FREEDOM or LIBERATED FOR JOY

Luke 9:51-62, Galatians 5:1, 13-26

Nathan Hosler

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known as a theologian who stood up to Hitler and was killed for it. When much of the German church fell in line with (or at least didn’t oppose) this nationalist, racist leader notorious for the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer resisted. He resisted by being a theologian that challenged the church and formed an alternative community. He resisted by joining (to some extent)[1] a plot to kill Hitler. He was a political theologian—deeply concerned to find and describe how following Jesus radically changes and challenges our lives. Bonhoeffer did not, however, just get like this. He wasn’t born into a family of political or theological radicals. He wasn’t particularly predisposed to fighting the system or self sacrifice. Bonhoeffer started to become this way when he experienced the Black Jesus in Harlem. In Reggie Williams’s Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance he tells the story of this meeting. Bonhoeffer grew up during and after World War I in which Germany suffered humiliation and the growth of nationalism. His early theological work sought to establish himself and “acquire as much knowledge as he could, as quickly as possible” (Williams, 8). During this time he remained largely sympathetic to German nationalism and did not yet challenge the church in its assumptions would eventually lead to it largely acquiescing to Hitler’s attempted extermination of the Jews and others ruled undesirable.

After finishing his second doctoral dissertation Bonhoffer headed to New York on a fellowship to study at Union Theological Seminary. There, in addition to being unimpressed by the American theology and students, he became quickly disillusioned with the Christianity of white American churches. Fortunately he kept searching and this brought him to Harlem and Abyssinian Baptist Church. This, along with a trip to colonialist ruled Cuba and classes in social ethics during his second semester at Union radically reoriented Bonhoeffer’s theology from the abstract to the concrete. Williams writes, “In Harlem Bonhoeffer learned of a black tradition of Jesus that connected faithfulness to God, and the recognition of suffering, and the presence of Christ as a cosufferer. The ministries that Bonhoeffer participated in at Abyssinian Baptist Church, coupled with the intellectual interrogation of Jesus within the Harlem Renaissance, provided Bonhoeffer with new resources to filter the nationalism from his Christianity and helped to develop him into an advocate of ecumenism [unity between churches], of peacemaking, and of social justice. As a consequence of that black experience with Jesus, his theology became more than conceptual, his Christology become more prominent, and Bonhoeffer become more serious about his faith”(Williams, 107). When confronted with both deep racism, a creative engagement and reimagining of Jesus by the black church, and being welcomed into this community to serve, Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Jesus was forever changed. He was freed to follow Jesus. He was freed from a church captive to nationalism and racism. He was freed to confront injustice. Freed to serve.

Our passage in Galatians begins “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  It turns out though, that freedom as described by the Apostle Paul is not only freedom from something but freedom for something. Bonhoffer makes this point in his Ethics. To say freedom in the US is often to assume we know what the speaker means. It is a loaded word, a complicated word, almost a talisman. “Americans are for freedom.” This is particularly the case when we get closer to the 4th of July.

There is a rock along the Pennsylvania Turnpike near my parent’s house that has “freedom” spray painted on it. This is rather ambiguous. That the word is written in red, white, and blue might give a bit more indication of what this might be meant to mean. But other than probably relating to the United States it is still rather murky in meaning. Depending on the timing, the political discourse at the time of writing, the persons particular philosophy of politics, or their view of the US it could mean almost entirely different things. Depending on the time, political opinion of the writer…

 “ For freedom Christ has set us free.”  “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Whereas slavery is not voluntary there is a degree of choice in Paul’s writing. Essentially Paul says you will be bound to something—be bound to Christ.

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.”

So freedom does not mean free from others or free to do whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want. Freedom is an opportunity to act through love to fully commit ourselves to one another. Freedom is an opportunity to act through love to fully commit ourselves to one another. It is not freedom from people, from their joy or pain or fear or dreams. Freedom is freedom to love freely.

