What Is True Freedom?
Romans 6: 12-23
This is the time of the year when Americans pause to celebrate freedom. July 4th is seminal to American culture – and is possibly the one national holiday observed by everyone. From 1776 to the present day, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American freedom from British colonialism.
So what is freedom? Is it fireworks, parades and concerts, family gatherings and barbecues? Of course it is – the freedom to gather together and to share the joy of family, and of nation is to be celebrated. And I want to congratulate you on your Independence Day.
There are some would want to point to deeper meanings – such as the freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment: the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, a free press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.
And some might pause this weekend and reflect on the ways in which American freedom has become hotly contested territory: there is disagreement about the freedom to read books, or to learn all of America’s history – or the freedom to select who get admitted to educational institutions.
Today I am wanting us to pause and reflect on freedom: but more specifically on the way followers of Jesus understand freedom. We will go to the teaching of the Apostle Paul: I want us to spend time in Romans Chapter 6. I will read from Eugene’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message.
12-14 That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God.
“You’re living in the freedom of God.”
St Paul writes these stirring words : you are living in the freedom of God! The apostle Paul wrote these words to the Christian church in Roma from the Greek city of Corinth in AD 57, just three years after the 16-year-old Nero had ascended to the throne as Emperor of Rome. His predecessor, Emperor Claudius, had expelled Jews from Rome, but now they were returning. Amongst these were Jewish Christians, who returned to the churches they had founded, only to discover that Gentile Romans had become the new leadership. So Paul is faced with complaints about the way some wanted to take away the freedoms of others:
They probably sounded something like this:
“We founded this church – and these newcomers want to deprive us of our freedom of worship. Tell them to worship the way our founding fathers designed it.”
And then the reply – “Well we also follow Jesus – and we have our own unique (non-Jewish) culture, and these returning Jews want to take away our freedom to be Gentile followers of Jesus.”
I wonder what we might have said in reply to them.
Some might say: “Well just start another church. Have one Jewish Church and have another Gentile Church – where you are each free to practice your own culture in the way you are most comfortable.”
If you read all the way through Romans Chapter 6 you will hear Paul’s reply: he does not say divide yourselves into separate parties. Instead, he says that there are two kinds of life: a sinful life, and a life set free from sin.
The sinful life is a life of bondage, where human emotions control you and lead you to judge the worth of other people according to your own sinful standards. You will spend your time deciding the worth of others by using the standards of your culture and upbringing. Paul is emphatic in his response: Romans 6:19:
19 I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?
Paul says: You have been set free from such sin – now live differently.
Paul writes further in the Letter to Romans about how we can move from judgement, to living by faith. This is a way of living that trusts that Jesus offers us a better way of living – one that trusts the power of God’s love to hold us all in community, irrespective of the culture that gave birth to us. True freedom is being transformed from the old judgmental way of life – to a new Grace-filled way of life.
Paul says that the problem with culturally separated churches in Rome is that you will continue to look down on each other. Instead, worship together – and learn to love each other’s cultures. Be set free from your prejudices about each other because Christ has set you free.
22-23 But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.
Isn’t this amazing – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus sets you free from the old, judgmental way of life. Remember those words of St Paul: “You’re living in the freedom of God”
Allow me to offer this teaching from the Apostle Paul to us this July 4th. When we celebrate Freedom – may we who are followers of Jesus discover the Grace to be more than our own culture, or language group, or political party. Let us discover the Grace to be free to celebrate the lives of other people who live in this country – people who are not like me, but who are nevertheless my neighbor, or my colleague, or one who buys at the same store as I do. True freedom is when I am able to let go of my narrow, sinful boundaries, and discover the Holy Spirit leading me to respect all who live here as fellow human beings – whether Republican or Democrat / gay or straight / Black or White or Latino or Asian / East-Coast, West-Coast or Mid-Westerner: we are all the beloved children of God..
I close with another quote from the Apostle Paul: this time not in his letter to Rome – but taken from another letter he writes these words about freedom:
For you have been called to live in Freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13)
Three dedicated followers, all wanting to be with Jesus, say “YES” to following him; and each comes with expectations or loose ends needing tied up. To each of them, Jesus responds; “clear the deck. It’s time to let go of your expectations and obligations and focus on your mission.” It seems extreme, and maybe it is; but these are the words of Jesus. And so, they beckon us to explore with curiosity and openness, what Jesus might be trying to tell these disciples, and by extension, us, about the nature of the kingdom of God.
