1] A Greek philosopher named Epictetus, who was contemporary to Paul’s time, wrote about freedom. He wrote:

His is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end, whose aversions do not fall into what they would avoid.[2]

As I read that, I was struck by how familiar that definition of freedom seemed. Would our definition today be much different from that of Epictetus two-thousand years ago? I don’t think it would.

We tend to think that freedom means “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want to.” We confuse the idea of freedom with license. License means that you don’t take the needs of anybody else into consideration, so you have no qualms about doing whatever it is that you desire at the moment. We tell ourselves that it’s okay to act on impulse so long as we’re not hurting anybody else. “No harm, no foul,” right?

But what we tend forget is that all of our actions and choices have consequences, and acting out of self-indulgence is very rarely harmless to ourselves or others. Living out the freedom that our culture makes us feel entitled to inevitably leads to using others for one’s own ends, while the sinful self is never quite satisfied and always left unfulfilled. Freedom understood as license leads us down a downward spiral of damage to ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities. It leads to the things that Paul calls “Works of the Flesh,” and they are detrimental to joy and love. They are actions and attitudes that are not life-giving or life-affirming.

Paul sees that the Galatians are misunderstanding what is meant by Christian freedom. So he proposes an entirely new understanding of freedom. Freedom in Christ, Paul tells us, is not freedom in and of itself to be used however one may please, but rather freedom from the Law and from sin, and freedom for service to others. In Christ, we are freed from the Law so that we can choose to be bound to one another through love.

Freedom To Love

According to Paul, the true meaning of “freedom” is found in the ability to choose to give yourself in loving service to others. And the real meaning of “love” is found when you love God and neighbor enough to choose to serve them knowing that your actions can never earn salvation, but are an authentic response to faith in Christ. It’s a paradox, but contained within the paradox is the truth the Paul shares with the Galatian churches: The only way to truly find freedom is to give yourself away in love, and the only way to truly give yourself away in love is to be fully free.

Whew! Let me see if phrasing it another way might help. St. Augustine said it this way: “Love God, and do what you will.” It’s certainly simpler than Paul’s argument, but we have to be careful not to misinterpret Augustine. Augustine is not advocating freedom as license with an asterisk, that you can serve your selfish desires as long as you also love God. Rather, he is saying that if you truly love God and truly love others, then you are free to do whatever you want, because what you want will be – in so far as it is humanly possible – an expression of love toward God and others.[3]

Easier Said Than Done…

Now, let me be the first to admit that it’s incredibly difficult to live out this call to Christian freedom and love. We all have a variety of influences within us that keep us from the freedom to give ourselves away to others in love… And some days, with some people, it’s incredibly difficult to approach others with an attitude of love and service. But as people who are called to freedom, we are invited, constantly, to be set free from ourselves so that we can be bound by that freedom to be in service to and with others. And as we try, and as we get better at it, we will find that we ourselves are transformed, as well as our relationships and our communities.

I think that most of us spend a lifetime learning what it means to live like this, and then only catch brief glimpses of it. What St. Paul wanted the people of his day and ours to know is that what God has done for us all in Christ Jesus enables us to explore what it means to have the freedom to love others in a community of people who are also free to live and to love.

And as we are drawn to more perfect life in the Spirit, we will find ourselves and our community filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And that is Good News. 

[1] Richard B. Hayes, “Galatians” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (322).

[2] Epictetus, Diss. 4.1.1, quoted by Richard B. Hayes, “Galatians” in NIB Commentary (322)

[3] Adapted from Alan Brehm, “The Waking Dreamer: Love Means…”  Acessed online at http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2010/07/love-means-gal-51-13-25-1-i-think-some.html