In the last days of the Civil War, the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, fell to the Union army. Abraham Lincoln insisted on visiting the city. Even though no one knew he was coming, slaves recognized him immediately and thronged around him. He had liberated them by the Emancipation Proclamation, and now Lincoln’s army had set them free. According to Admiral David Porter, an eyewitness, Lincoln spoke to the throng around him: “My poor friends, you are free—free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it … . Liberty is your birthright.”
But Lincoln also warned them not to abuse their freedom. “Let the world see that you merit [your freedom],” Lincoln said, “Don’t let your joy carry you into excesses. Learn the laws and obey them.”
Freedom is an interesting concept and one that comes with great responsibility. We have been given spiritual freedom in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we are given political freedom but the laws that govern our nation. As much as there are differences between these two, there are many similarities.
Freedom, whether spiritual or political has to be exercised with great care and concern for others. There is an old saying that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose beings. The political freedom that we have has given us individual rights, but the spiritual freedom that we have been given is not personal, in fact, we are required to die to the self to really have this freedom, spiritual freedom is a collective freedom where we have to be concerned about the other.
I am a firm believer that in any study of the Bible we need to look at the entirety of the message. The books of the Bible, especially the letters, were written to a very specific group of Christians. Today’s passage comes from a letter Paul had written to not one church but to the churches in Galatia a province of Rome. The letters are usually written because a problem of some sort has arisen and they have appealed to Paul for a solution to the problem.
The Galatians initially accepted Christ and began to follow the teachings that Paul had left them, but now they have turned to the Jewish legalizers who claim that Christians must also follow the laws of the Old Covenant. Paul has a great love for the churches he established and wrote to them as a father with corrective love. If we had time this morning we would read the entire letter; it is only six chapters, but I would like to suggest that you spend some time this week reading and contemplating the words of Paul.
Paul begins with a short biography. Paul was not always a Christian, in fact, he was one of the greatest persecutors of Christians in the early days after the resurrection. The Book of Acts relates the story that Paul was present when Stephen, the first Christian Martyr was killed. But he had a conversion experience, and he was able to see Jesus, literally and figuratively and became not only a believer but one of the greatest evangelists of his day.
Paul does not do this because they do not know him, in fact, many of the people who will hear his words know him as they met him. Paul does this to show the power of conversion and the love that God has for everyone and how everyone can be used in the building up of the kingdom of God.
Paul then moves on to a discussion of the law of the Old Covenant and how Christ came to fulfill that law, and we come to today’s passage:
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out, or you will be destroyed by each other.”
Paul was simply repeating the words of Jesus when he was asked what the greatest commandment was:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40
Last Saturday John Egan and I attended the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ in Amherst. The theme of the meeting was “Be Bold.” During the meeting, along with the usual business items like budgets and committee elections, we heard stories of what churches around the Conference are doing.
We heard the story about the Church in West Medford; you may have read about it in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago. Face with declining numbers in attendance; they decided to sell their building and move down the street into a rented storefront. They continue to struggle, but they have moved from the constant worry about money for the upkeep of the building to concentrating on ministry to those around them and those in need. The sale of the building as secured their financial freedom and this was a bold step. We heard other stories as well, but the individual stories that you only hear over coffee are the best.
As Christians, we are called to be bold. We hear these words from the Book of Revelation:
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” Revelation 3:15-16
When we decide, and it is a decision, to put on the Mantle of Christ we decide that we no longer live for ourselves alone but all of those around us. We have a great responsibility to care for those around us and not just the ones we agree with and like, but all of the humanity and dare I say all of the creation.
“I was naked, and you gave me clothing, I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:36-40
This was a bold statement when Jesus spoke it, and it is a bold statement today.
We are called to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ in this world. Yesterday a group of church members gathered here to make sandwiches for the folks at Fr. Bill’s. They then took those sandwiches and brought them to Fr. Bill’s and served them. In doing so, they witnessed to people the love of Jesus Christ. They were in essence, Christ to the people they served just as the passage of Scripture we read today exhorts us, “serve one another humbly in love.”
Freedom in Christ has been given to us by grace a grace that came with no strings attached and grace that moves us towards our potential and that potential is to love God and love our neighbor. For the Galatians that Paul was writing to they forgot what that freedom meant and had fallen back into a strict following of the law of the Old Covenant and forgot about the freedom that comes from a life in Christ.
We need to be bold. We need to be bold in our spiritual lives by taking those bold steps of radical transformation of our lives through the freedom that Christ gives to each one of us. But that transformation requires something of us, and that is a great responsibility. We have to die to our self and rise again in Christ, and we need to: serve one another humbly in love.”