This Sunday, St. John’s marks Independence Day, so it seems like a good time to ask the question: What is freedom?
Freedom is the absence of constraint. In the American myth, freedom is claiming your independence from the oppression that rules over you.
In the story of our country’s founding, freedom meant independence from a society that called your religion, or your lack of it, a heresy. It was independence from the foreign dictator and his taxes. Over the course of 241 years, freedom has come to mean independence from enslavement, an evil system that brutally controlled the lives of some to the enrichment of others. For many of us, it also means independence from the authority of fathers and husbands, and independence from strict ways of imagining human sexuality and gender identity.
The stories we hear in Scripture are the ground of this vision of freedom. Freedom from slavery in Egypt. Freedom from illness and addiction, when Jesus heals. Freedom from social constraints, when Jesus gathers his followers across the social divides of their time. Freedom from the final authority of death, in the resurrection. Freedom from gives us the moral imperative that we need in order to seek justice for each human being.
And, if you are a follower of Jesus, freedom from oppression is only one side of the coin. Christians believe that we are free from the things that bind and constrain us, and that we are free for something, too.
In Baptism, whether we politely splash the new Christian with water, or dunk them all the way under and hold them down for a moment, we are not just washing them clean. In that act we symbolize joining with Christ in his death, that by it we might share in his resurrection (BCP p. 306).
On some incomprehensible level, in baptism, we have already died. There is nothing left to fear. The forces that seek to destroy human life do not have authority over us any more. We are free to offer ourselves in love for the life of the world.
The Episcopal tradition, never at a loss for words, gives us a blueprint for what that life can look like. In the baptism liturgy, after the whole congregation affirms the Christian story, they then say these words:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers? I will, with God’s help.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? I will, with God’s help.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help.
This is what, according to the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, the life of love looks like. This is the blueprint: Gathering and praying in community. Resisting evil. Proclaiming Good News. Seeking and serving Christ in all. Striving for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being.
We are free from every force that degrades human life and free for a life of love.
Freedom for a life of love sounds appropriate here in church, but this is exactly where the therapeutic, consumerist culture disagrees. The message, implicit and explicit, is that you are free only when you are completely comfortable, when you can do what you want, when you have what you want, and when you have no obligations to others. We live in a culture that tells us that freedom FROM is the end of the story.
If freedom from was the end-all-be-all, none of us would be parents.
That cute toddler I live with is like a tiny King George. The tiny dictator in my home impinges on all of those things that consumerism tells me I should be free from! And the privilege of being his parent and walking with him as he grows up is part of what is growing me up. The sacrifices of parenthood are part of the way I offer myself for love, willingly.
Freedom for love means that we voluntarily submit to the discomfort of relationship, of neighbors, of community. The tedious and boring business of committee meetings. The awkwardness and grief of caring for each other’s bodies.
This story of freedom from oppression and freedom for love is what Jesus means when he says, at the end of today’s Gospel reading, ‘Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
That word translated as ‘perfect’ is a little bothersome – theologically, and for all the recovering perfectionists out there. The Greek word translated there might mean ‘perfect,’ as in flawless, unassailable, never screwing up. But it might better be translated as ‘coming to the desired end, achieving the intended goal.’ One translator has Jesus saying “Grow up” here. It’s about having the end in mind, the end we hope God made us for — not just individuals enjoying what we can, but the redemption of the whole creation. Together. Freedom to offer our lives for love.
Persisting in the commitment to act from love: this is the freedom, in Christ, to live in anticipation of God’s reign. It means choosing, in mundane and significant ways, to act as if love were the ground, the currency, and the reward of life. The freedom to live on earth as you would in heaven, even though this kingdom is likely to misunderstand you, or kill you. The freedom, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, to desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. And the freedom, as Jesus taught, not just to desire it, but to act as if it were already here: to love your enemies, to pray for those who hate you, to bless those who curse you.
We in this room are free for actions that love our neighbors who are afraid of the police, and we are free for actions that love our neighbors who are police. We are free for loving relationship with our neighbors whose children have gone to fight in Syria. We are free for actions that love our neighbors who vote differently than we do. We are free for actions that love refugees who may not be allowed to become our neighbors. Whoever it is you have the most scorn for, and whoever it is has the most scorn for you: congratulations and I’m sorry, but this is who you are free to take real live steps to love, thanks to the reconciling work of Jesus Christ, if you will submit to its awful demands.
In America we are free to opine about health care policy, but in Christ we are free to actually wash the feet and hands and wounds and dishes of those who are suffering. In America we are free to speak our minds, and in Christ we are free to set our differences aside for the sake of coming to God’s table together, in church or wherever else we can make community, to meet Jesus in the dignity of every human being.
To be honest with you, this feels like terrible news to me. There are people I do not want to love, or empathize with, or even know about.
And it feels like Good News too, hard good news. The dignity and made-in-the-image-of-God-ness of every human being isn’t up to me, and it isn’t waiting on us. It is already the work of a God who sees before and beyond this beautiful, broken nation. And we are free to see that dignity, and act accordingly.