Thanks to Rev. Johnny Agurkis for inviting me to preach yesterday at Cape Cod Covenant Church. Given some recent conversations in our denomination and the fact that it was the Sunday before Independence Day, the topic was an easy choice.
I’m checking off a lot of firsts during my month-long visit to the East Coast. This morning is my first on Cape Cod. Yesterday was my first time hanging out with the Pilgrims at Plymouth. And last weekend was my first trip to Boston.
Given that I’m both a historian and a tourist, you won’t be surprised to learn that I walked the Freedom Trail. As you probably know, it starts with a memorial to the militia who fought the British at Bunker Hill. When they laid the cornerstone in 1825, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, the great senator and orator Daniel Webster insisted that it was our “sacred obligation” as Americans to honor the memory of those soldiers by preserving freedom.
May it be so; I do love this country. But while I was still in Massachusetts, a congregation in Texas took patriotism way too far. Seven days ago First Baptist Church in Dallas again celebrated what it calls “Freedom Sunday.” (This is the same church whose choir last year debuted a new hymn called “Make America Great Again.”) First Baptist’s pastor, Robert Jeffress, has been an outspoken ally of President Trump; this past Sunday he used his sermon to make a lot of historically dubious claims about America being a “Christian nation,” then closed that time of what he called “patriotic worship” by inviting flag-waving congregants to come down and commit their lives to Jesus Christ.
My friends, let’s not be confused. It is appropriate for Christians to join our fellow citizens of other and no faiths in celebrating the freedoms we enjoy this country, and the sacrifices it took to secure them. But we are here to worship God, who so loved the entire world — no favorites, no exceptions — that he sent us (all) his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
So today is indeed a Freedom Sunday, but the freedom that we enjoy in Jesus Christ is much more important than the freedom Webster sought to preserve, the freedom that we’ll celebrate on the 4th. To understand our freedom in Christ, let’s turn to Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, starting with ch. 5, verses 1 and 13-15.
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; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
“For freedom Christ has set us free”: what a stirring phrase! But what does Paul mean: for what freedom has Christ set us free?
I think Paul has in mind at least three types of freedom in Christ, depending on which preposition follows the word. And all three are fundamentally different from what freedom means in the American experience.
“Freedom from” is maybe the oldest version of freedom in American history. As the Freedom Trail crosses into downtown Boston, it passes a statue of Samuel Adams, founder of the Sons of Liberty. Adams once said that “The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on Earth.” For Adams and other Patriots, the Revolution was about freedom from tyranny, freedom from a government that levied taxes, quartered soldiers, and made laws unjustly.
Which we should celebrate… but that’s not at all what Paul means by freedom from. On the contrary, Paul assumes that Christians will be persecuted by those in power… and yet remain free in Christ. Meanwhile, we Americans know how easy it is to live in political freedom… and yet be a slave to our worst impulses.
In his greeting, Paul wishes the Galatians the grace and peace of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (1:3-4). If God kept a record of our sins, the psalmist asks, “who could stand?” But with God “there is forgiveness” (Ps 130:3-4). In Christ we are free from sin, free from everything we think, say, do, and leave undone that keeps us enslaved to the powers of this world (Gal 4:3,8-9) and in rebellion against God.
That was a recurring theme for Paul, as he took Christianity farther and farther from the place where it was born. In Acts 13 he tells people in the city of Antioch — both “Israelites, and others who fear God” (v 16) — that through Jesus “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (vv 38-39).
Before Christ, all we had to modify our behavior was law — and the carrots and sticks that come with following and breaking laws. But Paul teaches that the law cannot stop us from wanting to sin. Only faith in Christ can make us righteous in God’s eyes (Gal 2:16) and start to change our hearts from the inside out.
But some Jewish Christians — the so-called Judaizers — want Gentile converts to join them in continuing to honor the old laws — including the ancient one requiring men to be circumcised. Apparently they’ve persuaded some Christians in Galatia, because Paul says right away that he’s “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). If righteousness actually came through the law, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). “For in Christ Jesus,” he concludes. “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).
That’s not the end of the story; that’s just Paul’s argument to one church. We need to read the theology of Galatians 5 alongside the history of Acts 15. Paul returns to Jerusalem to make his case to the leaders of the church, including Peter, who agrees that the Judaizers are “putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v 10).
The church decides: we are free, no longer staggering under the burden of laws that can never really release us from the slavery of sin, but accepted as God’s children, free heirs of his promises.
If that’s all there was to freedom in Christ, it would still be wonderful. But Paul’s just getting started. For freedom in Christ is more than freedom from. Freedom in Christ is freedom to.
Again, this is a kind of freedom that’s familiar to Americans. Most of us take for granted that we are free to think, to believe, to speak, to worship. We might even think that we should be free to do whatever doesn’t hurt someone else, or limit their freedom.
But if you’re not a white man, that’s a kind of freedom that has taken decades and centuries to develop. For example… as I continued on the Freedom Trail, I came to one of the most remarkable Civil War memorials in this country: a bronze relief sculpture dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first regiments of African American soldiers.
If you’ve seen the movie Glory, you know that many of those troops — both white officers and black enlisted men — died at Fort Wagner; the Confederates didn’t take prisoners in that battle. But it was worth the risk and worth the cost; almost 200,000 African Americans flocked to the Union cause. For they knew that it wasn’t just that they had to be free from slavery; they had to be free to work for fair compensation, to own property, to get an education; free to vote, to hold office, to fight for their country; free to participate as citizens.
Likewise, freedom in Christ is more than freedom from sin’s bondage. It is freedom to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.
