Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Proper 4C), June 2, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
|1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43||Psalm 96:1-9|
|Galatians 1:1-12||Luke 7:1-10|
On being set free
Starting today, for six weeks our lectionary includes passages from Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. Over these six weeks, we’ll have a chance to immerse ourselves in Galatians, to ponder the epistle almost in its entirety. I am delighted, because this letter includes one of my all-time favorite lines in the whole Bible: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). We won’t hear those particular lines for several weeks, but already in this morning’s reading Paul is sounding the great theme of his letter to the Galatians: freedom. He makes an opening salutation, one that Randy often uses when he begins his sermons “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” and then Paul jumps right in to describing what Christ has done for us: he “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:3-4). He gave himself to set us free.
Galatians has been called “the Magna Charta of Christian liberty,”1 for in this letter Paul makes a spirited defense in the words of one scholar, a “bitterly polemical”2 defense against those who would try to limit the freedom that is ours in Christ. Scholars don’t seem to agree on the location of the churches to which Paul was writing, nor on when this letter was composed, but, as one scholar puts it, it is clear that this letter “reflects a critical moment in the early Christian movement’s struggle to define its mission and identity.”3
What was at stake? The issue in Paul’s time was whether or not a Gentile had to become a Jew before becoming a Christian whether or not a man had to get circumcised and to follow other elements of Jewish law and ritual in order to become right with God. The struggle, in other words, was whether we are made right with God by doing certain things, by performing certain rituals, by carrying out certain good works that earn us our salvation, or whether Christ’s dying and rising is the decisive event that sets us free. Paul was convinced that the Christ event had set us free and that we shouldn’t go crawling back into the various traps that keep us restricted and small. The trap that he identified in his own day was the trap of believing that we must purify ourselves in certain ways, must follow certain rules, and must carry out certain obligations, before God in Christ will love us and save us and accept us. Of course there’s nothing wrong with doing good works or performing rituals, but they are not what saves us. Paul couldn’t be more vehement in defending our freedom in Christ, and twice he pronounces “accursed” anyone who proclaims “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:8-9; 1:6).
So what does it mean to know freedom in Christ? Surely being free in Christ does not mean acting like the proverbial college freshman who arrives on campus and feels delightfully entitled to express every impulse, indulge every whim, and try every illegal substance because somehow the rules no longer apply. As any addict will tell you, in the end there is nothing more confining or death-dealing than to give free rein to our cravings and impulses we end up trapped.
Freedom in Christ is not self-indulgence or anarchy, but the deep ordering of our desires. When we know what we love most, we are set free. When we know what we long for more than anything else, when we find something big enough to die for, something big enough to live for, then we are set free. When we become aware of something so beautiful and so true that we want to give ourselves to it totally, with nothing held back, then we are set free. We know what to hold on to, and what to ignore or let go. We have found our compass, found our North Star. Whatever the circumstances of our lives may be, we know what we want to bear witness to, what we want to embody. We are free.
People who have discovered their freedom in Christ know that we don’t have to earn our salvation. We don’t have to impress anybody or prove ourselves to anybody. We can finally quit the ego’s desperate, insatiable quest for other people’s approval, for other people’s sympathy and admiration, because people who are free in Christ are people who know that we are loved. Nothing and nobody can take that love away, and we don’t have to do a thing to earn it. We are loved for no reason not because of anything that we have done or for anything that we will do, but simply because we are. God loves us not because we’re lovable, but because God’s nature is to love. That is what we see when we gaze at the cross: a God who loves us completely.
