[Homily. Assumption Chapel. Sunday, 26 June, 2022.]
Our second reading today from the Letter of Blessed Paul the Apostles to the Galatians begins with the inspiring line, “Brothers and sisters, for freedom Christ set us free, so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
Freedom from Jewish Circumcision and Law
In the context of his letter to the Galatians, Paul is responding to his communities of Christian converts in Galatia and Asia Minor who were being misled by Christian Judaizers, who claimed that Paul was not a true apostle. They taught the Galatians falsely that before they could be true Christians they must first be true Jews, and therefore that circumcision, the celebration of the Jewish feasts, and fidelity to the Jewish way of life according to the law are necessary for Christian salvation. Against these Christian Judaizers, Paul exerts his authority as an apostle. He had not walked with the Twelve original Apostles during Jesus’ public ministry, but his apostleship was genuine, he insisted, based on the personal experience he had had of Jesus in his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. In this experience, he received his mission to the Gentiles from Jesus himself. He was to bring them the good news of salvation not through compliance with Jewish law and customs but through faith in Christ Jesus. For it was through his death and resurrection that Jesus set all free from sin and slavery.
Therefore, Paul’s admonition: “Brothers and sisters, for freedom Christ set us free, so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Do not submit again the slavery of the Jewish law.
Freedom from Religious Externalism
On a deeper level, he set us free from relating to God merely through external compliance with the law, the notion that you are justified if you have properly washed your hands before eating, if you flaunt your fidelity to the law by wearing a phylactery on your forehead, and if your circumcision is cut in the flesh. Paul’s rejection of this externalism, echoed with finality by the early Church in the Council of Jerusalem, was rooted in Jesus’ own rejection of religious externalism which eclipsed the interior demands of a true relationship with God:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. But these you should have done, without neglecting the others. Blind guides who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside, you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing” (cf, Mt. 23:23-27).
Paul’s message was: “Brothers and sisters, for freedom Christ set us free, so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Through his Cross, Christ set us free for a genuine relationship with the Father in the Spirit that is not entered into through external enslavement to laws and pious practices. This relationship is not achieved in the hypocrite’s declaration, “Thank God, Lord, that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest and adulterous – like this tax collector”: I always put money in the collection basket, I am faithful to five daily novenas, I go to Mass every day, I pray the rosary every day. I love all women and men; it’s just my neighbor I can’t stand! It’s just this other student I despise! It’s just this needy person I won’t help because she is too demanding! Remember, Jesus taught that it was not the Pharisee that was justified, but the tax collector who prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (cf. Luke 18:9-14). There was a freedom in the openness of the tax collector to the mercy of God that was absent in the self-righteous Pharisee.
“Brothers and sisters, for freedom Christ set us free, so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Paul continues: “For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, rather serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Freedom from Sin for Love
In Paul, “the flesh” is not just the body but all that which opposes the Spirit, the Holy Spirit that is sent to us in the Church to remind us of and explain all that Jesus taught us about the goodness of his Father, about the Kingdom of God, about making service in the Kingdom the priority in our lives, about his coming to bring us life, life to the full, about accepting him as the Bread of Life, about taking care of the least of his sisters and brothers, about repenting from our sins and believing in salvation in Jesus Christ who suffers and dies for us to free us from our sins.
This struggle against sin, against the flesh, in those elements in me that rebel against Christ, reject his kingship, reject his love, is real. So often, sin is so powerful in me, it takes over, possesses me, and enslaves me. Have you ever experienced this? Paul expressed it in all its pathos in his letter to the Romans:
“What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells in me. So then I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” It is worth pondering this experience that Paul describes. I believe, he or she who has struggled with to be free of sin understands.
Through belief in Jesus Christ our Lord we are freed from the law of sin.
“Thanks be to God, [we are freed] through Jesus Christ our Lord…” (Rom 7: 15-29). We are freed not through any merit of our own, not through anything we have done or achieved, but simply because even in our sin, God loved us, and expressed that love for us in Jesus hanging from the Cross, who having died, rose, and sent us his spirit of life.
“For the law of the spirit of life in Christ has freed you from the law of sin and death. For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit…” (Rom. 8: 2-4)
Brothers and sisters, “for freedom, Christ set us free.” We are freed of Jewish circumcision and customs. We are freed of hypocritical religious externalism. We are freed of enslavement to sin. We are invited to an authentic relationship with Jesus in freedom. In contemplating the Jesus Christ on the Cross, we are invited ever more deeply to hear the Father’s Word of love spoken to each of us intimately from the Cross. In response, we are invited in the Spirit to reject our history of disobedience, idolatry and sin, and stand to him, even at the cost of suffering with him, to witness to his love in our world.