John Wesley’s prayer; prayed every year at the Celebration of Life in Ministry service. It is prayed by everyone in attendance; a radical re-dedication of faith. As I begin I want to read this prayer for us, in light of today’s scripture:
● Our itinerant system
● Ed Coates; memories of earlier annual conferences, when it was routine for pastors to come not knowing whether or where they might be going in just a few weeks’ time. And in the days of John Wesley it was an even more more dangerous vocation.
● From an article dated March 7, 2018 on umc.org, the following depicts some of the challenges faced by early Methodist circuit riders:
○ Methodist Church records from 1844 record a church membership of over 1 million, with 4,000 ministers riding circuits in the U.S.
○ …one could travel days before reaching a town, and a day or so from one farm to the next, and that wasn’t even in frontier territories, which were often even more sparsely populated.
○ Some of their mementos give us a glimpse into their unusual circumstances.
○ A circuit preacher had to carry everything he might need; fishing lines in case he needed to go fishing, wax to seal letters, even bleeding instruments."
○ Typically, circuit riders traveled 200 to 500 mile routes on horseback. At times, they preached every day. Sometimes circuits were so large that it took six weeks to complete a cycle. Exhaustion, illness, animal attacks, and unfriendly encounters were constant threats.
○ Days and nights were spent in the elements, hunting or fishing for food and depending on the hospitality of strangers.
○ Barbara Duffin: "Circuit riders would have to spend the night with any family that would put them up and eat whatever was available to eat."
○ Ministers rarely served longer than two years on the same circuit. Theirs was a difficult and often short life. Prior to 1847, nearly half of Methodist circuit riding preachers died before the age of 30. But their passion for saving souls was unprecedented, then and now.
○ Wesley was famous for having said that Methodist preachers must be ready to preach, pray or die on a moment’s notice.
Somehow, Jesus’ words don’t seem quite so extreme now, do they?
Most Methodist preachers don’t have it quite so tough these days in North America. But we must not forget that ours is a global denomination, with churches spread throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, where clergy serve in war-torn and conflict-ridden places, where danger is an ever-present reality. In recent months we have been reminded of this as United Methodists clergy and laity have worshiped and engaged in mission together from dark bomb shelters, and in the midst of active warfare.
So let us not allow the discomfort we may feel in our relatively comfortable pews, here in Brookings South Dakota to drive us away from these words of Jesus; we are messengers of the good news of the Kingdom of God.
It is ironic, isn’t it, that in a sermon titled “Brought Home in the Spirit” we hear Jesus’ words; “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
It seems as though Jesus, with his fiery, controversial rhetoric, is trying to convey to these passionate, sold-out followers that there are some hard truths that come with a life of dedication to God’s kingdom. And he does it by giving surprising responses to these three disciples; all of whom agree to follow him, but with certain assumptions, or conditions. Let’s look a little more closely at these three disciples.
The first disciple promises to follow Jesus “wherever you go” in verse 57. Jesus responds cryptically, with an almost nursery-rhyme like phrase; “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (v. 58)
The second and third disciples ask for allowances that, in any culture, seem totally reasonable, even commendable; to attend to the burial of a parent and to bid farewell to one’s family before committing to this total and complete act of personal sacrifice. To both of these disciples, Jesus offers a surprisingly stark rebuke; to the first he says, “let the dead bury their own dead but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God,”
(v. 60) and to the second; “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom.” (v. 62)
There are times in life when we must hear a hard truth.; times when we must be disabused of our romantic notions of glory and our lofty visions of success must be tempered by the stark light of reality. Perhaps this is that sort of moment for the disciples. Taken in by the excitement of a new possibility, perhaps they hold expectations that this following Jesus thing is going to be like a pleasant road trip with their buddies. Knowing what is ahead of them, perhaps Jesus is preparing them for what really lies in store; suffering, conflict, hardship, even persecution and for many of them, death.
The words of John Wesley again come to mind; “Every Methodist pastor must be ready to preach, pray or die at a moment’s notice.”
It is a sobering thing to say “yes” to that kind of invitation.
It is true that this is my last Sunday with you here at Brookings First United Methodist. I have been so grateful for the time I’ve spent with you these past two years. Jim, Lucas and I have been blessed by your fellowship and care, and we have been able to participate in amazing ministry together.
And, I am called to move; like Jesus and his disciples, the nature of Methodist ministry is itinerant; we are in some ways, always mindful that at a moment’s notice (or maybe a few months’ notice, as it happens these days), we may again be on the move. This is a gift! It is a gift because it is a constant reminder that our security lies not in any place, or position, or in the opinions of others, but in the realization that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are not called to be comfortable. The work of the Kingdom is an urgent, patient work. It requires our dedication and focus, as well as a keen grasp of the hard realities in which we live. It is not glamorous, or trendy. It is hard, holy work; and it is work that matters not just today, but for eternity.
