Sunday, July 1, 2018

Called to Freedom: A Sermon for Fourth-of-July Weekend

British America is already become considerable among the European nations for its numbers, and their easiness of living, and is continually rising in greater importance. I will not undertake to decipher the signs of the times, or to say from what quarter we are most likely to be molested. But from the course of human affairs, we have the utmost reason to expect that the time will come, when we must either submit to slavery or defend our liberties by our own sword. And this perhaps may be the case sooner than some imagine.”

By no means was he wrong. On Monday, June 7, 1773, the day he spoke the words, Rev. Simeon Howard was the forty-year-old pastor of Boston's West Church. His was a dignified congregation, prominent in the Boston community and in British America overall. Two and a half years into his pastorate, Rev. Howard had baptized John Hancock's little brother Ebenezer. And now, six months out from a dinner with John Adams, Simeon had been asked to rouse the local artillery company with the word of God. Like a fierce-eyed and bare-toothed prophet of old, he warned the soldiers that the time would surely come when the liberties of America would fall under attack. So he preached on liberty and tyranny, freedom and oppression – hot topics all, in the 1770s. Fortunately, Simeon found a verse in his Bible to suit the occasion: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

Rev. Howard was hardly the first colonial preacher to preach on that line from Galatians 5:1. Nor would he be the last. A year to the day after Simeon's dinner with John Adams, an organization calling themselves 'Sons of Liberty' set off a raucous and destructive protest in Boston's harbor. Less than three months later, elsewhere in Massachusetts, an elderly but energetic preacher named Jonathan Parsons took up the same verse in a sermon dedicated to John Hancock – only Rev. Parsons, as a Separatist, used it to plead against tax-funded church establishments, urging that Paul's words demanded that the colonists respect each other's religious liberty if they wished the British Parliament to respect their civil liberty. Twenty-six days after his sermon, that Parliament passed the first of what the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. Later that year, the First Continental Congress convened and petitioned King George III to fix a series of grievances they had. They urged him that their “Creator” had not “been pleased to give us existence in a land of slavery,” but rather that they “were born the heirs of freedom.”

With no answer forthcoming, militias began to train; the British standing army made moves to seize their supply of weaponry; shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. Less than a month later, the Second Continental Congress convened. Nearly two months into their meetings, on Wednesday, July 5, they adopted one last Olive Branch Petition; but the next day, they adopted a Declaration of Causes justifying their armed revolt against the government of the empire; and the day after that, Friday, July 7, 1775, at the Continental Congress' own request, a Philadelphia pastor named Jacob Duché welcomed the First Battalion into his church and preached to them from, you guessed it, Galatians 5:1. “Liberty, traced to her true source, is of heavenly extraction,” he told them.

Battalions like Duché's hearers were put to good use in the months ahead. Delegates to the Congress urged their home legislatures to authorize them to move toward declaring independence. It was one such legislature in the colony of Connecticut that invited Rev. Judah Champion to preach to their situation. On May 9, 1776, he gave them his special sermon. He warned them: “Gloomy and threatening indeed is the cloud impending our land and nation. Our privileges, civil and sacred, are imminently endangered. Under these alarming circumstances, the admonitory language of divine providence and revelation is this, Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” Less than two months after Judah's fiery call, the Second Continental Congress, its delegates now authorized to make their move, declared that “the Laws of Nature and Nature's God” had entitled them to assert self-evident truths “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” The rest is, quite simply, history.

Where did the popular support for all this come from? The vast majority of Americans weren't reading the sorts of political pamphlets that kept elites occupied. No, political pamphlets were vastly outsold by another kind of popular literature with far more influence: sermons. By 1776, printed sermons were published at four times the rate of political pamphlets. More sermons were being preached that year than ever before. People were hungry for pastors to bring the word of God to bear on the major questions of their day. The words of thousands of preachers gave shape to popular opinion. And the third most commonly preached-on verse in the colonies was: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” One historian, looking back on the late colonial period, called this verse “an American motto.” It was these words of Paul, filtered through the sermons of Simeon, Jonathan, Jacob, Judah, and others like them, that shaped this “course of human events.”

Many of us have forefathers after the flesh who were here at the time – who may well have read their sermons, or heard others like them from one or another pulpit. What was it they heard in this passage? What did they see in Galatians 5 that inspired their passion, enlightened their vision, urged them to fight and resist and overthrow? It's worth saying, first of all, that for all the fascinating directions they took it, colonial preachers from Simeon to Judah didn't deny Paul's context. Paul was tangling with the Judaizers, who were preying on his Galatian converts and deluding them into thinking they couldn't be full members of God's people without accepting what was popularly called the 'yoke' of the Law. But it was, in the words of one colonial pastor, “a tribute which they were not bound to pay.” Paul “could not brook the narrow spirit of those Judaizing Christians,” who aimed to lead the Gentile Christians' “free-born spirits” to “tamely submit to slavish, carnal ordinances, which the Gospel of Jesus had entirely exploded and abolished.”