So it’s worth paying attention to the many ways in which we limit our freedom and trap ourselves in a small place. For instance, we can take at look at our inner self-talk. Do we have a habit of thinking harsh things about ourselves? Do we belittle ourselves and put ourselves down? It’s also worth paying attention to the ways in which we do or do not encourage other people to step into their freedom. Do we give other people our full attention, without expecting or demanding that they be a certain way? Do we approach other people without preconceived expectations of who they are and what they need and what we intend to (quote-unquote) ‘get out’ of the conversation? Are we basically trying to promote and prove ourselves, or are we giving ourselves in love? Alan Jones contends that “‘We either contemplate or we exploit.’ We either see things and persons with reverence and awe, and therefore treat them as genuinely other than ourselves; or we appropriate them, and manipulate them for our own purposes.”4
It’s all about growing in freedom, and about setting others free. Every time we receive the Eucharist, it’s as if Christ were saying to us: “I love you, and I want to set you free.” As Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
I’d like to close with a story about how I glimpsed my freedom in Christ in the most unlikely of places.5 It’s a story about the first (and, so far, the only) time that I was arrested. Back in 2001, when the administration was pushing an energy policy that involved new drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I headed down to Washington, D.C. and joined a small group of interfaith activists. After holding a worship service in front of the Department of Energy, twenty-two of us knelt down in front of the doors to protest our country’s relentless use of fossil fuels. We sang, we prayed for God’s Creation, and, when the police told us to move or be subject to arrest, we refused to move. Before long I was in handcuffs and locked in a police wagon. Over the course of a very long afternoon and into the night, we were transferred from one jail to another, each one more apparently God-forsaken than the last, as if we were making our own small descent through Dante’s circles of hell. By nightfall our group was locked into a row of cells that ran along a corridor, and I found myself confined with fellow priest and environmental activist Sally Bingham in a small, dark space supplied with a dirty toilet and two bare, metal bunks painted olive green and etched with graffiti. We were anxious, tired, and unsure how much longer we would be detained. Our nerves were frayed.
We had had nothing to eat or drink all day, so when a guard appeared with a pile of bologna sandwiches, stacks of donuts wrapped in cellophane, and cups of Kool-Aid, I took notice. I was hungry, but I don’t eat meat and I can’t eat sugar, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Finally I accepted a couple of bologna sandwiches and asked for a glass of water. I peeled off the bologna and gloomily studied the meal in my hands: bread and water. Basic jail food.
Just then someone called from an adjoining cell, “Watch out. The bread’s moldy.”
With growing despair I examined my slice of bread. I couldn’t see anything green, but it was too dark to get a good look. All in all the bread looked fairly loathsome. I took a quick bite, figuring that if I gulped it fast, maybe I wouldn’t notice my disgust. But as the bread touched my tongue, I remembered the Eucharist. I remembered how Jesus gives himself to us in the bread and the wine. My disgust vanished, along with my sense of deprivation. I took a second, slow bite of the bread and ate it with reverence. I took a sip of water. To my surprise, I suddenly saw that I had everything I needed. My anxiety slipped away. I was filled with gratitude and completely at peace. I knew that I was free. It didn’t matter that I was still in jail. It didn’t matter that I had no idea when I would get out. None of that mattered. I was being fed from within, as if a river of joy were secretly flowing through me.
I looked around my cell in disbelief. No, I wasn’t hallucinating. I could see that everything was exactly as it had been: the same bleak walls, the same metal bunk, the same rows of bars. Nothing had budged. But everything had changed. It was as if my outward circumstances had suddenly fallen away, or as if they were filled with a hidden radiance. Everything material seemed to open beyond itself, to be secretly as spacious as the wild Arctic wilderness. The powers-that-be thought they had imprisoned me, but actually I was free. I almost burst out laughing.
May freedom be ours today, and every day, as we welcome and ponder the mystery of Christ within us and among us. How is Christ inviting you to be set free?
1. Introduction to “The Letter of Paul to the Galatians,” The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, RSV, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 1410.
2. Richard B. Hays, Introduction to “The Letter of Paul to the Galatians,” The HarperCollins Study Bible (Fully Revised and Updated), NRSV, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, p. 1972.
4. Alan Jones, Soul-Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, p. 29, quoted by Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 202.
5. For a longer essay that includes this story: Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, edited by Roger Ferlo, NY: Seabury, 2007.