“Live Free or Die” (Gal. 5:1, 13-15)
Third Sunday After Pentecost (June 30, 2019)
Liberty, or freedom, will certainly be front and center on our minds and hearts once again this week as most of us celebrate the Fourth of July, our American Independence Day. Many will be letting freedom ring with the pop… bang…and sizzle of fireworks of every description. Such displays can often be quite impressive and awe-inspiring.
As Americans, we love our freedom, and, as I am sure you have noticed in this election year, our politicians love to talk about our freedom. They continually tell us how they plan to pass the right laws or establish the right policies to insure that we remain free. But does anyone get the irony of all this political freedom talk? Wasn’t it resistance to what was perceived to be overly restrictive and unjust laws that lead our forefathers to declare our independence from English rule in the first place? How will more laws make or insure our freedom? Laws can never free. Laws only restrict, bind, and enslave. With the passage of every new rule, ordinance, or law, in reality we become less and less free.
Take even the use of fireworks as a prime example. I can remember a time when the only restriction as to what fireworks you wanted to set off on the 4th of July or any other time was the amount of money you had. Now, the use of fireworks is limited in almost every way you can imagine; when you can set them off, where you use them, and even what type you can purchase. Yes, I know many will make the case that these restrictive laws are necessary for the safety of the public and to protect property, but none-the-less, these laws have taken away some of our freedom.
Back in 1945 the State of New Hampshire expressed it’s desire to live free by establishing their state motto as “Live free or die.” This phrase was adopted from a toast coined by one of the state’s most revered American Revolutionary War heros: General John Stark. In a letter Stark wrote in 1809 to those hosting an anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington, offering an excuse for his absence due to illness, he offered up the following toast: “Live free or die; Death is not the worst of evils.”
I’m sure we can all agree there are worse things than death. Hell first comes to my mind. No doubt we can all imagine examples where at times even living can seem worse than death, especially if that living involves constant pain, fear, or oppression. For the American Colonists living under what they considered to be oppressive and unjust laws of the King of England was far worse than death. Accordingly, they were moved to take up arms and risk almost certain death rather than to continue to live under such tyranny. “Live free or die,” became their battle cry.
I believe we have come a long way from this idea of liberty today. It appears to me that the freedom that most of our fellow, contemporary, Americans are advocating for is not liberty from oppressive laws or foreign control but a license to do whatever they want and, pardon the expression, to hell with everyone else. They want no government, church, or societal norms to inhibit or interfere with what they want to do with their lives, property, health, and desires. Oh, and by the way, they want the government to insure them free healthcare, free public transportation, free schooling and a comfortable living even if they chose not to get a job. They want the church to perform whatever services they desire and how they desire it, not to judge them or make them feel guilty about anything they chose to do in or with their lives, and to preach and teach only what makes them feel good about themselves. In other words they imagine that being free is to have a license to think, say and do whatever they want.
Clearly many Americans today have no clue what true freedom is, at least, that freedom declared in the Declaration of Independence or most especially the liberty granted those who are in Christ Jesus by faith. The LORD’s apostle Paul in the text before us from Galatians speaks of this Christian freedom by saying, “For Freedom Christ has set us free” and again “For you were called to freedom.” Just how are we to understand this freedom we have in Christ and through Christ?
To a certain extent the slogan, “Live free or die” can apply to Christian freedom also. This freedom, however, is not political. A Christian can live under any type of political rule, even an oppressive one, the likes of King George’s or even a modern dictator the likes of Kim Jong-un, and still be free. Freedom in Christ is a moral freedom, a freedom of the soul, or spirit, not necessarily of the body. In this freedom the fear of judgment and death is removed.
To appreciate this freedom think back to how constraining and oppressive life was for those who lived under God’s Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was established by the Law. It was reinforced by the threat of temporal and eternal punishment for all who disobeyed. It was characterized by living in fear, fear of God’s righteous wrath against any and all who disobeyed His Law or failed to live up to the high standards of His Law. One’s conscience was held in bondage by the curse of the Law.
But God in His grace came Himself to set His people free from the Law’s curse. This He did first of all by the Son of God becoming flesh of our flesh in the womb of Mary so that He could also be placed under the oppressive weight of the Law. Earlier in chapter four of His Epistle to the Galatians Paul wrote: “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4,5).
Jesus, as the Son of God and the Son of Man, came as our substitute and fulfilled the demands of the Law perfectly and fully in our place. What none of us could do, He did for us, completely satisfying the demands of the Law and fulfilling its every expectation for the perfect righteous life.
But that’s not all. Jesus also allowed Himself to suffer the Law’s condemning wrath due all of us lawbreakers. Again, we hear the apostle of the LORD, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree"— (Gal. 3:13). Jesus proclaimed our very emancipation with His dying breath, “It is finished!” He was put to death for our transgressions He was raised for our justification before God” (Ro. 4:25).
