Free… For What?

I have been preaching some at New Hope Fellowship Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation in south Fort Worth, while they get organized to search for a new pastor. Here is my sermon from June 30. 

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
New Hope Fellowship, Fort Worth, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 30, 2019
Brent Beasley

I read South African leader Nelson Mandela’s autobiography a few years ago in preparation for a a church mission trip to South Africa. It’s called A Long Walk to Freedom. The people of South Africa have certainly struggled with the meaning and the obligations of freedom over the years.

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged from a South African prison. He had been held in that prison for twenty-seven years. He was seventy-two years old when he was released.

His crime was advocating and organizing and fighting for the freedom of his people against the apartheid policies and programs of the South African government at the time. He was called a terrorist. His imprisonment was brutal at first: little food, crushing stones all day. He was allowed no visitors, one letter in and one letter out per year.

Finally allowed to read, write, and converse with other political prisoners, his thinking about freedom deepened and broadened. He wrote:
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I know anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.
[Long Road to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela]

Mandela’s spirit simply refused to be broken. Even his guards came to respect him. When he was finally released from prison and apartheid was abolished, the world slowly came to realize that it was witnessing an extraordinary example of humanity and a unique demonstration of the meaning of freedom.

During an interview on the Larry King show, Mandela was asked how, after twenty-seven years of incarceration by one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, twenty-seven years of separation from family, friends—how was it that he didn’t hate his captors and desire revenge. His response was, and is, amazing.

Mandela said simply that revenge would be a distraction from the goal of freedom for his people. They kept me in prison for twenty-seven years. If they caused me to hate, I would have been in their prison for the rest of my life. Mandela understood the meaning, and the obligations, of freedom.

It is a basic theme of the Bible. In fact, in many ways the Bible’s basic message is about freedom.

In the very first story in the Bible, human beings are free in a way the rest of creation is not. Adam and Eve, human beings, man and woman, are free to name the other creatures. They are also
free to make decisions, moral choices,
free to be responsible or irresponsible,
free actually to pay attention to and obey God and
free to ignore, disobey.
We are free, from the first page of the Bible.
When the children of Israel are in real captivity as slaves in Egypt, God, the Bible says, hears their cries for freedom and sends a liberator by the name of Moses, who leads them out of slavery into freedom, autonomy, self-determination.

Throughout the Bible, it seems like God is always an agitator for freedom, urging and helping people to be free of anything that enslaves and prevents them from being everything God created them to be. The Bible says, “Wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

The Bible is also realistic about the fragility of freedom, the risks and obligations that come along with freedom. Not long after the children of Israel escape the yoke of slavery, they find themselves in the desert; there’s no water or food and they’re not sure at all about where they’re going next. As it turns out, they’ll have to deal with it all for forty years.

But at the moment, a few miles from slavery and into the desert, a few hours of freedom, and they’re already looking back. Slavery wasn’t so bad, after all. There was food and water and a roof over their heads at least. It was slavery, to be sure, but it was safe and secure and predictable, and in their new, radical freedom they began to miss their oppressors.
[John Buchanan, “The Obligations of Freedom,” Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinois, July 1, 2007]

For freedom Christ has set us free, Paul wrote. It comes at the end of a lengthy argument about the relationship of the religious law to Christian freedom in a letter Paul wrote to the early church in Galatia. It has been called the Christian Magna Carta.

We started looking at this last week. Paul was a Jew. Jesus was a Jew. So were his disciples. So were all the first Christians. Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the law of Moses. The law, the 613 rules and regulations based on the Ten Commandments, regulated all of life: prescribed
what to eat and what to wear,
when to work and when to rest,
how to cook, raise children, and farm.
And here’s the thing: the law of Moses has given order and cohesion and life to the Jewish people through twenty centuries of exile, discrimination, persecution, and genocide. It is not to be taken lightly.

Trouble started when Paul told the story of Jesus to non-Jews, Gentiles—or Greeks, as he called them. Paul traveled into Gentile regions and spoke about Jesus so compellingly that something happened that no one anticipated. Gentiles were becoming believers.

Paul baptized them and told them to stick together—told them they were the church, the body of Christ. The problem was by Jewish standards they looked like a motley bunch: they
ate what they pleased,
didn’t keep kosher or observe the Sabbath, and
were singularly uninterested in circumcision.
So delegations were dispatched from Jerusalem to tell the Gentile Christians that they had missed something important. They weren’t real Christians until they conformed to the law.

When Paul heard about it, he was livid. Paul was a Jew, followed the law, kept kosher—but for non-Jews to try to become Jews on the way to being Christian was to miss the whole point.

You are loved by God in Jesus Christ, he said. That love is given to you as a gift you can’t earn, no matter what you do, no matter how many rules you obey or sacrifices you make. Nor can you put yourself outside God’s love. It is a grace—the grace of God in Jesus Christ—that sets us free.

