Christ has set us free
This Sunday our Lay Minister, Alison, spoke to us about the freedom that Christ offers us, but also about the fact that this freedom requires us to be willing to make sacrifices...
As most of you know, I teach English for my work – I generally work with adults in business, but I do teach private lessons to some young people still at school. I find that they respond best to reading stories, so I try to choose books which will inform them as well as entertain. At the moment, I am reading a book about Martin Luther King with one of my students, and the first few chapters of this are an education to me as well, as I know little of the history of the United States.
Of course, some of you here will have learned at school about the Declaration of Independence, the reasons behind the American Civil War, and other notable events of American history, but I am fairly ignorant of it all. One story that I have read is pertinent, at least partly, to what I would like to say today.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. From the moment it went into effect on January 1, 1863, every slave living in the Confederacy was legally free. They were no longer enslaved to their white masters. The problem was that, for the vast majority, they had no idea that this was the case. This meant that the legal fact of their freedom had no impact on their lives. They did not live their lives as free men and women, because they did not see themselves as free men and women. In fact, in order to spread the word of freedom, Union soldiers carried hundreds of thousands of copies of the proclamation and passed them out to the enslaved people that they met as they made their way through the South during the war.
The author of Galatians speaks about freedom, saying For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Like the Union soldiers were informing those that they met of the fact of their freedom, the author of Galatians was doing the same thing.
Hey, he is saying, remember that you are free from sin now. You are not held by its chains any longer. You were called to be free. Recognise that fact and live in its truth.
Of course, that word “freedom” means different things to different people, but I suppose there is the general thought that it means that one can do as one wishes, without interference from any authority, or institution, or individual. But the problem is that so often, our freedom is in tension with the freedom of others. I want to be free to party until 6 o’clock in the morning; but what about my neighbour being free to a night of unbroken sleep? I want to be free to walk wherever I wish to, but what about the farmer’s wish to grow crops in his fields that are not trampled down?
When I was teaching primary school, we used to try very hard to get the children to understand the ideas of rights and responsibilities: the idea that having rights also carries responsibility towards others. Every child has rights, and each child has a responsibility to respect the rights of others. It was interesting that the first part always appeared to be easy to grasp “I have my rights”. It was the second part that the children struggled with “I have to respect the rights of others”.
And I suspect that this is the fact for all of humankind: it is easy to satisfy our wants, our desires, our greed, without thinking about those who are exploited in our push to exercise our rights. Look at the list of things that Paul mentions as enthralling us and chaining us to the slavery of sin: every one of them is exploitative of others: fornication, anger, quarrels…all of them to do with satisfying what I want. When we focus on these things we are enslaved because we have lost our ability, our freedom, to do good.
But Christ has set us free from this slavery; he has set us free to do good, to find our own identity, transformed and free from sin. The Spirit of freedom changes us, and we are no longer in thrall to selfish desires; instead we look for those gifts of love, of sacrifice, of gentleness and generosity. Suddenly, we are concerned with the rights of others, not with exploiting them, or controlling them or having power over them.
As Paul puts it, we are “called to freedom” but, as our Gospel reading reminds us, this freedom comes by leaving things behind.
Maybe not every possession, maybe not every relationship, maybe not everything and everyone—but certainly we are called to leave behind what Paul calls “the works of the flesh.”
To leave behind strife. To leave behind anger and quarrels. To leave behind dissensions and factions.
And to follow Jesus on the journey toward unity: union with others, union with the world, union with the universe, and union with God.
But Christ also shows us that this is not an easy thing. Those first words in the reading from Luke remind us what bringing this freedom was to cost Jesus: he set his face to go to Jerusalem. We know what happened there; he knew what was going to happen, even if his followers did not.
But then the reading goes on to show us what following Jesus will ask of us: first, he calls on us to forgive those who insult us, or ignore us. The town in Samaria that refused to acknowledge or welcome Jesus, caused James and John to want to “show them who’s boss” Shall we pray for its destruction master? they asked. Good grief, I can imagine Jesus saying, you’ve been with me for three years and you still don’t get it?! No, we forgive them, we move on, we do not fight back. It’s hard, but that is the way of the Kingdom.
