“For freedom Christ set us free; so, stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Words from our 2nd reading today from the 5th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
“Dear God, I think you’d be proud of me! So far today I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, lusted, lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or overindulgent. I’m very thankful for that. In a few minutes though, I’m going to get out of bed. From then on, I’m probably going to need a LOT of help. Amen.” In the verses that follow our 2nd reading today, St. Paul specifically discusses some of the things that were a struggle for our person who prayed this morning prayer from their bed. And we know that some of these things are indeed struggles for us as well: lusting, gossiping, anger, over-indulgence, and the like; yes, we all have our own particular sins that represent our own Achilles’ heel, and we know how these sins weigh us down and negatively impact our relationships. We know from our own experience, how difficult it is to overcome such things, and that’s why we can say sin is a form of addiction and slavery even because we end up doing the very things we do not want or mean to do; the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. In truth, we need God’s help. St. Paul is reminding us of the help God gives us, but St. Paul is also challenging us who are disciples, saying, “Hey, look: Christ came and gave you a new life, one that is lived in the very Spirit of God, a life that is free from these things that hurt you and others. God is not holding these things against you anymore but is merciful. God accepts you for who you are, and yet sees the person you can become. In response, therefore, you need to stand in that grace. Just because God has wiped away these sins and commuted your sentence and you are now free, doesn’t mean that you should go back to those wayward desires. You are free, so choose good and not evil; you are free, so choose to follow and live in Christ.”
For freedom Christ set us free. When we talk about freedom, an important distinction must be made regarding it. On the one hand, there is a freedom from constraints that hold someone back. Someone who is under the influence of drugs, or addicted, or who is someone’s slave, or who lives under a totalitarian government is not free. Their capacity for freedom needs to be restored. There is also freedom in the sense of having independence, in that the person is autonomous to determine and achieve their own ends. Do I want Frosted Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast? They’re both there in the pantry; take your pick. But this freedom entails responsibility because now we have to shoulder the consequences of our own actions, unable as it were to blame anything or anyone else. We can’t simply use such freedom then to do whatever we want as a sort of license; otherwise, we will have to face up to some rather unfortunate consequences and will find ourselves enslaved once more to the very things we needed freedom from in the first place. Well, our faith reveals how we’ve been set free from the cycle of sin and death by the grace of God, and this fills us with great hope. But now, having been given freedom from such things by Christ, we find ourselves with the freedom to make our own choices. It is most responsible as well as most fulfilling to use our independence to choose and work towards our God-given purpose and respect that God-given order of the world. In this endeavor, the Church very wisely tries to show us through her teachings how to best use our freedom, by choosing to follow Christ and his ways. This is exactly what St. Paul is trying to tell us: choose to follow Jesus.
And yet, as we see in the Gospel when it comes to the decision-point to follow Christ or not, quite often, we come up with all sorts of excuses, trying to justify ways to shirk our responsibility as we fall back into our old habits and desires and prefer them still. In the Gospel, there were the Samaritan villagers, who didn’t want anything to do with Jerusalem, and upon finding out what Jesus is up to, outright reject Jesus. Likewise, there are people in our own society who misunderstand what God is about, people who stick to their own prejudices, who are quite comfortable with their self-created way of life, and so refuse to welcome Jesus into their lives. While we would naturally want vengeance on those who oppose us, Jesus doesn’t waste his energy, but moves on. And then there are those that want the glory of Jesus without the responsibilities of discipleship. To this point, Jesus was quite the celebrity figure, and many figured moreover that he would come into Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans and corruption there. Jesus knows that despite a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, it will end up with rejection and crucifixion. Thus, following Jesus is not a glorious lifestyle, at least not according to the mind of the world. We likewise know that there are a lot of homebodies, who will not leave their comfort zone, who want to sleep in their own bed as it were. They are free and they do desire the good, but they can’t bring themselves to take that next step because they are unwilling to sacrifice for a greater purpose. Jesus reminds them of the necessary costs of discipleship. And then there are those who still do not have freedom from various things. It’s funny how life gets in the way of life, how our careers and duties hinder us from moving forward and becoming the people we want to be, and we forget too that our families are there to help us realize our dreams and not hinder them. So, we use our busyness or our family life as an excuse, and thus end up choosing not to claim something better for ourselves as we put off prayer and church and formation and service to others and the like. This same thing almost happened to Elisha in our first reading, until the prophet Elijah called him out on it; so, Elisha stopped avoiding his vocation, left behind his farm at once, and finally responded to his call to be a prophet to Israel. What excuses are we making that prevent us from following Christ more fully? In what ways are we justifying our misuse of freedom and shirking our responsibility?
I wanted to mention something else for us here this weekend, but it seems I cannot stay silent with regards to the Supreme Court decision rendered this past Friday, striking down Roe vs. Wade. St. Paul’s advice is timely for us since freedom and choice are often referenced as justification for procuring an abortion. As we know and uphold in the Church, this is an irresponsible use of freedom that victimizes not only the life of the child in question, which even science continues to confirm, but creates a victim also out of mothers who are often backed into such a situation, feel helpless with little or no support, and then have to live with the guilt of their decision for the rest of their lives. St. Paul’s advice applies here as well: “Do not use this freedom as an opportunity for your own desires; rather, serve one another through love. For the law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” Indeed, we see the failures of freedom; we see the failures to love on all sides and in many respects; we see the wide range of emotions associated with this decision, consuming us as we bite and devour one another over this. Paul’s words couldn’t ring truer. And while this is a long sought-after judicial decision that is meant to safeguard a responsible use of freedom, the culture remains deeply divided on the issue, which will be evidenced by the patchwork of state laws pertaining to abortion across the country. At the end of the day, laws don’t change hearts. To change our culture and build a culture of life, is not solely the responsibility of the government or those individuals working on the front lines. We’ve been set free from sin and death, and now we need to take responsibility to respect the dignity and sanctity of human life in everything we do. Let us rededicate ourselves to this, so that mothers may be empowered to the good, and that all life may be respected from conception until natural death, not just because it’s a law but because it’s the right thing to do and we want it and choose it for ourselves.
Ultimately and in every respect, Jesus is our example and model of true freedom. The scriptures say that he resolutely determined to head to Jerusalem. Of his own free will, he chose to travel there, and he stood in that choice, letting nothing slow him down. He knew that he had a difficult mission to accomplish but was ready to fulfill his responsibility. He didn’t run away from it, he chose it, embraced it, sacrificed for it, and so set us free. And now he calls us to do the same. Stop making excuses and justifying those desires that are opposed to the spirit of God. You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, so stand firm and do not submit again to slavery… instead choose Christ and follow him.