Freedom is a word you are likely to hear a lot this week, especially on Thursday as we celebrate the 4th of July. In the midst of cookouts and fireworks, parades and pool parties, is the reminder of our country’s history. On this holiday we celebrate that we have the freedom to speak, think, worship, and act without hindrance or restraint. With freedom comes the hope and promise for everyone to have an equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is certainly something worth celebrating. And worth contemplating a bit; specifically, to consider what exactly we mean when we talk about “freedom.”
In his State of the Union Address on January 6, 1941, then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined a vision of four fundamental freedoms. He described them in this way:
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation[i].
It’s a pretty good list, right? It offers more than just a dictionary definition of “freedom,” and instead a thoughtful expression of what freedom looks and feels like not just for individuals, but for a society as a whole. And yet, as good as this definition, and other philosophical and political ideations of freedom that both predated and followed this are, today I’d offer that one of the most compelling understandings of freedom comes in our biblical texts. Namely, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
The Galatians are arguing about the law, specifically the Mosaic law, and how it did or did not apply to their life together as followers of Christ. This was particularly important to figure out, as the community was a mixture of gentiles and Jews. Many practical and pressing questions arose, which Paul addresses throughout the letter. Perhaps the most notable was the question of circumcision for the gentile believers, which Paul replies to in a significant way in the verses immediately before our reading. Throughout the whole letter, it seems, Paul references the idea of freedom in Christ and the gift that it gives to the church to live out her faith. In Chapter 5, though, Paul offers an even more detailed description that serves as a powerful definition of freedom.
For Paul, freedom is less about freedom from something, and more about a call to or for something else. He is quick to point out that the freedom won for believers in Christ is not just license to do whatever we please, but rather is something that brings us together. Mark Douglas describes it like this:
The idea that freedom means the absence of encumbrances may be popular but it does not hold weight. Freedom is not the absence of entanglements; entanglements are the means by which freedom becomes meaningful . . . Freedom is not separation from relationships; it is a feature of relationships that becomes especially apparent as a result of our relationships with Jesus Christ[ii].
Put simply, freedom draws us into community. Galatians 5 describes more of what that looks like. The call to freedom, according to Paul, and according to Christ is a call to love. The word for love Paul uses is agape. And it’s a tall order.
This kind of love goes far beyond what the law demands. It is an all-encompassing way of life, constantly seeking to serve the neighbor[iii].
It is pure and self-less, an embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance. Agape love is the highest form of love that reflects the love God showed to the world through Jesus.
I have little doubt that Paul chose this word quite intentionally. In the midst of bickering and power struggles in the church in Galatia, Paul needed to do more than just call on the people to say they were sorry and play nicely with one another. He could have used the word philia for that, representing “brotherly love” of getting along. Instead, Paul pulls no punches in calling them out for their behavior toward each other and reminding them of the exceedingly high calling they have to each other as Christians. He is pointing them, and us, to the biggest picture possible about what it means to not just live together in coexistence, but to truly embrace the freedom given to us to live together in a community marked by Christ, a reflection of the kindom of God.
Paul knew such love wasn’t easy, and that humanity is prone to use our freedom to dominate others in systems of oppression rather than in systems that hold each other in this kind of mutual holy love. He addresses the baseness of our selves with a discussion of “the flesh,” which for Paul was a way of defining the motivating factor for our actions or inactions. For Paul, living by the flesh was a self-centered living, in direct opposition to the God-centered living a life guided by the Spirit would bring. And it doesn’t seem like there is much middle ground. He pushed the Galatians to pick a direction, arguing you can’t be both for yourself first and for God first. It just doesn’t work that way.
Sounds a little like Jesus, doesn’t it? Paul goes on to a direct quote with the inclusion of what Jesus himself put as the greatest commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That, for Paul, answers the questions about legalities that were being raised in the community. The whole law summed up for Paul is that we have been freed to love one another. And that means setting aside our own ambitions, our own desires to be first, and instead serve one another (ahem, we might add to this – as Christ served us).
This is our calling. To freedom. To love. It came to the disciples and those who followed Jesus; it came to the Galatians and virtually every other church community to whom Paul wrote; and it comes to us, still as relevant as it was in the first century. Two thousand and some years later, we as God’s people are still trying to figure out what it means to live into this freedom of grace that we were given by Jesus Christ. Over and over again, we fall into those traps of the “flesh,” and work ourselves into systems that only serve to bolster ourselves while others are oppressed; we become obsessed with who is “in” and who is “out” and argue over the rules for inclusion in our communities. This, I think, is one of those examples of corporate sin, which we participate in on different levels as individuals, but seems to be a reality of our communal existence here on earth. There are so many things in our world, so many examples, where we have fallen woefully short of our calling to freedom.
