Rev. Eugene C. Buie, DMin.
Sermon delivered at Woodstock Christian Church August 1, 2010.
Reading for the day: Luke 12:42-51
An old Rabbi was sitting around a table with his students when one of them said, "Rabbi, speak to us of repentance." The Rabbi replied, "You have heard it said, Repentance is being sorry for something you have done and vowing not to do it again. But I say to you, repentance is more than just regret and a change of mind. When you go to bed each night, you are facing the past…what you did that day or days before. Repentance is getting up the next morning, turning your back on the past, and facing the future that God has planned for you. Repentance is taking a new direction with your life, a direction that is pleasing to God. Only then have you truly repented. God doesn't want us to just be sorry for our sins. He wants us to sin no more. He wants us to take a new direction, so He frees us from our bondage to the past and from sin itself. But we must choose to take a new direction."
For several Sundays now, this congregation has been urged by its pastor to turn away from the past and take a new direction that God has planned for you. Last Sunday, he lifted up the prophet Amos who delivered God's terrible warning that Israel had been unfaithful and a famine was coming upon the land, a famine not of food but of the word of God. He suggested that in this age, we are facing such a famine in America. Earlier, he preached for several Sundays from the book of Galatians. In particular, I want to recall Galatians 5:13.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. [NRSV]
So this morning, let us spend some time engaging this idea of our freedoms, and our obligations, to the One who has set us free.
In the 8th chapter of John's gospel, beginning with the 34th verse, we find Jesus saying,
"I assure you and most solemnly tell you, whoever commits and practices sin is the slave of sin. Now a slave does not remain in a household (family) forever; [but] the son of the house does remain forever. So if the Son liberates you, then you are really and unquestionably free." [Amplified Bible]
Now, with these verses in mind, let us think about the reading from Luke's gospel this morning where Jesus uses words like "slave" and "master." Such words are strange to our ears in the 21st century. Some call them "racist" and "politically incorrect," thereby hoping we will be discouraged from examining such words. Nevertheless, these words are part of human history and necessary to understanding the world from God's perspective. As we recall, slavery to sin is a human condition that dates back to Adam and Eve's rebellion against God. Because of their rebellion, we live in a world defined by slavery.
Would it surprise you to learn there were no special words for "freedom" in the ancient Middle East? For example, in the Code of Hammurabi dating from the 18th century BC, there are many references to "slaves." But the opposite of "slave" was not "free," it was "master." The master, however, was not free either. He, in turn, was in bondage to a higher power. Even a king was considered to be subject to the gods, and the gods were subject to Nature. As a matter of fact, the people of the Middle East have never known what it means to be free. So it should be no surprise to us today that they do not understand our concept of democracy.
In Jesus day, "slave" and "master" were terms everyone understood. The only exception may have been the Jews, whose ancestors had been liberated by God from Egypt's pharaoh through the Exodus. It was then that God claimed them as His possession, saying, "You shall be my people, and I shall be your God." This became the formula for their newly acquired freedom. After the Exodus, they were God's possession, from whom came their freedom in a world defined by slavery. Unfortunately, the Hebrews turned their backs on God and, over time, forfeited their freedom. One may wonder if we are now doing the same.
Things began to change, however, with the rise of Greek and Roman cultures. Words like "liberty" and "freedom" were introduced to the Mediterranean world. Do you recall the story of Paul's arrest found in Acts 22:24-29? In Roman society, it was possible for a slave or his master to pay money into the temple treasury, which eventually bought the slave's freedom. After that, no one could enslave him again, because he was the property of the temple god, a power greater than any human master or state. In this way, the commandant in Acts said he purchased his civil freedom at great cost. But Paul replied that he was a Roman citizen by birth. He held his freedom by virtue of the family to which he belonged. Unlike the Roman commandant, Paul was free-born.
Thus, by Jesus' day, there were two ways to escape slavery in a pagan world. (1) Liberty could be bought for a price, after which you belonged to a power greater than the state, or (2) you were free by virtue of belonging to a family of freemen. Does any of this begin to sound familiar?
