Monday, July 04, 2022

Freedom in Christ

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Freedom in Christ'. It is based on the second reading for the Second Sunday after Trinity.

Freedom in Christ

Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

St Paul writes in our reading this week:

‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1)

I have recently finished teaching a course on ‘Paul and his Letters’. There are 13 letters in the New Testament attributed to St Paul. The longest is Romans and the shortest is Philemon. As letters at the time go, however, they are all long. We easily forget that writing letters in the first century was a laborious and costly business.

Philemon is a letter that has not received a lot of attention in the past. Nowadays, it is receiving more attention both because of the window it gives us into the social circumstances of the early church and, not least, because it is about slavery.

Philemon himself, we learn from the letter, was a wealthy co-worker of St Paul’s (Philemon 1). We know Philemon was wealthy because he had a house large enough for the church to meet in (Philemon 2) with a guest room that St Paul hoped to stay in (Philemon 22). Like all wealthy people in the first century, Philemon had slaves. One of these slaves, Onesimus, had met St Paul, who was in prison, and Onesimus had become a believer as a result of the meeting (Philemon 10). We don’t know exactly where St Paul was in prison, but Rome or Ephesus are the two most likely locations, with most scholars favouring Rome, although I personally favour Ephesus.

It is often said in commentaries and sermons that Onesimus was a runaway slave, who had met St Paul accidentally. I am not quite sure how this is supposed to have happened given that St Paul is a prisoner and Onesimus isn’t. Why would a runaway slave visit a jail, and what are the chances it would have a friend of the master he had run away from in it?

What does seem clear is that there had been some trouble or tension between Philemon and Onesimus. It is possible that Onesimus, knowing that St Paul was someone his master respected, had turned to St Paul for help in the hope that St Paul would act as a mediator between them. It is also possible that Onesimus had been sent to see St Paul by Philemon and had taken the opportunity to tell St Paul of his problems, whatever his motive may have been for doing so.

In any case, St Paul would have liked Onesimus to stay with him and help him in his work as an apostle (Philemon 13). That, however, would have been against Roman law and would got them both into trouble, apart from what it would have done to St Paul’s and Philemon’s friendship. St Paul, then, instead sent Onesimus back with a letter telling Philemon how wonderful it was Onesimus had become a believer and urging Philemon to be nice to Onesimus, who was now a brother as well as a slave (Philemon 16). What St Paul didn’t do was to ask or tell Philemon to free Onesimus. This causes all sorts of problems for many people today and illustrates the extent to which we simply don’t understand either the New Testament or its world.

Firstly, slavery in the first century was not the same as slavery during the time of the slave trade. While slaves had no rights, some, nevertheless, had quite a lot of influence and responsibility. They served, for example, as managers, accountants, and tutors. Some slaves had slaves. Slaves came from conquered regions of the Empire, and were not limited to one ethnicity.

Secondly, not all slaves wanted their freedom even when they were offered it. Why would they? Managing a rich man’s household gave a better quality of life and more freedom than living on your own in poverty would give. Some slaves, having been given their freedom, chose to give it up and remain slaves.

Thirdly, however, slaves did belong to their owners, and some had terrible lives and were treated harshly by their masters. So, the question that often gets asked now is why St Paul and the Church in general didn’t do something about it? Why, for example, didn’t St Paul speak up more for Onesimus?

Well, firstly, the Church at this stage was still a very small and relatively insignificant movement. It wasn’t in a position to make much of a difference and had to guard against being seen as socially subversive, which would have led to it being even more persecuted than it was. But secondly, hard though it is for us to understand, it simply wasn’t that important an issue. The Church felt that were more important things for it to be doing and concerned about than changing pagan social structures.

This doesn’t mean the Church thought the way slaves were treated didn’t matter or that masters who belonged to the Church had no responsibilities to their slaves. St Paul writes that masters did have obligations to their slaves, as did a slave to their master (Colossians 3:22-4:1; Ephesians 6:5-9). The Church was also concerned about freedom, just not the sort we focus on today. Jesus said to the Jews in Jerusalem that if the Son set them free, they would be free indeed (John 8:36), and, as we have read, St Paul tells the Galatian believers that Christ has set them free and warns them to hold on to their freedom.

But here’s the thing: in all likelihood the Galatian churches that St Paul wrote these words to would have contained slaves. St Paul is telling slaves that Christ has set them free, even though they are still slaves and are likely to stay that way. Neither Jesus or St Paul are talking about social and political freedom, so what are they talking about? St Paul, in our reading, makes it very clear what he means.