One in six children in the United States suffers from real hunger, not sure where there next meal will come from[iv]. According to Feeding America, 523,000 of them are in Georgia, including 10,000 in Cherokee County[v]. Our three school food pantries that serve 8 local schools served 151 children in the month of May with backpacks of food to help sustain students over the weekend. This summer, MUST Ministries is planning on serving 6,500-7,000 lunches every day to children in need in six counties in our area. That’s what we will be a part of helping with this afternoon. I am so glad that we are a part of what I believe is truly live-saving and life-changing mission ministry. But at the same time, I am appalled that we live in a world, in a country, in a state, in a community, where so many people are lacking one of life’s most basic needs. We can do better.
And what about a place to live. A total of 552,830 people, were experiencing homelessness on a single night in 2018, just under 10,000 of whom were counted in Georgia[vi]. Over 36,000 of those in the national count were youth. The Trevor Project estimates that around 40% of that number, about 14,400, are LGBTQ+ youth who have experienced discrimination and family rejection and have nowhere to go. This, among other factors, makes them 60% more likely to attempt suicide. This week marked 50 years since Stonewall led to a unified struggle for LGBTQ rights and freedom from fear of hatred, and it is far from realized. We can do better.
On that same night of counting, 37,878 of those experiencing homelessness were veterans[vii], a number slightly lower than the 40,000 estimated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That’s 11% of the homeless population, and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that within that group, 50% have serious mental health issues, including PTSD, 70% struggle with substance abuse, 51% have some sort of disability, and 50% are under the age of 50[viii]. Even with the good work of the VA and other organizations, those who have served our country, who have given their lives so that we can continue to claim “freedom,” are underserved and unappreciated on even the most basic level. We can do better.
Our southern border reflects an international humanitarian crisis. I have heard heartbreaking and gut-wrenching stories through organizations in Guatemala that reflect horrors no one should have to endure. From these, it is not difficult to see why families might be forced to flee for their very lives. I cannot even begin to imagine how desperate my life circumstances would have to be in order to risk everything for the hope of sheer survival, not just my own life, but that of my children. And yet, that is what is happening. And when this wave of asylum seekers comes pleading for assistance, we are ill-equipped and unable to handle such a cry from our neighbors. At least six children have died in federal custody[ix]. And the stories of the conditions in which they are living are reprehensible. My heart absolutely breaks at the thought of children being taken from their parents, and young children left to fend for themselves in large rooms with only aluminum foil-like blankets and concrete floors and constant light that prevents sleeping. In my house, either Matt or I tell a certain 5-year-old boy to either “brush his teeth” or “wash your hands . . . with soap” about 2 dozen times at minimum every day. Now, each time I do I have a knot in my stomach, because there are not only no parents to offer this reminder; there are no toothbrushes or soap. I appreciate that many things related to this are political, and we can agree or disagree on legalities and regulations and responses within our criminal justice system about how to approach immigration. But I also hope that we can agree that children, who have no more say in where they are taken than my own did this morning, should be kept safe and healthy. We can do better.
We have to do better.
If Paul were writing to us today, I think he could deliver much of the same message as he did to the Galatians, and to the church today he might say, “you were called to freedom for so much more than this! You were given freedom as a gift from God in order that you might love as Christ loved. So get with the program. You call yourselves Christians? Then live like it. Let love lead you. This is what it’s all about. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In verse 25, Paul encourages us to both live and be guided by the Spirit. In these instances where the world is so far from where it should be, the Spirit stirs within us. It is the Spirit that nudges us, that creates in us an uneasiness and a hunger for justice that we cannot ignore. The Holy Spirit, that one let loose on the world at Pentecost, is a holy troublemaker that shakes everything up and makes it so that we cannot just continue with life as we know it. Us “decently and in order” Presbyterians will be glad to know that living by the Spirit isn’t code for some sort of loosey-goosey, anything goes kind of approach. The verb stoichomen has military connotations of standing in formation or marching in line. In other words, “since the Spirit leads us, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
How do we keep step? Perhaps we could use the famous “fruits of the spirit” list Paul includes as a check-list of sorts for what happens when we live into freedom. In our discernment of what we are supposed to do next, what would happen if we asked ourselves: is this a response of love? Joy? Peace? Patience? Kindness? Generosity? Faithfulness? Gentleness? Self-control? I don’t know about you, but I imagine if I ran through this list every time I was trying to respond to a difficult situation or a difficult person, I might save myself from some less than stellar decisions, and my relationships with others would probably be a lot more loving.
Above all else, we as Christians are called to love, an agape love that models the kind of love God has for us. It is the basic fabric not just of our society, but of our understanding of what it means to follow Christ. The extent to which we live into this calling is in itself the measure of our discipleship. So, may we be so faithful and bold as to try to live into it each and every day. May we love our neighbors, and do nothing from selfish ambition, but instead mark our lives with love. For this is the freedom we have been given in Christ. This is what we are called to do. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
Heritage Presbyterian Church
June 30, 2019
[i] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “January 6, 1941, State of the Union (Four Freedoms),” https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/january-6-1941-state-union-four-freedoms, accessed 6/29/19. (both audio and written transcript available).
[ii] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective:Galatians 5:1, 13-25,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[iii] Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25,” Working Preacher https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=612, accessed 6/27/19.