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For Freedom -- Galatians 5:1,23-23 (Fifth Sunday After Pentecost)

Like most things these days, it’s been a strange Fourth of July. As part of our collective action to keep each other safe, we have foregone many of our Fourth of July traditions – no fireworks, no parades, no public picnics or pancake breakfasts. Or, like so many other things – maybe we have adapted those traditions and created something new.

In the churches I grew up in, on a day like today, we’d still be talking about the Fourth of July in church – about our national life – on this national day. We might sing a national hymn or two – America, the Beautiful – something like that. Our observance of the Fourth of July would not quite be over. Even in church.

Now, that’s not a tradition you’re likely to see in Bay Area churches. Particularly in these days – as we are hyper-aware of the dangers of nationalism – the raw power of white nationalism to suppress, and to oppress, and to kill. So, in places like the Bay Area, we tend to let occasions like the 4th of July pass on by– relatively unmentioned in our life of faith – or in our worship. We might sing a song or two, but we don’t go there, in any depth.

But you know, in our reaction to all that – and it’s a healthy reaction – we might actually miss an opportunity. Because, you see, days like the Fourth of July do give us the opportunity to stand at the intersection of faith and public life – and to reflect seriously on the ways that we’re called to live out our faith – the way of Jesus – in the world. To reflect on how we are called to engage the issues of our day – in our communities—in our state – and in our nation – for the blessing and the healing of the world God loves.

This morning’s scripture gives us the opportunity to reflect on “freedom” – and Vivian will come and read from Galatians 5:

Galatians 5:1,13-23 is read.

On this Fourth of July weekend, our Scripture this morning opens up the opportunity for us to reflect on “freedom” – “For freedom, Christ has set you free.” Freedom is not only a political value to be celebrated on a national day – it is one of the central themes of Scripture – from the freedom story of how God leads the people out of slavery into a land of promise – to a Savior who comes to free God’s people from everything that would do us harm.

Sitting here today, we are people who claim freedom in Jesus Christ AND we are people who live in a nation that offers us a significant range of personal freedom, and that also boldly promises freedom for all people. So for the next few minutes, I’d like us to think about “freedom” – biblical freedom AND constitutional freedom – freedom at the intersection of faith and public life. (And you just happen to have a preacher who is also a constitutional lawyer – so there’s that.)

So, if we’re going to ground ourselves in this Scripture – “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” the first thing we need to do is think about what the Apostle Paul might have been saying in the context of his world. Paul is writing these words in the early days of Christianity – about 20 or so years after Jesus’ death.[1] And he’s traveling at lightning speed through the Mediterranean world – preaching the liberating good news of Jesus Christ. And, because they’re still arguing over what the way of Jesus means, Paul is arguing against a particular understanding of the Law that is standing in the way. He’s arguing against an understanding of the Law that separates us – that excludes – that says, “Some folks are in; and some folks are out.” Paul is arguing fervently and passionately – “No, No, God’s love for us in Jesus Christ has broken down those barriers – everything that separates us from each other – everything that separates us from God. In Christ, God loves us all – and in Christ, God has set us free.”

And so Paul proclaims: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” We are free of all that. Couldn’t be more clear. But then, Paul goes on – he writes, “We are no longer slaves to the law – become slaves to each other.” And then he says, “Don’t do these things”– and rattles off a list. Instead live out these things– the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control – against these things there is no law.” The Apostle Paul lists out what Bill Maher might call – some New Rules.

And that just raises all kinds of questions. Are we free or not? “For Freedom, Christ has set us free.” If there’s no law any more, does that mean we are free to do anything we want? Is freedom “just another word for nothing left to lose?” Really? Because that sounds like anarchy, and I don’t think the Apostle Paul means that, OR, is what he’s really saying just that, “The old law is gone, but here’s a new law – a new set of Do’s and Don’ts?” Are we just subject to another law? And What on earth does it mean to be free by becoming slaves to each other? Are we free or not?

Those are all good questions – but I want to ask a different question of this Scripture.

And that question is this:

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

Whose freedom?

All those other questions assume that throughout all this, Paul is talking about our freedom – your freedom, my freedom – and only our freedom. Freedom – in the first-person. But I’m not so sure that’s all there is to this text.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

Whose freedom?

For whose freedom has Christ set us free?

You see, whenever we use the word freedom, in any given context, we might be talking about a whole range of different aspects of freedom. At the most fundamental level – there is “freedom TO.” “Freedom to” is that basic quality of freedom – we are free to do something. I am free to move from here to there – I’m not constrained – I’m not physically confined. I’m free to speak. We are free to decide – to do this or to do that.

This is the fundamental quality of freedom that expresses our agency in the world – our autonomy – our freedom to decide, and to act, and to do, and to be.

Then, surrounding all that, there is “freedom FROM.” And that just recognizes that we don’t live our lives – free as we may be – independently of other people. We live our lives within systems and structures –within communities, and families, and nations. And those systems and structures can limit and constrain and oppress. A substantial part of the biblical story is about “freedom FROM” the forces that oppress – what the Apostle Paul might call the “powers” – freedom from slavery, freedom from empire, freedom from sin –and even, in Jesus Christ, freedom from death. And in our day, freedom from racism, and misogyny, and homophobia, and transphobia, and xenophobia. Freedom from everything that holds us down, and holds us back.

Our Constitutional system similarly values, expresses, and protects these aspects of our freedom – freedom TO and freedom FROM. The Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom TO speak, the freedom to protest, and the freedom to vote. It provides freedom FROM unreasonable search and arrest, freedom from unlawful detention, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, freedom from the unequal application of the law.

Freedom TO and Freedom FROM, expressed in both the story of Scripture and in our nation’s Constitution. Freedom TO do all those things that enable us to live lives of meaning. Freedom FROM all those things – those powers – that would hold us back – that deny our full humanity, our full dignity.

