Pr. Ben Adams
June 29, 2019
Freedom of a Christian
In Chicago and in cities across the world we are celebrating the last weekend of Pride, but in just a few short days the many colors of the rainbow will give way to the red, white, and blue and we’ll be bombarded with fireworks, and freedom! I am of course talking about the fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, when in 1776 the then thirteen American colonies declared their freedom from Britain.
Like many progressive Americans, I have a complicated relationship with the fourth. Because while we extol the virtues of our American “freedom” I see immigrant children separated from their parents and sitting in cages and concentration camps on our own soil. I see police harass, brutalize, and even murder people of color without an ounce of remorse or accountability by our racist criminal justice system. I see people adding water to their milk to make it stretch, choosing between rent or refilling their prescriptions, and it all has me questioning what does American “freedom” even mean?
This question was also at the top of my mind this week because of two experiences I had. The first occurred on Wednesday when I was scrolling through Instagram and a friend of mine posted a picture with the words, “Following all of your desires isn’t freedom.” That sentence struck me and it had me reflecting on the limits of true freedom and just how paradoxical it can be.
Then on Thursday night I was listening to some music while I took my dog Gracie out, and the song “What it Means” by the Drive By Truckers came on. In the song, singer Patterson Hood laments, “I mean Barack Obama won, and you can choose where to eat, But you don't see too many white kids, Lying bleeding on the street.”
I’d heard that line many times before as this song is one of my favorites, but I heard it differently this time as I thought about the idea of freedom. Hood eloquently captures how we have in many ways in this country come to believe that we are post-racial because we elected a black president once, and that just because we have the freedom to choose a restaurant to eat at doesn’t mean we somehow have figured out this whole freedom thing. But, in our consumerist country, freedom often does get reduced to how much is available for us to buy, whether it be flat screens or four course meals.
The fact is though that freedom is not just about the choices we make with our money. It’s also about access, opportunity, and the impact our freedom has on others. In his Treatise Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther defined it this way: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Paul, in our second reading from Galatians today puts it this way: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters (and siblings); only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
Beyond that Jesus in our Gospel today asks his disciples, AKA us, to follow him. When we accept that invite what does freedom look like to us as followers of Christ? It’s a paradoxical freedom. It’s freedom that’s fully experienced when we live our lives outwardly. The greatest expression of freedom as followers of Jesus is to serve or as Paul put it to be slaves to one another, and it is all because Christ has set us free. Through the crucified and risen Christ we are truly free and freedom takes cruciform shape. The event of Christ’s death and resurrection crosses up what American “freedom” would have us to believe.
I remember the days before Tara and I were married and I used to think how marriage was this confining thing. Why would I want to devote my life to one person when I have all this freedom as a single person? I thought freedom was following all of my desires without regard for another.
Then Tara and I met, and we started dating, and somewhere along that road something changed within me. Something within my mind and spirit shifted and I no longer considered marriage a confining thing, but that our relationship was freeing me to live a new life, committed and devoted to Tara, and that I was being invited into a deeper relationship with Tara through the covenant of marriage, and that this married life was more freeing and life giving than my single life was.
This shift did not happen overnight. We dated for five years before actually tying the knot, so you can probably tell that I am not a quick learner, but for me this was an important shift. And before I get myself into hot water with this example, I’m definitely not using this example to paint with a broad brush and imply that married life is somehow better than single life, for any single folks out there, you do not need marriage to be valid or complete, I can only speak from my own experience and for me personally, marriage was and continues to be a choice that brought me to a new understanding of freedom.
So this is a very flawed example, but it was the most personal example I could think of to begin to illustrate what I understand the freedom of a Christian to be. A freedom that does not disregard personal autonomy, but also one that finds its highest and fullest expression in service and devotion to others. Maybe an even better example of this devotion is how Elisha devotes himself to Elijah in our first reading. The phrase that Elisha repeats is just so beautiful, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” I think Elisha knew a little something about freedom, and this statement speaks boldly of the unwavering commitment to another that only a truly free person can know.
Going back to Paul I think that is what he is also is trying to convey. Do not submit to a yoke of slavery that this world sells to you as freedom, but as followers of Christ we are invited by Jesus himself into a different, more life giving and graceful freedom, when he says to us in Matthew, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The world will try and contradict this invitation with its own telling us that once we have the right house, the right job, the right clothes, the right body weight, then we will be free, but don’t buy it. Those things will never make us free, nor do we even need them to be free because Christ has already set us free.
When we live outwardly in response to this truth that we have already been set free by Christ’s death and resurrection, we can welcome the stranger without fear, we can celebrate the diversity of love that our LGBTQ siblings express, we can live more gracefully upon this earth without the fear of scarcity convincing us to hoard our resources, and most of all, in the face of death, because of Christ we can still sing our song. That is the true freedom of a Christian.
And the beauty of this freedom is that it’s not relegated to one day a year and we don’t drape it with a flag. It is offered to us every time we come to the baptismal font and remember that we don’t need a flag to tell us we’re free because we have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. And we are fed this freedom every time we surround the table with empty hands and receive the precious body and blood of Christ. And we express this freedom to the world by living an outward facing life devoted to the flourishing of all people and creation.
America has not given you your freedom. Christ has. So, as we close out this month of pride and move into the fourth of July, may we live by that spirit of freedom and be guided by that spirit of freedom. No law or country or border can contain that freedom, and I’ll tell you this, I’ll light a firework to celebrate that freedom any day of the year. Amen.