Imagine with me a Palm tree. The tall trunk wrapped in diamond scales. The top bulging like a growth out of which shoots out the fronds, waving in the breeze. Nestled between the leaves like a baby in her mother’s arms are the green coconuts. They lie there invitingly calling to passers-by come drink my milk, and eat my flesh. Let them nourish you and sustain you. Now what would you say if instead of coconuts, there were grapes, or olives, or heaven forbid brussel sprouts nestled in its leaves?
Wouldn’t you exclaim, ludicrous, outrageous, and absolutely uncanny. That is not how it is to be, that is unnatural, unfathomable and completely backwards. James 3:12 paints just such a picture, “My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” These words create an image that is unfathomable in the minds of the hearers. It tells us of things that should not be, things that are impossible like a man sprouting wings like a bird and flying or a fish reciting Shakespeare or a an elk walking about on 2 feet.
These incongruencies are expressed in our passage this morning as well. Galatians 5:13-26 paints an extended picture of the Christian life and those things that are inconsistent with it.
Just as the North Pole is at the opposite end of the earth from the South, so too is Christian Freedom and License to sin or legalistic observance. Paul has spent much of this letter combating the problem of legalism. He has been showing that the Christian is free from legalistic observance to the law as a means of being justified before God. Up until this point, it would be easy to conclude that Christian freedom is one side of the coin and legalism is the other side, opposites in every respect. And that is true, but only to a point. Now Paul takes on the other threat to Christian freedom and that is license, the license to do whatever one wants. If law does not bind us, then we are free from it, some argue. Free to sin all the more that grace may abound.
There are some who argued in Paul’s day, just as they argue in ours that liberty brings license. The complete freedom to do whatever one wants without a fear of God, or wrath or reprisal. But Will Durant, a writer and historian last century aptly recognized the error of this line of reasoning by writing, “When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near.” What Durant intends, and what Paul means are the same thing: Legalism is one side of a coin and license is the other. They are on the same continuum, just separated by degrees, but they are intimately related. One is not free when they are legalistic about life, nor is one free when they are licentious. Both are forms of slavery.
But we (Gal. 5:13 You, my brothers), were called to be free. As Christians, as born again believers, we weren’t called to the coin of legalism or its flip side, license. We weren’t even called to grapple with that coin, or touch it; we were called to a completely different way of living. We weren’t released from the law; we were released to fulfill the law. We were released to love God and one another. We weren’t called to use [y]our freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, we were freed serve one another in love.
Literally we were freed to become slaves to one another. The verb serve one another, is really be slaves to one another. It implies everything you imagine when you think of a slave. Taking out the trash, doing the dishes, waiting on each other hand and foot. Ensuring the master receives impeccable attention, complete respect, absolute deference, total exaltation, and wonderful care. This is to what we were freed. Freed to serve in love. Freed to become a new kind of slave, a slave who fulfills the entire law by loving, sacrificially loving others.
This may sound like an oxymoron to you: freed to become a slave again. But really it is not. Isn’t it entirely in line with the gospel?
(Matthew 20:28) “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Philippians 2:4–7) “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Jesus was perfectly free, entirely in charge of his life and the lives of the entire world. He made them, he sustains them by his powerful word, and he keeps them secure and orders the universe. If anyone was free, he was free, but he used his freedom to serve us, not to exalt himself. He humbled himself, donning a towel and washing our feet. Donning a crown of thorn and a wooden cross in order to show us the full extent of his love: laying down his life for his friends, his brothers and his sisters. This is love, not that we loved him, but that he loved us …and gave himself up for us (1Jn 4:10, Gal 2:20).
Love is entirely different than the picture Paul paints of animals biting and devouring and ultimately consuming one another. Service is the exact opposite of selfish feeding. Consider a pack of rabid dogs. Jack London wonderfully illustrated the words biting and devouring in The Call of the Wild,
It was the wolf manner of fighting, to strike and leap away; but there was more to it than this. Thirty or forty huskies ran to the spot and surrounded the combatants in an intent and silent circle. Buck did not comprehend that silent intentness, nor the eager way with which they were licking their chops. Curly rushed her antagonist, who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush with his chest, in a peculiar fashion that tumbled her off her feet. She never regained them. This was what the onlooking huskies had waited for. They closed in upon her, snarling and yelping, and she was buried, screaming with agony, beneath the bristling mass of bodies.
