Christ Freedom

Christ Freedom
Galatians 5:16-26
June 30, 2019
Pentecost +4C
St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott

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16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

One of the loveliest parts of my role as pastor in a church tradition named for voluntary, believer’s baptism, is that I’ve had the honor of baptizing quite a lot of folks here in my not-quite-six years. I have baptized dear friends who stay late in the night at my house for that good conversation when all the dinner plates just sit empty. I have baptized a determined, funny, and kind octogenarian who had been baptized as an infant but wanted to have this immersion experience in the place we gather. I have baptized several young people who are ready to step into this faith tradition and call it their own, including my own son and daughter. 

Every time, it’s something of a miracle. Physically: these old pipes still manage to pump water into the baptistery. This old baptistery still holds water unless the pastor forgets to shut it off after the hours it takes to fill. Even the old 1926 heater still manages to cycle all of that water and warm it up enough to take the chill off on a January morning. We step into the water like hundreds maybe thousands have before us. How many have entered the waters here? Steven Meriwether guiding them down the steps. Avery Lee lowering them under the water and raising them up again. Myron Madden welcoming them to walk in newness of life. It’s a central ritual in our story as a people as we are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. That’s what we say at the end. We are being washed into this Christ-ness we follow.

We’ve reframed our ritual of baptism here. I can remember as a child being terrified for friends and family who had not been baptized because I believed the water and words and ritual itself were the things that would protect you from a fiery eternity and assure you were in the safety of God’s love. I didn’t even grow up with a pastor who beat the pulpit talking about hell, but it was in the air in my Bible belt home. You entered the waters, you were protected. That’s what baptism was. 

Maybe you don’t have that same baggage around these Christian rituals. If you don’t, I’m so delighted for you. How freeing that must be! I hope I’m the kind of pastor who is offering a freeing and empowering path without a lot of lessons to be unlearned. And to that end, I sat down before my first baptism here and thought about reframing the whole thing. If baptism is a ritual marking an entry onto a path, into a way whose singular command is to be known for love, then what are our agreements in those old, baptismal waters? We ask these questions at St. Charles in the moment before a baptism:

    1. Do you commit yourself to honoring the image of God marked within you and within all those whom you meet?

    2. Do you commit yourself to the Way of Christ Jesus?

    3. Do you welcome the fruit of the Spirit into your days? Peace, love, joy, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control?

That last question comes from this letter to the Galatians—this ancient letter passed from a pastor to the congregations he had formed in that city. It also points to some kind of trajectory. I like to think now that baptism is more about trajectory than immediate outcome. Because if we think those waters are utterly transforming us, then we will be heart-broken when we turn up being the same old selves (sometimes the same old ROTTEN selves) that we’ve always been. But the trajectory is about aiming toward a mark with the intent of hitting it. The trajectory is about setting our feet on a path with the purpose of walking it. The trajectory is about a starting point and a destination. And whether arrows flying through the air of feet walking on the trail, we are moving and pushing forward and heading somewhere with purpose. The way we walk is in love. And peace. In kindness and in patience. The way we are being formed is in faithfulness and gentleness. And even self-control. 

Paul says this is the way of freedom. The Christ path is the freedom path. Such a curious word, particularly here in this country on this 4th of July week. Freedom, as Paul describes it, is not permission to be selfish and do whatever you feel like doing in a moment. He gives a list of examples, and I almost wish he didn’t because a lot of folks have practically written some of those examples out on an index card and walked around waiting to point them out: fornication! licentiousness! drunkenness! But have also conveniently left out envy, anger, jealousy, quarrels. This list Paul gives is not about creating a new purity code. The list is a way of depicting selfishness and our myriad attempts at devouring one another. Christ freedom has some boundaries. If our old way was about the stuff we do to ruin ourselves, isolate ourselves, and cut ourselves off from each other, the Christ way is about becoming servants to one another through peace, love, kindness, patience, gentleness, faithfulness. 

For freedom Christ has set us free. And that freedom has a shape. That freedom has a purpose. That freedom is setting us on a trajectory of kindness and patience and love and gentleness and self-control. What has changed is the space between us and everything else. Before Christ, I am living for myself, my needs, my wants, my desires, and I don’t see how my life is connected to your life or how the world around me has anything at all to do with me. With Christ, every thing is connected. And the interconnectedness of all things and all people is somehow making me more fully myself and you more fully yourself when we can tap into this us-ness of Christ. For freedom Christ has set us free.

Richard Rohr says our understanding of the Christ transforms our relationship to every thing—not just everything but every thing. He writes, “When I know that the world around me is both the hiding place and the revelation of God, I can no longer make a significant distinction between the natural and the supernatural, between the holy and the profane…Everything I see and know is indeed on ‘uni-verse,’ revolving around one coherent center…What a difference this makes in the way I walk through the world, in how I encounter every person I see in the course of my day!” 

To awaken to a world that is interconnected has tremendous implications for the way we live and even for the way the Christian story has been taught in recent centuries. This is the freedom Paul is describing. Christ’s way of seeing and understanding and moving in this world is freeing. To continue moving through life as though nothing is connected is destructive not just for me in my body and in my life but for all of us and every thing. Rohr continues, “The implications of our very selective seeing have been massively destructive for history and humanity. Creation was deemed profane, a petty accident, a mere backdrop for the real drama of God’s concern—which is always and only us [humans]…It is impossible to make individuals feel sacred inside of a profane, empty, or accidental universe. This way of seeing makes us feel separate and competitive, striving to be superior instead of deeply connected, seeking ever-larger circles of union.”

Can you hear what Rohr is saying there? When we see ourselves as separate entities, floating around in life utterly disconnected from the what and who around us, the consequences are destructive. To understand my life is linked to yours and our lives are linked to the strangers we pass by and the waters we have been polluting and the trees we have been ignoring, that awakening frees us to to richer, fully lives marked by the stuff of Christ, the stuff of Spirit, the stuff of God’s greatest hopes for us from the beginning of creation. 

Frederick Buechner writes, “This then is the gospel that Jesus seems both to have proclaimed with his lips and lived with his life, not just preaching to the dispossessed of his day from a high pulpit, but coming down and acting it out by giving himself to them body and soul as if he actually enjoyed it! Horrifying all Jericho by spending the night there not with the local rabbi, say, or some prominent Pharisee but with Zaccheus of all people, the crooked tax collector. When Simon the Pharisee laid into him for letting a [woman] dry his feet with her hair, Jesus said, ‘I tell you her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.’ It is no wonder that from the very start of his ministry the forces of Jewish morality and of Roman law were both out to get him because to him the only morality that mattered was the one that sprang from the forgiven heart like fruit from the well-watered tree, and the only law he acknowledged as ultimate was the law of love.”

The law of love has set you free. I call you sisters and brothers because we are connected. This life links us inextricably together. What will you do with it? Which path will you walk? What light will you shine for the world? What is the trajectory of the path you are walking?

My sisters and brothers, I ask you today:

    1. Do you commit yourself to honoring the image of God marked within you and within all those whom you meet?

    2. Do you commit yourself to the Way of Christ Jesus?

    3. Do you welcome the fruit of the Spirit into your days? Peace, love, joy, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control?

For freedom, Christ has set you free.

Amen.

Elizabeth Lott