June 30, 2013
“Let freedom ring!” There was much rejoicing in our nation this week when the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. This ruling signifies freedom to many people in the United States of America who will now have rights that have previously been denied. And next week, the whole country will celebrate freedom on July 4th. So I’m wondering about freedom. It’s a word that gets used a lot, especially at this time of year, but what is it? Freedom from what? Freedom FOR what?
In the case of this country, the 4th of July marks our country declaring its freedom from the British monarchy. In 1776, a group of leaders said, “We’d like to be free to choose our own rulers, to make and enforce own laws, and to say the things we wish to say without fear of reprisals. We want to be free to pursue happiness.” That’s the basic context for our commemoration of July 4th, 1776.
But we know that when the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on that hot July day, freedom wasn’t handed out willy-nilly to everyone. Women, slaves, Native Americans, and immigrants did not enjoy the freedoms declared in 1776. And while many people rejoiced with the LGTB community this week on their new freedoms, there was also a great deal of consternation about the Supreme Court’s failure to uphold the voting rights act, effectively keeping ancient discrimination in place. It is always so. Since 1776, this nation has been involved in a push-pull for freedom. There have been many mini-revolutions, as more and more people struggle for liberation in one way or another.
But is that what St. Paul is talking about in his letter to the Galatians when he pens this remarkable verse: “For freedom Christ has set you free”? Obviously, St. Paul was not an American, so he was not talking about the American Revolution. The question of freedom is not now, nor has it ever been, a uniquely American one. Nor can he be talking about literal freedom, saying that if you are Christian you will never be enslaved, since he himself did quite a bit of time in jail, as have many other Christians. So what IS Paul talking about? What does freedom mean when it is not in the context of a nation or an oppressed group, but a faith community?
The Galatians who would have received Paul’s letter first were struggling with what freedom means within the Christian community. Most of the early church were (like Jesus) Jewish. They kept Jewish laws, like keeping kosher and honoring the Sabbath Day, and obeying the requirement that men become circumcised. But the Galatians were not Jewish. They were Gentiles, from a different culture, and circumcision was not part of it. The questions of liberty Paul addresses have to do with what is required and what is optional within God’s family.
His main instruction to the Galatians is this: “Don’t let anyone tell you that your behavior dictates God’s behavior. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you have to do such and such or NOT do such and such to be a Christian. Who cares if you’ve been circumcised or not? Who cares if the beverage served at communion is wine or grape juice? What difference does it make if you say the old version or the new version of the Lord’s Prayer? None of that is the point! The point is that Jesus has done all that truly needs to be done. He has embraced the whole wide world, and said, ‘World, here I am, completely and totally yours. I know you are a mess, but I love you so much! I am going to give you all that I am, and all that I have. You are free to do whatever you will with that love.’ For freedom Christ has set you free.” That, beloved Galatians, beloved Wisconsinites, is the point of the whole thing.
But that’s not what people usually think of when they think of Christianity, is it? Absolute freedom? Is it how you think of Christianity? Many people perceive Christianity as a confining religion, in which people’s behavior is constricted as people are mandated to obey lots of rule, with the ultimate goal of “making it into heaven.” But that ISN’T what it’s all about—not those means or that end.
What if Christians took seriously Paul’s suggestion that we have been set free from all the rules and expectations people have of a religion? “Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery!” he say! What would happen? Without the 10 Commandments would we all go hog wild, and start robbing banks and murdering one another, forgetting all that stuff about praying and caring for one’s neighbor and striving to be peacemakers? Is the only thing keeping us in line the threat of hell? Have church and society colluded to sell us the fear of God’s potential displeasure, a sword hanging over our heads, so we’ll behave ourselves? If that is what Christianity is, I have to ask, does anything about that arrangement suggest freedom?
If our relationship with God is one motivated by fear or guilt, then it is not based on or rooted in love, and God is Love. If we do whatever we do out of a sense of obligation, then we are a slave to our own expectations of who God is and what God demands. It is a relationship without freedom. We are like the Galatians, worried about whether or not we are following all the proper rules so that God will be pleased with us.
The ironic thing is that what God wants for us is that we feel free! God created us to reflect God’s own nature to the world, not to trudge through life, guessing at what might be required to keep us from outer darkness forever. For freedom Christ has set us free. In Christ, we are free from the need to please God in order to dwell with God forever. Jesus did all the work of reconciliation in his life and death and resurrection. We’re in. So now what? What are we going to do with our freedom?
Jesus suggests in today’s reading from Luke that we follow him. We don’t HAVE to. But we GET to. Like kids who tried to subsist entirely on cotton candy finally eating vegetables and eventually understanding that their little bodies work better when they have a little broccoli, we’ll find that following Jesus may be hard, but it is good for us too. We don’t have to. But we are free to.
Martin Luther, in his marvelous document, “The Freedom of a Christian” reminds us of this important paradox: “A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, Subject to none. And a Christian is perfectly bound, Servant of all, Subject to all.” As I said, we don’t have to do one single thing to get into God’s good graces. Jesus has done that already. But the second part, where Luther describes us as ‘servants of all, subject to all,’ how does that work if we are free? It works as a natural response to being loved and trusted. Because we are grateful for the liberty and trust God gives to us, we want to share it. We want others to feel celebrated and liberated, too– and we can express that best by treating them the way God has treated us. It works because God empowers us to love our neighbors the way God loves us–in a self-giving, effusive way.
While that is liberating, it’s also kind of scary. Look what happened to Jesus when he let people have their freedom! Parameters, boundaries, rules, suggest safety, which is why rigid leaders like Idi Amin or the Rev. Fred Phelps can rise to power. They can mandate yes/no, right/wrong, in/out with such conviction that no one has to risk making choices. We don’t have to figure out how to use our freedom. With a dictator, someone else makes all the choices; we don’t have to face the terror of deciding for ourselves. Yes, it’s safe, but it’s not God’s idea for us.
Paul reminds the Galatians (and us) that God loves us and lives with us. And we react to that sense of belonging by sharing the grace we have been given. We can’t help it. We are so full of blessing that it starts to spill out, to ooze out in every direction. The power of the Holy Spirit waters us and nurtures us so that we inevitably produce the rich fruits of the Spirit—generosity and joy and self-control, and all the others. We are empowered to live rich, abundant lives, not because we are afraid, but because we are beloved. Not because we’re doing everything right. Not because we have forced ourselves to cultivate virtues, and punished ourselves and one another for anything less. No, these life-giving traits flourish because that is what happens when we use our freedom to follow our leader. We don’t have TO. But we GET to. Let freedom ring!
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider