In this passage from Galatians we have one of the great Christian testimonies about freedom in Christ. And it seems a happy coincidence that we are reading and meditating on this passage on the precise day, the Fourth of July, when our nation celebrates its Declaration of Independence from the rule of the King and Parliament of England. The leaders of the bedraggled colonies had found the governance by England to be a great restraint on their lives, so they declared their freedom from the rule of that nation from which so many of the colonists had emigrated.
It is right and proper that this day should be celebrated in our nation, for an experiment in democratic government was being launched that has had enormous influence on the modern world. Surely each of us has enjoyed freedoms as Americans that might not have been present in other times and places. Not the least of the freedoms the revolutionaries gained was the freedom for religious practice unrestrained by the government.
But should Independence Day be heralded in the church as a high water mark in the history of Christian faith? Surely all of us know that throughout the history of the church it has found itself serving the interests of the powerful in whatever nation or society it happened to be located. Surely we must wince when we remember from the past—and hear even today—that this revolutionary America was and is the New Jerusalem, the light set upon a hill to be a light to the nations, with the moral right and duty to bring freedom to the rest of the world. We wince surely because we are indeed Christians whose first loyalty is to the triune God that called the church into existence to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a saving and freeing light to the world. Surely we do not want to claim that the light of the Gospel is one and the same with the presumed light of the American nation. Were we to do so, we would descend rapidly into idolatry in which the nation becomes the divine life that we are to serve above all others.
But our task today is not to debate the various virtues or vices of our nation’s history, but to meditate on what it means to be ‘free in Christ.’ But no sooner are we launched into that meditation than we realize the word ‘freedom’ is one of the most emotionally powerful words in the modern world, along with that other word, ‘justice’. Yet both words get up and walk around on us, as they are used in a multitude of differing and often contradictory ways. And surely we know that the last two centuries of human life have experienced the greatest numerical slaughter of humans in history, and much of it was done in the name of someone’s freedom and someone’s justice.
To facilitate our meditation together on this emotionally powerful word, freedom, I recommend that we ask two questions when persons talk of freedom. The first question is freedom from what? and the second question is freedom for what? All the various uses of the word ‘freedom’ will have to answer these two questions in order to be intelligible to us.
Let us now explore the first question: ‘freedom from what?’ In its earliest historical usages, freedom appears in contrast to slavery. Slaves were persons under the ownership or control of another, and free men were those not owned by any other person but who could own other persons. So, to be free was to be free from slavery. This contrast appears in the earliest traditions of both the Greek world and the Hebrew world.
In the most abstract sense, then, freedom—as freedom from something—can be understood generally as freedom from some restraint on the willing, choosing, deciding, acting of the human person. The restraint on freedom can often be understood as some sort of bondage. So, the colonists wanted to be free from the restraints put on their willing and living by the King of England. Later the African slaves, who were not subject to the constitutional freedoms of white males, wanted to be free from their chattel slavery. Even today African Americans want to be free from the lingering prejudices and disadvantages of the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow laws.
Similarly, the prisoner wants to be free from the restraints of the prison. The corporate officers and board of Enron wanted to be free from the restraints on their business activities by an accurate public accounting of those activities; in short, they wanted to be free from the restraints of the law. We have been told the people of Iraq wanted to be free from Saddam Hussein, but now it appears they want even more to be free from American occupation.
Also, in regard to freedom from some restraint on us, we can talk about being free from the anger of others, free from an obsession with food, free from a disease that wracks the body, free from the anxiety that rules our daily living, free from the travails of an unhappy past, free from the fears that prey on us, and so on.
In all these ways of freedom from something, we can see how easily we can substitute ‘liberty’ and ‘liberation’ for the act or activity of being made free from some restraint. We can also see how easily we might understand the restraint upon us as an ‘oppression.’
Let us attend briefly to the second question about freedom: freedom for what? In the world of political theory the most general answer to that question is that humans want to be free—without restraint—to choose their own preferred forms and styles of happiness. But no sooner do we say that than we realize persons cannot be happy if they are in continual conflict with each other’s pursuit of happiness. To be happy will mean, politically speaking, being willing to accept some restraints on how one pursues happiness. We stand in a political tradition in which the pursuit of happiness involves accepting some covenantal restraints on our individual pursuits of happiness. We do not have the freedom to kill another, to torture another, to steal from another, and so on. Within some restraints, then, people can pursue their various paths to happiness.
I hope it might seem to you at this point that talk of freedom can often be a dizzying exercise in which we might easily lose our way and become confused. What sort of freedom persons yearn for has much to do with what they perceive as the most onerous restraints or bondages under which they live and labor.
