Summary: We need to learn to live into the freedom Christ has offered us and line up more effectively with the Spirit who changes us.
There’s a really great scene in the movie, Cars. For those of you who might not be familiar with this movie, it is a Disney-Pixar animated film in which a famous racing car, on his way to the next big race, actually ends up lost in a sort of “po-dunk” town called Radiator Springs. In the midst of stumbling into town, the racecar, named Lightning McQueen, manages to do a lot of property damage around the town. So he is “arrested,” put in the impound lot, and then sentenced community service, which requires that he repave the main street in town. In one of the more memorable scenes of the movie, the “boot” is finally removed from Lightning McQueen’s tire so that he can begin his work, but instead, as soon as the boot is unlocked, McQueen takes off heading out of town. [Let’s watch it. 33:48-35:41]
[“Freeeedom!!!” He yells as he disappears from view. The onlookers in town turn to the Sheriff, wondering why he’s not rushing after McQueen to arrest him again. The Sheriff just watches patiently, and then slowly begins making his way out of town in pursuit of Lightning McQueen. You see, the Sheriff had siphoned McQueen’s gas tank, so he knew the racecar wasn’t going to get very far out of town. And sure enough, just a few miles down the road, the Sheriff comes upon the “broken down” racecar and calls in Towmater the tow truck to haul McQueen back into town to complete his community service.]
Now, I share this with you not because I love Cars, which I do, but because this scene allows us to begin thinking about the use and abuse of freedom. For several weeks, we have been studying Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. In the midst of conflict and division, Paul has sought to defend his mission and the gospel he proclaims. In the passage we heard this morning, Paul begins to sum up all he has conveyed, and he wants to really “bring home” the gospel message, and the full meaning of Christ’s sacrifice for all people. And to do that, he takes this theme of freedom.
As we all know, it is one thing to be set free from prison or slavery, but it is quite another to decide what to do with your freedom when you’ve got it. This is the issue faced by every criminal when released from prison: shall I use by newfound freedom to go and commit more crimes, or should I change the way I have been living? Because the fact that you are, in one sense, free to move about and do whatever you please doesn’t necessarily mean that that is the right thing to do. It certainly didn’t do anything good for Lightning McQueen, as he ended up with even more community service after his little escape act. To put it another way, freedom from bondage, if it is to be any good, must be matched by a sense of freedom for a particular purpose.
Paul has already spent a good portion of this letter arguing that all who believe in Jesus Christ are free—free from their sinful past, but also free from the claims the Jewish law makes on its adherents. And as you know, Paul is really walking on shaky ground here because to a Jew, it was the law that kept them free from sinful and pagan behaviors. But now Paul is saying no; you can be free from sin AND free from the law because Christ’s sacrifice has set us free.
But we can’t just take off. Christ’s sacrifice has set us free so that we can live in God’s presence in a new way. And that means we can’t just do anything we want; we have been set free for a reason. With that truth hovering in the background, Paul makes his first point, that freedom in Christ is freedom for love. The controversies that had been brewing in Galatia had obviously led to some pretty serious disturbances in the church; so much so that Paul describes the conflict using words like “bite” and “devour.” So Paul points to this great conflict to say to these young Christians that such squabbling among themselves was a sign that they are still enslaved. Even though they had heard the gospel message, they were still in bondage. Worse still, they were on the fast track to total destruction. If things went on like that, quite soon there wouldn’t be a church at all in Galatia.
So to drive this point home, Paul quotes one of the central early Christian commandments, which of course, actually originated in the Old Testament, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you want to keep the law, Paul says, this commandment sums it all up. He’s reminding these new Christians of what Jesus had already said. But here’s the point for the Galatians. The way to keep this all-embracing commandment is not by emphasizing who you are “according to the flesh.” If you emphasize the flesh, Paul says, the flesh is what you’ll get, and look how well that’s worked for the Galatians!