The freedom that we are offered in Christ has two strong enemies. Chapter five of Paul's letter to the Galatians begins with the first enemy: “Now make sure that you stay free, and don't get tied up again in slavery to the law.” We have been set free from the power of guilt as we, despite our best efforts, fail again and again to live up to the fullness of God's law. The lectionary skips ahead twelve verses to inform us of the other enemy of the freedom of Christ, “you have been called to live in freedom-- not freedom to satisfy your sinful nature, but freedom to serve one another in love.” Too often, our freedom in Christ becomes an “I'm OK, you're OK love-fest.”
In Christ, we are set free from guilt in order to love one another more fully. Human nature tempts us back toward guilt or ahead to the love of self, and that is exactly what Paul has to argue against in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians. There were many in the Church who heard Paul's call to freedom as an excuse to live however they wanted to. They asserted that Paul's claim that Christians are no longer subject to the law meant that Christians were free from moral restraints of any kind. “Not so,” says Paul, “your freedom isn't the freedom to self-indulge, but he freedom to love one another without bounds.” This freedom to love was exemplified in the life of Jesus who healed on the sabbath, who touched lepers and dead bodies, and reached out to Samaritans and Roman. Jesus broke all the rules, but not so that he could, in the words of Jimmy Buffett, “get drunk and screw,” but in order to show that God's redemptive love had no limits.
This unending, no-boundaries love was the fulfillment of the law. The whole law, he says, is summed up (or fulfilled) in a single word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything God was trying to do in the 618 or so laws for the Israelites was, Paul tells us, so that God's people would love one another, and this is so very Pharisaical of him.
My colleague Rob Bell, who studies these things, writes that “Rabbis would spend hours discussing (and sometimes arguing) with their students about what it meant to live out a certain piece of the Torah – God's law. If a student suggested a way of living out a certain text that the rabbi thought completely missed the point, he would say, 'you have abolished the Torah,' which meant that in the rabbi's opinion the student wasn't anywhere near what God wanted. But if the student got it right, if the rabbi thought the student grasped God's intention in the text, the rabbi would say, 'you have fulfilled Torah” (Velvet Elvis, 48).
Paul the Rabbi,wants his students in Galatia to know how they can fulfill the Torah without circumcision, without food purity, without every jot and tittle. They can live out Torah by loving one another. See how that puts restraints on going the other direction? One cannot love another while engaged in acts like, sins of the flesh, “sexual immorality, impure thoughts and eagerness for lustful pleasure,” or sins of religion “idolatry and participation in demonic activities,” or sins of relationship “hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group and envy,” or sins of the bottle “drunkenness, and wild parties,” or, for that matter, any “other kind of sin.”
No, Paul says, instead of living enslaved to the law and instead of living enslaved to yourself, live in the Spirit, for when you live in the Spirit, you won't be living for anything else. When you live in the Spirit, when you fulfill Torah by mimicking God's extravagant love, then the rest of the fruit flourish within you as well, “joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” There is no law against these things. In fact, the law is fulfilled in these things.
Life in God isn't about being shackled by laws, and it isn't about doing whatever feels good, it is about fulfilling God's dream by following the Spirit. It isn't easy. The temptation is always there to slip to one extreme or the other, but God is faithful and eager to forgive. So today, choose to live in the Spirit, fulfill Torah, and love your neighbor. When you wake up tomorrow, apologize for where you fell short, and then choose again to live in the Spirit, fulfill Torah, and love your neighbor. And then, as my shampoo bottle says, repeat. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Here there is not conflict with the law. May you be filled with the Spirit today in order to fulfill Torah and love your neighbor. Amen.