Free from the Flesh
Rev. Kurt Lantz Proper 8 C Galatians 5:1, 13-25
June 26, 2022 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear people who have been baptized,
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of God our Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Galatians 1:3-5).
Last Sunday we focused on the declaration from St. Paul in chapter 3 of his letter to the Galatians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). In Baptism you have been clothed with Christ. That means that God regards you as He sees Jesus, as His son and heir. In explaining why we don’t always feel that way, St. Paul used the picture of a young heir who is still under the control of guardians and trustees even though he is lord of the manor.
In a similar way Paul makes another one of those declarative statements letting us know what our standing is, even when it seems contrary to how we experience life. In today’s Epistle reading taken from the 5th chapter of the same letter, he declares: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (5:1) and then he encourages us: “stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
It would indeed be strange if a slave who has been set free would choose to go back into slavery. Or, in the terms of Paul’s example from chapter 3, if a young heir having reached the age of maturity to control his own inheritance, would choose to be bossed around and disciplined like he was as a child under guardians. But the depravity of our fallen sinful nature is that we indeed do choose to be slaves rather than live in the freedom Christ Jesus has secured for us through His death and resurrection.
While we have been set free from our sins, we still live as slaves to our sinful flesh. We still act like we are forced to do what our sinful flesh wants us to do, even when as children of God we have been set free and our redeemed spirit doesn’t want to do those things anymore. St. Paul lists a bunch of those things as “works of the flesh” and we can see quite a bit of them evident around us.
As we reach the end of what our society has claimed as Pride Month, there are parades of people publicly exhibiting some of the very things that top the list of the “works of the flesh.” They think that they are acting out in freedom, but truly they are living lives under a burden of slavery to these “works of the flesh.” And truly they cannot help themselves, nor are they even interested in looking for any kind of help. They are slaves to their sinful flesh.
Coincidentally, an historical decision by the United States Supreme Court to overturn an unjust decision made fifty years ago currently has people up in arms. By declaring that access to abortion is not a fundamental human right, people are afraid they will be set free from another “work of the flesh,” one that has had people locked in the slavery of the murder of their own innocent children. Murder is included in Jesus’ list of “works of the flesh” in Mark 7(:21-22), and we are hearing many voices raised to declare that they would still rather be in slavery to this particular “work of the flesh.”
It is not just that people cannot break free from such horrendous “works of the flesh”, but that they would rather be enslaved to such things than be free in Christ. For Christ gives freedom. He has set us free and He warns us not to turn back to these things to be enslaved by them again.
Perhaps you also have struggled with these very things: sexual sins of one kind or another, or even waffling on your own opinion of whether or not it is okay to abort a child. Yet, as Christians, as baptized children of God, as those who have been set free by Jesus, we fight against these sins and desires. We know that He says they are wrong and we try to conform ourselves to Christ who has set us free. We want to stand firm in our freedom from the “works of the flesh” that would ensnare and enslave us right to death and hell.
The struggle that we experience to stand firm against such things is proof that we have been set free from them in Christ Jesus. His Spirit is at work in us opposing these “works of the flesh,” and somewhere in our psyche we hope that the Spirit wins the day. So surely we are not quite as bad as those who fully give themselves over to such “works of the flesh.”
We might be able to say that about the things we have mentioned so far (sexual immorality and murder), but St. Paul includes in his list some things that we may have been deliberately seeking out as of late, some things to which we might have fully and eagerly given ourselves over, even with great enthusiasm and vigour. St. Paul includes in his list “rivalries, dissensions, and divisions” (v. 20). As surely as we were forced into lock-down situations over the past three years, so surely have we given ourselves fully into the slavery of these particular “works of the flesh” enumerated right alongside of those we might want to regard as more grievous.
But the short list that seems so prevalent in our own lives today also received special attention from St. Paul in the congregations of Galatia and their factions between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He highlighted and underlined them by warning: “if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15). How convicting are these words as we have seen our family members, our fellow Christians, and ourselves get into heated debates about health restrictions and family gatherings and church practices during the COVID pandemic. It has been all too easy and all too gratifying at times to enter into the slavery of “rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.”
The same thing has happened in the history of opposition to the Pride Movement, but social experts are warning that the recent rise in the divisive “works of the flesh” due to pandemic disagreements could lead to increased violence surrounding Pride events this year. And the rhetoric and threats surrounding the overturning of the Roe vs. Wade ruling in the US, may reduce the number of abortions, but increase those other “works of the flesh” (rivalries, dissensions, and divisions), which are all listed together with the sober warning: “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21).
And so, St. Paul reminds us of our freedom in Christ Jesus in order to point out that these “works of the flesh” are not our works anymore. We have been set free from them. They can no longer enslave us. They can no longer imprison us to the torment of death and hell. We have been set free from sexual immorality. We have been set free from murder. We have even been set free from “rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.” We have been set free through our Baptism, the same Baptism in which we put on Christ and became sons of God and heirs.
We are no longer slaves. We are no longer under guardians to discipline us, and to beat the sinful flesh out of us. Rather, we are set free. We are free from the sins in which we once walked. We are free from the punishment that we have deserved for them, because, as St. Paul declares in another one of those beautiful statements that is worth memorizing: “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v. 24).
Being baptized into Jesus Christ has nailed our sinful flesh to the cross with Him. All of our sins were affixed to that blood-drenched crossbeam. His ripped and torn and pierced flesh was our sinful flesh being punished and put to death and obliterated. All of those ugly “works of the flesh” that had infected our human flesh were destroyed on the cross of Jesus. We are truly free from them, from their punishment, from their control, from their threat, from their hold.
“For freedom Christ has set you free” and to combat that sinful flesh He has given you His Spirit which bears fruit in abundance. Notice that St. Paul does not describe the effect of the Holy Spirit within you in the same way as the “works of the flesh.” These are not works, but “fruit of the Spirit,” which blossom and ripen by His indwelling life in us: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (v. 22-23). The Spirit is opposed to the works of the flesh, and please notice how the fruit St. Paul lists here is opposed in particular to works like “rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.”
The Spirit is opposed to our sinful flesh, and who is going to win out? Do you think your sinful flesh is stronger than the Holy Spirit of God? It is clear which is the victorious side. One side is captivity, the other is freedom. You have been set free as surely as Jesus Christ is free from the hold of death. His crucifixion and resurrection have set you free to live with the same fruit of the Spirit that He exhibited in His life when He set His face to go to Jerusalem in order to save you (Luke 9:51).
Our freedom is found in the love of Jesus that we have received. Our faith in His redeeming love for us bears the fruit of our our love for others, even others with whom we are tempted to form rivalries, dissensions and divisions. In our freedom given along with the forgiveness of our sins we are free to love. We don’t have to prove ourselves right or better or the possessors of a higher morality. Christ has set us free. In the coming confrontations over the pride of sexual immorality, and abortion, and the ongoing confrontations over pandemic concerns, remember that for freedom Christ has set you free. You are free to speak the truth in love, because in love Christ has redeemed you to be His own.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen (Galatians 6:18).