Text: Matthew 5:43-48
“Let freedom ring.” Those are the words of the song that our choir sang this morning. That phrase is our country’s rallying cry. In the name of freedom and liberty we declared our independence and set forth the Constitution that now guides our nation and guards her people. The First Amendment to that Constitution, adopted on December 15, 1791, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” One of the reasons given for the US Constitution in its preamble is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity.” And, of course, possibly the most famous line from the document first publicly submitted on this date 234 years ago, says, “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.”
Freedom and liberty are catch words for America. We are, as our National Anthem proclaims, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Our troops are stationed or sent into battle on the premise that they are fighting for the cause of freedom, seeking to extend to others that which we enjoy here within our shores. But just what does it mean, in fact, to be free? The Random House Dictionary, at least as it is displayed on the dictionary.com web site, lists 17 different definitions for the word “Freedom”. The American Heritage Dictionary offers 9 different definitions, two of which have multiple sub points to differentiate nuances.
Perhaps the most succinct definition I read that also is broad enough to convey the general meaning of the word comes from the Encyclopedia Britannica, which says, freedom is “in humans, the power or capacity to choose among alternatives or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social, or divine restraints.” To choose for ourselves, whatever the circumstances, situation, or options – the ability to choose without some outside force acting upon us. That’s the essence of freedom.
That is what we as a society preach and proclaim. It is our doctrine, our manifesto, our creed. We are proud of it. We fight for it, pray for it, and defend it – sometime even to our death. But despite our eagerness to defend the causes of liberty and freedom and to hold true to the emblem that stands as a welcome beacon outside of New York City, I think we have failed to have an accurate understanding of what it means to be free.
We presume that freedom is primarily freedom FROM something. We are free from debt. We are free from slavery. We are free from the tyranny of the English King. And spiritually, we are free from slavery to sin and the bonds of death. And of course, all of this is true. Freedom means necessarily that we are no longer held captive by whatever it is we are celebrating our freedom from. But we miss out on freedom if we also fail to realize that freedom is two-pronged. We are not just free from something, but we are also free to something.
We like to imagine that freedom means complete abandon. That, like the Encyclopedia Britannica says, we are free “to choose among alternatives or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social, or divine restraints.” We prefer to think of ourselves as independent. That is the mark of freedom – independence from any encumbrance or responsibility to anyone else or anything else. It’s a nice idea. But we are human. We are social by nature. Whatever we do sends ripples among our family, our friends, our co-workers, our fellow citizens, and even to a stranger we may never meet. We cannot possibly act without influence from or on outside forces.
Tiger Woods imagined that he was enjoying the perks of sports success. Former New York Attorney General and Governor Eliot Spitzer imagined that he was acting within his freedoms. Bernie Madoff could not imagine that he had not been caught for all of those years of his Ponzi scheme, but instead of stopping, he took it to mean he was free to continue. As all of them learned dramatically, for any of us, that little white lie we tell to squirm out of an awkward conversation will come back to haunt us and bite us vehemently, without fail.
You see, freedom doesn’t just mean free from something, it also means free to something. When America announced its independence from England in 1776, it was not just free from England, but it was also free – and obligated – to establish itself as its own nation, with its own codes and laws. Had America descended into the quote-unquote “freedom” of anarchy after its Declaration of Independence, it would have quickly been gobbled up again, if not by England, than by another world power. Freedom from England didn’t mean that the people of the New World would be free from all laws forever. We were free from England’s laws, and therefore free to set our own course and destiny. But we still had to set a course, we still had to strive for a destiny, or someone else would have set one for us.
In Galatians 5:1, Paul says that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. The what we are freed from is clear. We are free from the slavery, bondage, and death brought about by our fallen sin nature that has entrapped us since Eve first took a longing look at the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil after the serpent’s suggestion. This trap of sin has stolen us from the life for which we were designed and created. The from part of our freedom is that Christ sets us free from this captivity to death and sin.
