2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20;
Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Saint Luke 9:51-62
Preached by Rev. Lou Scales
237 years ago tomorrow, July 1, 1776, was a hot day in Philadelphia, and from the description, it was about like it is here today in Augusta. To make matters worse, a
thunderstorm struck, with lightning and pelting rain. Delegates to the Continental Congress were meeting in the state house, and a fateful decision was about to be
made. In his award-winning biography of John Adams, David McCullough describes how Adams, not known as a great orator, rose to speak—how he spoke logically,
clearly, carefully, and, "looking into the future, saw a new nation, a new time."
Later, Adams remembered his words: "Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, measures in which the lives and liberties of millions, born and unborn, are most
essentially interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world."
Two New Jersey delegates, Frances Hopkinson and the Reverend John Witherspoon arrived late, after Adams had been speaking for nearly an hour and was concluding.
Witherspoon --a Presbyterian minister—was the only clergyman there. He was president of the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University, and he asked if Mr. Adams would mind repeating his address. Adams good-naturedly objected that he wasn’t much of an orator, but other delegates urged him and Adams began again and delivered the hour-long speech a second time.
The debate lasted nine hours. A preliminary vote on the matter of declaring independence from Great Britain was taken, and nine colonies voted in favor. A motion to adjourn for the night was adopted. The tension at the City Tavern, where many of the delegates were lodging and where they talked into the night, increased as word reached Philadelphia of the sighting of a hundred British ships off New York.
They began again on the morning of July 2, at 9:00a.m. At 10:00 the storm returned outside. A vote was taken. No colony opposed the motion. The colonies had declared their independence. McCullough reflects: "It was John Adams, more than anyone, who made it happen. Further, he seems to have understood more clearly than any what a momentous day it was and in the privacy of two long letters to his wife Abigail, he poured out his feelings as did no one else."
Adams wrote to his wife: “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable
epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illumination from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” (David McCullough, John Adams pp. 126-131)
The delegates discussed the matter and refined the document for two more days. They argued over every word. Then, Thomas Jefferson wrote these lines: ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
I honestly love that story. I love the fact that a minister from Scotland, albeit a Presbyterian, was there and played an important role and signed the declaration—actually committing an act of treason against the crown. I love the references to the Creator, to the will and providence of God, and the invocation of the idea of freedom as the heart of the whole enterprise. They voted for a final time on July 4 and lined up and signed it and sent it out for the world to see and hear. Adams hoped it would be celebrated with "shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations," and that’s a pretty good description of what will happen in Columbia and Richmond Counties, and the rest of the nation, for that matter, this coming Thursday. And Mr. Adams also hoped that it would be commemorated in solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God, which is what we are doing here this morning.
It is an occasion for people of faith to reflect on the meaning of freedom, the particular and important meaning that word has for Christians. Paul, writing to the Christian churches in Galatia (modern Turkey), said, "For freedom, Christ has set us free.” They were Gentile churches and they were deeply divided by a disagreement over how to be followers of Jesus Christ, focusing on the question of freedom. Did they have to obey the Law of Moses? Or were they free from the law as Paul, their teacher, had said?
Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were Jews. The early church was Jewish. The first Christians met in synagogues and never thought they would be anything but Jewish.
Jesus had said that he came to fulfill the law—the Law of Moses, the foundation of their life as a people, a nation. The law—613 rules based essentially on the Ten
Commandments—regulated and gave order to all of life. It defined how life was to be lived with God and in community. It told them what to eat and not eat, how to
dress, how to relate with neighbors, spouses, children. Its instructions included how and when to work, how to cook, how to raise children, how to farm. It included rules about feast days and fasts and sacrifices and offerings and prayers. Torah—the law, is why Jews survived twenty centuries of exile and persecution. It is why there is an
The trouble started when our first missionary told the story of Jesus to non-Jews, Gentiles—or Greeks, as he called them. Paul traveled into the lands of the Gentiles
and spoke about Jesus so compellingly that something happened that no one anticipated. Gentiles became believers. Paul baptized them and told them to stick together. Paul told them they were the church. Paul called them the body of Christ.
Now by Jewish standards, these Gentile Christians were a motley crew. They didn’t look or act like God’s kind of people. They ate food that was unclean according to
Jewish law. They didn’t keep Sabbath, didn’t observe the fasts and feasts. Those Gentiles looked like sinners. So the Jerusalem church sent teams of teachers north to
those Gentile enclaves to do some remedial work. Paul, they said, missed something important. If you want to be true Christians, you have to abide by the Law of Moses: the dietary restrictions, the feast days, and your men must be circumcised, just like us, just like the law requires.
When Paul heard about it, he was livid. Paul was a Jew, followed the law, kept kosher—but for non-Jews to try to become Jews on the way to being Christian was to miss the whole point. You are loved by God in Jesus Christ, he said. That love is given to you as a gift you can’t earn, no matter what you do, no matter how many rules you obey or sacrifices you make. Nor can you put yourself outside the focus of God’s love. It is grace—the grace of God in Jesus Christ—that saves us and redeems us and reconciles us and sets us free.
