The Readings for the 13th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C2)
For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.Galatians 5:13a (NABRE)
BROADWAY’S SHENANDOAH (1975) had this great number, “Freedom is a State of Mind” and there was dancing and, if I remember correctly, a raft floating down the river – actual water on the stage at the Alvin Theatre. It was a spectacle! The legendary John Cullum also got to sing “Papa’s going to make it all right” – a thing that might not get sung today without some not-so-gentle irony. Anyway it’s the theme of Freedom I want to point out. Here in the good ol’USA we like Freedom. It’s part of our national mythology, in fact it may be all of our national mythology… everything is couched in terms of freedom and please don’t ask too many questions about who is paying for my freedom if I’m not actually paying myself.
St Paul was writing to the Galatians about not being obligated to follow the liturgical laws of the Torah: most especially circumcision, specific days, and rules about kosher food. And, since Rabbinic legal teaching was a live project at the time, how should they treat any new decisions? Paul said Gentiles, at least, were exempt. It seems in places that Paul may have kept Kosher from time to time, but not as a legal dictate – but as a way to not cause a scandal when preaching the Gospel to Jews. It was freedom from such laws, though, that Paul is preaching here.
Paul says Gentile followers of God in Jesus are free to follow God in their own cultural context. We get excited about that “cultural context” but the emphasis in Paul’s mind is on the “Free to follow”. All the saints agree: freedom is not the freedom to do whatever I want, it’s the freedom to do the good.
Our idea of freedom has evolved.
Christians are not free to be greedy, selfish, or prideful. We’re not free to engage in unchastity nor uncharitableness. To follow Christ in our cultural context means to jettison everything that is not his.
Because the other thing that Freedom means is we’re no longer in chains to what post-moderns might call “social constructs”, but I mean that ironically: our body’s sex is not a social construct, but our attitude today is exactly that. Our feelings about sex and sexuality are only a social construct. For freedom from the culture, Christ has set us free. We’re free to follow him now.
And that takes courage as well.
Our ancestors would not have been free to follow Christ if they treated him as just another member of the Greco-Roman pantheon, subject to the same superstitions and taboos. We’re not actually free to make Christ out to be just another of our American Gods, subject to our ad hoc cultural judgments and political whims. We’re set free from such social constructs as well.
Freedom, contrary to the world – and to Broadway – is a state of Spirit, of God’s Spirit in our lives: for the Spirit of God given to us in Baptism and sealed in us by the other sacraments, begins to conform our mind, heart, our flesh, and entire life to Christ. Again: we’re not free to do whatever, we’re free to actually be who God made us to be. St Catherine says if we do that – become who God made us to be – we will set the world on Fire. While we can’t do that simply by following rules, it’s not a case that there are no rules at all.
But many of us chose to return to our slavery to the culture of sin that surrounds us. Paul reminds us that the Spirit and the Flesh are opposed to each other. What the world tells us is right is nearly always in opposition to what the Spirit requires.
The secret is that, outside of the liturgical law, the Spirit and the Law say the same thing. But with the Torah written on our hearts by the Spirit of God in us, we’re free.