Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Luke 9:51-62

I have bad feelings about the Gospel readings for a while. Our lectionary takes us through the bulk of Luke during “Ordinary Time,” telling stories of Jesus teaching and healing people. This part of Luke is full of great stories and parables, but they are all pressing on to a final encounter with the religious establishment in Jerusalem, Jesus’ death and resurrection. The resurrection is the point, of course, but Luke’s story leads to it through death, and Jesus has that in sight starting now.

Jesus’ decision to go to Jerusalem begins many chapters of what is called Luke’s “journey narrative,” or what we might describe as “how Jesus tried to get himself killed.” He starts with irritating the Samaritans in this story, as his focus on Jerusalem suggests that he denies their ways of worship. Then he goes on to shut out three would-be followers by demanding a level of commitment they can’t muster (because who could?). This is no way to build a ministry, and it’s no way to welcome a dear child into the church family. Would we say this to the little girl whose baptism we just celebrated?

Of course not. If nothing else, Jesus is kinder to children than that. He knows that children are busy for years learning how to love (and to tie their shoes). But they learn eventually. We know that love will make amazing demands of us, will transform us as if the person we were before had died. It will draw us out of ourselves into sharing with others, just as Jesus shared life even to the point of going without a home. We will learn a greater love even than life and family. But Jesus doesn’t drive this point home except with people who think they already know it. He only reminds the people who need to be reminded that love is beyond simple knowledge.

Love shows up in our life, not just in our thinking. Jesus lived love to the end, of course, with all that healing, feeding, and teaching. He lived good news for the poor, hungry, and sick. He revealed a God who is eager to make inequities right, and as Jesus leads, we share in this work. Jesus proclaimed restoration and new life, forgiveness for all that needs to pass away and new beginnings in freedom. I can tell you that sort of thing all day, but you really see it when you live it just as Jesus lived it, even to death.

And there’s death again. Yes, that’s where Jesus is going. His message of reconciliation, hope, and forgiveness makes enemies. There are forces that value control more than life, from marketing to religion – and we have to remember that it was the religious leaders who had Jesus put to death as a threat to their power. So Jesus is going to death, but that’s not his final destination: Jesus goes on to life via death, to eternal life through self-giving. Jesus was raised to demonstrate God’s new reality, and he lives on in God’s community as the church at its best lives Jesus’ life.

We live Jesus’ life when we open our doors to people at the edge of the community, inviting them to share in a picnic, a dinner, or in baking cookie. We live it when your gifts to the Deacons fund help to pay for groceries, gas, or clothing in people’s emergencies. We live it when you work through the government or nonprofit organizations to solve systemic problems in health, economics, or education. At our best, we spread the good news that life belongs to God’s people because God loves, not based on any other qualification.

I have never pretended that we do this perfectly, and Jesus has no illusions that we will. That’s part of why his qualifications are so unreasonable. Christian growth moves forward and back. We become more like Christ, then we get lost, and then we find new freedom again. The Church has always wrestled with the forces of control and turned new freedoms into fossilized sets of rules. The Galatian church was trying to figure out how to behave as followers of Christ: what rules and commandments did they have to follow? Paul invites them to find freedom again. Not to try to earn new life, but to receive it as a gift, because that’s what it is.

“But wait,” say the powers of religion and control, “won’t we just walk all over each other in that kind of freedom? Aren’t the rules there to protect us?” Of course they are. None of us can live without rules, because we aren’t perfect at freedom just yet. But the rules are only temporary. Paul talks about a freedom within and beyond the rules, a freedom we can grow into eventually, the freedom of God’s life.

It’s simple to talk about this kind of freedom. The guideline to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” sums it up. But it’s impossibly hard to live, and practicing this way of living takes all of our life. Loving your neighbor means giving yourself up, that is, giving up the false self that defends itself by attacking others. That self needs the constraint of rules until we’re ready to grow out of it, and then we move a new direction. It’s like learning how to play music. First, you learn the fingerings and notes, but then the music itself takes root. Eventually we are no longer bounded from without by rules, we’re guided from within by love. We’re giving, sharing, and living with Christ.

The Spirit of Christ grows new life within us, a life that shows up in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. The Spirit has to produce these from within us, they can’t be imposed from the outside. But they grow like weeds when we invite them to. The soil of our hearts is fertile for these “fruits of the Spirit.” Just make room for them. Remember the Spirit of Love that gave us life; ask that Spirit to guide us toward giving our best for others. Then do it again. Eventually (after years and decades) it becomes automatic. It becomes your life. Then we’ll know true freedom, when the Spirit who gave us life controls every move with love.