St Bride's: Sermons


Galatians 5: 1, 13-25

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Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.

14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.

16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,

20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,

21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

24 And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.

25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When I first left school, I worked as a sales assistant in a local record shop.  This was back in the days of long-playing vinyl records and eight-track cartridges (if any of you can remember eight-track cartridges!).  And to my eighteen year old self, it really did feel like a dream job: I was passionately interested in music, and was a fanatical record collector - so the prospect of spending my days, not only immersed in that world, but actually being paid for it, really did seem too good to be true.

The reality, of course, proved rather different. Before I started working there, the prospect of being surrounded by the choice of literally thousands of records, any of which I could play over the shop's sound system, pretty well to my heart's content, looked like the gateway to a wonderful new world of musical freedom and discovery.  However, once the initial novelty had worn off, it turned out not to be like that at all - for the simple reason that when it came to it, the choice was simply too great.  Most of the staff in the shop ended up listening to the same few records repeatedly, or complaining that they couldn't decide what to play.  And I soon became one of them.  

Some of you will have observed a similar phenomenon in relation to small children: bombard a young child with too many wonderful and exciting toys all at once, and that child will simply not cope, but will end up moving aimlessly from one item to the next, constantly distracted, unable to settle, and not knowing what to do with himself or herself.

When the actor James Mason's daughter Portland was born (and yes, I'm afraid he really did call his daughter Portland), he and his wife decreed that she was going to grow up in total freedom, without being subject to any kind of restraint.  So, at the age of two, she was still roaming around their Hollywood mansion at midnight, because if she didn't want to go to bed she didn't have to.  By all accounts (as James Mason himself came to admit later), they did her absolutely no favours, as they were to discover to their cost.  Because a child who is deprived of boundaries is in fact deprived of something that is essential to human well-being - something that enables us to learn how to structure our lives and relate to other people.  She turned out to be a very spoilt and troubled young girl, who in adulthood died tragically at a relatively young age.  

Freedom is a concept that sounds very simple but is in fact easily misunderstood.  Because human beings - even the most intelligent and able among us - often fail to realize that true freedom does not come about by having everything you could possibly want.  It is not about having unlimited choice, nor unlimited leisure, nor unlimited wealth, nor unlimited power - because such things in fact bring their own burdens, their own perils, and, paradoxically, can end up actively preventing, rather than promoting, our human flourishing.  Indeed, rather than setting us free, the scope to have or to do whatever we want, can, in the end, proved to be the very thing that enslaves us.

The question of what does and does not constitute true freedom is an issue that exercised St Paul a great deal, as we heard in our first reading from Galatians, where he grapples with the real meaning of 'freedom' and 'slavery'.  Paul was convinced that following the death and resurrection of Christ, Christians were no longer bound to observe all the details of the Jewish law in order to be part of the new People of God - a highly controversial notion in his day - when it was assumed by many in the Church that one had to become Jewish in order to be a follower of Christ.  (That is why in his letters Paul is so frequently exercised about issues such as circumcision - which can seem rather bizarre to us today.)  

However, this freedom from the law, was completely misinterpreted by some Christians of Paul's day (most notably in the Church at Corinth), and taken to be a charter for lawlessness, which was not what Paul meant at all.  So in this morning's reading from Galatians, he spells out what he does mean.  Yes, Christ has set us free - but not in the superficial sense that means doing whatever you want, whenever you want.  Which is why Paul rails against all those things that we can so easily mistake for freedom: self-indulgence  (pandering to the desires of our bodies, without taking heed to the welfare of our souls) - hence his condemnation of drunkenness.  He condemns fornication, impurity, and licentiousness (the quest for physical gratification divorced from the responsibilities of relationship); he condemns idolatry (making something other than God the centre of your existence); and sorcery (the attempt to control one's destiny in defiance of God's purposes for our lives).  

But most interestingly of all, Paul includes amongst his list of the things that enslave us, 'enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy.'  It is easy to forget that all of these, too, can be self indulgent in the extreme: there can be something horribly gratifying about putting someone in their place, or indulging in gossip at their expense.

So what, then, is true freedom?  The answer that Paul gives to that question is both fascinating and unexpected; because for Paul, the answer is closely linked with what he describes as the 'fruit of the spirit': love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  It is so easy to assume that the Holy Spirit works only in exciting and dramatic ways; not through such quiet and gentle qualities.  And the idea that self-control is a gift of the Spirit may well come as a surprise to many.

But in thinking of the people I have known in my life and ministry who have exhibited those qualities to the full (some of whom were really quite surprising, given the difficulties of their life circumstances), all of them really did seem to posses a profound inner freedom: the freedom of being comfortable with who they were; of being at ease with themselves and with their place in the world, regardless of the challenges and limitations they faced within their individual lives.  Theirs was a freedom of the soul that was more easily glimpsed than described, but no less real for all that.  Because that freedom found expression in lives that were marked by joy.

Two little closing thoughts.  On Friday morning I was interested to hear one of the Brexit campaigners declaring: 'At last we can be free of the financial and legislative burden of being in Europe.'  So the question that now remains for all of us, regardless of how we happened to vote, is what will that freedom actually look like?  What are the values that will shape the very different future that now lies ahead of us?  Will the freedom to which so many have aspired be a true freedom, or not?  I wonder.

Which leads me onto my final point.  A question: what do the following have in common?:  Christians, Muslims, Jews, Starbucks, the University of Middlesex, The Mayor of London, the transgender community, the London Fire Service, and the Police?  And the answer?  I happened to be out yesterday afternoon, and by chance caught part of the Gay Pride Parade through central London, in which all of those groups were represented.  The vast crowd who had gathered - mostly young adults, and completely multicultural and cosmopolitan, cheered every single one of those groups enthusiastically and without qualification.  And most remarkably of all, in the place where I was standing, the two groups that got the loudest cheers of all were the small but incredibly courageous group of Muslims, and the Police.  For me as a bystander, it was one of those fleeting moments in life when I saw all of the boundaries that normally separate human beings from one another simply evaporate, in the simple recognition that there are sometimes things that unite human beings that are of much greater significance than the divisions that normally separate them.

Now, what I saw yesterday was a fleeting moment in time, not a solution to life's problems.  That event in itself is not uncontroversial - nor is the observation that I have just made about it.  But to use that as a model for a moment: I can't help feeling that true freedom, the freedom of which Paul speaks, must be the kind of freedom that enables us to glimpse what unites us with the brothers and sisters from whom we normally feel divided - rather than be complacent in regarding those barriers simply as a given.  


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