Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 13), July 7, 2013
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week we took a break from our study of Galatians to celebrate Augustana’s 100th anniversary. It was kind of appropriate, because it means that we study this part of the letter—in which Paul talks about Christian freedom—on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, when we celebrate America’s political freedom.
Now, there are basically two kinds of freedom. One, which is where freedom starts, is freedom-from. Freedom from slavery. Freedom from oppression. Freedom from sin. Freedom from foreign domination. It’s about breaking away from what holds you back. It’s a negation of what came before, a break with the past. It’s about cutting away bad things. So, for example, on July 4th, 1776, America declared its freedom from Great Britain. That didn’t say much about what America was going to become, what they were going to do once they were free. The Declaration of Independence is a simple statement that England couldn’t order America around any longer. Freedom from.
Most political freedoms are like that. So, for example, the Bill of Rights establishes a whole set of freedoms for American citizens by saying what the government can’t do. The government can’t establish a state religion. The government can’t search your property without a warrant and probable cause. And so on and so forth. Nothing is said about what citizens should do with the freedom granted them; nothing is said about how society should be organized to help people live free and good lives. It’s about freedom from tyranny, even the tyranny of our own government. Negative freedom, freedom from, is about stopping bad things.
But once the old chains have been broken, that’s where positive freedom starts. Freedom for something. Freedom to do something. For example, the freedom to marry the person you choose. Freedom to come together without fear. Freedom to build a better life. Once you’re not being held back, what new thing becomes possible?
Christian freedom is ultimately freedom for something. Christ’s death and resurrection has broken the chains of sin and death, but our freedom is not merely about no longer being slaves. Christian freedom means that we don’t have to worry about going to hell for our sins, but that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse to go out and do bad things just because we can. Christian freedom isn’t just freedom from punishment. It’s freedom to build a better life. Once we are free, then we are free to become the body of Christ. We are free to follow the spirit. We are free to love God and one another.
In fact, love is one of the hallmarks of being free in Christ. We don’t have to be bound by fear and jealousy and anger and hate and all the other things that trap us and hold us down. We don’t have to give in to a world that tells us it’s all about climbing the ladder even if it means stabbing people in the back to get ahead. We don’t have to give in to a world that says that your worth depends on how much money you have in your pocket, how cool your smartphone is, how many people follow you on Facebook and Twitter. We don’t have to give in to a world that says what you look like is more important than who you are.
We have a better option. We have something to move towards. And we have the Holy Spirit to help us grow in the freedom of Christ. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We live in a world where too often people use their freedoms to do bad things. They use their freedom of speech to attack and defame. They use their freedom of religion to turn Jesus into a weapon against their enemies. They use their freedom to bear arms to murder people. But what would the world be like if we all used our freedom to be guided by the Spirit? What would the world be like if we used our freedom to love God and love our neighbor, rather than as an excuse for selfishness?
Christians aren’t always very good at using the freedom God has given us. The disciples give a perfect example of this in today’s Gospel lesson. Now, Jews and Samaritans were enemies, who didn’t even talk to one another if they could help it. They didn’t live in the same towns or drink from the same wells. There were ethnic and religious differences. Jews and Samaritans worshipped the same God, but Samaritans worshipped at Mount Samaria instead of in Jerusalem, and Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Bible. And anyone who’s watched the news of places torn by such division knows the kinds of violent actions and retaliations that can erupt in places with such dislike across ethnic and religious boundaries. Jesus, however, had broken that barrier: he was just as welcoming to the Samaritans as he was to his fellow Jews. For Jesus, the ethnicity of his followers didn’t matter. He loved them all, and he had come to save all of them from their sins, whether Jewish or Samaritan or Greek or anything else. He broke the walls of hate, so that they could establish new relationships. He broke the cycle of discrimination and retaliation. He loved them all, and taught them to love each other. The disciples—all Jews—had grumbled about it, but gone along. And then, in today’s reading, they came to a Samaritan village. And because they were heading to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, the Samaritans weren’t willing to welcome them. And you can see what the disciples really thought about all those Samaritans Jesus had taught.
They’ve rejected Jesus! The disciples’ first response is unlike any other time someone rejected Jesus. When one of their fellow Jews didn’t like Jesus, they shrugged and went on. Now, however, it’s a Samaritan village that’s rejected Jesus! You can practically see them chortling with glee and rubbing their hands. “Lord,” they say, “obviously, this love stuff isn’t working. Can we smite them now? Can we? Can we? Hellfire and brimstone Jesus, and we’ll make them pay for turning us away!” But Jesus rebuked them, and so they left in peace and went somewhere else. I’ve often wondered what Jesus said to them. I imagine it was something along the lines of “Way to miss the point, guys! I’m trying to break the chains of hate, fear, jealousy, and strife, not make them stronger!”
The early Christian communities misused their freedom, too. Paul warned both the Galatians and the Corinthians about not letting their freedom be used as an excuse for bad behavior and infighting. And Christians today often misuse that freedom, as well. Some Christians today, like the Corinthians and Galatians, use the freedom given to us in Christ to justify all kinds of self-indulgence and wrongdoing, ignoring the way such behavior hurts themselves and others. Others follow the example of the disciples, and use their faith as an excuse to attack people they don’t like, people who are different than them.
Loving people can be hard, particularly when you don’t like them. Loving people can be especially hard when you don’t agree with them. And the more you focus on your own wants, your own fears, your own hates, the harder it is. In fact, there are some types of love that we simply can’t come up with on our own. There are some types of love that can’t be achieved without the help of the Spirit. I don’t know anyone who’s ever been able to love their enemies, without the Spirit’s help.
But if we open ourselves up to the Spirit, anything becomes possible. If we open ourselves up to the Spirit, and allow ourselves to love God and our neighbors, joy follows. Peace follows, the kind of peace that the world doesn’t understand and can’t take away no matter what. Patience and kindness, the generosity that opens the way for growth and new life, faithfulness that builds relationships, gentleness, and the kind of self-control that says “Sure, I could do that—but my own personal gain is not worth the harm that it would do to others.”
Christ frees us from sin and death, but that’s only the beginning of what it means to be a Christian. The freedom that Christ gives opens us up, and gives us possibilities we could never have dreamt of when we were slaves to sin. The Spirit brings gifts that lead to life and hope and love, for us and for all people. May we use the freedom God gives us to grow in faith towards God and in fervent love to one another.