(A Religious Liberty Sunday sermon based on John 8:31-36)
On Friday we celebrated Independence Day here in the United States of America. Freedom is a terrible thing. Frankly, it’s easier to live in bondage.
I spent some time this week looking at the newborn babies in the hospital nursery, some of them just a few minutes or hours departed from the womb. Just a little while ago they had been safely confined in their mothers’ belly, warm and snug and peaceful. Now they were stretching their arms and legs out toward the wide and wild world, their bodies twisting this way and that, their mouths at times still and at other times contorted in yawns or cries. They were free. It is God’s way that those little babies don’t know what lies ahead of them. Otherwise, they might petition the Almighty for a return to the womb. Now they have to live. And in living they will have hard choices to make. And always they will live with the temptation to accept slavery rather than freedom.
The problem that the people conversing with Jesus in our text had was that they were at the same time blind to their slavery and wanted to remain in it. They wanted to remain in slavery to their culture and to their assumptions because such slavery let them avoid the terrible freedom to relate to God for themselves and to live the adventuresome and dangerous life that comes from that relationship.
Our text is part of a dialogue between Jesus and some people that deteriorated into a controversy. Jesus challenged them to listen to him and to follow him so that they would know the truth and the truth would in turn make them free. They balked at the idea, saying that they were descendants of Abraham and they had never been slaves to anyone.
They obviously suffered from selective memory loss. Their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. After liberation, they wanted to go back to Egypt; they preferred the security of slavery to the challenges of freedom. Perhaps Jesus has that in mind in what he said. These were people who “believed” in him but he challenged them to continue in his word and thereby to be his disciples. Freedom was found in such following. But they didn’t want that. They wanted to keep trusting in being children of Abraham.
Jesus said to them, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That set me to wondering what their sin was. What was the sin of these “descendants of Abraham”? The obvious answer is that they trusted in their religious and national pedigree. That’s understandable—their people had an amazing history. To be a descendant of Abraham and a member of the nation of Israel was a good thing. But it was not the best thing. It was not the freedom-giving thing. The best thing was to enter into the relationship of trust and grace that Jesus Christ made possible, to come to trust in God rather than in pedigree, but these folks were unable to get past their allegiance to that into which they had been born. As Jesus pressed his point that being a Jew and being a citizen of Israel wasn’t enough, they grew angrier and angrier.
It’s kind of like what happens these days among some church-going or at least church-belonging folks when some preacher suggests that some of us may put too much stock in being, say, Baptist or even in being, say, American. But it’s something we need to think hard about. It is just as possible for people these days to say, “What do you mean I’m a slave to sin? I’ve been a member of this Baptist church all my life” or “What do you mean I’m a slave to sin? I’ve been a citizen of the most blessed country on earth all my life.”
Really, though, to be free in Christ is to be free of all of that. Oh, I don’t mean that when you are a Christian you don’t care anymore about your country—far from it. To love your country with the love of Christ is to love it with the greatest love you can. But I do mean that when you are a Christian you look to Christ for your identity and for your direction and for your very life. You’re not bound to your national loyalty in such a way that you can’t recognize that while our country has given and does give us a lot, it can’t give us what we need most—a personal relationship with God. Only Jesus can do that. And so in Christ you’re set free to love your country honestly and openly rather than blindly and inappropriately.
The people debating with Jesus put their national pedigree ahead of their relationship with God. We can’t do that.
One sin of the descendants of Abraham was an attraction to power, be it that of their own leaders or that of the leaders of other countries. We see that, for example, in the desire of the people to have a king. The Old Testament ideal was that God would be the King of Israel and that the leaders of the people would be his representatives. When God finally agreed to let them have a king, he had Samuel tell them about how the king would abuse his power and take advantage of them, but they still wanted the monarchy with all its trappings. They wanted to be like the nations. Another problem was that Israel was always relying on alliances with other, more powerful nations, rather than trusting in God for their security.
Modern American Christians are tempted by a similar attraction to power. We have over the last few decades seen some rather unseemly alliances develop as some Christians and some Christian leaders have sold their souls to one political party or philosophy or another or as they have tried to extend “Christian” influence by storming the halls of power. Suffice it to say for today that neither our government nor any other government nor any earthly institution is capable of being the embodiment of the kingdom of God or is capable of being the vessel containing and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Only the Church, which is the Body of Christ that is empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, can be those things. That is not to say, I hope you understand, that Christians should not try to influence the process and that we should not exercise our voice—far from it. But it is to say that if we let ourselves get caught up in the pursuing of power and in the exercise of power, we will very quickly lose our way and the true gospel will get lost.
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw share the following insight in their new book Jesus for President.
When Jesus predicted his death at the hands of the Romans and the religious elite, Peter wouldn’t have it (Matt. 16:21-23). He said no to Operation Slaughtered Lamb. The Scriptures say Peter took Jesus aside and rejected the plan Jesus had laid out, saying, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” And Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”… Peter just didn’t get it. He couldn’t imagine a president who dies on a cross. He would have rather had a Savior who glides into Jerusalem in a polished limousine than one who chooses to ride a lowly donkey. He still had in mind the things of kings, of Pharaoh, of Herod. He wanted to save the world through militaries and markets and foreign policies rather than through sacrificial love and grace. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008, p. 87)
The Church loses something essential when we marry the powers of the world rather than being the salt and leaven that we are meant to be.
Besides, we are free to be free from all of that because our freedom is in Jesus Christ! We are free to be in the world but not of the world. We are free to be citizens of the United States while our ultimate and primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are free to be salt and light in the world and to work toward spreading the kingdom of God in the world even while we realize that the structures of the world can never be made “Christian.”
“You shall know the truth, Jesus said, “and the truth shall make you free.” “If the Son makes you free,” he said, “you shall be free indeed.” In other words, in Jesus we find the freedom that matters most: freedom from sin. The essence of sin is trusting in anything or anybody other than God. In Jesus we are set free from the idolatrous trust in anything that is not God. In Jesus we are set free from the futile effort of trusting in earthly things to bring about heavenly realities. We are citizens of heaven. We happen to live in America.
This is Independence Day weekend. On Friday we celebrated the independence of our nation and those freedoms that are ours because we are Americans. How blessed we are to live in this great country! As Christians we should be the best citizens around. We should pray for our country and we should do everything we can to help make sure that we remain free.
What I have tried to emphasize, based on this challenging text, is that we nonetheless need to take care lest we fall prey to the sin of the people whom Jesus confronted. Their sin was that they put being descendants of Abraham ahead of entering into a true relationship with God. A related sin was the attraction to power that was a part of their birthright. We have the blessed opportunity to be Christian people in the midst of a great nation that is nonetheless an earthly empire that will always need the witness of Christ. We do our best work as Christians when we build his kingdom.
I know—such talk is odd and hard to get our minds and hearts around. But, in the words of Flannery O’Connor as she re-worked the words of Jesus, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” If we are in the truth of Christ and if we are set free by the truth of Christ and if we follow the truth of Christ, we will look and sound odd in any culture, including the American one. But that’s good. It’s good because what this nation needs from us—what this community needs from us—what this world needs from us—is exactly the oddness and wonder and love and grace of the Christian truth. And we—and only we—are free to live it. That’s being free indeed!