Nowadays it seems freedom and fireworks always go together. In our day and age, when you talk about freedom, you can be sure fireworks will follow. Not the Fourth of July kind, mind you. Rather, the kind of fireworks that erupt when different people's "freedoms" conflict. No matter what the issue — almost all talk of freedom, rights and power seems to lead to fireworks of conflict. Of course, Paul and his church in Galatia would sympathize.
Paul and the Galatians are up in arms about what Christian freedom is. They cannot seem to agree about the shape it should take in the Galatian church. Differing understandings of freedom lead to fireworks. For in Paul's day, just as in our own, power and conflict go hand in hand. Freedom and fireworks belong together.
Of course, it is easy to see where the conflict comes from. After all, for us, freedom means choosing for ourselves. Liberty is being in the driver's seat. For folks like you and me, freedom equals the power to choose. There is a bus in a large city that bears testimony to our perspective. In most busses, riders must push a red button on a pole to signal the driver to stop and let them off. In most cases pushing the red button causes a bell to ring and a sign to light up just over the drivels head. When the bell dings, the sign flashes: Bus Will Stop. Yet on one city bus somebody had crossed out this standard message and scribbled their own on the sign. Now for the benefit of its freedom exercising ridership the sign flashes: Ring or Ride: You Decide!
Yet this attitude is not just confined to big city busses. Just think about how we view our freedom to choose in every day terms. At least once a week we drive down to the supermarket, shopping list in hand. After wrestling with some grocery cart we start strolling down the aisle ready to exercise our freedom. Being the smart shoppers we are, we have shelf upon shelf of choices to make. Check out the potato chips. What should it be this time — regular, nacho flavor, or how about these light ones with half the calories? Roll on into the soup aisle and the choices get only greater. What will it be for supper tonight — chicken noodle, cajun creole, or perhaps bean with bacon? But our freedom does not stop there. We pull into the checkout lane and discover even more choices to make: whether cash or check or perhaps oven bank card!
It is clear that in our everyday lives we are free to make choices. So for us the definition is clear — freedom means choosing. Liberty puts us in the driver's seat. For us freedom means the power to choose.
The problem is, freedom can turn into a tool of evil. In big and small ways evil can work through our free choices. Evil can use our freedom as a tool. Listen in on how Paul warns the Galatians: "If you bite and devour one another," he warns, "take heed that you are not consumed by one another." Then Paul goes through his litany of how evil makes use of the Galatians' freedom — fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dis-sension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. You can almost feel the chaos that unbridled liberty unleashes. Absolute freedom can corrupt, absolutely. Remember viewing the uprising in Tienanmen Square in China years agoon TV? We all watched breathless as students called for change in the dictatorial Chinese government. We remember Chinese students marching up and down the square. We even watched as one young man stared down a tank armed only with his convictions. Thanks to Western news agencies beaming the story by satellite across the world, we enjoyed our freedom watching them on our TVs.
The problem is, we freedom lovers were not the only ones watching this televised uprising. So were the Chinese leadership. As they tapped into our free press satellite feeds, the party hacks in Beijing took notes about which students did what. When the smoke cleared, the regime used our freedom to settle accounts with those young students. Some of them are languishing in prison even now. It is awful, but true — evil can turn even our freedom to its advantage. Free choices give evil opportunities to work. Sad truth is, evil can use our freedom as its tool.
But listen up! Freedom in the Spirit produces something different — transformation. The Spirit's liberty is for bearing new fruit! The Holy Spirit uses freedom to yield something new in us! Have you ever heard of Alcoholics Anonymous? Once a week recovering alcoholics gather to support one another in their struggle with the bottle. If you ask an AA member, they will tell you that they were slaves to the bottle, slaves! Now thanks to their higher power they have been freed, transformed. Alcoholics don't so much need freedom to choose. Hardly! Apart from their higher power, they will choose the bottle every time. Rather alcoholics need to be freed to change. How much more is that true of the freedom the Spirit gives. No wonder Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit the way he does: "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." Freedom, therefore, comes from a Spirit whose fruit begins with love and ends with self-control. Freedom, Paul says, is the product of the Spirit whose work in us transforms our very selves. The Holy Spirit doesn't so much give us the freedom to choose, as the freedom to be changed! Perhaps now, therefore, we can do away with the pernicious myth that God is only interested in giving us advice for living the lives we have already chosen. How does the new bumper sticker go? "If God is your co-pilot, it's time to switch seats." True enough! For the Spirit's freedom is not about the power to choose, but being empowered to change. The Spirit's liberty is about bearing new Fruit. In the Spirit, freedom is for transformation.
So where does this transformed freedom lead? With Christ, right back to our neighbors. Freedom in Christ is for the sake of others. We aren't just freed to choose; we are freed to love neighbors. Of course, we should have seen it coming. Didn't Christ show us the way already? Christ did not shoulder the cross for money, not for glory — and certainly not for prestige. He took it up for our sakes — and for the whole world. He did not exercise His freedom by picking and choosing desirable outcomes — or even the objects of His concern. Christ exercised His freedom by being crucified for the whole world. Christ's freedom was cruciform — His arms opened wide on the cross for a whole world of neighbors. His freedom was for the sake of others.
Perhaps some of you have seen the old movie, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It is a 1960s era film starring Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier. In the movie two families are forced to wrestle with the fact that their children are marrying cross-racially. Their parents are upset with their choice of fiance. Why? Well, he is not exactly the one her parents would have chosen to break bread with. She is not the one his folks would have picked to sit at the family table either.
Listen brothers and sisters in Christ. Real freedom is not exercising the power to choose who our dinner companions will be. Christian freedom is the power to love. To live freely amid the petty slaveries of our world — to love with abandon across our pitiful human barriers. That is freedom! That is Christian freedom! Why do you suppose we gather at the communion table this morning? Certainly not because we have carefully chosen our dinner partners. Hardly! But because at the table we already show forth what God intends for the whole world in Christ: a transformed humanity where all are welcome in Christ's name.
How does the old saying go?: "You can't choose your relatives." True enough. Yet we who call ourselves by Christ's name also cannot choose the objects of our love. For Christ frees us not to choose, but to love. In Christ we are freed for our neighbors' sake. Christian freedom is not the power to choose, but the power to love.
So imagine that! Freedom is more than my right to decide. Freedom in Christ is God's gift for neighbor love. Now that changes everything After all, our desperate world needs us to share Christ's freedom to love in our homes, at city hall and in the marketplace. So what do you say? This Fourth of July let Christian freedom ring. Let it ring!

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

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