For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free

Message for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (7/7/2024)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 & Mark 6:1-13

“My country, ’tis of thee, / Sweet land of liberty, / Of thee I sing; / Land where my fathers died, / Land of the pilgrims’ pride, / From ev’ry mountainside / Let freedom ring!” I’ll forever associate that verse with the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa. As I sat with seminary friends at a bar in Chicago to watch the United States face off with England, we belted those lyrics penned by Samuel Francis Smith, lyrics that are set to the music for the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen (or King).” That fact was not lost on the English fans who had also found their way to the bar that day; nevertheless they patiently endured our singing. It was probably for the best that the match ended in a draw.

Let freedom ring. This past Thursday marked our annual commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the event that set in motion the conflict that would ultimately result in the American colonies’ liberation from British imperial control. Although the July Fourth holiday marks that particular historical event, American political independence has since been conflated with other ideas of freedom. Freedom today has a range of connotations, from the exercise of individual rights to the use of wide open interstate freeways to a general lack of accountability for what we post on social media. In some ways, freedom has come to mean unfettered personal license, which is to say that I ought to be able to do basically whatever I want whenever I want without constraint.

As people of faith concerned with the well-being of the world God so loves, we take issue with that interpretation. But what is the alternative? What is the difference between a principled exercise of freedom and a careless one?

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” the Apostle Paul declares in his letter to the Galatians, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”[1] Martin Luther picks up on that theme in his timeless Treatise on Christian Liberty, or The Freedom of a Christian, which he wrote 250 years before the American colonies revolted. Luther begins his discourse with a paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[2] And, from those seemingly contradictory claims, he elaborates on what Paul sets down in Galatians, namely that faith is not only a gift of grace, but also the foundation of our freedom, which for Luther is a “splendid privilege”: liberation from the power of sin and death makes the person of faith nothing less than a “fellow-king” with Christ.[3] Forgive the gendered language; all of you who do not identify as male are royalty, too.

By no means, however, does that God-given status allow for self-centeredness. On the contrary, according to Luther, self-centeredness is the very root of sin. Our nature is warped by a state of being incurvatus in se, Latin for “curved in on the self.” Or as my professor of Lutheran theology was fond of putting it, “my navel is the center of the universe.”[4]

But since God fills our cups to overflowing,[5] they naturally overflow to others. That is to say, grace turns our focus outward, centering our attention on the interests of others. As Luther insists, “I will… give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor….”[6] Real freedom, in other words, is faith in a gracious God that finds its expression in loving human relationships.[7]

That’s a compelling alternative to the prevailing definition. We do not, in fact, declare independence from our neighbors; instead, the gospel releases us from captivity to our own interests and for compassion and solidarity.

Why else would Jesus send his disciples out two by two with such a scanty packing list in today’s Gospel from Mark? They are to take “no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… and not to put on two tunics.” And that’s the real sticking point; I mean, who doesn’t pack an extra tunic these days? Evidently, Jesus expects his representatives to rely on the hospitality of those who receive them. That is, mutuality and interdependence are in the Jesus movement’s DNA. So, we exercise Christian freedom when we respond to God’s abundant grace by sharing the responsibility for our collective well-being.

Friends, since Christ gives himself completely to us, withholding nothing, we give thanks to God, and we give ourselves to one another. That is the essence of the new creation God brings about in the cross and resurrection, that followers of Jesus die to ourselves in order to become more compelling signs of new life for the world. So, celebrate your freedom by taking hold of the gospel promise yet again, the promise that God’s grace is, in fact, sufficient for you, and that the power of Christ will dwell in you for the sake of all those you meet.

[1] Galatians 5:1, 13.

[2] John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, 53.

[3] Ibid. 64.

[4] Kurt Hendel.

[5] Psalm 23:5.

[6] Dillenberger 75.

[7] Galatians 5:6.

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