Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
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.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This morning I’d like to focus on and then fuse the message from the Gospel with the wisdom from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The hope is to gain a bit of insight into how we were made to live naturally in the kingdom of God. The key word to follow today is freedom.
We all know a bit of what it means to be free. As Americans we live in a free country after all; we are about to celebrate the 4th of July. Freedom is a core concept in the American identity and mythology and an idea we hold in the highest esteem.
But in truth I wonder, what is the real extent of our freedom? Can we do anything we want? What binds us? What bounds us? What are the constraints of our lives: our children, our neighbors, our parents, the vows we take, or the contracts we sign, the titles we hold, the roles we play, the jobs we do, the laws we follow, or the necessity of providing for ourselves and others?
What does it mean to be free?
What does it mean for you to be free?
Are you free… really?
We begin this exploration of freedom as Jesus begins his final trip to Jerusalem. Prior to today’s passage, Jesus has revealed his true nature (that is his kingdom identity) to Peter, James and John in that moment we call the “Transfiguration.” When he comes down with them from Mount Tabor, Jesus meets a man who begs him to heal his son. Jesus does, and all are astounded.
As the people prattled on about what they have seen Jesus turns to his disciples and announces, “It is time to go to Jerusalem, where I will surely die.” The disciples don’t like the plan, but Jesus insists. In fact, he does more than that; he sets his face toward Jerusalem.
That is a line that piques my curiosity. What does it mean that he sets his face toward Jerusalem? And why does that provoke such a response from the Samaritans? The text says, “On their way to Jerusalem, they [that is, the disciples] enter a village of Samaritans to prepare for Jesus’s stay there; but the Samaritans did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” They did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem?
Their response ignites the disciples’ rage, and they ask Jesus, with paraphrased words reminiscent of Elijah, “Should we call fire from heaven to strike these people dead?!” Jesus says no.
And so I ask what about Jesus’ face provokes the Samaritans response? He has gone to a Samaritan village before. That is where he met the woman at the well, and she became his first evangelist. What changed? What happened to his face when he set it toward Jerusalem?
This morning I’d like to suggest that we can find a clue in the words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. They are, “For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters…” The keyword, the word I believe inscribed upon Jesus’ face, is “freedom,” the freedom he exercised and the freedom he inspires in those he meets along the way.
By setting his face toward Jerusalem Jesus has determined three things:
That it will be rough;
That he must go immediately;
And there is no turning back.
It will be rough. It is urgent. And there is no turning back.
When Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem he knows he is heading towards the place where the people who fear him most reside. He does this freely, knowing, and this is a key theological point for understanding Jesus, that he will not do anything at all, period, full stop, to deny others the power to exercise their freedom.
And thus, he knows that in their fear they will kill him. This is the freedom expressed upon his face.
The most powerful person to ever walk the face of this earth exercises his power by refusing to use it to deny anyone else their freedom, starting with the Samaritans, but then extending to Judas, Peter, Ananias, Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod, and the soldiers who march Jesus to Calvary and nail the spikes into his hands and feet.
Freedom is a divine gift given with no strings attached. It is what endows us (that is all humanity) as beings made in the image and likeness of God. We are free, as the Samaritans were free, and they freely chose to reject Jesus. They saw that option written on his face. God gives us the same choice.
Now here is what I believe-that the only true freedom we have, the only real freedom we have, is the freedom to choose or to reject God. It is our birthright as God’s beloved children. It is the gift that God gives us, and God gives it to us equitably. I believe the only true freedom we have is the freedom to choose or to reject God.
Paul says it this way: “For you were called…” The Greek word here for “called” is kaleo which means given as a name. “You were called,[you were given as your name] brothers and sisters, freedom.” And then he warns us, “do not use it as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” Do not use that freedom for yourself, but only to choose God.
That is all it is really good for anyway.
Now here is the powerful paradox of Christianity. When we freely choose to give our life to God, when we own our divine name, and when we say it out loud, we set our face toward the kingdom of God, irrespective of how rough we think it might be. When we set our face with urgency and an utter sense of resolve, we experience real freedom, and in doing so, transform all the things that bind us from burdens to blessings.
That is freedom. That is kingdom of God freedom.
So if you need a little liberation, if you are feeling constrained or bound or befuddled by the circumstances of life, then look to the singular place through which real freedom is known; that is our relationship with God.
Now the Gospel gives us some helpful ways to understand our real freedom. The lessons are told around fox holes, grave sites, and plowed fields.
We begin with fox holes and bird’s nests and the son of man having nowhere to lay his head. This sounds rough, but it also points to a reality in the kingdom of God; that we are foreigners in a foreign land. We are sojourners.
We are not from her, we have no place to lay our heads here, neither did Jesus.
This is a stopover place. It is as if we came to this world to care for a friend’s garden or to walk a neighbor’s dog. We do it tenderly and carefully. Our actions are generous, maybe even more generous than if it were our garden or our dog.
And this journey through a land that is not our own, allows us freedom, freedom to care for the world without having to be the owners of the world. It is like this: it is like staying at a friend’s vacation home without having to carry insurance on it or being responsible for capital expenses.
That is what it means to not have a place to lay our head. It is liberating.
Which takes us to the second vignette on freedom: let the dead burying their dead.
This remark from Jesus might seem callous, but it is given to erase the edges of mortality. A father’s body runs its course, as all bodies run their course, yet burial can often obscure the larger reality of the father’s continued presence, of the father’s continued action and activity in the kingdom of God.
We are not bound by the limitation of this temporal body, which is why there is no hurry to make our mark or to secure our legacy. The only urgency resides in the need to be present to the freedom of others, and this loses urgency when a body no longer holds its soul. That is what it means to let the dead bury the dead. It is liberating.
Finally, Jesus takes us into a field with the words, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” It is an ancient metaphor that is out of context with our modern lives. But those who heard it when Jesus spoke it knew exactly what he was talking about. To cut a straight furrow in a field requires finding a point of orientation out in the distance and moving towards it. To look backward or even to look down at the furrow causes the row to curve or slant. To live freely in the kingdom of God is to focus forward, to the future, without turning back, without looking down, and that is liberating.
Freedom is a divine gift, intentionally given to each one of us equally, irrespective of the circumstances of our lives. It is how we were called. It is part of our name. So say it. Own it with an urgency and sense of resolve that reflects to those we meet along the way the real nature of our freedom…freedom to know and engage the living God; freedom to set our face toward the kingdom of God, or, like the Samaritans did, to choose not to.