'One’s earthly freedoms, Jesus seems to say, can and often must be limited or given away completely for the sake of others.'
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9C)
July 3, 2022
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The nation and the Church meditate on one and the same word this weekend. That word is freedom.
In the midst of its nearly two-hundred-fifty-year argument about what Freedom (with a capital letter) means, and which freedoms (small ‘f’) it includes, our nation observes the anniversary of its freedom from rule by a foreign power.
In the Bible readings heard today in most Lutheran churches and many other churches across the nation, we also consider freedom. But it is not the freedom which others have won for us to carve out and preserve a space for ourselves in the world. This is the freedom Christ has won for us at the great cost of his own suffering – the freedom from sin, evil, and death.
Political liberty involves freedom to do or say certain things and exist in certain ways. Political liberty also involves freedom from human infringements on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But spiritual liberty is of a far different nature. Spiritual liberty does not speak of freedom ‘to do things,’ or freedom ‘from others;’ but it speaks of freedom from the domination of evil and freedom for other people.
As Americans, we put high value on our political and civil freedom. So it is at least mildly uncomfortable when our faith would put limits on our freedom to do, be, or say whatever we want to say, or even would put us in obligation to our fellow human beings.
But if we are thinking clearly, we know that we can have every political and civil liberty and be spiritually in bondage to evil, death and sin. Conversely, one can be deprived of every political liberty and still be completely free in spirit.
When Jesus sends seventy disciples ahead of him to tell others about the freedom of the kingdom of God, he sets limits on their freedom. He tells them they are not to live off their own resources – not to take a purse, or a bag, or a pair of sandals with them. We might think this means that Jesus is telling them not to wear shoes – but Matthew’s version of this story says they are not to take a second pair of sandals.
In a similar fashion, Jesus tells them that once they arrive in a place and someone has welcomed them, they are to receive their support from the family who has welcomed them and not move around from house to house.
Why all this limitation on their freedom? It’s because the freedom to provide for oneself, to have resources held in reserve, to seek a more advantageous position, will interfere with their freedom to serve the people to whom they’re proclaiming the good news. If they are worried about securing or even improving their lot, they are less free for the ones among whom they are ministering.
In order to proclaim spiritual freedom, the disciples must lose quite a bit of economic freedom. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but Jesus makes them do it. Perhaps he is a tyrant – or perhaps he knows that they can’t be truly free unless they are willing to live without the freedom to secure their own advantage in a world which only thinks of freedom in those terms.
One’s earthly freedoms, Jesus seems to say, can and often must be limited or given away completely for the sake of others. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul the apostle will use similar terms to the congregations to which he writes. If someone has transgressed against the community, Paul tells the Galatians, they are not to be treated harshly, but ‘restored in a spirit of gentleness.’ He also warns them, ‘take care that you yourselves are not tempted.’
A momentary reaction is one thing – but it is far worse when we dwell in our anger, and justify our hatred with the lie that our angry feelings are not our responsibility but the responsibility of those who have provoked us. Jesus’ victory over sin and evil liberates us from cyclical patterns of thought or behavior, understood in either personal or historical terms. But when we excuse our violent feelings and reactions and justify them with reference to the words and deeds of others, we are still on the wheel of stimulus and response, free in hope and faith but not yet fully in fact, and we must continually go back to Christ for forgiveness and restoration.
‘Bear one another’s burdens,’ Paul writes to the Galatians, ‘and so fulfill the law of Christ.’ It may not be immediately apparent to us that the glory of a spiritually free person is to carry the unexpected burden of the other – to put up with the other’s limitations on one’s freedom, to make room in one’s life for the other with all of the other’s neediness and pain, and to embrace any suffering that ensues. It would indeed be tyranny if it were any law but Christ’s which was enjoined upon us. God is completely free, but in Christ God became subject to our weakness, our finite life, our embodied neediness. Christ bore our sins in his own body, embracing the suffering of a violent death, not because he needed us, but because we needed him. Those who believe this about God also believe that whatever freedom they have been given can and often must be laid aside for the sake of bearing the unexpected burden of the other in love.
And so the nation and the Church meditate on this word, freedom. As we give thanks for political and civil liberty, we who are both citizens of the United States and citizens of the far greater heavenly country know that freedom to order our own earthly lives is a gift. But we also know the freedom of God’s Spirit which enjoins us to use our earthly lives for the sake of the unexpected other, that we might be shown to be sisters and brothers of Jesus, who used his freedom from us to make room for us.