Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
3rd July 2016
Paul’s letter to the church is Galatia is his epistle of freedom. It’s not just any kind of freedom, but Christian freedom. The core verse of the letter is 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The slavery he’s referring to here is slavery under the yoke of the Jewish Law or Torah. Paul discovered in his own life, through his encounter with the Risen Christ, that following that Law, all 516 laws in Torah, in order to be made righteous before God was itself a terrible burden to bear. The Law was originally given to keep us in order, to tell us what we could or could not do. Paul writes that, “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Gal. 3:24-26). And with this new relationship with God through Christ we are free—really free. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” We’ve been set free for freedom.
There’s much to be gleaned from this text, but one thing is certain for Paul: Christ desires our freedom. Freedom from everything that holds us back from being the people we were created by God to be; freedom from everything that weighs us down with anxiety and worry; freedom from everything that binds us, enslaves us, chains us—to sin, to brokenness, to the past, to wrong, to hurt, everything that prevents us from living fully within God’s grace and love and hope.
“For you were called to freedom,” Paul told the Galatians (5:13). Freedom is part of our calling. It’s part of our birthright as children of God. We were born to be free. And it’s really a radical kind of freedom.
My “friend” Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) wrote about the “dizziness of freedom.” He’s describing the dizziness, even the anxiety that comes when we realize just how free we really are: free within the life of God, free in one’s heart, free in the way one relates to others, toward your neighbor, toward society. In fact, Kierkegaard said anxiety emerges when we’re conscious of our freedom—that we’re radically free in Christ—when we stare into the boundlessness of possibility in any given moment; it’s enough to make us dizzy. You can understand, therefore, why people are reluctant to embrace their freedom because, at some level, it makes life infinitely more complicated. It’s easier to go back to former ways, to live by the rules, be bound by the expectations of society or your family or even church, it’s easier to conform, it’s easier to be told what you should do. You can sense this in Paul’s frustration with the Galatians—he wants them to live in the freedom of Christ, but it’s too much for some. They prefer to live bound, imprisoned in the Law. Paul wants them to know that if we are “in Christ,” then that means we are really free.
Now—while it’s true that we are radically free, this freedom doesn’t mean you’re free to do whatever you wish. It’s important to know that Paul’s understanding of freedom is different from the one held by most people today, especially in democracies—including democracies such as our own. He doesn’t mean that you’re free to do whatever you want to do or believe whatever you want to believe (about God, yourself, the world, morality, etc.); he doesn’t means that you’re free to do whatever you want to do or be or become whatever you want to be or become. All of this might be true, to varying degrees, within a democracy, but for Paul this kind of untethered freedom would be a good definition of hell. To live in such a self-centered, individualist way would be a misuse of freedom.
“For you were called to freedom,” Paul insists, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
Did you catch this? Make sure you get this subtle point. Did you notice how Paul intentionally links freedom with love? On this Independence Day weekend we will hear a lot about liberty. Freedom is a costly gift, never to be taken for granted. However, Paul reminds us in Galatians that freedom, Christian freedom, is never an end in itself. Freedom is absolutely essential. But from a Christian perspective, freedom cannot be separated from love. Our freedom must be in service to love. We could say that God made us free in Christ so that we would be free to love—really love—free to act lovingly in the world, free to reflect the image of God who loves the world—a lot (John 3:16-17).
In his treatise“On Christian Freedom,” Martin Luther (1483-1546) famously said, “A Christian…is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian…is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” This is the paradox of Christian freedom.
This relationship between love and freedom was beautifully summarized by St. Augustine (354-430) when he said, “Love and do what you will.” It’s a remarkable insight. Only six words! It’s so profound and wise and true. Augustine is not saying that you have permission to do whatever you want. Your freedom to act must be tethered to, must be grounded, guided by love; love frees you to act lovingly. Love must lead the way. And he could say this because he puts a lot of trust in the power of love.
In our world today, love must continue to lead the way. We must trust its power.
The mastermind of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which is about the life of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), one of our Founding Fathers, is Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton is the hottest show on Broadway these days. I can’t believe a show about Alexander Hamilton is so popular! It’s almost impossible to get tickets. Miranda wrote both the lyrics and the music for the show, and at this year’s Tony Awards on Sunday, June 12, he received the Tony for Best Musical Score. Earlier that day, you’ll recall, we woke to the horrifying news of yet another mass shooting in America, this time at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. It was the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in United States history, with 49 killed and 53 injured. Lin-Manuel Miranda accepted the Tony that Sunday evening and then read a sonnet he wrote for the occasion. It’s a powerful testimony to love in the face of tragedy, love that will not/cannot be thwarted or hindered or destroyed. He said, almost to the point of tears,
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day
This show [Hamilton] is proof that history remembers
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger
We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love,
cannot be killed or swept aside….
Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.
The reference here at the end to “pride” is an allusion to Pride month, the month of June, in which cities all across the world host gay Pride parades. For love is love is love is love. This sonnet, particularly this line that love is love is love, has become a rallying cry within the gay community. But it also speaks to the wider world, because, well, love is love is love. And although there’s nothing explicitly religious about his sonnet, it really is a testimony to the power of love. Not the romantic kind, but the kind of love that is strong as death, as Scripture says (Song of Solomon 6:8), love that’s fierce in the face of death, love that is Divine and, therefore, cannot be killed or swept aside.
I found myself thinking recently that this kind of love is what the Church should be known for in society. This is our message, after all. It’s not exclusively ours, of course, but we have something to say about this. If we claim to be children of God, a God who is love (1 John 4:8), who so loved us that the Son was sent to show us how to embody this love, then the followers of the Son should know something about what that love looks like. Right? And, yet, I’m often amazed how the Spirit of God seems to be more at work in the world, in the saeculum, in the secular world, than in the church. Miranda was preaching the gospel at the Tony’s, for the entire world to hear, incognito, but it was there. For love is love is love is love. I’m grateful that these words will be on our church sign tomorrow at the Fourth of July parade here in Catonsville. As hundreds walk past our church, may they know that this church stands for love.
For, isn’t this what the Church has to offer the world? In light of the events of this week it seems that love is in short supply. In world events—think of Turkey, Bangladesh, and Bagdad, to name the most recent terrorist attacks. And then there’s this presidential campaign, the likes of which I’ve never seen or read about before in our history. The endless, sometimes inane, commentary on 24-hour new channels, and websites announcing, “breaking news” is breaking us.
At one point this week, while listening to the news in my car and thinking about the sermon, I found myself asking: where is the love? There’s so little love in our public discourse.
Then closer to home, I learned on Friday that on Wednesday night the Immanuel United Church of Christ Church on Edmondson Avenue in Catonsville was vandalized, with about $20,000 to $30,000 in damages. The sanctuary was desecrated, the recently renovated parlor destroyed, a beer bottle exploded in the microwave, extreme profanity written on the church billboards, and the pastor’s study was defiled. This church has been vandalized in the past for its progressive witness on GLBTQ-related issues, but nothing like this.
At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, and as one, as a Calvinist, who believes in human depravity, it’s a really good question to ask—as least for those who claim to follow Christ. Where is the love? Where is the love in this presidential campaign, in the motivation of our candidates? Where is love in the voice of their supporters? We hear so much hate and venom and suspicion and name calling on all sides. How is love shaping our economic policy? How is love shaping our political ideologies? How is love informing our response to the most controversial social issues facing us today? Immigration. Gun violence.
What are we doing with our freedom? What is grounding and channeling our freedom? Yes, as Americans, we are free to do whatever we want (for the most part). We love to talk about freedom from, especially from tyranny. As Christians, though, we talk about freedom from but also freedom for. As Christians, our freedom is bound by the love of Christ, and it’s Christ’s love that calls us to love, freely, for the sake of the other. In love we are called to increase the freedom of others, to those who are bound—even in our democracy.
That’s what love does. That’s what God’s love does. It frees. It frees, so that we may freely love.
 Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin (1844). This work is also known as The Concept of Dread.