For example, the poor are concerned about the restraints of poverty and unaffordable health care, while the rich are concerned about the legal restraints on their capacity to hold and control property and to make money and to spend it as they please. The poor may have the civil freedom to travel to Seattle but their poverty so restrains them that they are not free to pay for such a trip. One of the reasons money is so important to folk is that it seems to empower them to do as they please more readily.
The lesson here is this: when persons and politicians talk about freedom, we need to ask: freedom from what? freedom for what?
These reflections should whet our appetite for getting some clarity about what it might mean to be free in Christ, to be set free by Christ as though one were previously in bondage. In ways that might surprise you, I should point out that the NT has absolutely nothing to say about a presumed ‘free will’ that every person has and that is presupposed by Christ’s preaching. Rather, the uniform NT assumption is that in a variety of ways persons are in bondage and unable to free themselves from that bondage by their own will power.
What then is this bondage or overwhelming restraint under which human beings live and labor? The bottom line is that human beings are everywhere in bondage to sin and to the consequences of sin. It is the power of sin to shape and form their lives that humans need to be set free from. And in being set free from sin, they will be set free for living in a way that is peculiar and different from the way in which the world seems to want persons to live. It is a freedom for living a way of life that will confer true flourishing and happiness.
So let us talk a bit about sin, which all of us will agree is an almost forbidden topic in our mainline traditions in which people want basically to be made to feel good about themselves. Sin-talk seems so negative, and indeed it is. But it is negative for the sake of a higher good, namely human reconciliation, human redemption, and human flourishing.
We Christians must, however, observe one warning: sin-talk is first and last talk about ourselves; it is not primarily talk about those ‘other people’ who are really sinners different from us.
Sin is that corruption of our human nature in which we live as practical atheists: we may profess to believe in some divinity but we live daily as persons who are in rebellion against the will of God the Creator. We want life on our own terms to will and do as we please. The divinities in our lives are no more than the means for us to have life on our own terms. Hence, we human beings are repeatedly self-centered. As rebellious sinners, we tell lies and repeat falsehoods. We are in bondage to the selfish passions of our lives. We live in fear of death and in fear of all those who might do us harm. It is this very fear that generates much hatred, the need for revenge, and violence. In short, we sinners sin and we are sinned against by other sinners.
What then are the consequences of sin? In the most general senses, but in deadly practical ways, we sinners live in alienation from God, from our neighbors, and from ourselves. And in our rebellion we humans construct societies that install and perpetuate our alienation. These societies, with their huge power over human life, are what the NT authors call the “principalities and powers of the world” and the “elemental spirits of the air.” We humans ingest sin into our hearts as we are ourselves formed by these societies. In so ingesting these powers, we receive from them an identity and presumed destiny.
I know this may sound confusing and obscure, but consider that in the two so-called world wars of this past century persons who called themselves Christians fought on both sides of those bloody conflicts. It was more important to their human identity and therefore to the destiny for which they were willing to fight and to die that they were Germans, Italians, Russians, Americans, French, English than that they were Christians. Can we conclude anything other than that the Christian identity was itself frail and weak and malleable?
I do not mean this to be a condemnation of the ordinary soldiers who fought, killed, and died in these terrible wars. They were put into warring conflict by the decisions of others to go to war, and they suffered much in their subjugation to such warring. But that the folk in the modern nation-states go to war so often—under the clarion call of ‘defending their freedom against a dangerous and demonic enemy’—simply illustrates how powerful the national identities are to the soldiers who do the fighting. In the midst of these nation-states, then, is it possible for Christians to have an identity and destiny that can be differentiated from the state?
When Jesus and the NT apostles get down to brass tacks in their talk about sin, the common point is that we humans are in bondage to sin; we are slaves to sin and its power to form how we live our lives. Could anything be more astonishing than that even we Americans, who herald and promote our presumed freedoms around the world, are also persons in bondage to sin, to human pride and selfishness, to human lying and misrepresentation of others, to human enmity and killing?
What then might it mean to be ‘free in Christ?” How does Christ Jesus set us free from sin and its consequences?
In other parts of the letter to the church in Galatia, Paul expounds one of the most difficult beliefs of Christian faith. It is not difficult because the belief is abstract and obscure; it is difficult because it is hard to truly believe. Paul claims that Christ has set us free from the law. Of course, Paul has in mind the various forms of the laws of Israel. One function of the law is its moral character—with its details on conduct and attitude—as the key to how to live a justified life before God: how to stand morally in the right before God. But Paul worries that the law only condemns and does not set folk free. Why does it only condemn? Because the law is so incessantly demanding that none of us can fully satisfy—in any and all circumstances of life—its rigorous and unforgiving demands. The law makes it clear just how deeply we are in the grips of sin.