St Paul writes that before the Galatians came to know God in Christ, they were imprisoned under the power of sin (Galatians 3:22). They were slaves (Galatians 4:1), enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods (Galatians 4:8). It is not just the pagans that this applies to, but to those under the Law and part of the people of God, that is, the Jews (Galatians 4:25). Incredibly, St Paul tells them that it was God’s Law that kept them imprisoned and enslaved (Galatians 3:23).

The word St Paul uses to describe this state is ‘flesh’. Being ‘in the flesh’ is to be a slave. The word ‘flesh’ that is used to translate into English the word St Paul uses in Greek is one that can mislead. To us, ‘flesh’ is the physical stuff of our bodies and the word St Paul uses can mean that, but it is used more broadly to refer to us as human beings. It is our ‘self’ as we are, with all our limitations and weaknesses. Except, of course, we don’t think of our ‘self’ as limited and weak, and that itself is part of the problem.

St Paul gives a detailed, but not exhaustive, list of the ‘works of the flesh’. It includes sexual immorality and idolatry, but also anger, jealousy, and envy. Those who do such things, St Paul writes, will not inherit the Kingdom of God. It is, then, essential that we don’t do them. Left to ourselves, however, we can’t help but do them. That is what it means to be slaves, imprisoned under the power of sin. There is, however, hope. St Paul writes:

‘But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.’ (Galatians 5:17)

Our hope lies in the Spirit, who is given to those who have faith in Christ. It is the Spirit, who can enable us to overcome the desires of the flesh and produce instead the ‘fruit of the Spirit’: love, joy, peace and all those things against which there is no law. Those who belong to Christ, St Paul writes, have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. St Paul urges those to whom he writes to live in the Spirit. He tells the Galatians that not only should they live in the Spirit, but that they should be led and guided by the Spirit. If they are led by the Spirit, they are no longer under the Law, which keeps people imprisoned as slaves to sin and self.

We think political and social freedom is the real freedom. It really isn’t. People campaign for the sort of society which they think will give them the freedom to be them self. But left to our self, we are helpless and powerless to escape from the powers that enslave and control us. This is not to say that what we call ‘political freedom’ isn’t important, but to someone addicted to drugs or alcohol, who is suicidal or who self-harms, it may not be their most pressing concern.

We may reply that we personally are none of those things. Maybe not. But let me ask you: are you happy with the life that you have? Recently (June 17, 2022), Jon Clifton, the head of Gallup, wrote a guest article for the Economist. The headline to the article was: ‘Unhappiness around the world is soaring’. Now we may at first assume that this is because of the pandemic, but Jon points out that while undoubtedly the pandemic hasn’t helped, it is not the cause of rising rates of unhappiness. Gallup has been tracking ‘unhappiness’ since 2006, he writes, and unhappiness has been increasing for the past decade across the world.

Gallup, Jon tells us, interviews 150,00 people in 140 countries each year about how they feel. Unhappiness, Jon observes, can be caused by different things: poverty and hunger, for example, but the crisis that Jon singles out for causing unhappiness is loneliness. One fifth of adults, he reports, do not have anyone they can count on for help. Loneliness is no joke. It can increase our blood pressure and decrease our life expectancy. It can, Jon writes, take a toll equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

We put a big emphasis on being in work and earning a regular income, but ,again Jon reports, 19% of workers are completely miserable in their job. Stress and worry amongst workers have risen consistently since 2009. As Jon points out, our emotions, that is, how we feel, influences our decisions, actions, and even cognition.

Now the irony is that unhappiness has increased, even though materially we are better off than we ever have been. I would suggest that our unhappiness is not despite us being better off materially, but because of it. This is what happens when you focus on physical things and rely on yourself for happiness.

You are probably expecting me at this point to say that if we believed in God and took going to church more seriously, we would be happier. And you are right: that is exactly what I am going to say. But not just me. I want to draw your attention to another article, this time in Scientific American. It is a year old (June 15, 2021) and is entitled, ‘’Psychiatry Needs to Get Right with God’. It is written by David H. Rosmarin, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

David begins his article by citing a study that showed that Google searches for prayer across 95 countries hit an all-time high in March 2020 at the time when covid was hitting a peak in many places. At the same time, according to other research, 55% of Americans prayed for an end to the spread of covid. One quarter reported that their faith had increased in the month following, despite limited access to places of worship.

