Called to Freedom – July 3

A sermon based on Galatians 5:13-25 (Inclusive Bible)

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 3, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

On Independence Day weekend it’s great to have freedom front and center of today’s lesson– which reminds me of a story. One day a Libertarian, a Communist, and a religious person were discussing Adam and Eve’s  exercise of their freedom to choose to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge.  The Libertarian pointed out that “Adam and Eve were the first libertarians. They had virtually everything in the Garden of Eden, but pursued the thing forbidden by God. To desire uninhibited freedom so much, they were the first libertarians!” The Communist said, “No, Adam and Eve were the first Communists! They understood that goods like the fruit were to be owned in common and were available to all as needed. And they exercised their freedom to take it together! They were the first communists!” Finally, the religious person said, “Adam and Eve were the first religious people. They had no possessions – no roof over their heads, no clothes, even an apple was forbidden to them! But even destitute they exercised the freedom to believe there is Paradise and God. They were the first religious people!”

I told that story to emphasize the truth that no matter what, humans have always had the freedom to hope and believe in a better world, and in a God. Nothing can take that freedom from us.

Most of us have probably noticed that freedom is a word that gets bandied about a lot, for all sorts of causes – and seems to have lots of meanings.  In theological discussions I like to have a good understanding of terms we use, so we can all get on the same page or close to it. Consequently, today we are going to explore freedom, and eventually get to its meaning in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  But first we need to discuss the meaning of freedom in our culture.

Americans encounter that word an awful lot–even more so this time of year as the Fourth of July approaches for sure but also because ends of the spectrum of issues of freedom are front and center in the news.   Whether we like it or not, or agree with it or not, it needs to be said that freedom in a country –including especially our country– has never meant citizens have the unfettered right to do whatever they want with no government interference.

Even the president’s freedom to do as he or she might want is supposed to be tempered by laws. Our country is embroiled in discussing that  limitation as it relates to January 6th  of last year. Freedom in our country is not a free-for-all where we do as we want without limitation.  Freedom in the Fourth of July sense was never meant to be that extreme.

In 1776 on the first Independence Day, at issue was freedom from the tyranny of being ruled by England as colonies and colonists. It meant, at its core freedom from not having a say in a government that decided how to tax and govern the colonies and colonists from far away.  The Declaration of Independence claimed that freedom was based on a broader more fundamental claim to the free unfettered access to the God-given rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness– which basically meant the right to act and be free from unnecessary restraints imposed or allowed by the government. That’s the freedom most Americans consider our national promise and inheritance, we have a right to the freedom from unnecessary restraints on our lives.

The past two weeks or so our country has also been embroiled in discussing the other end of the spectrum of freedom. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision allows restraints on women’s freedom of choice over their bodies, it also restrains the freedom from having a minority of Americans’ religious views imposed on the majority of Americans. The half century old rule allowing the God-given right of freedom for  women to have important choices over their bodies is now gone and the freedom can be restrained even more than when the Constitution was written.

Freedom from state imposed religious views has long been a fundamental right under our Constitution.  It’s among the specific rights that England restrained that were claimed in the Constitution’s First Amendment.  Those rights include the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petitioning the government.  Elsewhere the Bill of Rights enumerates the right to be free from unfair criminal process and the unfair taking of life, liberty and property. Notably the listing of some rights in the Constitution does not limit those that are unlisted, the Ninth Amendment provides that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Remarkably being enslaved was not such a right. It wasn’t until much later in the 1860s that the freedom from being enslaved got listed as a right in our Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence which started it all begins by noting that “all men” are created equal.  That phrase can fairly be read as originally meaning all humanity is created equal. But the nation certainly did not start out that way, it waited until 1860s to enumerate  the right to freedom from enslavement.  The reason is slavery was tragically already deeply rooted in the colonies, all men were not treated as they were created, equally.  Most rights to freedom were being reserved for white men who had enough wealth to own property. The nation’s women and the poor were second class citizens and people of color could be and were enslaved, killed, or chased out of their lands, even corralled in reservations. So, freedom was not provided equally by any stretch of the imagination.

But the wording of the Declaration of Independence declaring that all humanity is created equal and due rights let the cat out of the bag. Universal freedom has been gnawing at the nation from the start and continues to resonate. Slowly more and more people have been legally granted equal status and freedom.

