“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1).
The early Christians put a high value on the celebration of baptism. St. Paul thought of baptism as a life and death experience: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). He goes on, “We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that… we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). Just as Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, and was given its freedom, so now Christians are delivered from sin and death by the water of baptism. “Now these things occurred [to them] as examples for us” (1 Cor. 10:6), as St. Paul says in First Corinthians, when he’s talking about the experience of Israel.
So, when Paul tells the church in Galatia, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), he’s talking about the new life that comes about through baptism. Last week we heard, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). In Jesus, we begin a new life. This life that we have through baptism is a life of freedom, not from slavery in Egypt, but from slavery to sin and death. For Christians, life is not hopeless, a situation where we’re enslaved and subject to our own limitations and inadequacies, to sin and death. On the contrary, we’ve been set free, with a new horizon and new possibilities set by Christ.
“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). St. Paul’s doubling up on the word “freedom” in our reading could simply be for emphasis, but it also reminds us that freedom is not an empty concept: freedom to do whatever we want. It has its own definition embedded within it. Freedom is not a fill-in-the-blank notion for Christians, a free pass through whichever door we choose to walk. We’re not making up our freedom for ourselves, on the fly as it were. Jesus determines the content of freedom: as if Paul is saying, “Freedom, for goodness’ sake!” If Jesus has set us free, he’s also inviting us to lead a new life like his.
Freedom to do anything would not be freedom at all, but just a different kind of slavery. Freedom to do anything quickly leads to meaninglessness, where choice leads us nowhere. Those who practice what St. Paul calls “the works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19) are really enslaved. Here’s Paul’s rundown: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21).
In some sense, we’re “free” to do these things, and could even see doing them as a sign of our freedom; but in another sense doing them creates its own prison, a new house of slavery. As the Apostle says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence” (Rom. 5:13). This kind of self-indulgence eats us up, and eats others up as well, as we heard this morning.
Jesus calls us to another kind of freedom, marked by service of one another. “Through love become slaves to one another” (Gal. 5:13), as St. Paul says, rounding out the last quote. That’s the kind of service that isn’t slavery at all but is marked by true freedom. In this kind of service, we “fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2), as Paul says in the next chapter. Earlier he talks about “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6), and love is the key. As we heard in our reading, the love of neighbor as oneself sums up the whole law.
Love is where Paul ends. What he calls “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Gal. 5:22-23). This is where true freedom is in Christ: not a free pass to anywhere or perhaps nowhere at all, but acceptance of the contours of the Christ-shaped life.
Today we celebrate baptism, and the re-affirmation of baptismal vows in confirmation, with the laying on of the bishop’s hands. Our baptismal candidates and our confirmand are committing themselves to following Jesus in a life of true freedom. “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” “Do you re-affirm your renunciation of evil?” These promises and others mark the Christ-shaped life. Through the water of baptism, and the prayers of the church, our candidates are embracing the way of freedom from sin and death. God gives his grace, here in these sacraments, making it possible for us to follow through. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1).