This trend, David writes, is not just socially significant, but is also clinically significant. In the preceding year, American mental health was at its lowest in history, and mental disorders increased 50% from before the pandemic. Young adults were more than twice as likely to consider suicide. The only group to see improvements in their mental health were those who attended weekly religious services virtually or in-person.

[BTW: The services at Christ Church that we posted on YouTube during the suspension of services because of the pandemic are still available for those who would like to watch them!]

60% of psychiatric patients, according to David, want to discuss spirituality. The problem is that since Sigmund Freud described religion as a ‘mass-delusion’, mental health professionals have avoided the ‘spiritual realm’. (David also notes in the article that psychiatrists are the least likely of all physicians to be religious, which underlines the extent of the problem.) The result, he writes, is that ‘we ignore potential spiritual solutions to our mental health crisis, even when our well-being is worse than ever before’.

David reports that belief in God is associated with significant better treatment outcomes, even for acute psychiatric patients. His own research team found that when belief in God and spirituality were included in the treatment process, more than 90% of patients reported benefit, regardless of religious affiliation.

David Rosmarin concludes his article:

‘It remains to be seen whether God can solve our mental health crisis. But the potential clinical benefits of spirituality, and patients’ desire for spiritual treatments, provide a reason to believe.’

Last week, in our Gospel reading, we read of the demon possessed man whose name was ‘Legion’ because of the number of demons who had entered him. Today, of course, he would be diagnosed as having a psychiatric condition. The description of him in the Gospels shows how disturbed he was. For a long time, he wore no clothes, he did not live in a house but in the tombs. He was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles, but he would break them and be driven into the wilds. After he had been healed by Jesus, however, St Luke describes him as ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’ (Luke 8:35).

For years, we have been fed the lie that it is only the weak-minded, irrational, or superstitious who believe in God. It’s time for those of us who believe in God to tell people that you can’t be in your right mind unless you believe. This is not to suggest that believing in God cures all mental illnesses, but not believing in God makes them worse whereas believing in God can help make them better. As the Psalmist says, it is the fool who has said in their heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1). Society, having largely rejected belief in God in any meaningful sense, is now paying the price for its foolishness in increased unhappiness and mental disorder.

The Word on Fire Show did a programme based on David Rosmarin’s article in the Scientific American. In the comments section, someone called BeckyC posted this comment:

‘I wasn’t Christian during the 2020 lockdown in Melbourne. I was alone without seeing anyone I knew for 6 weeks (aside through a screen), it was very hard.

In 2021, I had an experience of God and came to Christ.

This year’s lockdown was a cakewalk this time round, and I feel like I’ve blossomed if anything. I prayed a lot, read the Word and attended online services.

I have previously had a BPD
[Borderline Personality Disorder] diagnosis in my younger years, in hindsight I was having a crisis of meaning in my life. I was suicidal and tried many times, I was addicted to pornography, alcohol, sex and self-mutilation. It has been through finding God that has brought me the most healing and those temptations have been reduced to nothing when I walk with Christ.’

Becky’s experience is similar to that of ‘Legion’. We may not all have a past like Becky’s, but we are all prone to destructive forces. These can be internal and come for within us or they can be external and assault us from outside, but whether internal or external, they can lead to both unhappiness and mental disorder. St Paul tells us in our reading that it is from these destructive forces that Christ sets us free and offers the possibility of a life of freedom.

We are constantly told that happiness is to be found through self-realisation and self-fulfilment. St Paul tells us that it is the self that is the problem. Those who belong to Christ Jesus, writes St Paul, have crucified the flesh, that is, the self, with its passions and desires.

Jesus, however, doesn’t leave those who belong to him to get on with it by themself. There is well-known saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ The self-help movement is a popular one and very much a part of our culture. Being a follower of Jesus is the exact opposite of self-help. Those who follow Jesus know that God helps those who know they can’t help themselves, who know they have no power of themselves to help themselves and rely instead on his Spirit to help them.

At Pentecost, we thought of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to us. This is not some theoretical idea or doctrine, but, as people like Becky can testify, it is a real, life-changing experience. It is not just an experience for the few, but for all those who place their trust in Jesus. It is by the Holy Spirit given to us that we are set free from those things that threaten to destroy us, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we experience love, joy, peace and all those things that increase our happiness and promote our mental health. These are not our work, but the fruit of his presence in us.

I believe the good news of Jesus because it is true, but not only is it true, the good news is that is also good for you.

May you personally find the freedom that Christ offers you to set you free to enjoy the life of the Spirit.

Amen.

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