The letters of St Paul the Apostle, which appear towards the end of the Bible, are full of advice on how to be a Christian. These 'epistles' were written for the early Christians who were part of the very first churches, many of which St Paul himself set up. In them he sets out what it means to live a Christian life as well as how to be a church together.
These brand new churches sometimes got it badly wrong in trying to figure out how to put their faith in Jesus Christ into practice. Paul wrote his letters to help steer them back onto the right track, and they are full of helpful teaching and pointers for us today.
One of Paul's very first letters was to the churches in Galatia, small Christian communities scattered across an area that today is part of Turkey. What prompted this letter was that Paul felt they had already drifted from the truth of the gospel, and were spending too much time squabbling over the question of how Jewish you needed to be as a practicing Christian. (Remember that Jesus and his twelve disciples were Jewish but, as the faith spread, many non-Jewish people starting to become believers. So it all got a bit complicated).
This letter is remarkably bad-tempered, and Paul gets into a real strop in places. "You stupid Galatians," he tells them at one point (Galatians 3.1).
Towards the end of the letter, from where today's reading comes, he seems to calm down a bit and writes very practically about how to be a Christian and in particular what it means to enjoy freedom in Christ.
This idea of Christian freedom, like so much of the way of Jesus, has a strange kind of upside down feel to it. We might be used to thinking about freedom as meaning we are uninhibited and can do what we like. Paul explains that the spiritual freedom which Jesus offers doesn't work like this. Doing whatever we feel like, whenever we want, turns out not be very freeing at all. Paul calls it a kind of slavery, because we become trapped by our desires, compulsions and obsessions, and our behaviour can lead to a breakdown in our relationships with others.
The constant craving to find fulfilment is never satisfied when we think only about ourselves. As Christians our fulfilment comes from God, through Jesus Christ, but when we free ourselves from the tyranny of self-centredness to live for God and for the good of those around us. Or as Paul puts it, "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Galatians 5.6).
When we choose to live God's way we discover a new freedom that liberates us from being trapped by our old habits and obsessions, as they give way to a life that bears the fruit of God's Spirit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (v22-23)
Fr John Woolley, in his beautiful devotional book I Am With You, envisions Jesus saying to us:
If you earnestly wish to leave old ways behind I lift you above them! You can take My hand and step out into the realm of freedom … where I am fully in control, and in which there is great blessing for you.
Where in your life could you use more of that? Which of the qualities of a spirit-filled life would you like to be more present in you? As we strengthen our walk with God through prayer and discipleship, these things gradually become more a part of who we are. As our faith and understanding mature, it becomes easier to see where we can show the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives. When we become more prayerful, more open to God's presence in us, more generous in meeting the needs of others, we get to enjoy a taste of all the good things that the kingdom of heaven has to offer. Heaven comes to us here.
It doesn't seem like a difficult choice, and yet we all know how life gets in the way. In today's gospel reading (Luke 9.51-62) Jesus' generous invitation "follow me", an invitation to experience the kingdom of heaven here and now, falls by the wayside for those who are too caught up in their lives to recognise a good thing when they hear it.
What are the excuses we make to that invitation? When Jesus says to you "follow me" and offers you a way to break free from the slavery of those things that try to control you, what do you say?
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (v13-14)
In trying to arbitrate the squabbles that were tearing the church in Galatia apart, Paul tells them that continuing with the old rituals of the Jewish faith is not what matters. It is in the way we behave and whether we choose to live by the Spirit of God that counts.
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let is also be guided by the Spirit. (v25)
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and are used by permission. All rights reserved.