TEXT: Galatians 5; Acts 2:16-18,21
Today we celebrate Pentecost and the confirmation/baptism of three of our students. We’ve had those two events on the same Sunday in previous years and I can think of no better convergence of themes, as Pentecost is about God sending the Holy Spirit to empower the followers of Christ to live out their faith in the world. On top of that, our text in Galatians 5 is about the same thing! Paul has been telling the believers in Galatia that God has given them freedom in Christ – freedom from the burdens of the Law and freedom from sin. And he frames it all in terms of “walking by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25)
So today’s sermon is about the Holy Spirit empowering us to live out the freedom God designed and desires for us. It is not “me-freedom” to do whatever I want, but the true freedom of following Jesus Christ and experiencing his presence and power in our lives. It’s a sermon for the Confirmation students; it’s a sermon for you; and it’s a sermon for me!
The Promised Spirit (Acts 2)
I want to start with the scripture you heard in the Call to Worship from Acts 2. It is part of Peter’s sermon at the event of Pentecost, when the Apostles were filled with God’s Holy Spirit. Peter is quoting from the prophet Joel in the Old Testament, which he understood to be describing this event:
17 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says,
‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions,
And your old men shall dream dreams;
18 Even on My bondslaves, both men and women,
I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy.
21 ‘And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
God had not only promised a Savior and Redeemer, God had promised the Spirit! It was part of the great blessing of the nations promised to Abraham, and God would accomplish it through His Spirit. It would reach the nations – “all mankind”; men and women, young and old, slave and free would all be a part of God’s movement in the world. It sounds a lot like the language in Galatians that in Christ there is no longer distinction between Jew/Greek, male/female, slave/free. God is on the move!
Indeed this is the same Spirit that Paul describes in Galatians 5. The topic is freedom – living free; but Paul will come to the Holy Spirit as God’s help for us to experience what God has for us.
Me-Freedom vs. God-Freedom
Let’s talk first about freedom. Last week in the music illustration by Ron Block, I described legalism, license, and Gospel freedom. Paul has mostly focused on legalism thus far in Galatians because one presenting issue for the Galatians was the group pushing for adherence to the Mosaic Law, especially around circumcision. Last week I mentioned ‘license’ which is the opposite problem. It’s freedom, but a sinful and selfish kind of freedom that I defined as “me-freedom.” It’s doing what I want, which Paul says is no freedom at all. He’s spoken much to bondage to the Law, but in chapter 5 he also describes bondage to sin, which can sometimes be confused with freedom. I just want to do what I want to do. How many of us didn’t say that as children or teenagers (or adults?!). The problem is our inclination to sin. So being “me-free” leads to things like Paul’s list in vv. 19-21: “Immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” That’s not an exhaustive list, but it gets the point across. If my understanding of freedom is getting and doing what I want, I can quickly bring harm to myself and others.
Very briefly I want to speak to the challenging phrase: “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” We want to make that into something like “will go to Hell”; but the sense of it is much more present. I think of the parable of the Prodigal Son, who demanded his inheritance and wanted to be “free” of his father. He left his father’s home and ended up miserable. It was no freedom at all. He did not lose his place in his father’s home or heart, but was missing out on the blessing of being with his father. Indeed, he was miserable, not living as a son or heir as Galatians would say. Finally the prodigal realized that living in his father’s house was better, was true freedom and blessing, and he returned to find his father waiting and joyful at his return. That’s the picture Jesus painted of the Father’s heart.
True freedom – Freedom with a capital F – is wanting and doing what God wants. To a child or teenage (or adult!) brain that may seem non-sensical, but if God wants our best and loves us most seeking His will is ultimately free. And God-freedom is exactly the opposite of getting what I want. Paul says it is captured in one statement: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (v.14) He unpacks that in the surrounding verses as “faith working through love” (v.6) and “through love serve one another” (v.13).
He also provides a contrasting list of what God-freedom looks like. These are the fruit of God’s Spirit working in us: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (vv.22-23) This is also not exhaustive, but you get the point. These are traits that put others first, that seek to love, serve, and bless.
Those sound great, but I’m a pretty selfish person most days. How do I experience the kind of freedom God desires for me?
The “Helper” (vs the Gate-Keeper)
Here’s the good news: God is not a gate-keeper, waiting for us to generate a sufficient amount of goodness off that list in order to gain admittance into His presence. God is the one helping us to experience the freedom. Freedom is not the reward at the end of life; it is the life we live now. God gives us help to experience freedom here and now. That help is the Holy Spirit. Jesus told his followers that he would leave a ‘Helper’ (paraclete), the Holy Spirit.
The Helper is God’s Holy Spirit living in us. Again, it is not a reward for those who are good enough, but help for those who aren’t! The Holy Spirit shows us the truth and, as one confirmation student wrote, “comforts us and confronts us in time of need.”
Paul is clear throughout his various writings – there will always be a tug of war between sin and Spirit, between me-freedom and God-freedom. God is not going to overwrite our internal hard drive so that we never doubt, never struggle, never are tempted, and never sin. But God has given us the Spirit to live in us and walk along side us so that we are never alone. We always have God’s resources and help to choose to love neighbor, choose kindness, grow in self-control.
Paul summarizes this by challenging us to “walk by the Spirit.” Our walk is how we live, day by day, moment by moment. Like the Prodigal we can wander into me-free attitudes or behaviors, even as Christians! But God’s promise is to remain with us, ready to help us return again and again to where we are most free.
Paul will continue exploring the freedom of walking by the Spirit as he moves into chapter 6 of Galatians. As we reflect on today’s scripture and prepare for Eric to bring the message next week, consider these questions:
How do I define freedom? Is it me-freedom or God-freedom?
How might I more and more welcome God’s help into my daily life and walk with the Spirit?
Some Music Used
- Glorious Day (choir)
- And Can it Be (Enfield)
- No Longer Slaves (Bethel)
- Who You Say I Am
- Baptism: Long Before You Were Made (Dawson/Austell)
- Spirit of the Living God