But this way of ministry is not only a gift to us pastors; it is a gift to you. You also are given the opportunity to grow and strengthen in your faith. Like the disciples, you may come to recognize your own agency in ministry--you are empowered in mission and ministry. Think about it; what is the constant in a United Methodist church? It’s not the pastor--it is the congregation. Like Paul, who traveled from church to church throughout the ancient near East, the constant presence were the believers in each city, town and home who remained, who continued the mission, who endured the hardships and saw, day after month after year, the faithfulness of God as they continued on empowered by the Holy Spirit, in sharing the good news of Christ.
Pastor Pete will continue to lead this congregation as long as God calls him to this place; I am moving into a different role, and am already seeing how God is providing for your needs, inviting others to step into leadership roles in creative and innovative ways. You are continuing to deepen and grow as you fulfill the mission God has given you through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not always easy; sometimes it requires a level of sacrifice that stretches and challenges you. But God is faithful. Continue to put your hand to the plow. Keep stepping out in faith on the path God has set before you. Let the Spirit guide you. And as you do, may you recognize that your home--your true home--is with the One who calls you out with the same words he called those first disciples; “follow me.”
The text doesn’t tell us what these three disciples decided to do; we don’t know whether they dropped everything and followed Jesus, or whether they decided the price was too high. Maybe the stark reality sunk in; maybe it scared them away. We don’t know. But one thing we do know is this; as followers of Jesus, we have the same choice. Will we follow Jesus when things get real?
As we close I want to invite us to stand and say together the prayer I shared at the beginning; it is a prayer that applies not just to pastors, but to any of us who accept Jesus’ call to follow him. As you pray the words, I invite you to give your heart wholly to God; in radical surrender to God’s will and way in your life.
Intro: Jesus and an extended group of disciples have been travelling through Galilee – this group included both men and women. This was a period of teaching, telling parables and explaining them. The crowds grew so big that when Jesus family came to visit – they could not get to him. It seems like Jesus wanted a break – so he asks his disciples to get a boat and sail him across the sea of Galilee to the other side:
Luke 8:26-39 : 26 Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes,[a] which is opposite Galilee. 27 When Jesus[b] had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32 Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.
34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 36 And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed[c] man had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.
A man has been chased out of his home because he seems to have become crazy.. perhaps today we might call him schizophrenic, or subject to psychotic episodes, or even a victim of dementia. But in the time of Jesus there was no such explanation: he was strange – and people explained it as demon possessed.
And he was driven out of his community, and eventually found himself in the graveyard of the town. And when you live with the dead you were considered unclean / literally cursed by both God and man. Here is someone who is alive, but considered dead by his community.
And Luke tells us that Jesus finds him: and Jesus heals him. And he is “clothed and in his right mind”…… So imagine that you had been part of this story: you had seen this man’s mental health deteriorate, you had seen him driven out of town, and watched his family take food to a place at the edge of the graveyard so that he did not starve – and then Jesus comes to town and this man is healed: you saw that he had his clothes back on and was talking rationally….. What would your response be:
Surely your first words would have been “Praise God”… probably followed by a great big celebration in Main Street.
But that is not what happened:
35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.
The people were afraid! This made such an impression on Luke that he repeats it two verses later: . 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked (Jesus) to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.
Why is it such a fearful thing when madness is replaced by stillness?
And it is right here that I believe that this story has been remembered – and keeps nagging at us 2000 years later. It seems that we can cope with madness – but we will do everything to avoid stillness.
The stillness of our hearts contain all the things we do not want to think about – and so we cultivate madness in an effort to shut out our thoughts.
Let me unpack this a bit: summer is advertised as an opportunity for us to recover our souls: life has been busy – this is the time to …
• escape to the Black Hills and enjoy the stillness of nature
• Go out into the prairies and enjoy the stillness of a sunset
• Go to the Nature Park and walk in the stillness of an early morning
But this is really not true: We take our noise with us…. We turn up the volume of the music in our vehicles / we look for a television in the Black Hills / when we leave home – we madly fill our time with activities / even when out walking we talk incessantly with each other.
Allow me to be a bit more pointed:
Today contains a number of invitations to pause from our business and be still to remember:
Today June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Tex., to inform enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free. Today is a moment to sit with our thoughts and reflect on what we can do to continue to ensure the freedom of everyone who lives here….. but we so easily allow the political madness of this country to drown out the still small voice of reason.