Jesus has established in His blood the New Covenant, a covenant based not upon obedience to the letter of the Law but upon faith in the promise of God in Christ. The old shackles have been removed. Fear of punishment, death and hell, has in Christ been replaced with the joy of forgiveness, life and eternal salvation. For the baptized believer in Christ Jesus, the impossible burden of truly keeping the Law in thought, word and deed is now fully removed, setting free the conscience, the mind and the heart.
But just as we Americans must always remain alert to the fact that the freedom we enjoy can at any moment be lost and replaced once again with oppressive rule and the shackles of totalitarianism, the heart of the apostle’s message to us today is that we Christians are also always in danger of losing that freedom for which Christ set us free… that freedom to which we were called. Paul says rather emphatically, “…stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
It can happen as easily as the flip of a coin. For the coin has two sides but either way it falls, the end is the same. Christian freedom is lost.
The first threat to freedom, Paul actually deals with in the first part of his epistle to the Galatians. It is the temptation, the lure, to forsake the true Gospel of Christ Jesus and to return to living under the Law. This danger was very real for the Galatian Christians. False teachers, sometimes referred to as Judaizers, had infiltrated the church. The so called gospel they preached, Paul says is no Gospel at all. And, indeed, it wasn’t. They taught that to be truly justified before God, faith in Christ Jesus was not enough. They insisted one must also keep and do certain laws, especially the Old Ceremonial laws God gave to the people of Judah, the Jews. Such laws like being circumcised and obeying all the Sabbath regulations.
All of this, of course, should be abhorrent to any believer in Christ Jesus. It certainly was to Paul. He said to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (1:8). Sound harsh? It ought not. None of us should have any tolerance for those who imperil the salvation of souls with falsehoods. After all, to make such laws mandatory once again in order for one to be saved meant you were rejecting that Jesus already fulfilled the Law for us all. In other words, you are telling Jesus He didn’t do a good enough job. It is insisting that you will need to do it yourself. You are thumbing your nose at Jesus’ works and His bloody sacrifice on the cross for you, insisting that you will save yourself by your own efforts and works!
The danger to our freedom in Christ also has a horrible flip side. It is this threat that might even be more ominous to us today than the threat of placing ourselves back under the demands and enslavement of the Law. Paul states, “…For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
I would venture to say that few of us are threatened by the Judaizers today. We rejoice in the Good News that Christ has freed us from the curse and tyranny of the Law. We treasure that we are not saved by our works but by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We celebrate that heaven is a free gift because we know that we are free from the burden of being what is impossible for us weak sinners, that is perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. However, I wonder if we have not already traded this old tyrant for a different one, ignoring or forsaking what God in Christ has set us free to be? That new slave master is our own flesh.
You see, Jesus fulfilled the Law’s demands and suffered it’s punishment for us. However, He did not abrogate God’s will for our behavior as is expressed in the Law. As Paul notes that will for us is expressed in this one Word: “Love.” We know from Jesus, as well as the Old Testament Scriptures, that love that fulfills the Law is two-fold: “Love God with all your heart and all your soul, and all your mind…” And “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37,38).
There is no place in this love for serving the dictates, the desires, the passions, of our own sinful flesh. The spirit, the new life in Christ, is incompatible with the flesh, our sinful nature. Their respective desires are in direct opposition to one another.
Freedom from the curse of the Law and it’s impossible demands does not mean the license to indulge our flesh. Yet, this seems to be the so called gospel being proclaimed by many today. It is reasoned that since Jesus freed us from the shackles of the Law, its dictates are no longer in vogue.
Take for example the commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy? It is reasoned, “Christ has freed us. We no longer need then to assemble together around God’s Word and Sacrament. We’re free on Sundays to do all those other things we want to do. God just wants us to be happy and have fun… What about You shall not murder?” Our flesh insists: “Christ has set me free to put myself and my life first. If I perceive someone else to be a threat to my life or happiness, I can decide whether they should live or die.” Oh, here’s a big one; “You shall not commit adultery. When one uses their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, they will insist, “We no longer need to honor marriage as the union of one man and one woman in one flesh. We are now free to be intimate with whoever we want to be. We are free. There are no more boundaries. …”
Christ Jesus did not set us free from the curse of the Law so that we can make ourselves slaves of our flesh. Serving our flesh and its interests is another bondage. It is not living free. It is enslavement to death. As Paul states we actually consume one another by indulging our flesh.
There is a true paradox when it comes to liberty… real freedom. It is this; freedom is only truly realized under the constraints of love. Jesus was never freer than when in love for you and me, He willingly gave up His glory in heaven to serve us by taking on Himself the scandalous shame of our sin and suffering the humiliation of our punishment on the cross. By doing so He redeemed us to share in His glory.
The very love that frees us (Christ’s) from the curse of the Law, as well as the dictates of our sinful flesh, truly obligates us to love one another as we have been loved. His love sets us free to do with joy what the Law commands: Love our neighbor as ourselves. We are never freer than when we are constrained by Christ’s love to love. In His love we can truly live free and not die!