Sunday, June 19, 2016

Pentecost 5C

Galatians 3:23–29

 

THE GIFT OF CHRISTIAN FREEDOM

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

Freedom is one of our nation’s most cherished values. The Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The first amendment of the Bill of Rights affirms: “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.” In the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln concluded with the words: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The final line of the national anthem is: “O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” Freedom is indeed a highly cherished value in our nation.

 

But recently it feels like liberty, our constitutional freedoms, and the new birth of freedom are under assault in the land of the free. Friday marked the first anniversary of the Charleston massacre. On June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof, a 21 year old white male, murdered nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. They were gathered for their weekly Bible Study. In Roof’s twisted mind he was intent on starting a race war.

 

The people of Orlando and the nation are still grieving and reeling in the wake of the worst mass shooting in US history at the Pulse gay nightclub. Efforts continue to sort out what motivated the gunman, Omar Mateen, to engage in this violent act.

 

In the presidential campaign Anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee rhetoric continue to be major themes.

 

We as a nation are struggling to discern what it will take to address our security concerns and yet uphold our freedom. Obviously, not all are in agreement. One could argue that the heart and soul of our nation are at stake.

 

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians has been referred to as a declaration of Christian freedom. Paul was in a battle for the heart and soul of the Christian community in Galatia. Paul directly challenged Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile— that is, non-Jewish—men had to be circumcised to be full participants in the community of Christ. “You foolish Galatians!” exclaims Paul. “Who has bewitched you?” He insists that faith, not circumcision or any other work of the Law, is essential to full citizenship in the community of Christ. Christian freedom is a gift, not something we earn through our own efforts.

 

Over the next three Sundays I am preaching a sermon series on Christian freedom, using key texts from Galatians. Today we will focus “The Gift of Christian Freedom.” Next Sunday our theme will be “The Spirit of Christian Freedom. And then on Sunday, July 3, Fourth of July weekend, the theme will be “The Burden of Christian Freedom.” The hope is that we will come to a deeper appreciation of the freedom of a citizen of the community of Christ. Such freedom is at the heart and soul of living as a follower of Jesus. Along the way we also want to address how Christian freedom is related to the freedom we will celebrate on the Fourth of July.

 

For Paul Christian freedom is rooted in the free grace of God. Grace is God’s unconditional love for us that has been revealed in Jesus Christ. God freely chooses to love us. Faith is about trusting that God loves us. As God promised Abraham so long ago, the blessing of God’s love is intended for all peoples, not just for a chosen few. God’s unconditional love revealed in Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

 

One blessing of the gift of Christian freedom, therefore, is to live in the confidence of knowing we are loved by God. Friday was the last day of school for students in the Beaverton School District. My wife is a teacher’s assistant at Ridgewood Elementary School. Teachers tend to be able to tell whether or not students are receiving the love they need in the home. Sometimes a loving, caring teacher can compensate for love a student is not receiving elsewhere. When students know they are loved and cared for, it can free them to do as well as possible in school. Even students who struggle to learn do so much better when they know they are loved. Our Learning Center teachers and staff are committed to letting the children they care for know they are loved.

 

It is also freeing in a marriage relationship when spouses are confident that they are loved by one another. So many struggles in marriage relate directly to that lack of confidence.

 

Paul wants the Galatians to know in their hearts and souls that they are loved by the God of Jesus Christ, the Creator of the universe. In Galatians 3:27 he highlights the role of baptism in assuring followers of Jesus of that love. Baptism is the public declaration of God’s love for the one being baptized. “In Christ Jesus,” Paul emphasizes to the Galatians, “you are all children of God through faith.” It did not matter whether or not Gentile men were circumcised. What mattered was to trust, to be confident, that they were loved by God. To be confident that we are loved by God frees us to face the challenges of life and to live our lives to the fullest.

 

A second blessing of the gift of Christian freedom is to live in a community in which there are no second class citizens. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s vision of ethnic, socio-economic, and gender equality was radical for its time. Paul and the early church struggled to live in to this radical vision of equality. Ethnic, socio-economic, and gender distinctions did not immediately cease to matter. Indeed, the church has struggled ever since to live in to a community in which all are treated equal.

 

Our Welcome Statement at St. Andrew can be viewed as an effort to cast this radical vision of community in our own time. We are in the process of trying to live in to our Welcome Statement. Our version of Galatians 3:28 is in the second paragraph: “All are welcome, without exception, regardless of ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, education, income, or family status.” It is one thing to use such categories to describe or understand who we are as human beings. It is another matter to use them to reduce people to second class citizens. Paul’s main point is that before God all human beings are equal. Our primary identity is as a child of God. No other human category can serve as a primary identity marker. In Christ we have been given a vision of community that cuts across social, economic, racial, ethnic, generational, gender, linguistic, and religious barriers. Such a vision frees us to be the people God created us to be.

 

The final blessing of the gift of Christian freedom I want to lift up today is that it frees us from fear and hatred. It is obvious this Christian freedom was at work last June 17th in those gathered for Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. They welcomed in a young white male into their Bible study. Later Roof confessed that the church members treated him so well that he almost decided not to go through with his assault. Unfortunately he was too consumed by hatred. At the legal hearing for Roof a couple days later, survivors and relatives of those killed expressed forgiveness and told him they were praying for his soul. It was a stunning, moving example of Christian freedom in action. Even in their intense grief and trauma, the people of Mother Emanuel refused to give in to hatred and fear.

 

I am glad the Pride events have gone on this weekend here in Portland and across the country. After what happened in Orlando, some trepidation is understandable in the LGBTQ community and among their friends. Organizers and participants have refused to give in to fear or hatred. A number of St. Andrew members, including Pastor Robyn, are participating in the Pride Parade this morning. They are exercising their freedom in Christ.

 

On Wednesday the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon Board held its June meeting at the Muslim Educational Trust. Our Muslim hosts were so gracious. They prepared us a wonderful meal, even as they were fasting during Ramadan. They were also a catalyst for a statement put out this week by American Muslim and Arab-American Communities in Oregon and Southwest Washington. In this statement they “unequivocally condemn the senseless murder that has occurred in Orlando, Florida, and offer their condolences to the victims and their families.” They assert: “Islam does not condone wanton murder or individual vendettas. This abhorrent action and the like are all prohibited in Islam and in direct violation of the teachings of Islam. We denounce any person or group that would try to call to or justify any horrific act of terror, hate, and violence.” The list of signees of this statement was impressive. Clearly a lot of Muslims in Oregon and SW Washington do not want to live by fear and hatred.

 

Are we prepared to affirm that in Christ there is no Jew or Christian or Muslim, but we are all one, beloved children of God through faith? The more we ponder Paul’s radical vision of community in Christ it becomes apparent that the heart and soul of Christian freedom is about loving all those who are loved by God.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.