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Religious Liberty or Christian Freedom?

June 28, 2020

Today we are reading again from Romans … and because Paul doesn’t write his theology in easily consumed soundbites what I’m going to do is go back and reread the section we read last week and add this week’s verses which immediately follows. Listen for the word of God speaking to you today.

READ Romans 6: (1-11) 12-23

Let’s just get down and dirty this morning. I want to talk about the difference between religious liberty and Christian freedom. This week when we hit July 4th and we get to hear from Paul’s letter to the Romans… the timing is right. Because for those who are yacking on and on about religious liberty these days… they are not doing it from the foundations of Christian freedom.

Religious liberty… as those words are being bandied about today mostly by white evangelical Christians… is all about the political and an argument that is grounded in a place of privilege that white evangelical Christians believe they hold in our society. It is usually an argument that is summed up in the adolescent whine of “you can’t tell me what to do.” That is the nature of the liberty that religious lobbyists like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. promote. And I use that description as religious lobbyist purposefully because neither of these men are theologians… nor do they really ground their cries of liberty in the theology of Christianity. They are the inheritors of successful or famous ministries who use their inheritance to their own advantage. Religious liberty seeks to ground itself in the first amendment of the Constitution. But at the same… it is not a movement that seeks liberty for all religions as the Constitution grants… but using their current political and financial influence… as lobbyists do… seeks an advantage for their own viewpoint in the current American culture war… a culture war primarily of white evangelical creation… where they try to be the dominant religious force in American culture while also crying that they are the most persecuted of religious organizations.

Too harsh an assessment? Perhaps. But also… I think honest. Honest because religious liberty is an important historical foundation of our country. Although it was historically built upon liberty between different forms of Christianity… like so much of the true foundations of our nation… there is a depth to the concept that transcends the times and those who instituted the concept. The depth of religious liberty has the potential to cross boundaries… to bring us together across traditions and faiths to work together for the uplifting of society. It is a potential being squandered by the current proponents of so-called liberty who want to divide and use their liberty as a bludgeon against others in… again… this self-created culture war that does little but drag us further down into the mire of conflict.

So… theologically speaking… much of what today is being called religious liberty is actually sinful. Sinful in the sense of what my ramblings last Sunday were supposed to get to but didn’t really… that sin is what divides us. This is why we take sin so seriously. Sin is what separates us from neighbor and weakens community. To sin is not just some arbitrary action defined by those in authority… it is an action that negatively impacts the image of God in another… it is an action that is corrosive to relationships between people… that breaks down the common good. If love builds up… sin breaks down.

So if we profess that grace abounds… which we do… then we should no longer continue in sin. This is Paul’s point with this part of his letter to the Romans. Grace does not give us carte blanche to do whatever we want. God’s grace is not the path to anarchy and hedonism since grace will always be there to cover us. It is the path beyond division… it is the path where we come together rather than wall ourselves off in mansions of false piety. Grace frees us and at the same time grace puts upon us necessary boundaries so that we might not only continue to grow in grace ourselves, but become instruments of that same grace in the world around us.

In the study of Mark that some of us have been doing on Zoom every week… one of the points I hope people are seeing in the gospel is that even while Jesus is not the messiah because he performs amazing acts of healing and exorcisms… that doesn’t mean he isn’t directing his followers to go out and bring healing as a way of living out their faith and following him. He sends the disciples into the world and they come back with stories where they helped people become better… and they are excited and motivated because they have been instruments of God’s love. When there are thousands in need of feeding… Jesus keeps turning first to his disciples, telling them to feed the crowd… but they become overwhelmed and fail. Saints, how easy it is to become overwhelmed by our Christian freedoms when they tell us to look at the world through the eyes of our heart. How hard it is to have faith that love can bring a better day. Why not grab onto liberty and talk of rights and individualism… that is so much easier to accomplish than feeding thousands with a little bread and some fish… or some potatoes and squash like those growing in our garden. But… our small garden will give sustenance to someone other than ourselves. And our small garden when combined with other small gardens will give sustenance to even more. We will work and we will sweat… and water and toil… and God will give the blessing. That’s how Christian freedom works. We will be fed. Our neighbor will be fed. Grace will be shared as freely as it was given.

What does it theologically mean when Paul says that we have been united with Christ in a death like his? Christ’s death was to bring freedom from sin… to get us past all of this useless division… to unite us through the steadfast love of God. Christ’s death was salvific… not to Jesus himself… right… not just so Jesus could get to go to heaven or some other reward like that… Christ’s death was to set us all free from sin and the death that sin brings. Christ’s death was to set us all free from separation and the death that separation brings. And if you don’t think separation from our neighbor brings death… then you aren’t paying attention to what is happening. People are finally fed up with so much death. To be united with Christ in a death like his is to bring a newness of life in a resurrection like his. We are set free to die for one another so that we can have new life together… new life that is defined by the grace of God alone.

Do you see the difference? The rights that Christian freedom fights for is the right to love one another. Christian equality is knowing that none of have the advantage… none of us deserve something more than our neighbor. Somewhere along the way I was taught that in our country we are free, but in our freedom we have the fundamental responsibility to create a society in which everyone can experience those same freedoms. I am a strong believer that our Christian freedoms are measured by the least of those in our society. How free am I when my neighbor… the one I am to love as myself… how free am I when my neighbor is so clearly not? Christian freedom exists to lift up humanity, to open the way for each of us to reach our highest spirit-gifted potential rather than a way for us to wallow in our lesser traits without accountability.

Our advantage is sanctification… using our freedom as Christ commands. Because which of Christ’s teachings are there for the glorification of the self? Name one. Those who find themselves in opposition to Jesus in our gospels… the one characteristic they share is the glorification of the self. Christ always puts us into the service of grace… telling us to take up our cross… teaching us to sacrifice self for the other... forgiving… healing… exorcising the demons that take away from our lives and make us less than the whole that God created us to be. Christ puts us into service to one another… the one whom we perceive as lower than ourselves all the more so… because as we serve we may discover how wrong our perceptions were to begin with. That’s why I think Paul puts before us an important measure… “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” The one whom you obey. Christian freedom comes only from obedience to Christ… no other way. Not the law… whether it be the old Jewish law of Paul’s day or the new white evangelical law of our day. Grace brings freedom. Obedient service brings spiritual maturity. We grow in Christ… Christian freedom spreads and spreads… people who were otherwise separated come together… God is glorified. And… Saints… that is our chief purpose as human beings. Amen.

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