Living in the United States, we are accustomed to fighting for freedom, as it is enshrined in our founding documents. As a nation, freedom is part of our identity. Nobody will tell us what to do!….or think, or believe. It is what makes this the best country in the world, but it is also what makes being a Christian so difficult.
Brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the stumbling block of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves! For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. – Galatians 5.11-21
While we are in fact free, that means we bear the consequences for our actions. If we were not free, then nothing could be held against us. It is because God loves us, that He grants us our freedom, even the freedom to reject God in our beliefs but also in our actions. As St Paul in today’s reading from Galatians, we are supposed to use our freedom for doing good serving each other rather than serving our flesh.
It is too easy to invoke our freedom when we choose to sin, because in truth nobody can stop us. Our prison system is an example of that reality. Laws do not stop behavior. They merely lay out the punishment we choose for taking part in those behaviors. This is what St Paul is saying today. If we choose to live for the flesh, and he listed some of those sins, then our punishment is that we will not inherit the Kingdom of God. If we choose to live according to the Spirit, then we will inherit the Kingdom. It is just that basic.
What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? God is love. How does He treat us? Since He loves us, we can use His example to determine how we ought to love. Does God hold a grudge against us when we make a mistake? No. Does God write us off after too many mistakes? No. Does God force us to act in a certain way, even though that way is best for us? No. Does God withhold mercy when we ask for His forgiveness? No. These are just a few ways that God loves us, and that we can show our love for others. The examples given by St Paul of the works of the flesh are not acts of love, but acts of selfishness.
As you go about your day today, consider if you are loving your neighbor, or if you are loving the flesh. Then remember to use your freedom for good. You may just realize that loving another person instead of yourself will give you more joy and fulfillment.