Our English word, "liberty," comes from a Latin world meaning to be liberated, unbound, released from restraint. "Liberty," however, is a "slave word." Freedom, on the other hand, has a different origin. It is a "free-born" word. "Freedom" and "free" have the same root as "friend." To be free meant you belonged to a tribe of free people, joined by ties of kinship, mutual commitment, and trust. The Apostle Paul had not been liberated, he was free.
Thus, "freedom" and "liberty" were not merely different, they were opposites. "Liberty" implied release and separation. "Freedom" implied connection and relatedness. This difference would create huge conflicts between Roman Christians who emphasized liberty and Protestant Christians who emphasized freedom. Roman Christians were liberated from sin but still bound by the church. Protestant Christians of Northern Europe were free-born and not bound by the church. They believed that freedom from the law, sin, and death was conveyed to believers by the Holy Spirit who united them with Christ through faith.
The differences between liberty and freedom also played a part in the understandings of our nation's Founders. In the words of our Declaration of Independence, "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal (neither slave nor master), that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights (freedoms), that among these are Life, Liberty (liberated from bondage to a lesser power such as a king or even a president), and the Pursuit of Happiness." Yet today, this freedom is threatened once again.
We can see these differences between liberty and freedom reflected in our churches, our politics, and our thinking. We confuse liberty and freedom within the context of our relationships with God and with one another. There is a struggle going on between the proponents of liberty and the proponents of freedom. Are we a nation of liberated individuals, each going our separate ways without regard to the well-being of our neighbors? Or, are we connected to one another at the deepest level of our society? In the beginning, it was our Christian heritage that connected us with common principles and moral values. Today, these connections are being shattered or simply ignored by a society in regression.
On one side, there are those who hold up liberty, wanting to stress separation, autonomy, and the rights of individuals released from restraints, including social and religious restraints. Here we must ask, does liberation from bondage to sin free us from our human nature that rebels against God? No, it does not. With liberation must come repentance. On the side of freedom, there are those who stress connection, mutual reliance and commitment, the rule of law, governance by local assemblies of one's peers, and the freedom to worship as seems best to us. Real freedom comes to us by God's grace and the love of Christ. It is ours only so long as we are part of the family of God.
Listen again to Jesus (John 8:31-36).
To know the truth is to know God personally, as revealed to you through Jesus Christ. Christians are seekers after God. "Seek me," God said, "and you shall find me." Ask yourself three basic questions. Who is God? How does God work in the world? And, What does God expect of me? As Christians, we should ask these questions of ourselves every day and spend a lifetime seeking the answers. If we do, God will reveal the divine self to us and set us free to be the adopted children of God. We will be members of God's household.
Thus Jesus said, "If the Son liberates you (from bondage to sin), you are really and unquestionably free." So, God the Son has actually done two things for you. First, by His death on the cross, He liberates you from a life of slavery to sin. Second, by accepting Jesus by faith as your personal Savior and following Him in baptism, you are adopted into God's family. "By faith" means that you unquestionably trust Jesus, that you rely on Jesus, and that you commit yourself to follow Jesus. In this way, you are "born again," in other words, you are then free-born and a member of God's free family. Never again can you be enslaved by sin, because the One who dwells in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
Paul's proclamation that "by grace you have been saved through faith" is an understanding rooted in the ancient context of slave and master. Since Adam and Eve, people have been in bondage to sin, that is, separated from God by unregulated, selfish human desires. But God, by His grace and undeserved love, gave up His beloved Son to die for you, for each of us, on a cross. By His death, Jesus Christ paid the price for your liberation. By faith, not by what you may believe in this imperfect world, but by trusting in redeeming power of Jesus Christ, you become sons and daughters of the Creator God.
As members of God's family, we belong to a faith community, trusting, relying, and committing ourselves to Jesus Christ. We are a family of free people. Within that family, we are loved, we have purpose, life has meaning, and we have a responsibility to others for whom Jesus died. In God's household, we are people in a special relationship, connected with God and with one another through Jesus Christ.
Jesus died for you. If you are not yet a child of God, He invites you to come now and join His family where you will be free indeed. If you want to change direction and rededicate your life to Christ, He invites you to come forward as well. Come, as we sing our hymn of invitation. And welcome to the family. Amen.
“Divine Perspectives I” (1 of 2)
Rev. Eugene C. Buie, Jr., DMin.
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