The Long Walk to Freedom // Galatians 5:1

tumblr_liosa1iJFl1qzchvao1_500The poet W.H. Auden, in memory of his fellow poet William B Yeats, once wrote: “In the deserts of the heart, Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days, Teach the free man how to praise.”

“Erskine Johnson, an African American who changed his name to Ndume Olatushani, spent 28 years in maximum-security prisons for a murder he didn’t commit. He never even set foot in Tennessee, where the murder took place. His life in prison hit rock bottom after learning that his mother and a niece were killed in an automobile accident. He then taught himself to paint and he painted images and scenes he imagined outside his prison walls — mostly of women and children, often with gentle faces. Asked if he’s bitter about the years spent in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, he says: ‘I let go of anger a long time ago. In letting go of anger, I freed myself.’” [1]

“In the deserts of the heart, Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days, Teach the free man how to praise.”

Nelson Mandela is nearing the end of his life in a South African hospital. He was the first Black president of South Africa, voted into office in their first truly democratic election in 1994. Until 1989, he spent 27 years in prison facilities, most famously Robben Island, for his political disobedience to the severe segregation policies of his country known as Apartheid. When released he worked towards a democracy that had room for all people, even the people who jailed him, beat him, and oppressed him and others according to their skin color.

Of his release from prison, Mandela says, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

“In the deserts of the heart, Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days, Teach the free man how to praise.”

Paul beckons us out from prison and into freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

Paul writes to the people in Galatia, but he could just as well have written to the people of Glyndon. What does it mean to have faith? What does is mean to follow Jesus? How are we to live in a world that is not Christ’s kingdom? What does it mean to be free?

Now, throughout his letter, Paul is teaching the church that faith is a new reality, a true freedom, one not created by culture but by creed, one not governed by greed but by grace, one not ruled by race but by relationship. [2, 3, 4]

The people in Galatia were held by old laws that dictated what it meant to be a righteous person. In their quest to do good, they buried the gospel of Jesus under their own good works and law-keeping, crawling into their prisons of piety.

Paul doesn’t pull any punches; he tells them he is astonished that they have abandoned the gospel. Christ set them free and they traded their freedom for a religion that preached righteousness according to the law. They got the relationship wrong.

Paul wants them to get the relationship right because it is of vital importance. God in Christ has set us free, and our freedom leads us to love others. Paul wants us to get it right too. Not only that, but he suggests that we can get it right.

Paul first preaches to us, teaching us that Jesus has reached into our lives and given us his. That Jesus has reached into our brokenness, and given us his wholeness. That Jesus has reached into our prisons and set us free from the outside.

From his prison cell at Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany in 1943, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “a prison cell, [is one] in which one waits, hopes – and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.”

Jesus has opened the prison from the outside. We are forgiven, we are shown grace because of Jesus, whose death on the cross is the point and place of our forgiveness. No law we can follow, no law we break can separate us from that truth. Christ has set us free. Christ’s love knows no limits. Let us not give into that which puts us back in our own prisons.  Let us live in freedom.

But what does that mean? What does that look like?

Our freedom is not only for us, it is for all people. Freedom is not selfish, or self-serving, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card or a piece of logic that tells us that it doesn’t matter what we do with our lives because we’ll be forgiven anyways. Freedom is for our lives here and now, today. Christ’s forgiveness isn’t just a future promise but a present reality. Who we are, what we do matters. For freedom Christ has set us free.

Paul continues, “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.”

In The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther writes that this freedom means that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” And that, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” We are free from all things and yet a servant for all things.

These just sum up what Christ has taught us above all else: “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Freedom is a responsibility, a way of life, grown in us over time. It is a gift.

But this freedom is hard to learn and even harder to trust. Everything else we see in this world points us elsewhere. We are taught to doing what we want, whatever makes us happy, you only live once, after all. In so doing we often follow our own compass right into our own prisons, described by Paul as:

“Repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” [5]

The list could go on.

Knowing our prisons isn’t a point of shame, but we can begin to heal when we name the things that drag us down in life and turn us inward on ourselves. Paul is calling us out from our own prisons and into the freedom of Christ.

“In the deserts of the heart, Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days, Teach the free man how to praise.”

Freedom needs faith, a faith that offers a different compass to point us to who we are called to be and where we need to go. There are more than 4 cardinal directions on this compass, and they all point to freedom. They are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The fruits of the Spirit poured out over us in our baptism.

Today we wash [name] in the waters of freedom. Today her parents and sponsors will make public what is already true: that she is a child of God. Today begins her long walk to freedom, her calling to follow Christ in this world for his kingdom.

She will be brought to the water, water that first drowns and then raises up. Baptism is first a death, a death to sin, a daily repentance we are all called to wash in, a drowning of our own selfishness. But then, and finally, baptism is a rising, from death to life, from brokenness to wholeness, from prison to freedom. All that holds us back and holds us down is drowned, washed away. We are raised by Christ out of our prisons and into freedom.

This is the daily, life-long road to freedom, walked by faith, and guided by the Spirit that we are all called to.

Prisoner turned president Nelson Mandela says it best. He said: “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” [6]

May God who began a good work in you bring it to completion through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


1 Christian Century, via the Nashville Arts Magazine. May 29, 2013, p 8.

2 Galatians 2:20-21

3 NB When Paul writes about idolatry, he is often writing about greed (cf Colossians 3:5)

4 Galatians 3:27-28

5 Eugene Peterson’s translation of Galatians 5:19-21 as found in The Message.

6 Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p. 625.


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