But what has Christ set us free to? One commentator noted it this way: “The disciple’s lifestyle is to be different from other people’s in that it draws its inspiration not from the norms of society but from the character of God” (France, p. 228). I think this is imaged well by the verses we read from Matthew 5 earlier. Matthew 5, 6, and 7 recount Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a treatise on ethics and godly action. It is a manual of sorts on Christian praxis – the way we are to act and behave in order to best reflect God’s hopes, plans, and intentions. And in Matthew 5:43-48, we have the last of several of Jesus’ correctives to how the law was understood and applied.
The Jews had spent a good portion of their exile figuring out how to practice the law without the temple. In the process, it developed the Rabbinical form of Judaism that we are familiar with today. Judaism separated from the temple and tabernacle became simply about obeying the law, and the scribes and leaders of the Jews had become very specific about what all of the laws should look like in daily life – that is, in praxis.
Jesus quoted Leviticus 19:18, but then added something that is not in Leviticus 19:18. The law commands that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, but it had been “clarified” of sorts to mean that we love ourselves and we hate our enemies. The hating enemies part isn’t in Leviticus, but it is how everyone of the day understood, interpreted, and lived the command. Love those who are your neighbors – those who live near you and live like you. But anyone and everyone else is not under the obligation that we love them. So hate them instead. That’s what everyone understood.
Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death, but He did not set us free to our own interpretation of life. We are not free from all restraints, as the Encyclopedia Britannica would imagine us. We are free from sin and death, but we are obligated to God, and to God’s way of living. Our allegiance hasn’t been freed to give to ourselves, it has been transferred from evil to God. We are to live His laws His way.
We would like to imagine that freedom means that we are free to blame others or to chase the Joneses or to take whatever we want, whether or not we have the ability or right to take it. That’s how we often practice life these days. Everything that goes wrong needs someone to take the fall, to admit the blame for it. I saw an advertisement this week on whether or not to blame President Obama for the BP oil spill. We are constantly looking for whom to blame. We feel we are free to keep up with whatever the people next door or down the street or on the magazine cover or TV show have. So we borrow money we can’t afford to get it. And we wind up with something like the housing catastrophe that is still reeling.
That is not the kind of freedom we have. It is not the kind of freedom to idealize. True freedom – the freedom that Christ gives us by having set us free from what entrapped us – that freedom is one that loves neighbors and enemies. That loves them and shows it! Not just talking like we love them, but actually loving them. When we were enslaved to sin and death, all we could think about was ourselves and our own condition. But we are freed from that. We are free to love our neighbors and our enemies like we never could before.
It’s just what God demonstrated through the incarnation and atonement. We were the enemies of God, but he was not enslaved as we were. He was free to love his enemies – us. And he did. He loved us enough to die for us. This is freedom. To choose not to hate just because we can. To choose not to hate even though it’s warranted. But freedom to choose love because we have been freed from the rat race of trying to escape death. That victory has been won for us. That is what we have been set free to. Prior to Christ’s saving us, we were not free to make such a choice. We were condemned to the plague of chasing our own desires, pleasures, and ends. We could not choose otherwise. But now we are free to live the life that God designed us to live.
Freedom has two parts – freedom from something and freedom to another thing. We have been freed from the slavery of sin and death in order to be free to live, to laugh, and to love. Not free from obligations or restraints, not free from any burden or encumbrance, not free from anyone directing our path. But free to live as we were meant to live, a life not characterized by the world’s divisions of friends and enemies. Instead, a life characterized by God’s holiness, God’s perfection, God’s life.
Today we partake together of the Lord’s Supper. On a day when we celebrate freedom across our land, it is appropriate to celebrate this particular meal together as a church, as a community of faith that is not only free from the burdens of sin, but also free to live an abundant life. A life abundantly free to love our neighbors, but to include as our neighbors all people, whether they like or us not. Whether they agree with us or not. Whether they defend us or kill us. We are free to love not just our neighbor who stands with us, but also everyone else who stands against us. Free to enjoy God. Free to be perfect, even as He is perfect.
And all because of the blood of an innocent, holy, divine Lamb, shed on a cross. His body broken, his blood spilled for us. This is the freedom of God that we enjoy. This is true freedom, that no document of man can write into existence, that no legislature, court, or army can create or defend. As we remember our national freedom today, let us also remember now our true freedom – the one for which Christ has set us free.
Gather with me around this holy table.