Today is Father’s day: a happy day of barbeques, and socks, and family – but this can become a way of drowning out the opportunity to have a real conversation with our fathers. We make today busy – so that we do not have to go to that stillness where we tell them that we love them.
The reason that we keep the madness going is because we are afraid of the silence. Like the Gerasene villagers described in the Gospel of Luke: we discover that silence is frightening. Because when we stop our madness – we have to face our own thoughts. But we will only find healing for our troubled spirits when we do so.
Today – is an invitation: pause for a moment in your day – and make some space for silence: switch off the Television / stop the music / pause the talking – and listen for the Spirit of God. Perhaps you can make this the invitation for summer:
Watch a sunset / listen to the wind / discover the sound of a bird – and in this moment see if the Spirit of God will engage your troubles spirit – and you can find healing.
Jesus says these words in the week before his arrest “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now …. I almost can feel the anxiety of Jesus: he has so much still to say, and so little time to say it
Remember the world Jesus came to:
the faith of the people had become a matter of rules and obedience. Obey the rules – define the rules – clarify the rules – until there were codes explaining them and teachers of the law who had the professional task of teaching the rules. And the gatekeepers who would decide who was in and who was out – who could be allowed into the temple, and who had to be kept out.
And a whole class of people who were excluded: the am-haarez… poor people
And the faith of the children of Israel was governed by keeping the rules: Some have said that the people had to remember 613 rules.
And Jesus was aware of this. And there came a moment when he was asked: of all the commandments – what are the most important:
So here is his answer –“Love God and Love your neighbour”
Jesus said there is only one thing – love!
The disciples warmed to his message
The crowds flocked to hear him – because it was a refreshing message of hope. Here is someone who had Good News… the ability to be loved by God – despite the rules.
But the difficult realization that Jesus was not going to be around forever:
How would people remain hopeful – and not lapse back into the legal swamp that had persuaded people that God hated them.
And Jesus says – you will not be left alone: you will have my
13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, . 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Do not worry – because you will keep hearing my message of God’s love: the Spirit of God will love you from the inside out.
Sadly – human nature being what it is: the followers of Jesus were tempted to fall back into the way of rules: 300 years after Jesus a Council of Nicaea was convened by the Emperor Constantine – gathered all the church leaders – guess what he wanted them to do? draw up rules to decide who is in and who is out – and he sent his soldiers to kill those who did not agree with his council’s rules….
And many Christian leaders fled into the deserts of North Africa and Syria. The Holy Spirit reminded these Desert Fathers and Mothers that they needed to rediscover the two basic commandments – Love God and Love One Another.
Again in the 1500’s the church of Jesus found itself debating who was saved – and the Pope ruled that those who paid money to the church could be saved.
Again the Holy Spirit raised up a courageous priest called Martin Luther who said: the only thing required was faith in the love of God.
And in the 1800’s, when the church in England was drowning in rules, the Holy Spirit warmed the heart of a courageous Priest called John Wesley:
and he began a revival movement which became known as “The Methodists”. Central to their teachings was this one idea: all people could know the love of God: whether you knew the church rules or not – your heart could be warmed by the Holy Spirit, reminding you that you are a beloved chid of God.
This Methodist movement has avoided writing its own Creed – or emphasising its own set of rules: Instead we have Three Simple Rules:
Being a Methodist means:
Do No Harm
Stay in Love with God
Have just come back from our Dakotas Annual Conference:
I am grateful for the way the Holy Spirit raised up leaders in our conference who continue to remind us that the best rules are the rules of love.
I point to Pastor Howard Grinager – who models love to everyone
I think of Pastor Clay Lundberg – who was given an award by the youth leaders in the Conference for the love and support he shows to young people
I am grateful for the Bishops: Bishop Ough and Bishop Deb – who could have enforced rules – but chose instead to lead the Conference with love and compassionate
And so today I remind us that the Holy Spirit keeps reminding us that we only need two rules – love God and Love our neighbour. And it is my hope that this church would continue this tradition: that we become known as a place of welcome and acceptance.
Let me pull this together: I want to offer Good News, a Challenge, and a Promise
Good News: everyone is welcome to worship in our family. You do not need to achieve a level of holiness before you enter the doors:
Open hearts, Open Minds Open doors.
Challenge: The same welcome you receive is extended to anyone else who walks through the door – and sometimes this is difficult – because people might walk through the door we do not like / or agree with.
The Promise: that the Spirit of God is with us - He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
We receive the love of God – but God’s Spirit does not leave it there – we are changed
Our hearts are softened
We learn compassion and kindness – and this overflows into the way we treat other people.
The promise is that the Love of God holds us all: