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For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
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 neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
(Galatians 5:1-14, NRSVA).
The letter to the Galatian church seems to be Paul’s bluntest letter – and the first part of chapter 5 just may be his bluntest part. Consider these statements: ‘…do not submit again to a yoke of slavery‘; ‘…if you let yourself be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you‘; ‘…you have fallen away from grace‘; ‘You who want to be justified by the law, have cut yourselves off from Christ‘; and, memorably, ‘I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!‘
So much for the warnings against reverting back to legalism. Yet the more positive descriptions of the gospel Paul so adamantly defends are at least as confronting: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free‘; ‘…the only thing that counts is faith working through love’; ‘You were called to freedom‘; ‘…through love become slaves to one another‘ and, ; ‘…the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.
There seems to be a theme here: freedom and slavery. These words were more easily understood in a time when society was structured around such hierarchy. Slaves were the bottom of the pile and owned by another. The free enjoyed a life of relative choice.
Clearly, in Paul’s mind, the very freedom of the in-Christ-people is at stake. Unofficial representatives of the Jerusalem church have visited Galatia in Paul’s absence. In order to avoid marginalisation and persecution they are pushing a hybrid christianity where Christ is not quite enough. Here Christ is paralleled with the Jewish understanding of the law that is most potently affirmed by submission to circumcision.
Paul’s earlier description of the motive behind this visit is telling. Galatians 2:4-5 reads: ‘But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us — we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you.’ Same language: Spies seeking to enslave the free.
Freedom is an abused word. We think it means that we can do anything – whatever we want. This, I suspect, is a particularly shallow understanding. Freedom, rather, is about being able to do what we were created to do, being in the environment were created for. An eagle is free as it soars in the sky, not when released at the bottom of the ocean. A fish as it swims in the sea, not when released 2,000 feet in the air.
But what of a person? What are we created for? What it our ‘environment’? From the creation account we see that we were created in the image of a holy God. This God is most accurately revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We were created in the image of a loving, self-giving, and a suffering God. Paul’s claim: we will only find true freedom in imitation of this one.
And so Paul turns to what he believes is the core of the God-given law – and it is not circumcision. Rather, it is love for each other. We are to give ourselves to the creation of a community (or environment) of mutual love – and there discover our true freedom.
We are only ever free, Paul insists, as we follow the example of Jesus and ‘become slaves to one another’. This just could be the idea that demolishes our walls and truly impacts our world.
When are you most aware of a sense of ‘freedom’? When are you most aware of a sense of ‘slavery’ and obligation?
What do you think the modern church is tempted to ‘parallel’ with the gospel? How do you think this changes the nature of the gospel we live and proclaim? What feelings surround this reality for you? Do you display a zeal for an undiluted gospel that echoes Paul’s?
What do you think is the scope or breadth within the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? Do you imagine this to be restrictive and narrow? In what ways is it a freeing statement?