But we’re asking one more question this morning.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

Whose freedom?

For whose freedom has Christ set us free?

This question takes us to the next level, and insists that our freedom is not ours alone: Our freedom is connected with the lives of others – our freedom is bound up in the freedom of others. As someone once said, none of us is free, until all of us are free.[2] We’re talking about “freedom FOR.” That’s at the heart of this text. That’s what Paul’s talking about when he suggests that we become slaves or servants to each other – that we bind ourselves to each other’s well-being – what Brad Braxton names as a paradox – “our Christian freedom manifests itself in love as ‘slavery’ to the well-being of others.”[3] It’s what the Apostle Paul means when he makes those lists – (1) the list of behaviors to avoid that separate us from each other – and (2) the list of values – grounded in love -- that draw us more deeply into community – that give us life – the fruits of the Spirit. Our freedom is freedom FOR the well-being of others – specific others.

This notion of “freedom FOR” runs throughout scripture. In the Hebrew Scriptures, again and again, our freedom is FOR the freedom and the care of the most vulnerable in our midst – for the widow, for the orphan, for the stranger in our midst. Jesus picks that up when he says, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to bring release for the captive, to free the oppressed.” Christ frees us, so that we can live lives that free others – freedom for the poor, for the captive, for anyone who is oppressed, in any way they are oppressed – freedom for the freedom, and life, and well-being of every person. Freedom FOR.

And same thing, in our national context, with our constitutional freedoms. Those freedoms aren’t just randomly there in the First Amendment – they are specific freedoms that are intended to guarantee full and free participation in a democratic system where each person can be free to pursue, life, liberty, and a meaningful life. Freedom FOR a common life that protects and promotes the freedom and wellbeing of all people.

So if we take this Scripture seriously – “For Freedom, Christ has set us free” – and if we understand that we are talking about the freedom TO live meaningful lives; the freedom FROM everything that holds us back; AND freedom FOR all people – then, this must be true: This Scripture requires that we stand at the intersection of faith and public life, and that we look around our world, and ask, “Who is not free?” And that we then go and stand there, that we then go and work there.

And these days, we don’t need to look far.

Did you know that we are still holding children in detention camps at our borders? A year ago, that’s what we were talking about – as we began to see the pictures from those detention camps. Our nation had started a practice of separating children from their families at the borders, and then detaining children in appalling living conditions that were subsequently condemned by the government’s own inspector general. But just a week ago, just last week, a federal judge ordered ICE to release the child detainees, finding that the Administration is failing to provide even the most basic health protections for child detainees during this COVID-19 pandemic.[4]

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

Each week since the murder of George Floyd, we’ve been joining in the national discussion and the national work of dismantling centuries of systemic. What we have seen plainly in these days – and what we should have seen clearly before – is that Black Americans can’t move through American streets with the same freedom of movement that White Americans have – that this nation has yet to provide the constitutionally promised equal protection of the law.

Royce is going to come in a little bit and say something about the anti-racism team that is forming in the congregation, with specifics about plans for our shared work. This year, this congregation has already been working to support voting rights – with growing awareness of the active efforts across the country to suppress Black voting rights, with folks turning up at the polls only to find that their names have been removed.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

And I want to talk about one more way that the concept of “freedom” is particularly part of our national conversation right now. In this time of pandemic, “freedom” is being invoked as a reason not to wear a facemask. We’ve seen it on the news. There are folks who are just refusing to wear facemasks during pandemic, saying, “It’s my right not to wear a mask. That’s part of my American freedom.” Well, as a first thing, there is no constitutional provision or right that gives the freedom to disregard public health directives. And we know, that this choice – this exercise of so-called freedom – puts others at risk of illness and death – and we are seeing this surge in cases. Neither American constitutional freedom nor biblical Christian freedom is about the freedom to do as we please without regard for the well-being of others. There are so many things that we are collectively giving up now as part of our freedom to live FOR the freedom and well-being of others – gathering in-person for worship, singing in-person together, sitting side by side on a lonely day. We are giving up those things as part of our freedom to live, in love, for the freedom and well-being and life of others.

This Scripture gives us a moral measure of how we live out our freedom: Are we using our freedom for the freedom of others? The Apostle Paul would use the word love – Are we using our freedom in and for love?

This is no small matter. This is at the very heart of God’s saving love for us in Jesus Christ: “For freedom Christ has set you free.” In Jesus Christ, God has come to us – and embodied God’s Word of freedom – God’s work of freedom – in our flesh. For freedom Christ has set us free. To do the work of freedom. And Christ’s freedom envisions nothing less than a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth – freedom to create a new world with God.

God’s freedom envisions a world where every child wakes up in the morning in a place of shelter and rest – where children aren’t kept in detention camps – where they’re not separated from their families.

God’s freedom envisions a world where all God’s children can walk American streets without fear of vigilante or police violence because of their race.

God’s freedom envisions a world where we act in freedom to protect each other’s well-being and health and lives – wearing masks – giving up for a time the things we love to do.

God’s freedom envisions a world where all God’s children are free to work for the freedom of all God’s children.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

Whose freedom?

For whose freedom has Christ set us free?

For the freedom of all God’s children.

It’s only in doing that work... that we will ever be free.

© 2020 Scott Clark

[1] This understanding of Paul’s life and work follows, in significant part, Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI: 2003), and the teaching of Professor Eugene Park at San Francisco Theological Seminary. [2] I couldn’t find a single clear attribution for this quotation, but could trace it back to poet Emma Lazarus, and found it quoted by Maya Angelou and others. [3] Brad R. Braxton, “Galatians” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN: 2007), p. 343. [4]

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