The conflict forced Paul to face up to and think through one of the most important ideas of our faith. That we are saved by faith, not works. We are loved by God in Jesus Christ, and there is nothing we can do to earn that love. It is all grace that saves us and sets us free from all the ways over all the centuries that human beings have tried to persuade God to be gracious.

We are free people.

We know all about freedom in the sense of not being told what to do, being independent, doing what we believe is right rather than just doing as we are told. We know all about that, and there are a lot of good things about it.

But freedom is more than that, and what struck me as I was re-reading this passage from Galatians was not that freedom means you can do whatever you want. What struck me was what Paul said about the obligation of this incredible freedom Christ has given us.

The freedom that we have been given in Christ is not license; it’s more than just the freedom to do whatever it is you want to do

In verse 13 of this passage, Paul writes very directly about what this freedom is for.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Free to become slaves to one another. Our freedom is for this purpose: to love and serve one another. We celebrate our freedom—and rightly so—, but primarily what it means is that we are free to love and serve others.

Baptist like me talk a lot about the priesthood of every believer. What we mean by that is the every person has the ability to relate directly to God—there is no need for an intermediary. Carlyle Marney wrote a book called Priests to Each Other, and his point was that if we are all our own priests, then, in addition to that freedom and individualism, that also means we have the responsibility of being priests to each other.

And we know about that. You are free—free to make sandwiches for guests at the Presbyterian Night Shelter. Free to do a soup kitchen on Wednesdays. Free to open up a food pantry every third Wednesday.

You are free to take responsibility for our neighbors. You are free to serve them and to love them.

When this church moved to this location years ago, maybe not everyone expected that such a large transient population would be your neighbors. But that’s how it worked out. And I know that churches sometimes struggle to come to terms with a future that isn’t what they thought it was going to be years before. In fact, when I thought about that this morning, I was realizing that every church I have ever been a pastor of has been, in some ways, trying to come to terms with a present that doesn’t look exactly like they had envisioned it decades before. But here you are doing just that. You are exercising your freedom to take responsibility for your neighbors here and to serve them and to love them.

I enjoy listening to you share your joys and concerns on Sunday mornings. I don’t usually know the names or the people being talked about, but it is still meaningful to hear you share your care for one another.

Our freedom is not for self-indulgence but to be responsible for one another.

We are free to care for one another.

We are free—
free to take responsibility for one another’s needs,
free to love and serve one another,
free to be obligated to one another,
free to be bound together love and responsibility.

We are a free people.

Our public life, the political discourse in our country today is so toxic, at least it seems that way to me, that to talk this way about this kind of freedom almost seems unheard of—
free to take responsibility for one another’s needs,
free to love and serve one another,
free to be obligated to one another,
free to be bound together love and responsibility.
But that is exactly the kind of freedom God’s people are called to.

The year was 1989. The place was Romania. The day before, the president of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, who had been unable to stem the tide of dissent and unrest in the capital city of Bucharest, was tried and executed. The president of the country had been executed. Now no one was in charge.

Western reporters came into the country from the south, searching for someone who could speak English. Finally they found someone, and in one sentence she summed up not only Romania’s predicament but the condition of humans from the beginning of time.

She said: We have freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it

You might say that the world is mostly divided between those who don’t have freedom and long for it and those who do have freedom and don’t know what to do with it. And in either case, it’s sad.

I know Christians—don’t you?—who don’t have freedom. They are caught up in that bitter straight jacket of
rule-making and
sin-ranking and
guilt-inducing and
condemnation-by-category.
I know Christians who don’t have freedom.

I also know Christians who have freedom but don’t know what to do with. It’s become merely a freedom to do whatever you want and live for yourself. I know Christians who have freedom but don’t know what to do with it.

When you think about it, history mostly tells the stories of those who are denied freedom and dream of it. And it tells the stories of those who gain freedom but can’t handle it.

Wouldn’t it be something if your story, my story, our story, was something different?

Wouldn’t it be something if your story and mine—ours— was the story of a people who are given the great gift of freedom in Christ and became known for nothing other than how we exercised that freedom to love and serve and take responsibility for our neighbors?

Wouldn’t it be something if our freedom wasn’t used up for ourselves but was lived out in loving our neighbors as ourselves?

If our freedom was expressed in gratitude and sharing?

If we didn’t grasp our freedom with a closed fist of self-centeredness but shared it in an open-handed and open-hearted love?

If we finally understood that the freedom that God gives isn’t scarce or limited or something we have to compete for but a gift to be celebrated and shared?

If we really were a people who have freedom and know what to do with it?

If our freedom looked like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I believe the phrase Jesus used to describe this way of living was “abundant life.”

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