Freedom's Fullness, by Rev. Fred Kinsey
One of my favorite things on the 4th of July is waking up to the Declaration of Independence on National Public Radio. In familiar voices, the hosts and reporters all take turns reading one section at a time. I’m not sure how long it takes, maybe 5, or even 10 minutes? But it’s impressive! There is stirring background music that heightens the tension as they transition from one reader to another: “When in the course of human events… we hold these truths to be self-evident, … that we’re endowed with certain unalienable rights …among them, are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, … establish[ing] … an absolute Tyranny over these States…
“He has refused …He has forbidden … He has dissolved … He has endeavored to prevent… He has obstructed… He has plundered… imposing Taxes on us without our Consent… and For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury… We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, … do, … solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States…”
It’s exhilarating to hear it read-aloud like that. To think back to that time and the risk they were taking. Although skirmishes of the Revolutionary War had already begun the previous year, it was a bold declaration that Jefferson had crafted. They were officially standing up to the world’s #1 power.
But consensus to sign-on to this Declaration, seemed to build most powerfully around the desire to be free from tyranny and oppression – to have the right to determine their own destiny and not be enslaved to any other, to an overlord who didn’t have their best interests in mind.
And that’s just what’s inherently built-in to most all of us, I think we might be able to conclude. It’s the foundational story of the Hebrew people, as well, as told in the Torah, in the experience and story of the Exodus, celebrated at Passover – when the Israelites were freed by God, from slavery in Egypt, and brought through the wilderness, and into receivership of the Promised Land. Nothing is more integral to the identity of the Jews.
And St Paul says, in our 2nd Reading, that that is basically the story of Jesus, in his suffering, death and resurrection. Our longing for freedom and liberation is satisfied, and completed, in our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.
But, it is not a freedom that is like every other liberation out there, either – not one amongst many – but for the Disciple, baptism is life-changing.
The oppressions and enslavements we experience in our lives, whether from a ‘tyrannical government,’ or other codified slavery, entrapment, or poverty, are just the outward forms of, the Power of Sin-itself. This created world is not perfect, and neither are we, as humans. But we have enormous ‘freedom of choice,’ as God’s creatures, who are made in God’s image. The question is, how do we make good and Godly choices, and avoid the deadly separation from God and our neighbor that is our universal condition of Sin?!
This was the issue in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Shall we then be sinners,” says Paul, “because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” Paul undoubtedly shocked his listeners by implying that giving-up living under the Torah, the Law, was sinful instead of, as every Jew knew it to be, life-giving. Paul, like Jesus – who were both, incidentally, good Jews – believed that the Torah was a blessing and gift. Yet at bottom, we are all enslaved to the Power of Sin in the world. And Paul’s interest here, is more about our behavior than our religious identity – how do we make good and Godly choices, and avoid the power of sin?
In the Hellenistic world of Paul and Jesus, everyone was subject to someone above them. The Greco-Roman hierarchy was well defined all the way up to the Emperor. And Paul’s point is that, ‘all human existence takes place in slavery, to one slavemaster or the other,’(N.T.Wright, Romans NIB) which would have made perfect sense to his contemporaries.
To us, not so much! In this country whose story is founded on its Declaration of Independence, 1) we thrive on meta-narratives like, “give me liberty, or give me death;” and 2) the actually history of slavery in this country, is still not easy, or often, talked about – and its affects, rarely acknowledged or admitted, to this day. To say we are “enslaved” to anyone, even Christ – whether we’re black or white, is fraught and loaded terminology.
And yet, as a baptized people, we cannot turn our backs on Paul’s letter to the Romans and our founding story. It seems to me that we have a choice: is our story going to be, freedom for freedom’s sake, liberty to do whatever I decide I want to do? Or, is our meta-story found in God’s freedom, in the death and resurrection of Christ? In being “set free from sin… to become slaves of righteousness,” as Paul put it.
If- the Power of Sin in the world, is that ‘all human existence takes place in slavery, to one slavemaster or the other,’ then the truth is that we need an authority in our lives that is both ethical and fair – big enough to be life-giving, and intimate enough to know us and look out for our best interests. We need a Christ who sets us free, but doesn’t abandon us. We need a Savior who has been to the depths of Hades yet who reigns from on high. We need a Parent who forgives us, even when we fall short. We need a Lord who has emptied himself to suffer an innocent death, yet was raised to new life. We need ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ to inspire our hearts and minds to believe!
That is how we are made right – ‘justified’ – in this world, and empowered to hold our heads high, submitting ourselves to a life of faith-active-in-love. We are justified by the Grace of God, through the faith of Christ -and in Christ. There is no program or religious test for this – it’s a matter of the heart, a leap of faith, and a risk. All we have is our Christian-Exodus story, a daily washing in the baptismal waters, a dying and rising to creatively face-up to the human-existence-story of enslavements.
And so we cannot make any laws for others, or dictate our cultural norms on others, as a condition for believing in this Messiah and King. That would be just another way of imposing slavery, rather than journeying into freedom.
And, so it’s always worth considering, how much we overlook the ways that we re-construct “law” amongst us, just because we sometimes want to keep our fear of, less familiar mores, at bay. How often, for instance, do those who are different, meet in us, not grace and welcome, but suspicious looks, inhospitable entitlement? In Christ’s freedom we need to constantly evaluate ourselves, so that our treatment of others is not contingent on age, experience, social or political circles, or other hurdles we place before the new-comer or stranger, lest we return to our old lives of Sin.
Paul says, those who are not under law are “sanctified” – that is “set apart” for God’s use, rather than Sin’s (Kyle Fever, workingpreacher.org). A disciple’s life of faith is not imposed. It is not learned, or memorized. It is received, implanted in our lives, that Christ may grow the fruit of grace in us.
And so, our longing to Declare our freedom, finds fullness and satisfaction, in giving ourselves over completely, to the only one who will not re-enslave us. Let us bow down and worship the crucified and risen one, the one who knows us intimately and completely – who has conquered the Power of Sin, once and for all, who is our Suffering Servant, and righteous-liberator!