This weekend, in small towns and major cities across the United States, there have been celebrations of liberty and freedom. Flags will be displayed and people will gather for picnics and barbeques (hopefully with social distancing!); and at least in some locations there will be fireworks. Independence Day is a day when we call to mind the great achievements and dreams, the values and the goals, of our country.
The Fourth of July is a celebration of freedom, the freedom of these United States to be a sovereign nation, to be a people who believe in freedom and justice for all. And it is for this nation, and for that freedom, that we give thanks to God. It is also a day when we express our gratitude to the women and men who through the years have worked, and even given their lives, to insure that freedom for us.
But more than that, on this day we are reminded of our freedom as Christians—a greater freedom, a more lasting freedom, which belongs to everyone who is a servant of Jesus Christ. Paul writes to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free. . . . Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” And later in the letter to the Corinthians: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Of course, we all know something of the experience of freedom. There is the freedom one feels when you make the last car payment, or when the last child is married or goes off to school. There is that sense of freedom when you turn in the final project or term paper for a class, or when you finally get the car packed and set out on that long-awaited vacation.
These are all instances of freedom from something: freedom from the burden of debt, or the daily responsibility of parenting; freedom from the demands of the classroom, or the routine of daily living. But the freedom which God offers us is a challenge for the future: it is not just freedom from something; it is also freedom for something. God not only gives us freedom from sin and death, but also freedom for love, freedom for service, freedom for a life lived in God.
In typical American style, we often think of freedom only in terms of our independence and self-reliance. How often have you hears, “This is a free country and I’m free to do what I want.” Or, “I don’t need your help—I can do it myself!” These sentiments reflect a very limited and, I think, a very dangerous definition of freedom, and that’s true whether we apply them to our own lives, to our societal norms, or to the actions of our country in the world community.
In contrast, the readings this morning offer a deeper and broader understanding of freedom: they speak of freedom in terms of finding our confidence and hope in God, not in ourselves. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul suggests that we are not as free as we would like to think we are. He points out that there is a constant struggle going on within us between good and evil. And even though we may know what is right and want to do it, we often find that we are not able to do it.
So we try to justify our behavior, rather than acknowledge that it is only by accepting the forgiveness which God offers that we can be set free from the conflict that rages within us. As Christians we no longer need to live in fear of doing wrong, because God has already set things right for us. This is the good news: we have been reconciled to God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
So it is in Jesus that we find our real freedom. It is in Jesus that we find rest for our souls. It is in Jesus that we are relieved from the burden of anxiety and fear, and it is in Jesus that we experience the hope of a more abundant life. It is in Jesus that we receive the Spirit’s gift of discernment so that we can know what is truly good and right. And finally, most importantly, it is in Jesus that we are loved, forgiven, and accepted by God, whether we are able to do the right thing or not.
The only yoke that Jesus offers us is the freedom of love, and the joy of serving others. Today Jesus offers us that freedom. Today, Jesus says to each of us, to all of us: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The scriptures remind us that the freedom we know in Christ Jesus is just as much a responsibility as it is a gift. Our freedom is never perfected until all of humanity is truly free. As long as there are people in bondage, as long as there are minorities who are oppressed, as long as there are immigrants unwelcome, as long as there are women and men without jobs, as long as children die of hunger—we are not truly free.
This weekend is a time to celebrate the riches of freedom that we have, and to give thanks for those who have made those freedoms possible. It is also a time to consider how we might increase our freedom by liberating others who do not have all the freedoms we enjoy. Because I am convinced that for a Christian being free means seeking the love of God in each and every situation we face. As long as we fear and despise those who differ from us, even those who hate us, we cannot truly be free.
It is in Jesus that we truly find freedom. His life, death and resurrection bear witness to us of the freedom our God offers: the freedom to love, the freedom to serve, the freedom to live fully and abundantly “in Christ.” On this day, I pray that each of us, as well as this great country, will find our real freedom in God.