Sunday, May 29, 2016

Are You Free?

Galatians 1:1-12

These are words that get thrown around a lot on national holiday weekends like Memorial Day, when we honor those who have died in defense of our country. They get thrown around a lot during political campaigns too.

Ask the average American about the meaning of freedom or liberty and they might say something, “Freedom means doing or being whatever I want to do or be.”

But the Christian understanding is very different from the idea that freedom is doing whatever I want to do.

And the reason it's so different is this: If I am born in slavery to sin, then every action that comes from “doing whatever I want to do,” will be born not of any freedom I have, but from my slavery to sin.

Even my most altruistic actions can be tinged by thoughts like “I’m really a good person,” or “What’s in it for me?,” or “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

In other words, people who do whatever they want to do may not be free at all.

Don't believe me?

Ask the drug addict, or the alcoholic, or the person addicted to gambling, food, or pornography, when they're being honest, if they’re really free.

At a moment of weakeness and truth-telling, ask the person who steals, gossips, or commits adultery of their actions were born of a free will or if, instead, they're not born of a will that “is in bondage to sin” and cannot free itself.

I feel blessed and thankful to live in the United States of America. But even if I’m able to exercise every single freedom guaranteed by our system of government, I still won’t be free in the eyes of God or from the perspective of Christ. Even if I’m free to do anything I want to do, my actions will be dictated by sin.

And, as we all know, “the wages of sin is death” [Romans 6:23].

So, freedom doesn’t mean doing what we want. To we human beings, Proverbs 16:25 says, “there is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”

And freedom doesn’t mean doing what we feel like doing. The worst advice we can give someone is to follow their heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us.

Defining freedom as doing what we want to do is a dead end that leads us away from God, away from life, away from eternity, away from true kinship with other people. It leads to destruction, the devil, and to hell.

But there’s another definition of freedom.

It’s real freedom.

It’s not the freedom to do what the sin that shackles us tells us to do.

It’s the freedom that belongs to those who are moving toward becoming the people that our Creator made us to be.

In the Old Testament, King David confesses to God: “ created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb...My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place...Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” [Psalm 139:13-17]

The God Who made us can set us free to be all we were made to be because, as our Maker, He knows exactly all that we can be.

This is freedom.

I once heard the true story of a man who used the freedom that many American citizens enjoy. He leveraged his intelligence, training, contacts, and mental, emotional, and physical stamina to become hugely successful. He had a large business in Michigan. On the way to his success, he lost his wife, his kids, and his soul. He was throwing a business-related party at the building from which he ruled his empire. “When you look at all of this,” a guest said to him, “you must feel proud.” “Actually,” the man replied in a rare moment of honesty, “when I look at all of this, it makes me sick.”

Some people might say that that man had lived in complete freedom--no bosses, no accountability, nothing to tie him down. It’s pretty clear when you read God’s Word that that wouldn’t be God’s assessment. Nor, apparently was it the ultimate assessment of that successful man.

The New Testament book of Galatians, which we’ll be delving into over the next few weeks is all about the freedom God can give to us, the freedom to be all that we were made to be. Galatians calls this “freedom in Christ.”

And it’s as relevant today as it was when Saint Paul first wrote the book to Christians in Galatia in about 49 AD. Most experts think that Galatia was a region in part of what we today call Turkey. Paul had founded churches in this region on an earlier mission trip.

But the letter, meant to be circulated among the Christians who worshiped and studied God’s Word together in small house churches, was prompted by a problem in those churches. The issue was freedom.

Please turn to our second lesson for today, Galatians 1:1-12. Take a look at verse 1: “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers and sisters with me, To the churches in Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Paul begins the letter in a way common to those times. When you and I write an email to someone today, we might say, “Dear Joe” or “Joe.” But in Paul’s day, you’d start out a letter to Joe by telling Joe who was sending the letter first. The opening greetings of letters those days were more like the tags we attach to Christmas gifts today: “From: Paul; To: Joe.”

In this opening though, Paul also moves quickly to establish that he isn’t just another guy writing to them. Paul points that he’s an “apostle,” a word that literally means “sent one.” Paul asserts that he was sent not by just anyone. I was “sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father,” the latter of whom raised Jesus from the dead. By everything Paul writes in the simple opening words of this letter in five verses, he’s saying, “Look, Galatians, what you’re about to read isn’t from me, it’s from God! So, pay attention!”

Are you confident enough in your relationship with Jesus Christ to be able to talk to fellow Christians you love in that way?

Sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not.

But part of being free in Christ is being free to speak with others honestly and lovingly about the truth of God.

And, as followers of Jesus who accept the Bible as God's Word's, we possess the most important truth in the universe!

You’ve heard me quote Jesus’ words from John 14:6 before, but here they are again. Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

If you had your Bibles with you and you were turned to John 14:6, I’d ask you to underline the word the in Jesus’ words: He is the way, the truth, and the life. And Jesus is the only way to a relationship with God the Father. “You can’t know God except through Me,” Jesus is telling us. “You can’t have the freedom for which you were made unless you follow Me.”

People need to know this truth!

People you know need to know this truth!

So, we should be as bold and loving in sharing it as Paul was. We shouldn't keep it to ourselves!

If people don’t know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life--not just as head knowledge, but as the announcement of the only way to life, they will be enslaved to sin and separated from God forever. 

Think of it: If by some happenstance, you came upon the cure for pancreatic cancer or AIDs, but thought, “I’d better not say anything. I don’t want to force a chance for new life on people,” you would be rightly regarded as monstrous.

If you have life and freedom from slavery through Christ to share with others, you have to share it. It would be monstrous to keep it to yourself, wouldn’t it?

We have begun the process of building a discipleship culture at Living Water. This is part of what Bishop John and our North American Lutheran Church are calling us to do, of course.

But, more importantly, Jesus calls us to be a congregation that makes disciples, not through programs, not through events, but through each us of sharing Christ’s truth boldly, lovingly, unapologetically, and relationally with the people in our lives, then inviting them to let us as individuals help them to know Jesus personally.

We need to ensure that every single disciple in Living Water who is willing to be used by God will be empowered by God’s Word to make other disciples, to speak the truth in love, to be accountable to other Christian sisters or brothers in our congregation, to live in the freedom that Jesus Christ died and rose to give us.

We need to stop worrying about what others say and just live in the freedom we have in Jesus Christ!

It was from this perspective of freedom that Paul wrote to the churches at Galatia.

Verse 6: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”

Just as there is only one truth, God’s truth, and just as there’s only one way to life with God, Jesus, there’s also, Paul is saying, one Gospel.

Our word Gospel translates a word Paul and the other writers used in the New Testament Greek in which they wrote, euangelion. It means good news.

You all know the good news. It’s in John 3:16-18. Jesus gave the good news to a man named Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

We can turn down the offer of new and everlasting life--the freedom that comes with being a child of God--by refusing to surrender to or believe in Jesus. People enslaved to sin are intrinsically inclined to make that choice of refusing to believe in Jesus.

But the good news is that we can be set free from sin, death, and the self-focus that leads to hell when we take the offer of grace and freedom given to us by the crucified and risen Jesus. Jesus sets us free to live different lives, free lives, with Him for eternity, starting now, today.

In 49 AD, the churches in Galatia were turning their backs on Jesus and freedom from Him. A group of Jewish Christians had come to them and basically said, “What Jesus did on the cross and from the tomb is cool, but if you want life with God, you need to do all the ritual and sacrificial law. You have to get circumcised and be observant Jews if you want Jesus to save you.”

Ever since Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit, human beings have tried to turn their relationship with God into a business transaction: If they were good enough...if they showed up for worship enough...if they plunked enough money in the offerings, they could bargain with God. God would have to hold up His end of the bargain and these outwardly religious people felt, like Americans, free to do whatever they wanted to do.

Jesus scorned the thinking of people like these. He scorns it still. People who buy into this kind of religious thinking were, He once said, like “whitewashed tombs,” righteous looking on the outside who felt free to shaft their parents, neighbors, the poor, and others [Matthew 23:27].

“Deal-making righteousness” (which is no righteousness at all) appeals to our human ego. It makes us feel like we're in control. It makes us feel free. But it really makes us slaves to the things of this world, things that are bound to die.

Paul was concerned that the Galatians were turning away from their freedom in Christ, back to the false freedom of religious bravado and pride, a false freedom that leads to death.

Paul tells them--and us, whenever the world’s idea of freedom tempts us to do things our way rather than Christ’s way--to settle in. He’s about to remind them (and us) of the true Gospel message, the message of true freedom that no human being invented, but comes to us only “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” [verse 12].

And it’s to Paul that we’ll be listening over the next several weeks so that we too, can know the freedom Jesus died and rose to give to those who follow Him. Amen

No comments: