Freedom … Jesus … and Us Right Now
Text: Galatians 5:1 – 6, 13 – 14
For this time of reflecting together, I want us to take one word, and then another word, and then four more. They are right in your bulletin, there in sequence. The first word: Freedom. The second: Jesus. The last four: and Us Right Now. Three focal points: Freedom … Jesus … and Us Right Now. Each is vital in itself. But if we take those three together they connect in a manner that, I believe, speaks deeply to us and to the tumultuous world we live in right now. To say that, though, gets ahead of things. Let’s just move one at a time.
Freedom. We celebrate it with fireworks in two days. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Independence. And so in what we know was and imperfect time and from imperfect people a vision was born that we still seek to live into today.
Freedom. Sometimes the word is wrapped in idealism and we catch visions of liberty and justice for all. Freedom. Sometimes the word is perverted. Freedom to berate another human being, or a whole class of human beings. Freedom to tear down, dismiss. Is that really freedom? Sadly, some claim it as such.
Freedom. Sometimes the word is wrapped in humor and the humor comes as a freeing gift. I remember my father on certain days when things got tense in our extended family. He would sigh and, with a slight twinkle in his eyes, say, “God gave us our relatives. Thank heavens we’re free to choose our friends.” This was a gentle reminder to all of us, and certainly to himself, to be a freer in how we regarded other branches on the family tree.
Freedom. It takes so many shapes. For some of us, in our hearts of hearts, freedom burns as the desire for freedom from. Freedom from old tapes in our minds that that still injure – or from a habit that degrades us or threatens our very being – freedom from a fear that suddenly holds us back just when we want to step forward. For some of us the freedom we yearn for may be freedom to … to simply be ourselves in the way we know we’re meant to.
Or for many of us here today, I suspect freedom has a further meaning. We all know that in our country right now we live in a scorchingly difficult time. We want to respond, but we yearn to do so in a way that leaves us free from adopting the very negativity and fear that we seek to oppose. We yearn for the freedom to live a truly fresh and healing path.
Freedom. So rich a word. For each of us, I suspect, “freedom” is bound up with a host of legitimate desires. Let it sit there for a little, and with all it contains.
We turn to the second focus: Jesus. Jesus offers a profound understanding of freedom. He lived this understanding. He gave it with his life. The apostle Paul saw this, and wrote it in this morning’s lesson. If you want to turn, it’s in your pew Bibles, Galatians chapter 5, verses 1-6 and 13-14.
Paul was writing to the early Christians in Galatia. They had fallen into a time of turmoil. Some people had come in from the outside and tried to enslave them to practices they no longer needed to follow. Paul wrote back with every ounce of strength he had: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you – and here we’ll step back from the text for a moment. Paul gets technical. He has to. The old law taught that, to have a right relationship with God, men had to be circumcised. And the whole community had to obey a host of laws to be right with God. People were coming into the new church and saying, “It’s fine, you’ve got Jesus, but to be right with God you’ve got to be circumcised too.” Paul writes, Listen, I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again, I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. -- Paul is saying: In the power of Jesus love, you are free. Let go the chains of the past. Let him hold you! Immerse in his love!
Paul in the next few verses goes into a little more detail, and then he breaks wider still. He tells us where this freedom that comes from Jesus’ love takes us. In verses 13 and 14, he continues – For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for selfish indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single sentence: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is the gift of Jesus’ freedom. It is the freedom to live in his love, to immerse in the love, to walk in a whole fresh way, and then to share that love with back others too. Freedom. Jesus’ freedom gives us a whole new way of being in the world.
One of the great privileges of being a pastor is being able to watch and see beautiful, courageous things happen. I’ll share just glimpses here. For my first pastorate, I served two small churches north of the Adirondack Mountains in the Saint Lawrence River Valley on the Canadian border. There was a small town church and a country church. In the town church I quickly became aware of a humble, loving presence. She was low to the ground, white hair, had a wonderful smile. You could not help but feel a quiet caring from this person. About six weeks into my ministry I mentioned her positive presence to another in the congregation. “Yes,” the person said, “and she didn’t come by that easily. You knew about her daughter?” I didn’t. She had three children. The middle child, a bright, lovely young woman was just finishing her education. She broke up with her boyfriend knowing that she needed. Things just weren’t right thee. Perhaps out of kindness she consented to one last car ride with him. Out in the country, he took a handgun, murdered her, and then himself. The woman brought the matter up herself one day as we sat in her tidy kitchen. “It was the hardest thing I every did,” she said, “forgiving him, but I knew I had to. The bitterness was killing me. It was spreading out and affecting others. I sensed that in some way I couldn’t fully express, this was also no good for his spirit.” She had prayed and prayed and prayed. And she found release. She never denied the terrible wrong. She never repressed her grief, but she also had moved into a whole fresh way of being with the loving presence she gave to everyone. For freedom, Christ has set us free.
Many years ago a letter came in the mail from someone who had tried to talk me out of going into the ministry because, and he meant this with real caring, “ It would be a waste.” In his letter he apologized for that, and then told both Jean and me what we had not known. For some years alcohol had enslaved him, and realized it was destroying his life. So a few months before writing the letter, for the first time in 14 years he had prayed. The answer he had gotten was, “Call Alcoholics Anonymous.” He called. Someone took him to a meeting. Someone at the meeting took him to church. That was 40 years ago. I have watched with awe all these years as he continues day by day by day to ground himself in the One whose love saved him and then reaches out to life after life with the healing love he has come to know. For life-building freedom, Jesus sets us free!
Or moving to a different level, but one fully as vital – Before moving to Greenville six years ago, Jean and I lived 20 years in Michigan. It is a lovely state, but, alas, harbors numerous hate groups including the Klu Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. Not long after the turn of the millennium, several groups banded together to hold a White Supremacist rally in downtown Kalamazoo. Many of us in the area were deeply distressed at the thought. Legally, there was no way to block it. A counter demonstration at the same site was possible, even caught energy for a time, but in the end a far richer vision took hold. On the appointed day, the hate filled rally took place in the center of the city. Half a mile away, in Martin Luther Junior King Park, a very different gathering took shape. Instead of the tight lips, the anger, and the fear, here were smiles and laughter, whole families, varied races, all ages playing. It was all brief. People sang. Speeches were quick. The message was simple. Look at the love here. Look at the justice. This is what Dr. King gave. This is what Jesus gave. This is what all faiths give us. So immerse in the goodness of it. Let this empower you. Then go out and live this love wherever you go. This was so much more than just resistance to someone else’s negative agenda. This was living the new life that Jesus gives us.
Freedom … Jesus and what he gives… and that brings us to us right now.
Us … In a short time all of us will come to the table. Everyone of us. And I expect that in some quite personal way each of us will be saying within the equivalent of the words of the wonderful song Sammy sang a short time ago. “Lord, I need Your love … I need Your peace … I need Your joy this day.” From the table we hear spoken the words that are the source of all our freedom … This is my body, broken for you … This is my blood, spilled for you … This is his love. We will receive. And then we will go forth. And not all of it will be easy. We know that. But he loves, and bit by bit that love sets us free to live with courage the whole new way. And whether in this coming week we paint in the art room, or teach, or offer music, hold another’s hand, or pray fervently for someone we love, help someone with a legal problem, or speak a word for justice and peace, wherever we are, we will be part of the new and loving way. Nothing can stop it, not even times like our own. For freedom to love Jesus has set us free.