This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
Paul wrote: “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.”
There’s a challenging instruction. Shall we set up a bit of an auction block in the narthex after the service? How much do you think I would fetch on the open market?
Is that a confronting question? If it is, maybe it’s because we’ve become so used to the language of the New Testament that we’ve forgotten how confronting some of its phrases would have been to their original hearers. Become slaves… become property… lose all standing in society, as well as any protection against exploitation. Have your will bound by law to that of another person, so that you become powerless in your own life.
What is Paul really telling the churches in Galatia?
Slavery is a metaphor, here, of course. Paul doesn’t mean that the Galatian Christians – or we – should become literal slaves. But it means that looking at slavery as Paul understood it can tell us something about how Paul thought Christians ought to relate to one another. It doesn’t tell us everything, but it is worth pausing to see what it does say.
I think the main point here is one of mutual service. (And actually, to his original hearers, the idea that it was mutual would probably have been more shocking than the idea of slavery!) That Paul is saying that our time, energy, and talents ought to be used not only or even mainly for our own ends, but for the good of one another. I have to say that this is not something which I see as a particular weakness in this congregation. The spirit of mutual care and love is real and expressed in so much of what you do.
But as I reflect on where the blocks to our giving ourselves to this demand more fully lie – and I fully include myself in this – it seems to me that it is often our families which compete for our attention. In a society where very few people are part of a church alongside their spouse, children, siblings or other more distant relatives, instead of church being a natural widening of that circle of family, it’s become something that competes with it instead. Shall I spend time with my daughter or visit a fellow-parishioner who is sick?
This isn’t something that has a simple solution, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we abandon our families. But I do wonder whether, as our social patterns change, we need to revisit our assumptions about how church communities work, and how we shape our patterns of worship and community and family life? Something worth thinking about together, at least.
The other aspect of the service of a slave is that it is non-judgmental, or perhaps I should say, unconditional. The slave doesn’t serve only when he likes his master, or agrees with a course of action. We aren’t bound to one another just in sunny times when it’s easy to get along. But in Christ, we owe one another of our best even when we’d rather walk away.
So where do we go with this? I think we need to look at the idea of our obligation to one another here alongside the idea – which Paul expresses in other places in his letters – that each of us is given gifts for the service of the church community. It’s because God has given each of us something unique to contribute, so that the whole church can effectively share his love with the world, that we have an obligation not to leave that unexpressed.
As an aside, this is why I’m passionate about ministry not as something just left to professionals, but which belongs in a very real way to all of us as a community. Because not only can I not do all the work myself, but because each of you will have something that you can bring which I can’t. Some of us have more visible roles, but they’re not really more significant than any others. And working together we can be far more than if we have a performer-and-audience model of ministry. Paul asked in his first letter to the Corinthians, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” But as it is, God has put all of us together with different strengths so that together we can be a well-functioning body.
I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself what your unique gift for the church might be? The New Testament mentions a huge variety of things which might be considered spiritual gifts; from administration to discernment, encouragement, giving, wisdom… and that’s just a small sample. Which of them might belong to you? And how might you use that here, in this community?
If you’re not sure, the best way to figure it out is to give a few different things a go and see what fits. Maybe, if you’re not sure that you have any particular gift, or you’re not sure what it is, it’s time to try something new?
Now, none of this is meant to be a drudge, or a burden or a chore. That’s why Paul wrote that it is through love that we become slaves to one another. When you’re passionate about something, you want to give it your all. When you really care about someone, your heart will break at their need. We’re not being asked to fake it, but to let God help us find that depth of love within ourselves.
But to come back to the metaphor of slavery… I wonder what would happen if each of us set ourselves the challenge of finding, say, one thing to do each week, no matter how small, which in some way expressed God’s love for someone else in this parish? If you keep a journal, and you took on a challenge like that, what you would find is that a sequence of very small acts of love, over time, added up to a significant pattern of making a difference.
Through love become slaves to one another. I leave it with you to think about.