Year C, Pentecost 3
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” We all recognize these words. It comes from the prologue of our Declaration of Independence which we celebrate on July 4th. Normally when we think of July 4th, we think of freedom. That is what we are celebrating, right? Freedom? Interestingly, the word freedom never appears in the Declaration of Independence. But there is liberty, which is just like freedom. Its right there—listed as one of our unalienable rights.
Given this celebration of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, Paul’s words about freedom seem appropriate. We might even assume that the people who created the lectionary picked this reading purposefully. However, as we have learned, the lectionary is on a three year cycle and doesn’t coincide with the dates in our national calendar and it never takes into account national holidays like July 4th. Regardless, Paul’s understanding of freedom and the popular perception of freedom we have in this country have little to do with one another.
Paul wrote, “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.” The dictionary defines freedom as: “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” That was definitely not what Paul was describing. Paul didn’t believe that our freedom meant we could live a life without restraint. He believed that we are free, but only if we find freedom in Christ. Living in the Spirit of Christ gives us freedom, but it also requires that we become servants to God and even servants to one another. In being free, we are bound to serve God. If you are a little confused right now, that is ok, Paul can often be a little confusing.
One of the fascinating things about the New Testament and Jesus’ message was that everything we once considered true was turned upside down. It wasn’t that things we considered true were suddenly untrue, it was just different. For instance, Jesus said that the first should be last and the last should be first. Jesus was a king, but his crown was made of thorns and his throne was the cross. Death was not a defeat for Jesus, because he was victorious over death. It was a paradigm shift. Jesus taught, a completely different way of thinking and being. One of those things he taught was the importance of being a servant, no matter how important you may be. He said that the way we treat the least of these is the way we treat God.
For the Jewish people, being slaves was something that was very much a part of their story. God had led them out of bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. That was and is a big part of their narrative. And the Gentiles would have known and understood slavery as well. That practice was alive and well at the time. Therefore when Paul spoke about slavery–that was not a foreign concept to the people he was talking to. Yet, Paul was talking about a different kind of slavery. It is not forced submission. One person or group does not forcefully take control of another. It means that we willingly submit to God, and to one another. It was and is a completely different way of thinking.
In talking about freedom, Paul reminded these new Christians of Galatia that freedom was not supposed to be license for self indulgence. Freedom in Christ doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want. It means that you are free from sin, free from laws that tell you how to be holy. However there is one law that Jesus wanted us to follow: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In accepting this freedom in Christ, we also accept responsibility for one another. It is a communal freedom rather than an individual freedom.
I believe that our nation would be living more authentically as a free nation if we were free for one another, rather than in spite of one another—if we felt some obligation to serve the common good rather than serve our own self interests. You might say, well that is not what American freedom is supposed to be. That’s Christian freedom which is a totally different thing. I would have agreed with you before I wrote this sermon. While preparing for this sermon, I read the Declaration of Independence, all of it, not just that first part that is always quoted. The last line reads: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
“We mutually pledge to each other…” Huh, sounds a bit like Paul, doesn’t it? Now, I am no scholar of the Declaration of Independence, but it seems to me that the founders of this country, understood what would make our country truly free, and that is pledging ourselves to one another. We were declaring independence from Britain, not from one another. And even if I am wrong about that, I think we can all agree that when we truly see great things in our county, it is when we see people serving one another. There is a reason why the military, the police, and the firefighters are often associated with patriotism….it’s because they serve. It’s because they risk their lives to help other people. One of my most vivid memories from the days after 9-11 was trying to give blood at the local blood bank. The line was around the block. People wanted to give something, do something. At the heart of this nation is not just patriotism, but the kind of freedom that Paul described.
Paul wrote, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Right now in our nation, we are biting and devouring one another. And you know what, Paul was right. It feels as though we are consumed by one another—despite our desperate attempts to distinguish ourselves and separate ourselves, we are consumed. We are not free. We think that the might of our nation depends on our ability to protect ourselves and separate ourselves, but our might is determined by our willingness to serve one another, or in the words of the great document we celebrate this week, to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” It is indeed a sacred honor to serve God’s children. But let us never forget that God’s children are all the children of the world. Love your neighbor as yourself was never meant to be literal. Love every person as yourself. That was what Jesus meant. Let us be free for one another, not in spite of one another.