Today is the Fourth of July, a day that Americans set aside to celebrate the nation’s independence from British rule. Over the next few days, there will be parades, fireworks, picnics, and more, but, as much as we enjoy celebrating the freedoms we have as Americans, we come to this place and time with a broader sense of freedom and loyalties.
I’m returning to the text I used last year for the Fourth of July weekend, because, like last year, I’d like to address the issue of freedom. This text from Galatians is foundational if we’re to understand what it means to truly be free – not as Americans, but as followers of Christ. The question before is simple: What is the nature of true freedom?
The question maybe simple, but each answer to that question carries with it certain implications. Paul’s definition and its implications differ those of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed that freedom was a natural right, which was self-evident. Paul believed that true freedom is revealed by God, and Paul understood that one could be free even if the political context was repressive. Today the nation celebrates political freedoms that were won on the battlefield, but interestingly enough when this nation declared its independence from Britain, asserting that it was self-evident that “all men” are created equal and had the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it defined “all men” fairly narrowly. It didn’t apply to African-American slaves, Native Americans, and in many ways didn’t apply to women, even white women.
Now, when it comes to love of country, I consider myself as much a patriot as the next person. But, to love one’s country doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to its history and to its errors. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t criticize our country, especially when we see something that is, in our minds, unjust or immoral. Yes, I love my country, but it’s not a blind loyalty. But, whatever it is that we celebrate today as a nation, for Christians it must come must not supersede our love of God and love for neighbors, including those who live far beyond national boundaries.
1. The Nature of Our Freedoms
As we consider the question of the nature of freedom, it might be worth considering the variety of freedoms that are possible. Shortly before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt defined four primary freedoms, which he believed should be guaranteed to every human being.
Freedom of speech and expression
Freedom of Worship
Freedom from Want
Freedom from Fear
At the time President Roosevelt defined these basic human freedoms, much of the world was at war. Although the United States had yet to join the battle, Roosevelt understood that freedom was in the balance. By 1941, the Axis Powers seemed unstoppable, and yet Roosevelt spoke with great optimism about a future in which freedom would win out over tyranny. He declared:
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called "new order" of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
He believed that the dictators of his day would be turned back; and he was correct. The Axis Powers were defeated, but at a great cost in human life. Unfortunately, freedom is a rather fragile gift to humanity, and it didn’t take long before new dictators emerged. Yes, we often dream of freedom, but it remains something difficult to achieve and to maintain.
As much as we rejoice in the freedoms that we have attained in this country, it’s important for us as Christians to understand that true freedom doesn’t depend upon our place of residence. The early Christians, the people who received Paul’s word about freedom, lived under imperial Roman rule. If you’re a good historian, you’ll know that Roman rule was a mixed blessing. The Monte Python film we discussed last week reminds us, that not everyone living within the borders of the Empire loved the Romans. Yes, the Romans did bring aqueducts, roads, sanitation, education, safety, and order, many of the things that people enjoy, but there was a trade off. They lost their freedom to determine their own future.
Our freedom, however, doesn’t derive from the political order or even natural law – what Jefferson called “Nature’s God.” Our freedom is a gift of Christ, which we can enjoy no matter the circumstances. Paul writes that we should stand firm in this freedom and never again submit to any “yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Of the four freedoms that President Roosevelt outlined, the one that is most related to what Paul has in mind here, is the “freedom from fear.” Roosevelt, however, had in mind a reduction in armaments, but Paul’s understanding was even more basic. He told the Galatian church not to let others enslave them with opinions, anger, or rules, especially when these opinions and rules stand contrary to the Gospel.
2. Freedom to Serve
When Paul tells the Galatian Christians to not submit to “the yoke of slavery,” he had in mind the question of circumcision, which had divided that church. What is interesting is that Paul proclaimed a message of freedom, but then placed some boundaries on its exercise. Even though we are free in Christ, this doesn’t give us the right to indulge that freedom. Instead, we should become “slaves to one another” through love. Don’t let humanly devised rules and regulations keep you from experiencing God’s healing presence. Remember that it’s not the circumcision of the flesh that saves us, but rather the transformation of the heart. Or, as Jesus noted, it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, it’s what comes out of it (Matt. 15:11). Because you’re now free in Christ, you can choose to serve your neighbor. You could do otherwise, but if you’re truly free, you’ll serve and love your neighbor as yourself. True freedom may not come from the state, but if we act out of God’s freedom, then our freely chosen acts of service to humanity and to the entire created order will have definite political consequences. That is because, by becoming a slave to our neighbor, we put their needs before our own.
3. The Fruit of Freedom
Despite this freedom, which comes to us as a gift of God, there’s a reason why we have laws. We seem inclined to indulge ourselves, rather than serve our neighbors. Paul tells us what freedom gone to seed looks like, and it’s not pretty. Freedom gone bad produces such things as idolatry, anger, strife, jealousy, and dissension. He tells his readers that people who indulge themselves in this way will not inherit the Kingdom of God. That sounds harsh, but Paul wanted this church to understand the seriousness of this issue.
But, when freedom is rooted in the Spirit of God, we will bear fruit, and against this, there is no law. The fruit of the Spirit consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. If we will focus on these fruit of the Spirit’s movement in our lives, then we will see our lives transformed, and we will then be free to go out into the world, taking with us the message of God’s liberty.
4. Freedom and Responsibility
From this list of fruit, I’d like to pause and focus on self control. Freedom without self-control leads to anarchy, and if our freedom isn’t tempered by self-control there will be much grief.
You might find it a bit ironic, but without freedom there can be no responsibility, and yet the more freedom we have, the more responsibility we must take on. As Paul says elsewhere: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 6:12). If self-indulgence is our goal, we won’t stop to consider how our choices affect others. When that happens our freedom – whether as individuals or as nations -- becomes destructive.
Yes, it’s a good thing to celebrate the freedoms that we as Americans enjoy, but more importantly, it’s imperative that we remember that to be truly free is to serve our neighbors in love, and that goes way beyond being an American.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Sixth Sunday of Pentecost
July 4, 2010