So, if we seek our justification before God through works of the law, we will find ourselves condemned. The law in itself and by itself does not forgive. Were we humans to stand before God simply in terms of our obedience to the law of God, we would stand there condemned. Were we then to think of God’s justice only in terms of just deserts, of reward and punishment, we would find the tally repeatedly coming up as punishment against us. We would stand there before God’s justice in the midst of our alienation from God, of our alienation for the neighbors we were called to love, and of our alienation from our own created nature and goodness.
It is this bondage to sin as revealed through the strictness of the law from which Paul claims Christ has set us free. His claim is that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and revealed God’s gracious forgiveness of our sin. It is not that God will forgive if we ask. Rather, even before we might ask, God has acted in the Jew Jesus of Nazareth to take the sins of the world upon and into the divine Life itself and forgive humans their sin and therefore the necessity of living under the consequences of their sin. Forgiveness, free grace, the infinite and all encompassing love of God! God refuses to judge us according to our sins, instead judging us according to God’s own forgiving grace as known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Being overwhelmed with gratitude is the first response of folk who know that God loves them and has forgiven them is. This forgiveness is not something they earned or deserved: it is free grace. And in that gratitude, they become free for living as persons forgiven and loved by God. Or, as Paul says in this passage of Galatians, they are now free to love the neighbor, which includes the stranger and the enemy. They can give up their bondages and slaveries and can live now without fear. They can be free from that retreat to violence that so enslaves and ruins human lives. They can live with an uncommon courage, trusting in the ultimate victory of God’s graciousness toward the world.
The problem is that most folk who hear this good news just do not believe it. They might give lip service to the news, but they go on living their lives as though they really were not sinners in need of God’s grace and trying to earn the blessings of the divinities that have already populated their lives.
Also, Paul says there are those who are so uncomprehending of this startling announcement of God’s grace in Jesus Christ that they ask with their mouths whether this freedom in Christ means they can now live as they please. Paul is abrupt with these folk, for they think their freedom is the freedom to return to the slavery of wanting to live simply as one pleases.While we may be set free from the law as the means by which we achieve our justification and salvation before God, obedience to the law of God is the way in which the Christian and the church live freely in the world.
People who know they are free in Christ from the destructive consequences of sin know as well they are called to live differently from the hurly burly of people seeking this and that freedom in the world. It is astonishing that this same Paul, while writing from prison to the church at Philippi, maintains that he is nevertheless free in Christ. And it remains the case that such extraordinary Christians as Paul—even though they have renounced violence, which should have made them less worrisome to the tyrant—are nevertheless feared by every tyrant. These Christians do not live in fear of death, which is the fear that every tyrant plays upon to maintain his tyranny. And they have a loyalty to God which no tyrant or state can ever subdue.
Hence, we see clearly through the eyes of Paul that being Christian is being one who lives in the light of the forgiveness given in Christ Jesus. It is possible to so live only through the empowerment of Christ’s Spirit, which is the Holy Spirit. The freedom conferred in Christ and empowered through the Spirit is the freedom to live for God’s kingdom. To live in this way is bear the fruit of the Spirit. Such fruit Paul enumerates as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
To live in the Spirit and to bear the fruit of the Spirit is to live in a way which no national culture or state can confer with their various mores and legal freedoms. Yet those who live in the Spirit will witness to that freedom that comes from the grace of God and that is freely given by God to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see. And in this witness it will be their earnest desire that all those slaveries that haunt human lives and their societies will be transformed into kingdoms of mutual respect and love. In such new kingdoms leaders and citizens will abandon all those stratagems by which humans are ensnared by sin and seek to ensnare others. The freedom Christ confers is therefore a freedom for service to the neighbor, who is now understood to include the stranger and even the enemy. And it is herein that we might think afresh about what social freedoms are appropriate to a just political order that will thwart and dismantle the many ways in which we humans sin against each other.
We started this sermon by contrasting freedom to slavery. Is it not amazing that Jesus, Paul, and other apostles now talk of a freedom in which they are free to be the loving slaves of others, seeking the good of others, and in that way being slaves to Christ? To be a slave of Christ is to be set free from all those other slaveries that would alienate us from God, from the neighbors we are to love, and from our own created nature and goodness.
It is wonderful to celebrate and to live the freedom Christ has conferred on us.
All this dear friends, I have dared to preach in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God and Mother of us all. Amen.
[A slightly revised sermon preached on July 4, 2004 at St. Paul United Methodist Church, Muskogee, Oklahoma. Posted here 7/9/04.]