Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, July 1, 2001, Pentecost 4, dedicated to all men and women who have fought for freedom in founding this nation 225 years ago, dedicated to the memory of Donna Kelly and always to the glory of God!
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
In the early 1970's musical, 1776, my generation — and many of your generation — was introduced to an operatic and often comical rendition of the founding of our great nation. In one of the opening numbers, John Adams, of Massachusetts is eloquently and forcefully presenting a point to the gathered body, which is fading fast in the heat of Philadelphia's State House and early June heat wave. No one seems to be listening. Yet, whenever there is a break in his rapid fire presentation, the refrain from all gathered returns to Adams: "Sit down, John! Sit down, John! For God's sake, John, sit down!"
Finally, Adams finishes. His point is this: they need a statement of the American case against the British crown. They need, if you will, a Declaration of Independence. All gathered agree and so they do what all great Americans have since learned to do. They form a committee. Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and a young intellectual farmer from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, are chosen to submit the draft. On June 28, under the primary writing of Jefferson, they return to the floor of Congress with a Declaration of Independence. And as we know, 225 years ago this Wednesday, the Declaration of Independence was adopted providing the fuel for revolutionary war, and eventually the independent freedom which allowed our forebearers to become the United States of America.
In one of the quiet moments of the drama of 1776, during the congressional break, Adams himself sits to write a letter to his wife, Abigail. In the refrains of his solitude John sings across the many miles to Abigail: "Is anybody listening? Is anybody there? Is anybody listening? Does anybody care?" Freedom for a fledgling nation is born in such times and moments as these.
Writing some 1,700 years before, perhaps from Ephesus to Asia Minor, to a place called Galatia, the Apostle Paul was also concerned about freedom for the people following Christ in the first century. I sometimes wonder if he also cried out in this solitude of his writing, "Is anybody listening? Does anybody care? Is anybody listening? Is anybody there?" In one of his earliest letters, written sometime between 50-55 AD, Paul expressed his strong beliefs that through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ had liberated all people and that we should be resolute in remaining free. Yet, he was very aware of the hazards of being free and so he targets three potential dangers. First, freedom may turn out to be more difficult than slavery. Second, freedom may destroy community. Third, freedom may translate into a form of moral relativism. Let's look at dangers of sweet, sweet freedom.
In verse 1, Paul poses that like a long-term prisoner who is set free and finds it difficult to shake the habits of servitude, we may actually "submit ourselves again to the yoke of slavery." After all, freedom poses new responsibilities. Whereas, formerly our choices may have been made for us, we now find that the decisions are ours - and ours alone - to make. And one advantage of living under the law (in Paul's case, the 613 laws of Judaism) is that all duties, choices, and responsibilities are spelled out in great detail. There is a comfort in having laws define conduct for us instead of exercising our own autonomy in deciding the responsible course of action in any given case. (Now as an aside, anyone who has studied Judeaism knows that tens of thousands of pages reflecting on the law have been written through the centuries. So, what appears through Paul's writing to be hard, fast, and clear is not so clear to those who adhere to the laws of Moses).
Nevertheless, freedom may be attractive to us initially because we think it will demand less of us, yet we discover that freedom actually brings greater demands - internal and spiritual demand. One of the great paradoxes of life is that freedom requires greater effort than a life of servitude. Freedom must be nurtured, protected and rigorously pursued. It is not a picnic in the park! Like the Israelites following the Exodus, we may find ourselves with freedom, not knowing what to do with it.
