The word of the day is “freedom.” What do people have in mind when they seek freedom? They seek release from whatever controls or threatens to restrain them. And yet, in the name of freedom, many let themselves be dominated by all sorts of indulgences: the pursuit of fame, wealth, adventure, comfort, lust, and power. In today’s reading of Galatians 5:11-21, Paul writes, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (OSB vs. 13). Today we will learn what should control us as those who are free in Christ.
Imagine that a group of children are in a candy shop. The storekeeper announces that she will be stepping out of the store for a few minutes. On the way out, she says, “You are free to do as you like, only stay in the store.” What will the children do? They will greedily gobble up as much candy as they can, satisfying their appetites for sweets to the point that they would get sick.
Freedom Without Qualification Is License
So it was with the Galatians. They were a congregation of Gentiles not long converted from the pagan licentiousness of the Roman empire. Thus Paul had to proclaim the Gospel of freedom in Christ with care. If he announced freedom without qualification, the former idol-worshippers would think he was giving them license to return to their previous lusts (See Galatians 4:8).
So Paul quickly added to his defense of freedom in Christ, warning that his flock should not “use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh” (vs. 13). The term “flesh” in this context has a negative sense. It is not only what covers the bones of the body. It is our “base” nature composed of material instincts, cravings, and lustful desires (Strong’s #4561).
The word translated as “opportunity” comes from the thought of a “starting point” and means “occasion” or “chance” for the sensual, carnal self to indulge itself. Thus, if the Galatians understood that faith without works meant license, freedom would mean control. Liberty would mean slavery. The base urges of the sinful nature would take over. Thus, Justin Martyr wrote, “To yield and give way to our passions is the lowest slavery, even as to rule over them is the only liberty” (NfPf1: Fragment, #18).
In our reading, Paul goes on to teach that there is one bondage in which one remains free. It is the bondage of love. Of all the population of the Roman empire, Paul was the most free. Yet he said, “For the love of Christ compels us…” (2 Cor. 5:14). Love gives itself. That takes freedom. It requires that one be loosed from every other bondage to expend itself to care for others.
Love Gives Itself in Service
Therefore, Paul states that believers are free to “through love serve one another” (vs. 13). The kind of love that Paul refers to here is the “self-giving love” that the cross demonstrates and the faithful share (Strong’s #26). The term “serve” is derived from the Greek word for “slave” (Strong’s #1398). Accordingly, Paul advises believers to freely put themselves in bondage to one another to serve them, care for them, and fulfill their needs. Indeed, the liberty of Christians is proven by our freedom to love and be loved as God loves us.
His All-Holiness Patriarch Athenagoras 1, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 1948 to 1972, wrote:
Those who accuse me of sacrificing Orthodoxy to a b[l]ind obsession with love have a very poor conception of the truth. They make it into a system which they possess, which reassures them, when what it really is, is the living glorification of the living God, with all the risks involved in creative life. And we don’t possess God; it is He who holds us and fills us with His presence in proportion to our humility and love. Only by love can we glorify the God of love, only by giving and sharing and sacrificing oneself can one glorify the God who, to save us, sacrificed himself and went to death, the death of the cross” (Conversations with Patriarch Athenagoras).
We learn today that love is the fruit of freedom. In fact, the Lord frees us from the control of the law so that we might freely glorify God by sharing His love with one another.