So sudden was it, and so unexpected…It did not take long. Two minutes from the time Curly went down, the last of her assailants were clubbed off. But she lay there limp and lifeless in the bloody, trampled snow, almost literally torn to pieces, … So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you.
This is the picture Paul is painting when we don’t serve one another. Failing to serve, is self-service and self-service is deadly, absolutely deadly to others, obviously, but to ourselves, as Jack London aptly shows by tracing the transformation of Buck from a selfless dog to a selfish dog at the end of the story. The call of sin is not our call, the call of the wild is not our call, rather, the call of the Spirit is what we have been set free to pursue. Twice Paul uses terms related to the spirit. First he says we are to live by the spirit. Actively, walking by the power of the spirit. Using all our power, all our will, and all our strength to walk with God. The second time, Paul says is we are led by the spirit. This is passive. This is a following of the spirit, a kind of following like one in a night forest being led along by one very familiar and intimate with terrain. The one being led doesn’t know where they are going, but they trust and walk behind the leader, who is very determined to make a certain point.
A few months ago, we were in Ethiopia adopting our daughters. On our trip we had the privilege of visiting the Ancient churches of Lalibela. These churches are carved into the bedrock and are connected by a maze of tunnels, walkways and canyons. I would have been lost walking through them, but our guide knew exactly where he was going and how to lead us from one point to the other, ensuring that we got to see all the salient features, even pointing out this we had missed. My job was simply to follow, to be led. Such is the other aspect of the Christians freedom. We are free to love and serve and we do that by walking in the Spirit and being led by the spirit. We do that by actively giving ourselves to God and by passively following his leading.
So where is the Spirit leading us:
- First he leads us to repent, to repent of our sin, our self-interest, our idolatry and lack of love. “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” (Romans 2:4 NIV).
- Second the Spirit is leading us to holiness and sanctification. “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13 NIV) The Spirit desires we become Christ like.
- Third the Spirit leads us to Christ and all that he has. “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” (John 16:14 NIV)
- Fourth, he takes us toward fruitful living. Our passage reminds us that the spirit is leading us to be full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control and other such wonderful Christ like attributes. This is the path we are to walk in and be led on.
- Fifth, the Spirit leads us to an assurance of our faith. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:16 NIV) The spirit leads us to a conviction that we are saved and belong to God
- Sixth, the Spirit leads us to share the message of Christ with the world in power. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NIV)
- Seventh, The spirit calls us to submission to Christ and one another. “… Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18–21 NIV)
- Eighth, the Spirit leads us into all truth. “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13 NIV)
- Ninth into comfort, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7 NIV)
- Tenth and finally for today, the Spirit leads us to obedience to Christ. We “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood (1 Peter 1:2 NIV).
“But how,” you may ask, “am I to actively walk in these things? How am I to be led in these things? These are all well and good, but to each of these 10 things the Spirit is leading me into, I can come up with a million rules, or ways to live. I can legalistically or licentiously exercise them all. How may I practically experience the freedom of Christ and how may I learn to serve one another in love?”
These are all wonderful questions, to which I reply, By Faith. “But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:5–6 NIV)
Faith is the tool the Spirit uses. Faith gives us hope that a different life is possible and promised. Faith gives us righteousness, and righteousness changes us from the inside out. Faith is the conduit through which God works, “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:5 NIV).
And how does one grow in faith? We study the word and trust the promises we find within the Scriptures. We seek to emulate the lifestyle of Christ that we find in the Word, having faith that although we are imperfect copies, God loves us anyways. We flee from all that is sinful and selfish and contrary to love.
We flee the acts of the sinful nature, and repent of them when we see that at work in our mortal bodies. And when this happens the word is clear “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16 NIV) “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7 NIV)
But lest we believe that our sanctification is an act of the will, we must remember that faith is a gift of God that no one can boast, so we ask God for his gift of faith. We seek his hand, we cry out to him and we wait on his strength and his power trusting that he withhold no good thing from those who ask.
People of God, we were called to be free. Free from legalism, free from license. Free from sin, free from selfishness. We are called to be free to love, to love others and to love God, to live by the spirit and to be led by the spirit. To serve one another, not to destroy one another. We were freed to bear fruit, fruit that will last. So let us take hold of the key of faith and let the door to freedom be opened ever wider in our lives and in our churches. Faith, the faith that Christ is sufficient; Christ is enough, nothing more, and nothing less. Simply Christ crucified, resurrected and exalted. Amen!