Freedom Is Good News
A sermon preached on Galatians 5. June 25 and 26, 2015. Part of a sermon series on Galatinans.
As Americans we value freedom and liberty. On Monday (July 4), we will mark and celebrate our country's Independence Day with gatherings, food and fireworks, and we will give thanks to God for the freedom we enjoy in this country -- freedoms proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence and protected and preserved by our country's Constitution.
As a nation we continue to unpack what freedom means for us. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, freedom meant something different to land-owning white men and quite another thing to enslaved blacks. Throughout our history, we have been challenged to pay attention to the calls of our American prophets -- the women and men who have led us, step by step, to understand freedom and liberty a little more clearly, a little more justly. This prophetic witness, however, also sparks conflict and resistance. These times of change are never easy. These times of change are always painful and confusing, and more often than not deadly, as opposing forces see violence as the way to achieve their goals.
It seems we are living in one of those times of change in our country, a time when we once dig deeply into our founding values to discover new, deeper, richer meaning. When we hold the truth of the God-given, God-created equality of all people as the bedrock moral witness of this country, we still proclaim something revolutionary and radical. What does liberty and justice for all look like in 2016? What does equality look like in 2016? Equality, Liberty and Justice will look different to us than it did in 1816 or 1916, but how different remains the open question for us to wrestle with as we re-visit, re-vise and re-write our laws to more accurately reflect the depth of our values. No matter how conservative or progressive we might be as individuals or groups, our American proclamation of freedom continues to be defined by the rule of law.
For Freedom Christ has set us free ... (Galatians 5:1)
St. Paul speaks about freedom and liberty in his letter to the Galatians. He encourages the church in Galatia -- and he encourages those of us who read this letter today -- to hold fast to our freedom, saying it was for our freedom that Jesus has set us free from sin, death and the power of the devil. St. Paul exhorts us to hold fast, to stand firm and to not back down when it comes to defending the freedom Christ has won for us. This is a spiritual engagement that resists the forces that once again seek to assert their power over us: the power of our own desires for both good and evil; the power of our own self-justifying inclinations; the power of our own desire to judge and control others. We engage in this spiritual warfare by standing firm in our faith in Christ as the only source of righteousness and by recognizing the self-justifying deception of the law or human religious expectations..
Who God makes us to be in Christ, through our baptism, are beloved and accepted children of God. But we receive this status not by being born or doing good, but as a gift from God through faith. God claims us as God's own, and through Jesus' death and resurrection, God sets us free from bondage to our own sinful desires and to all powers that work against God and God's good and gracious will for us. We trust Jesus' work. We are saved by grace through faith. By grace through faith we are emancipated and adopted into God's family.
What Laws Can and Cannot Do
Yet grace is foreign to us even though we long for it all of our hearts. We understand most everything in our lives according to laws. Some religious folk bemoan the loss of sin-talk in our culture, but in the age of social media sin abounds. We constantly judge, and we are constantly being judged by others according to some kind of standard. We live in a world of liability and blame fixing, a world where there are no accidents, only negligence. When we seek to right a wrong in our society, we do so by enacting a law, amending a law or applying some sort of legal standard or policy. But this law, these standards, these customs or expectations can never compel us to love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness and self control.
Our laws can constrain and convict human evil; it can expose us for who we are and what we are; it can question of goodness and our motives, but the law can never make us like Jesus. Only God's gracious Holy Spirit can produce this kind of fruit.
A few years ago, the State of New Jersey enacted strict anti-bullying legislation in an effort to crack down on bullying and to protect vulnerable and innocent people from mean and sadistic behavior of people who prey upon them. What the law shows us is ... what bullying was, what it looks like, what its effects are, and how we can prevent the behavior and protect the people who would become victims. The law, however, cannot do what most needs to be done: create people who put themselves in one another's place; who act out of love and peace for the sake of others; who live with patience and gentleness; who turn their backs on violence and see each other as sisters and brothers.
We are better for having the bullying laws on the books, I would argue. But they don't fix the root problem of human sin. Only the Holy Spirit can bring about that kind of change in people's hearts and minds as they are crucified to Christ to be raised to new life in him. It is the way of the cross that is the transforming solution for human sin.
Free To Love As Jesus Loves
Jesus shows us how God is perfectly free to love and act according to God's grace and will., and yet, Jesus chooses to lay down his life to love and serve us. Jesus is free to choose what he will do, and he chooses to turn and set his face to Jerusalem, to suffer, to die, to rise for us. Jesus uses his freedom to set us free by taking on our bondage.
When in our God-given freedom, the Holy Spirit empowers us to use our freedom as God's grace to live for the sake of others, we have moved beyond the need of laws to restrain the evil in us, or laws that tell us what to do, how to live or whether or not we are just and true. Surprisingly, living like Jesus, is living by faith in Jesus ... In God's way ... (and not by rule of law).
The law is good ... at what it does, within its limits. But it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that bestows true freedom. This Gospel of freedom given us in Jesus Christ is light to the world, light we have been sent to shine before others, for the sake of the world, no matter what side we argue in our ongoing discussion about what we mean when we talk about all people having rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As Jesus' people, we remember that laws can only accomplish so much. It's the cross of Jesus Christ that changes hearts and minds and everything we ever know about what it means to live together in liberty and justice. In Jesus' name Amen.
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