Breath of the Spirit: For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free
It is easy to view Christianity as an overwhelming series of “do’s” and “don’ts,” an extended, divine recipe for earning God’s love. Today’s reflection, though, reminds us that Jesus came to free us from extrinsic demands made in God’s name. Instead, followers of Jesus are invited to live in the freedom – and the responsibility – of finding and following the call of Love in our deepest hearts as it makes demands in our public lives.
June 26, 2022: Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21
Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11
Galatians 5:1, 13-18
For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free
A reflection by John Falcone
This week’s readings speak to us about freedom in political, spiritual, and interpersonal terms. This comes through loud and clear in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “When Christ freed us, we were meant to remain free. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you” (Gal 5:1; Inclusive Lectionary and Message versions).
Many of us know what it’s like to be fitted with a (metaphorical) harness. As LGBTQ+ people or allies, the first parts that we notice are often the bit and the bridle. The bit fits in the mouth of the workhorse; the bridle restrains the whole head. Many people try to keep us from talking about our experience of love. Others want to direct what we look at, or to choose what we notice and what we ignore. And there’s more to a harness than just bit and bridle. A harness fastens you to a plough or a cart: it makes you serve someone else’s agenda. Paul warns us against the forces that want to harness us. He calls them “the Law” and “the flesh.”
For many centuries, Christians believed that Paul’s warning about “the Law” was a warning about Jewish legalism. But there’s also another way to understand it. The Galatians were a fiercely independent tribal people, with a distinct language and culture. They were considered dangerous and animal-like by the Romans, who spent great efforts to conquer and propagandize them. Some scholars, like Brigitte Kahl, place Paul’s argument within this historical context. If the Sadducees and Pharisees were “the Law” in Judea, the Romans were “the Law” in Galatia. God sets us free from them both.
Paul also warns us against slavery to “the flesh” (sarx in Greek). By this, he means slavery to self-centeredness and to death-dealing habits. There’s no denying that “flesh” for Paul is a negative word: flesh/sarx passes away, while the body/ soma will be raised to new life (1 Cor 15:50 and 1 Cor 15:44). But the traditional equation that Christians have drawn between “the flesh,” sex, and sin is very toxic. It is quite rightly rejected by most contemporary scholars. However, the insight that self-centered and death-dealing habits are lodged in our bodies is very astute. Cravings and addictions are lodged in our bodies. We experience cravings for comfort; for eating and overeating; for the rush of adrenaline due to anger; for mindless TV; for video games or pornography; for sugar, alcohol, nicotine; or for compulsive sex. Are any of these bad – or bad for us – in themselves? Maybe. But all these cravings can become toxic and dangerous when we lose the power to moderate and manage them – and when marketers and politicians use them to harness us for their own profit.
How can we cut the cords of these harnesses? Our other two reading provide us with some hints. In the reading from Hebrew Scripture, God tells Elijah to seek out and anoint Elisha, who will become his successor. To seek out and train your own replacement is an act of freedom. It’s a practice that many leaders (even from Dignity) can find challenging. But there is freedom in giving up the spotlight; in making space for others to grow and to shine. There is also freedom in letting go of one part of our lives, so that new life can emerge both for us and for others.
Unfortunately, the Lectionary’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures also skips over two troubling verses: 1 Kings 19:17-18. These verses are gruesome and political, as Elijah anoints leaders to eliminate Israel’s enemies. Religion and politics cannot be separated – either in the Bible, or in modern-day life. For example: are we called to vote for a greener economy, or to burn ever more carbon? Are we called to make trans rights an active priority? What about women’s rights, pre-born rights, and abortion? Freedom and political choices go hand in hand. Our Lectionary may try to avoid it but following God honestly and faithfully means facing the real world consequences of our decisions.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. When a Samaritan village refuses them hospitality, Jesus’ disciples want to punish them. Jesus tells them to let go of their anger. A fellow traveller offers to follow, but Jesus asks, “Can you live like me, without house or home?” Two travellers also want to follow Jesus but feel obligated to their families; Jesus says, “Let go of those feelings as well.”
Is Jesus encouraging followers to abandon their families? In the context of American individualism, it might certainly seem so! But I see Jesus’ challenges as calls to radical freedom. How far towards our own Jerusalem are we willing to travel? How much of our own harness, bridle, and bit do we dare leave behind? How comfortable have we become in the limits that our culture has put on us, and are we willing to suffer the discomfort of breaking free from the strictures of polite society in the service of loving our neighbors?
This week’s readings invite us to greater freedom. They invite us to speak out from our own truth; to transgress unjust religious and political frameworks; to make space for new ideas and young leaders; to face the tough choices and not turn away from them. The gospel invites us to move through our feelings of anger, fear, and co-dependence, so that we can get on with the practice of loving as Jesus loves.
We can do all these things – and even more – through the One who loves us: God, who has been revealed in Christ Jesus.
John P. Falcone is a practical theologian, religious educator, and a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed (PhD Boston College). He has been a Dignity member for more than 20 years with close links to Dignity NY, where he met his husband Matias Wibowo in 2005. He is currently Theologian-in-Residence at St. Matthew’s Bethnal Green (Church of England) in London’s East End.