Sermon June 26, 2022 by Rev. James Rausch

“Sacral Manumission “

Rev. James Rausch

This week, we need to use our imaginations as we consider Paul’s use of slavery as people knew it in his culture as a metaphor to help teach us about the human condition and what has been made possible for us in Christ.  It is a challenge to bring this concept to mind and to consider Paul’s teaching that because of the fallen and sinful state of humanity, that all people are like slaves.  Paul say that we become slaves to whoever or whatever we obey.

The good news of the gospel, as Paul continues his use of the metaphor of slavery, is that the price has been paid for all who are enslaved by the harsh master of sin that we may become subject to a new Master, One who is not like any other.

This language is especially hard for us to deal with, because slavery is thankfully not a concept that is considered by any of us to be an acceptable aspect of human relations.  Though we cannot and should not ever embrace the institution of human slavery, it is to our benefit to use our imaginations to try to use this concept to understand what Paul is teaching us.

Paul applies both the language of slavery and the language of freedom to himself and to those he addresses.  He introduces himself in many of his letters as a slave to Christ, or a slave to the gospel. 

1Cor 9:19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.

And in today’s passage, Gal 5:13, he says, “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.”

So, are we Christians slaves or free?  The answer Paul embraces seems to be that we who have lived in slavery at least now have the opportunity to choose a new master, a master who desires our freedom.

He says “5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  The specific context of his comment is that he is arguing against those who would impose religious laws like ritual circumcision on believers in Christ as a means of seeking justification – being made right with God.

But the seemingly redundant language Paul uses was given with a purpose.  “For Freedom you have been set free.”  What a strange statement.  Why use it?  Paul does so because the people of his time would have known immediately that this was legal terminology that was used commonly in the documents of Sacral Manumission: the freeing of slaves. 

In those days, if a slave was to be freed from servitude to their master, the custom required that another party purchase that slave at the going rate for such a transaction.  Legal documents were required with witnesses, and the phrase “For freedom you have been set free,” was part of the language used.  It often worked like this:  A master who wanted to give a slave his or her freedom would make a “donation” of money equivalent to the price of the slave to the local temple of this or that god – Apollo or Athena or whoever.   Then, in a ceremony called Sacral Manumission, the documents would be read stating that the god of that temple now purchases so and so from the master for the price of whatever amount the master donated to the temple in the first place.  The temple would then pay that money to the master, and the god of the temple was now understood to have taken control over the slave.  The god in the document declares “For freedom you have been set free.”

It was a fairly elaborate but routine kind of a custom.  Sometimes slaves had enough time to do their service to the master with enough time to work a little on the side and earn some money.  In this case, some slaves were able to make their own donations to the temple and accumulate over time enough for the “god” of that temple to purchase them from their master.  Either way, the result was freedom, even though the slave was still technically considered a slave to the “god” who purchased them.

As awkward as it is for us to think in terms of slavery, it is helpful for us to understand that Paul was teaching that we, who have been slaves to sin, were bought with a price and now belong to God.  Paul had no trouble referring to himself as a slave because he saw his new Master as a rescuer who “for freedom had set him free.”

But he then went on to teach us that freedom from sin, and the condemnation of the law does not equate with permission indulge ourselves in whatever we happen to feel like.  Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.

How can freedom be freedom if it has limitations?

I have come to understand that because we live not alone in isolation, but in relationship and community, that the very nature of freedom necessarily includes limitations.

There are many examples, and one of them that I find most helpful is driving, because everyone here has experienced transportation by automobile.  A teenager usually gets very excited about receiving a driver’s license because it represents a measure of freedom they did not have before.  For a licensed driver whose health somehow falters to the point where driving is no longer safe, the loss of driving privileges is often perceived as a loss of freedom.

For most of us, there is a period in our lives when we have this marvelous privilege of driving.  Let’s compare that to freedom.  Like the freedom we have in Christ, our freedom to drive may be employed and enjoyed, but we must voluntarily observe limits.  This driver’s license makes me free to walk out of here and go as far as my gas money will take me.  Why, I can go all the way to Glendale – maybe further!

But my freedom in driving is limited.  I cannot drive on the left side of the road if I choose – at least not very long.  If I exercise my freedom to quit stopping at those annoying red lights and signs, If I exercise the freedom of my four-wheel drive truck to drive on sidewalks and through people’s yard, I will be endangering myself and others, and my freedom to drive will not last long.

To teenagers when they receive their licenses we would do well to say, “Your freedom is power, and we want you to have it, but you must know that wrong use of your freedom can be deadly to yourself and to others.”

So too our freedom in Christ is real and incredible.  And Paul wants us to know that there is proper way to employ and enjoy our freedom, and that is in community – in service to God and to one another, but Improper use of our freedom can be deadly.

“Live by the Spirit,” Paul says in verse 16, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, immorality, impurity, licentiousness – which is the eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

This is not a religious law which you must observe to earn your freedom, but these are the “rules of the road that are necessary” to maintain freedom and keep it available for all.  In the same way that I am your slave when I stop for you in the crosswalk to allow you to pass safely, In the same way that I am your slave when I drive to come visit you in an emergency, in the same way that I am your slave when take time to drive you where you need to go when you cannot drive yourself, so I am your slave when my freedom in Christ is shared to your benefit and to others.

Christians can use their freedom to disengage from service, from church, from responsibility.  Christians can spend their freedom serving themselves.  Many do.  And though it may not be readily recognized, this is tragically deadly to them and others.

Disengaging in this way is a temptation many, if not most Christians, face at some time or other.

At some point our life within the Christian community may fall into feeling like slavery, the kind that we want no part of.  Satan gladly uses this tactic to attack, and turn us away from true freedom into something that may look like freedom at first, but winds up as the chains of death.

An illustration of this lies in the biblical tale we call the Prodigal Son.  After the younger son informs his father that he is as good as dead to him, so he wants his inheritance, he leaves to find his own fortune, leaving the broken heartedness of a murdered relationship.  When he returns, he does not think it possible that the dead relationship can live again, so he comes proposing a different relationship altogether.  He will come not as a son but as a servant.  Ironically, in presenting himself as a slave, the boy is welcomed with joy as a son and an heir.

The elder son, in his jealousy over his brother’s welcome, fails to appreciate that his father’s heart is no longer broken and the relationship between his father and brother that was dead has been resurrected.   This is important because, although the elder son may not be aware, his relationship with his father is also dead.  This is revealed when he complains in Luke 15:29 saying, “’Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.” 

The father desired a relationship with both sons, and he wanted for both of them to share all the wealth and abundance that was his.   The one whom came feeling unworthy of being a son and an heir – who was prepared to be called a slave and do so gladly — found that his sonship and position as an heir was restored to him.  The one who came feeling that he deserved no less than the status and privilege of sonship and heir to all the wealth, the one who hated the very idea that he could be a slave for the sake of others – the story ends with his relationship with the father broken and dead.  The ending of the story is not written for us to see.  It is a way of inviting us to put ourselves in a position to finish the story.  Because of our love and need for God, are we in humility only all too glad to be called His servants?  Or are we going to demand that our freedom be used only in our service – relationships to God and others be damned?

Sometimes the limits of our freedom in Christ are confusing and frustrating.  Sometimes the rules of the road feel like they slow us down and make life harder or less enjoyable.  In those times we forget that those rules of the road actually make life possible to continue!

My beloved church family, for freedom Christ has set you free!  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  So that freedom may remain yours and come to as many others as possible.