 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  That is, if you work with the whole law and the summarize it, it could be this command, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not that we can say “what is the one commandment?” and describe love on our own and say that this is it…when stated in this context it points back to not only the texts but the history of God’s relating to Israel and to the life and teaching of Jesus to the Creation to the prophets to Proverbs.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Free not to do certain things. Freedom is often associated with freedom from something. Freedom not to go to work or to school. Free to do what I want—this is at the heart of much advertising …

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (A somewhat strange statement: why would there be a law against joy, peace, or kindness?) Of course these could all be inverted things that we are free from—love=free from hate, joy=free from anger or despair, peace=absence of conflict or violence. However, as we know, joy is deeper and more interesting than simply an absence of anger or despair. Peace is deeper than simply the absence of violence.

One commentary notes, “If freedom is the basis of Christian ethics, the loving service is the proper exercise of freedom…[he continues].There is no way to talk about Christian freedom without at the same time talking about the command to serve.”(Cousar, Galatians, 129-130).

From Bonhoeffer we observe a confrontation with injustice and a radical reorientation. From Galatians we see freedom leading to loving and serving and the fruits of the Spirit. Several weeks ago as we were coming to church we heard the news of the shooting in Orlando. This was almost exactly a year after the shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME church. We are confronted (again) with injustice, with violence, with vulnerable beautiful communities and people wracked by fear.

During the week after Orlando several of my colleagues on staff with the denomination published a statement. This is no way adequate but is part of facing the violence and demonization that certain communities face. Of course, Orland (or at Mother Emmanuel), are not the first or only sites of violence and fear but part of ongoing injustice. Such statements do not right a wrong or absolve our complacency and at times participation as a church. Such statements are not the only or the last thing we are called to but they are part. They help us as a denomination and as Christians think about and act in response to such horror and violence. The statement reads.

“We are confronted as a nation and the world with yet another horrendous act of violence, in a seeming never-ending cycle. The shooting…in Orlando is a tragedy. It is a tragedy not only for the lives lost and relationships left grieving, but for the fear and hate that it produces.

As followers of Jesus we mourn this loss and fear and recommit ourselves to proclaiming and embodying the peace of Christ.

Both the LGBTQ and Muslim communities are regularly the targets of hate. May the Spirit more fully fill us with love for all so that we may be the healing of hands of Christ in times of pain.

In the wake of such tragedies, often we are enjoined to refrain from politicizing them, and to take time for crying, mourning, and grieving. Many ask us to let the dust settle, but just as many urge the church to act for peace, justice, and compassion.

Action and mourning are not antithetical, however. It is appropriate for a peace church to condemn the taking of lives, and given the intersection of ideologies in the Orlando shooting, we must speak up. When fear, sexuality, Islam, and terrorism are all part of one event we all can find a call to action.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we must speak for those most vulnerable. LGBTQ brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors so often have been targeted by violence. While this is the largest mass shooting on US soil to date [a number of organizations have amended such statements stating that there have been larger killings of Native Americans], the number of people who have been killed because of their sexuality over the course of our nation’s history witnesses to the fact that this is not an isolated incident.

Our Muslim neighbors again find themselves condemning with even more conviction what we all condemn implicitly, and at the same time are living in a climate of radicalization and fear. We are aware that Muslim Americans may once again be thrust into harm’s way if fear boils over into violence against their community.

As Christians, we must make the conscious choice to suffer with the victims and marginalized, just as our Lord did. Embodying the way of the crucified and risen Christ, we present another vision, an alternative that is political and nonpartisan in the best sense. This vision is based on a courageous faith, and the deeper truth that courage and faith are to be lived out in our own neighborhoods and cities. We cannot confront the spirit of fear, violence, and hatred in any other way.

We trust that perfect love drives out fear, and that hope is found in the ultimate political action, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

It is critical that we do not only speak in the face of obviously horrible and public violence. What are the ways that this congregation is called to “make the conscious choice to suffer with the victims and marginalized?” For freedom we have been set free and this freedom is freedom to love and serve.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. For freedom Christ has set us free.

 

[1] Hauerwas argues that it is not entirely clear that Bonhoffer was fully aware of the details of the plot to kill Hitler.

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