As the Dobbs decision, like the Dred Scott decision that denied Black Americans all rights given to citizens, both of those terrible decisions evidence that we have a tragic history of also taking steps backwards with our courts allowing the imposition of  unnecessary restraints on freedom with awful consequences.  While equality and freedom are not yet fully provided,  there is a sense by a very large majority of Americans that everyone is entitled to the freedom from the denial of basic human rights, even if the Supreme Court ironically does not have that sense.

While complete equality and freedom has not yet played out fully in the culture,  and we clearly have terrible setbacks, historically we have, and we do, inch closer and closer to it.  There is real hope that one day Black lives will matter equally. There is real hope that one day fair pay and decisions over their bodies will belong equally to women. There is real hope that reparations will one day be made to all the classes of people not given the advantage of full rights that they deserved at what should have been an equal starting line from the founding of our nation forward. There is real hope that most people in this country want freedom from unnecessary restraints to exist for us all.

Everyone in this nation should have had, and should have now, the freedom from unnecessary restraints imposed or allowed by the government.   The Declaration of Independence radically called for it. And the people who have been denied full rights, and their allies, do keep clamoring for it and keep us inching toward the ideal and the promise of everyone being provided their freedom from unnecessary restraint by the government. See our nation’s beginning was not about extreme Libertarian or Communist type freedoms, it was about basic human rights being unleashed.       A radical notion back in the day . . . and it’s radical still.

And here’s the thing, while some freedoms are covered in our nation’s founding documents, the freedom that Paul writes about in our lesson is not.  There is overlap for sure, but Paul is writing about freedom on a whole other scale.  He is talking about cosmic freedom when he writes “When Christ freed us, we were meant to remain free.”  Paul means that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection serve to unbind us from that which kept us from reconciliation with God. We have been freed from the dominion of sin, and religious laws and even death. Those things no longer hold us captive.  Christ has switched it up, so they hold no dominion over us, now we are under the dominion of God.

We are–  to use Paul’s images–  free from the fleshly realm to live in the Spirit of God’s realm. This paradoxically means we’ve been freed to bound ourselves in service to our liberator, Christ. 1.  New Testament scholar Charles Cousar notes this “means that God’s decisive salvation has been accomplished and a complete change of allegiances has been affected. No longer bound to task-masters like sin, the law and death, Christians are set in the service of God.  Like Israel, they become [God’s] possession, a special people whose identity comes in union with the liberator Jesus Christ.” 2.

Paul notes we may choose to reject that cosmic freedom. He writes “be careful, or this freedom will provide an opportunity for self-indulgence.” And then, like your pastor often does, Paul summarizes the proper Christian choice is to be love in the world. Paul wants us to use the cosmic freedom to make the best choice, which is to serve God who is love and to be love.  He even points to Jesus’ greatest commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” as a summary of the law.

Paul then lays out how to tell if we are acting with love or self-indulgence.  Self-indulgence is from the fleshy realm. Love is from the Spiritual realm– God’s realm.  It’s not complicated to tell which is from which.  As Paul puts it, “it’s obvious what proceeds from the flesh: lewd conduct, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, arguments, jealousy, outburst of anger, selfish rivalries, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and so forth . . . By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against these things there is no law.”   The differences are stark, the fleshy set of conduct is wrong, the spiritual set of conduct is right.  Paul says it’s obvious what’s wrong. Telling the difference is pretty simple.

This is not rocket science. It’s fundamental right and wrong stuff.   Freedom in Christ is freedom from the wrongs that alienate us from God, and freedom to choose to do good which keeps us reconciled with God.  And knowing which is which is within pretty much everyone’s abilities. So, it’s basically  a matter of wanting to choose right, not wrong; and the willingness to do right, not wrong.  Self-indulgence and the ways of the world (what Paul refers to as ways of the flesh) leads to wrongs and away from God and the cosmic freedom Christ gives us. Christ’s way brings us the fruits of the Spirit which are, love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness , generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

If we think about it, all of that naturally leads us to want the freedom our forebearers expressed in the Declaration of Independence, conduct that leads to all being understood and treated as being created equal and endowed with God-given rights, among them life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.  This is the overlap of cosmic freedom and the ideals of freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Both entitled all human beings to their God-given right to well-being.  We are called to clamor for that well-being and otherwise act toward it not just for us, but for everybody. That is the right thing to do. That is the loving thing to do.  AMEN

ENDNOTES:

1.Interpretations, Bible Commentary p 107

  1. Ibid.

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