June 26, 2016 –– 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:16b, 19–21 / Psa 16: 1–2, 5, 7–8, 9–10, 11 / Galatians 5:1, 13–18 / Luke 9:51–62
Throughout my forty-plus years of pastoral ministry I have listened to people complain about the difficulty of understanding St Paul. There are a number of reasons for this, but a crucial one is that Paul cannot be read superficially. If you try to read a few verses of his letters apart from their context (which means reading the whole letter and discovering its setting), you’ll not understand Paul very well. It’s also important to learn about the issues Paul often addresses as well as some words Paul uses in a technical way. The letter to the Galatians is a great example. We discover a very Pauline vocabulary with words such as freedom, law, love, flesh and Spirit.
One of the gifts God gave to his human creation was freedom. We have a “free-will” that can make rational and autonomous choices. That is why our world is broken today; Adam and Eve chose to disobey. Inherent with freedom is an inevitable repercussion. The Catechism says: Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil (CCC 1749).
St Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about the interplay of God’s law, human freedom, and the tendency to commit sin (this is one way to understand his word flesh). This is in contrast to the way God’s Spirit works in us. Grace works in our lives to help us obey God––to be the kind of humanity God intended when he first created us.
What should we expect from God? Some people mistakingly think grace and Christian faith is merely "forgiveness." There was a popular bumper sticker that said Christians aren't perfect, only forgiven. The Christian gospel does offer forgiveness, but forgiveness is only the beginning. God has made a way to forgive our sins so that his life––his Spirit––can come into us. Salvation is given to restore us to what God first intended, before disobedience and sin entered our world.
This means God's work in us creates change. St Paul told the Corinthians: If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come (2Cor 5:17). The way to understand what Paul says here about freedom is to see it within the big picture of salvation. Christians do not keep God’s law in order to earn grace. We are forgiven through the death of Jesus. But here is the question: does "freedom" mean that Christians are free to sin?
Let's consider this thing of freedom a bit more. Freedom means we are not in bondage to guilt and fear just because we fall short of God’s perfect law. Freedom is the joy of knowing God loves us and wants our best. Freedom means Christians have been loosed from the tyranny of self-effort. Freedom means a liberty to respond to God from our hearts.
We need to hear that last one again and again: Freedom means a liberty to respond to God from our hearts. This is the crux of "Christian living." Because of what God's Spirit does, Christians are “free” to respond to the God who saves them––but not “free to sin”. The freedom we have in Christ is God's gift. It is incongruous that God would give us a gift that sanctions sin. What St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians is that God gives us a gift that frees us to be like him––a gift that frees us to love.
There is a sense is which every human being is free" to love whatever he or she desires. We all have a God-given desire for happiness and fulfillment. Every one of us is "free" to respond to that––and we do. Yet left to themselves, people want to do what they want to do. We too easily desire wrong things. Self-will is at war with God’s will; there is a warped view of “freedom” in our world. Paul calls this life according to the flesh. It’s also true that a Christian (a person in whom the Holy Spirit dwells) can, in specific actions, act like someone without faith. We live in a world that tells lies about values, and morals, and happiness, and having once had our identity in those lies, everyone is susceptible. But a person who has been born of the Spirit does not have to live that way because God's work is always urging a person on to true life and obedience. This is what Paul is talking about here:
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law (vs 17,18).
The good news of the Gospel is that Christians are “free” ––truly free to love and obey God, but not free to sin. We are free to love because love is such a basic character of God. When God sets a person free, it is a freedom to respond to God and be like him. St Augustine has been quoted: “Love, and do what you will.” God-given love is not just a sentimental feeling; God-given love is a Christ-like attitude that his Spirit works into us. God comes into his people so that they can be like him. So Paul says the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (v14).
And yet, as important as it is, “trying to love” is not the focus. We cannot love, God-style, by ourselves. Love is a by-product: Jesus loves through us as we focus on him. Paul says if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law––in other words, we live unto Jesus instead of trying to keep a list of what Christians “do” (or don’t do). The essence of Christian faith is that God comes to live in us so that his life can be expressed through us! Think what would happen if everyone in the world always lived in the Spirit and said no to the flesh! It would be heaven on earth. We are “free” to love God. Are you doing your part? Are you staying open to God’s Spirit?