Not freedom to do whatever you want. In Galatians 5, Paul warned that we shouldn’t use our freedom in Christ “as an opportunity for self-indulgence” — which is exactly what Americans often want freedom to to mean. No, Paul says, freedom in Christ frees us to do what Jesus said was the whole purpose of the law in the first place: “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14). In Christ we are free from the sin-distorted love of self and free to practice selfless love of other.
How do we do that? First, by sharing this good news with everyone! It’s a joy to come hundreds of miles to talk about Jesus Christ with people who are at once strangers and friends. The church’s decision against the Judaizers made Christians free to truly bring the Gospel to all the world: to be Christ’s witnesses not just to Jerusalem and Judea, but to far-off places that had never even heard of Moses and his law. Within two chapters. Paul is in Greece; by the end of the book, he is in Rome itself, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).
But the kingdom he proclaimed isn’t just spiritual. We are free to proclaim a gospel that has consequences in this world. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to go forth in the name of the Messiah who was “anointed to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Freedom in Christ is freedom to give freedom! To free those kept in the spiritual bondage of sin and the physical bondage of human trafficking, to free those mired in poverty and hunger, to free those oppressed for no reason other than who they are, what they think, or what they look like.
Free from sin, we are free to do what Paul says is the only thing that actually counts: “faith working in love” (or making our faith active in love).
And that’s not much like the freedoms from and freedoms to that we’ll celebrate on the 4th of July. But there’s an even bigger difference.
The Freedom Trail includes several churches, including the Old North Church and Park Street Church. They’re not museums; both are active faith communities. As I thought about the people who have been gathering in those buildings for generations, it struck me that when Paul tells the Galatian church that “Christ has set us free,” he’s not making a declaration of independence; he’s making a declaration of interdependence.
As Americans we think we’re free to go our own way, but Paul says that freedom in Christ makes us, “through love… slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). Five hundred years ago, the great reformer Martin Luther said that freedom in Christ is actually a paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
So what does that mean? That we need to recognize one more kind of freedom.
Freed from sin, we only have freedom to do what we’re called to do if we’re free with one another.
“Freedom with” is something that gets lost in translation for us. We read the Bible in a language that now only hears the word ‘you’ as a singular pronoun. We read it (often on our own) in a culture that tells us over and over that the individual is what matters most. But Paul isn’t writing his letter to any single person in Galatia; he’s writing to the members of a community, who listened to it in community. They would have only known freedom together; any one Galatian Christian would have heard Paul to say that when you all (plural) are called to freedom, it means that you all (plural) are free from sin and you all (plural) are free to love in word and action.
We all know this on a practical level: that we can’t proclaim the Gospel on our own; we can only bring liberation in tandem with others. It’s why we form congregations like this. And it’s why our denomination was founded, as a “mission covenant” of poor immigrant congregations that wanted to send missionaries, start hospitals, care for sailors, and educate young people together. We need each other to fulfill what we Covenanters call the whole mission of the whole church.
I’m a fifth-generation Covenanter, but I spent ten years in Virginia and Connecticut attending Baptist churches. Two of them split: one over sexuality, and one over the pastor. So when I came back to the Midwest and found Covenant churches everywhere, what drew me back most was our denomination’s longstanding commitment to stay together, to do freedom in Christ with each other.
That instinct for unity is one of the chief legacies of the Pietist heritage that Mark and I write about in The Pietist Option. But you don’t have to shell out $20 today to see what that means for the Covenant Church. Just go to covchurch.org and download a free copy of our Covenant Affirmations booklet. Look up “Freedom in Christ” and you’ll read a more concise version of many of the themes I’ve preached on today. Then you’ll find this amazing passage:
With a modesty born of confidence in God, Covenanters have offered to one another theological and personal freedom where the biblical and historical record seems to allow for a variety of interpretations of the will and purposes of God…. To some such freedom is no freedom at all. They would rather have the marching orders clear and an unimpeachable source of authority to bear the whole burden of responsibility. It is not easy to be free. But such limitations of freedom show not wisdom, but immaturity. They show a people who have not come into their majority as heirs of God’s good gifts (Galatians 3:23-29).
It would be easier not to grant such freedom. It would be easier to leave those with whom we disagree, or to kick them out. But except in absolute essentials discerned patiently as we read the Bible together, that is not the Covenant way.
This doesn’t mean that we’re ever free from conflict. Nor that we should avoid hard conversations. Paul was blunt and confrontational, even opposing Peter to his face over the Judaizers. (I think Paul would have felt more at home in Massachusetts than Minnesota.) But he hardly ever wrote a letter to a church without at some point appealing for what we might call unity in essentials, freedom in non-essentials, and love in all things.
In Galatians, that comes at the end of ch. 5. Paul tells his readers that in Christ they were free to love one another. But he knew that he was addressing a bitterly divided church. So he continued with a warning: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal 5:15). For while the fruits of the Spirit include love, kindness, gentleness, and peace (5:22-23), remaining in slavery to the sinful desires of the flesh can lead to strife, anger, quarrels, and factions (5:20).
So this week celebrate the freedoms you enjoy as Americans, knowing that, as Christians, you enjoy far greater freedoms from, to, and with — knowing that freedom in Christ gives to you and requires of you far more than any declaration of independence or bill of rights.
And let us prepare now to take the sacrament of Communion, knowing that freedom in Christ is freedom from needless, angry, fearful division. Let us come to our Lord’s table knowing that freedom in Christ sets us free to make our faith active in love as we are free with one another to take up the whole mission of a whole church.