Sunday, July 05, 2009

Finding True Freedom

Galatians 5:1-6, 13-14

Did you have a great Fourth of July? Did you take in a parade or fireworks or maybe a picnic? However you spent the day, hopefully you thought about the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. While America isn’t perfect, we’ve been blessed with freedoms enjoyed by few others around the world.

Although we don’t always live up to our ideals, the freedoms we enjoy have been enshrined in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.


It took a while for our nation to understand that these rights extended beyond white males, to include persons of color and women.

It wasn’t that long ago that Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a day when all Americans would enjoy the freedoms described in our nation’s founding document. We’ve moved closer to fulfilling its definition of freedom, but we’ve not yet completed our journey.

I must confess that I don’t always agree with our leaders or their policies. Indeed, I’ve been known to criticize our nation, and on more than one occasion I’ve pointed out where we’ve fallen short as a nation. Still, I’m glad that I’m an American. But the wonderful thing is – The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees me the right of free speech, so that I can express my views openly without fear of arrest. That same amendment gives me the freedom to worship as I choose – or not worship if that’s my choice – without penalty. These are all wonderful gifts that our Founders have bequeathed to us, and we should treasure them.

As wonderful as this declaration of freedom is, there is a source of freedom that is greater than our nation and its founding documents. The Declaration hints at this by suggesting that these freedoms we enjoy have been given to us by the Creator, but it doesn’t define who that Creator is. And so, having celebrated the founding freedoms of our nation, today we come to celebrate the true liberator – Jesus Christ. In Christ we have been set free from the law of sin and death, and from slavery to creedalism and legalism. As Paul told the Galatian church, you have been set free in Christ, so don’t ever let anyone else enslave you again.

Our Disciples tradition has made the message of freedom and liberty central to its identity. We have taken inspiration both from scripture, and the context of our founding two centuries ago on the American frontier. While our founders, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Barton Stone all drank deeply from Scripture, they were also deeply influenced by the American dream of freedom, a dream that colored the way they read and lived Scripture. They rejected creeds because they were too rigid and kept people from truly experiencing the God revealed in the Scriptures. And so they encouraged people to explore their bibles and interpret it for themselves. Indeed, they trusted the people with matters of faith. They took up a Reformation era slogan as their own, passing it onto us:
“In essentials unity, In Nonessentials liberty, In all things charity.”
This principle of religious freedom is one of the reasons why I am a Disciple of Christ. I cherish this emphasis, which we have inherited from Scripture and from our national ethos. So, on this Fourth of July weekend, having celebrated the birth of our nation, I’d like us to take the next step and live out the freedom that the Creator has offered us as a gift.

1. FREEDOM IS A SPIRITUAL GIFT

Thomas Jefferson talked about inalienable rights that come to us from God. In making this statement he suggested that God has created us to be equals. He recognized that some are stronger or smarter, but ultimately, we’re all human beings created in the image of God. That means that when we strip off our clothes and our skin, we’re no different from Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles. Their blood doesn’t look different from ours. Indeed, There’s no such thing as royal or noble blood. There is only human blood, which Jesus has shared with us.

While Jefferson spoke of political freedoms, Paul speaks of spiritual freedom. Governments can take away our political freedoms, as we’ve seen happen recently in Iran, but no one can take away our spiritual freedoms, unless we give them away. That means, you can make me a slave or put me in prison, but you can’t take away the freedoms God has endowed me with.

Our freedom, Paul tells us, is rooted in a faith expressed in love. Because it is rooted in God’s love and justice, no political system can give it to us, nor can it take it away from us. We have been blessed with the freedom to worship openly, but the people of God have often worshiped without government approval. Remember that when Paul wrote the Galatian letter, the Christian church lived under Roman imperial rule, which was anything but democratic. This means that you can live in China or Saudi Arabia or North Korea and still be free. You may not have political freedom, like we have here in the United States, but since true freedom is a spiritual thing, no one can take it away from you!

2. FREEDOM REQUIRES RESPONSIBILITY

We may be free, but that doesn’t mean that there are no constraints on our freedoms. As Mark Twain put it:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.
In other words, we may have freedom of speech, but it might not be prudent to yell “fire” in a crowded theater.

And while we’re free in Christ that doesn’t mean we’re free to do whatever we please. We may not live under a system of dos and don’ts, but there is one very important limit to our freedom – that limit is the command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” You may be free, Paul says, but don’t destroy your freedom by using it for selfish purposes. Or, as the late Disciple leader Ron Osborn put it:

Christian Freedom means:

to serve the needs and hurts of other people,
to teach the Christian Way,
to live the Christian life of love,
to contribute generously to the alleviation of suffering,
to give aid with zeal,
to do acts of mercy with cheerfulness.

Faith is being Free! (Ron Osborn, Experiment in Liberty, 63-64.)


3. CHRISTIAN FREEDOM LEADS TO COMMUNITY

You have been set free in Christ, but as Paul makes clear in his letter, we shouldn’t confuse freedom with autonomy. As Christians we’re called to experience and live out our freedoms in community.

So, are you hurting? Then, turn to your neighbor and seek their hand in friendship and find help. Is your neighbor hurting? Well, reach out and touch them and pray for them. Too often we don’t let our brothers and sisters know that we hurt. We keep it inside and we distance ourselves from each other. But, when we do this, we confuse autonomy with freedom. Being a Christian, like being an American, means that I have chosen to live out my freedom as part of a community. By living in community, I become responsible for and to my neighbor, whom Jesus has called me to love, whether that neighbor lives next door, sits next to me in the pew, or lives in Iran or North Korea.

I’d like to close this sermon by inviting you to join me in a unison prayer for our nation that is found on page 723 in the Chalice Hymnal. As we pray this prayer, let us keep in mind the freedom we share in Jesus Christ, and then pray that our nation will truly become a beacon of freedom.

Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage.
Make us always remember your generosity
and constantly do your will.
Bless our land with honest industry,
truthful education,
and an honorable way of life.
Save us from violence, discord, and confusion;
from pride and arrogance
and from every evil course of action.
Make us who came from many nations
with many different languages
a united people.
Defend our liberties and give those
whom we have entrusted with the authority of government
the spirit of wisdom,
that there might be justice and peace in our land.
When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful;
and, in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail.
We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
July 5, 2009
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

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