Then Jesus meets someone who declares they will follow him; Jesus’ response is to tell them that this is a life of insecurity, of not having possessions and a home. It’s hard, but that is the way of the Kingdom. Another person wants to follow Jesus, but has family commitments to fulfil first; Jesus’ response is that we must not hold onto family ties. It’s hard, but that is the way of the Kingdom. To yet another, he says we must not look back and yearn for what has been. We look ahead to what is to be. It’s hard, but that is the way of the Kingdom.
Jesus’s harsh words are really saying to us, No excuses. If you take this on, then you take this on wholeheartedly. Signing on with Jesus means that everything becomes secondary to serving the Kingdom of God and sharing the gospel. It’s hard, but that is the way of the Kingdom.
Following the way of Jesus commands our unswerving love and commitment — placing the hand on the plough and not looking back. Not looking back, not longing for what enslaved us in the past, but looking forward to what God would have us be. Jesus Christ asks for our whole person. And when that surrender occurs, all these loyalties and loves fall into place. Then, as Paul tells us, we find that perfect freedom.
The Christian life is a journey. It is a journey in which we discover our deepest and truest lives, the truth of who we are called to be and how we are to live together in this world. The earliest Christians called themselves “The Way.” On the road to Jerusalem, following Jesus on his way of self-giving love, the first disciples learned that they must die to the old ways of anger and hatred, and rise to the new life of forgiveness and love. This may not have seemed like a realistic way for first-century Jews traveling through Samaria to live. It may not seem like a realistic way to live in our present-day world, either. And yet, it is the way we are called to follow.
And if we were left alone, trailing in the wake of Jesus, crying pitifully “Wait for meeee” then I for one would probably say It’s not worth the effort. But we are not alone, for as Paul reminds us If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Our readings from the past few weeks have focussed on the promises of Jesus that the Spirit will be our advocate, bringing us peace, and bringing us strength to do what is required of us. We saw the frightened disciples transformed into men and women ablaze with the Spirit, filled with courage to go into the world to bring about the Kingdom. And this transformation of souls still occurs today. We have seen it in ourselves.
I would like to finish with the words of some Asylum seekers. In the Church of Scotland this Sunday has been designated Sanctuary Sunday, with a focus on refugees and asylum seekers in the Scottish system. Some young women who have had experience of the system and are now part of the Poverty Truth Community say:
"Without the Holy Spirit we can't live a life that pleases God. Doing the work of the flesh, is in our endemic nature. So, we need the Spirit of God. Some people don't want to do those[works of the flesh and want to follow Jesus, but because of our nature we find ourselves doing these things. But by allowing the Holy Spirit help us in our lives, then you will be able to do the opposite. How can we get that? By reading the word of God, meditating on the word of God and trying to live the life that pleased God. That way we will show love, joy, endurance."
And then "With love you can help change people. What people don't have, they cannot give. It's our duty to show love. It requires patience. The way some people treat me, it makes me think I am not even a human being, but at the same time we remember the people that show us love. And we must show the same love to others, even if they don't love us".
I can’t help feeling that if young women who have struggled for their freedom, who have left homes, and family and friends to find safety in another country, who have faced suspicion, and hatred, and ignorance and danger, if these young women can say “we must show the same love to others, even if they don't love us” then we too can stand with them and take the next steps on the way of self-giving, self-sacrificing love.
Dear Father, grower of spiritual fruit,
We pray that the fruit of the Spirit might blossom, mature, and ripen in all our lives as we acknowledge that we belong to Christ, and have been freed from the chains of slavery to sin to live in freedom.
Let us live in, through, and for Christ Jesus, as he lives in, through, and for us and his whole church. Let us recognise our responsibilities to others and to show your redeeming, transforming love in all our lives.