We are free from all the ways people have tried to please God because God has already shown his pleasure. We are free to live in joyful gratitude, free to fulfill the real and original intent of the law—which is love for the neighbor. Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian freedom.
In Christ, he wrote, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. For all are one in Christ. And he wrote, "For freedom Christ has set us free. . . . Do not
submit again to the yoke of slavery." To the good, upstanding, law-abiding people down in Jerusalem, doing the very best they could to keep all the rules, Paul must have seemed like a hopeless liberal, preaching grace, telling people that God loved them no matter what they did or didn’t do. What kind of religion was that?
But Paul’s message doesn’t stop there. There’s more. "Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. . . . Become slaves to one another." Now in that statement Paul uttered a very sophisticated understanding of human nature and what it means to be free. "Do not submit to the yoke of slavery. . . . Become slaves to one another."
The modern definition of freedom has to do with autonomy, independence, sovereignty. Webster’s first definition is "the absence of necessity, coercion, restraint,"
none of which sounds like Paul’s admonition to become slaves to one another.
In fact, the Christian definition of freedom—because it is freedom in Christ, defined by Christ—differs fundamentally from the popular, cultural definition. Freedom in the abstract sounds like the right to do whatever you please, but that is not it at all. Christians are free in Jesus Christ from the necessity of earning their salvation; but because it is Jesus Christ who is doing the defining, love of neighbor, commitment to the community is the other side of freedom. It is grace and responsibility.
There is important truth in that idea. Those brave souls who signed the Declaration of Independence were not thinking about declaring their right to do whatever they pleased for their own self-realization and gratification. They were declaring independence in order to become a new nation, and perhaps more than anyone else in history, they knew that freedom from external political coercion was freedom to serve the common good and that it was going to require serious sacrifice: people were going to die for it, and fight to defend it, and work very hard to maintain it. David McCullough wrote, "What in another time and society might be taken as platitudes about public service, were to John and Abigail Adams a life-long creed" (p. 29).
It is not about doing what you please—although the culture and the market economy in which we live sounds sometimes as if that is exactly what it means. University of
Chicago sociologist Jean Bethke Elshtain, in one of her latest books, Who Are We?, worries that in our obsession with individual rights, our insistence on the right of the
individual to do whatever he or she pleases, we are losing a sense of "social covenant," a sense of obligation to the community, to our neighbor. She cites an automobile advertisement that is a virtual invitation to selfishness. The copy reads this way, "Little
kids are selfish. Impulsive. They don’t make rational decisions. When they see something they want, they want it now. Little kids have a lot of fun. Hmmm."
Elshtain urges a rebirth of civil commitment, a rededication to the common good, a reinvestment in the institutions where the common good is actually strengthened: In political parties, labor unions, schools, and churches. And she is not alone. The late Thomas Merton observed, "I do not find in myself the power to be happy doing what I like. . . . On the contrary, if I do nothing but what pleases my fancy, I will be
miserable most of the time. This would not be so if my will had not been created to use its own freedom in the love of others" (No Man Is an Island, p. 35).
John Adams hoped that the birth of freedom would be commemorated in churches. And a fitting way for that hope to be fulfilled is for churches to remind the world that
freedom—to do whatever one wants to do—is simply license and is ultimately self-destructive; that real freedom is the liberty to give oneself fully and generously to others. That’s the greatest reversal of all. Real freedom is found in the act of serving another person, an institution, a cause other than you. Real freedom is discovering you by forgetting you for a change. Jesus turned a lot of things upside down. You can’t earn your way into the kingdom. God has already opened the door and invites you to stop groveling and whining, to stand up and walk in.
You can’t earn God’s love because God has already given it to you. All you can do is be grateful and try to live up to it. You can’t get in because you’re the right race, or
gender, or economic class. It’s not a matter of ethnic group, income, or sexual orientation. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.
You see, you’re not really free when you do exactly what you want to do. You are really free when you voluntarily limit your own freedom by being a servant to others.
The Good News is about grace and it is also about responsibility. Grace leads to freedom, which leads to love. And unless you get to love, to being a servant, you do not really know the grace. If your freedom simply allows you to make yourself your own life’s project, you’re not getting it.
Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived the holocaust and later wrote very movingly about what it was like to be caught in the very antithesis of freedom, a kind
of absolute imprisonment that would end in death. He wrote: ”We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been
few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last human freedom—to choose one’s attitude in any given set
of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (A Rumor of Angels, p. 8)
Dear friends, let us commemorate this day, this freedom, in solemn devotion to Almighty God, and let us give thanks for this land of liberty.Let us be grateful for the amazing grace of God—given to each of us in Jesus Christ. Let us be grateful for the freedom Our Lord gives—freedom to let go of frantic efforts to please God, freedom to love God with our heart, mind, soul and strength; freedom to love one another. For Christians—for us—the best picture of freedom is Jesus Christ, on a cross: there voluntarily; there because of self-emptying; there because of love. For freedom, Christ has set us free. Paul said this to us so many years ago, and today I remind you of it in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.