Parenthetically, I believe our "open" theological system in Reformed theology and in the Congregational/United Church of Christ tradition faces much the same challenge. Each one of us is called to freedom of belief, but with this freedom comes the responsibility of saying what we believe, and thinking through the implications and sometimes the "defenses" of such beliefs. Roman Catholics have Canon Law, The Orthodox have a book of discipline, and many Protestants have clear Books of Order or Books of Discipline. We have this loose arrangement called a statement of faith and we are guided by one sentence in the Preamble of the United Church of Christ constitution which says, "We believe Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior." Beyond those words, we are called to formulate our own foundation in Christ. This is a comfort to some and a discomfort to others. Some people want and need their faith life, their theology and perhaps even their lives in general - neatly wrapped and tightly sealed. But, Paul's charge to us from Galatians is to be resolute in the newfound freedom Christ has given us as a gift of grace. He calls us to be relentless in our pursuit of freedom and to stand firm in freedom - because slavery to the law, although the easier, more comfortable course, is not the path of God given in Christ. Jesus.
Second, remember that freedom may destroy community. We are cautioned not to allow our freedom to become "an opportunity for self-indulgence" (vs. 13). Paul reminds us to live a life of loving service to each other and adds to this that a life so lived fulfills the essence of the law (vs. 14). In verse 15, Paul writes, if you bite one another and tear each other to pieces, see to it that you are not consumed by one another. In other words, do not turn on each other as you seek to express yourself. Your freedom of expression may bring about the end of life as you know it. This reminds of the argument around the freedom of firearms possession. The desire for the freedom to own such weapons is too often not coupled with the responsibilities related to using them. As such, an overly and overtly individualistic interpretation of freedom can lead to a relentless pursuit of individual rights and freedoms with no moral commitment to others. As we have seen in our times, this abuse of freedom can often become an excuse for self-indulgent, inhumane and destructive behaviors. Individualistic freedoms run amuck and pave the way for community run aground.
Finally, freedom may translate into a form of moral relativism. One major objection to Paul's writings on freedom is that they provide an open license to sin — as noted in Romans 6:1-4. As we have been baptized into freedom, and from death to life, we are baptized into newness of life in Christ Jesus. To develop a responsible moral ethic, we must first recognize the existence of moral conflict within us. Plate portrayed this as the struggle between two horses trying to pull a chariot. Each has his own power and direction, but they must move from conflict to resolution if the chariot is to move forward. Karl Barth put it this way, "Conflict does not mean peaceful coexistence between two opposing points of view....How can there be cooperation between total freedom and total bondage? How can the spirit give assistance to the flesh or the flesh to the Spirit?" To recognize this struggle is step one.
The impulses and demands of the flesh, if you will, are for possession, for things, and for the objectification of people and ideas. The fruits of the Spirit are for sharing, for giving away, for freedom, quite simply — for displaying the results of living in response to God's spirit. Beyond merely recognizing the differences, Paul clearly calls people to make a choice in the face of the differences. He says in verse 25, "be guided by the Spirit (of God)."
Beyond the possible dangers of freedom are the amazing delights of freedom and great possibilities that freedom brings to us. We sometimes lose track of the beauty of freedom in our land. We sometimes lose track of the demands which freedom calls us to on behalf of a world which has all too little freedom and human rights. From his book of poems, Always A Reckoning, the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter writes in Hollow Eyes, Bellies, Hearts:" (and I share a few lines excerpted for you...)
We chosen people, rich and blessed,
Rarely come to ask ourselves
if we should share our voice of power,
Or a portion of our wealth.
We deal with problems of our own,
and claim we have no prejudice
Against the people, different, strange
whose images we would dismiss:
Hollow eyes in tiny faces,
Hollow bellies, gaunt limbs, there
so far away. Why grieve here
For such vague, remote despair?
...One alone in a Chinese square
Confronted tanks, while others fled.
He stood for freedom for us all,
but few care now if he's jailed or dead....
We have been given a sweet, sweet freedom in Christ Jesus. We have inherited a sweet, sweet freedom in this nation of ours. Let us neither squander this freedom, nor flaunt it. Rather, may this freedom guide us beyond its possible dangers and pitfalls to newness of life in the fullness of God's Spirit! And by the fruits of God's spirit, may we live for others the promises we have been granted. Amen.
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