The colonial preachers got the gist, even if they didn't yet know some of the details. As we read it in our Bibles today, Paul urges the Galatians that the Judaizers, who offer a way to be included in Abraham's family, are only begetting children for the slave-branch of Abraham's line through Ishmael; that is the path of Mount Sinai and the old covenant, which are merely “bearing children for slavery” (Galatians 4:24). Paul's gospel aims to beget “children of promise” like Isaac, who are “born according to the Spirit” by simple and glad-hearted faith that embraces the freedom God so generously offers (Galatians 4:28-29). “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 4:31—5:1).

In Paul's world, there was a special way for slaves to become free: with money paid into a temple treasury, a temple would then use that sanctified fund to pay the redemption-price of a slave, thereby making the person a slave only of the temple's god, but free as regarded any human law. In surviving inscriptions commemorating temple manumission ceremonies, the slogan they use to describe it is: “For Freedom.” Paul's saying that Christ is the god who has bought us out of slavery, and we must remain firm, stand firm, be confident in the birthright of freedom Christ has given us. The old law may not be used to burden us, to add extra hoops and steps on our way to God; we are not bound by all the busybody demands of law this and law that; we walk by wisdom, in the promise, according to the Spirit. We are free to soar in more dimensions than the thin pages of the old law; we are “called to freedom,” Paul tells us, summoned to run straight to God, summoned to explore his wild life, to feel his liberty on our skin, to pursue the happiness that's found only in him.

But when colonial preachers read Paul, they thought his words meant more than how Paul used them. When the pastors of eighteenth-century America saw the phrase, “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,” they thought broader than the age of the gospel; they looked back to the creation. They knew that Jesus was really no latecomer to the human scene; they realized that Christ was the Creator. Judah Champion said it outright: “All things were originally created by Christ.” They knew it was Christ who built the mountains and dug the valleys; it was Christ who planted Eden and walked between its vines in the cool of the day; it was Christ who lovingly designed Adam and gently crafted Eve. And so, from the beginning, Christ made us in the image of God – endowed us with dignity, with sacredness, with basic rights and privileges inborn into every human life. In forming societies, we contracted limits, but our limits are themselves limited – some rights are unalienable, and God would never recognize our efforts to barter them away. As Simeon Howard put it, “There are some natural liberties or rights which no person can divest himself of, without transgressing the law of nature.” The Second Continental Congress would add, “and of Nature's God.”

This liberty bestowed in creation – colonial preachers saw it as a divine gift from Jesus – hindered by law, hampered by sin, but now freshly renewed and reinvigorated in the bright day of the gospel. Judah Champion saw here a “liberty and freedom belonging to us, not merely as men originally created in God's image..., but also as Christians, redeemed by the blood of Christ.” So Judah included those inborn human liberties when he said, “Every blessing is therefore to be considered as flowing to us through the blood of Jesus. Civil government is his institution.” Jacob Duché agreed that civil liberty was “as much the gift of God in Christ Jesus” as spiritual liberty is, “and consequently, that we are bound to stand fast in our civil as well as our spiritual freedom.”

There's that phrase again: 'stand fast.' Taking Paul's exhortation to their own ends, colonial pastors urged their fellow-citizens to assert these rights that Christ had given them. “For men to stand fast in their liberty means, in general, resisting the attempts that are made against it, in the best and most effectual manner they can,” Simeon said. He said that not defending one's God-given liberty would be like the servant who buried his talent during the Master's absence and let it go to waste; not only an act of cowardice, but also an act of ingratitude, and more than that, of cruelty, since to relinquish one's liberty, he thought, is to doom the next generation to slavery. Judah said that “we must assert [our rights]; highly esteem, and conscientiously improve them; zealously, and with utmost vigor, exert ourselves to maintain and defend them.” He urged the people not to “wantonly throw them away,” or else risk the curse of the Lord who gave us our “inestimable privileges civil and sacred.” And Jonathan Parsons added, “Whether success attends our endeavors or not, it becomes us, as men and Christians, to assert our natural and constitutional privileges – never to give them up,” since “they are a legacy left us by Christ, the purchase of his blood.” He declared that “we may not give up those rights and privileges that Christ has purchased for and bestowed upon us; for giving them up would not only reflect great dishonour upon Christ, but would be inconsistent with the peace and welfare of the people, and therefore be quite intolerable.”

Not everything the colonial preachers said stands the test of time, much less the test of the gospel. Still, surely they have some points. Christ is the Creator – the Bible leaves us no room for doubt about that. When we were created, all the blessings we received, all the blessings he packaged into what it means to be human, what it's supposed to mean to be human – those are all from his nail-scarred hand. We were stamped with divine dignity, the image of God, made to receive his life, run in his liberty, and pursue his joy and holiness. It was Jesus who gave us life and declared us his. So long as we're made in God's image, an attack on any human life is an attack on God – hence why the God-hating devil became “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

It was Jesus who called us to serve him in cheerful love – to do which is to exercise the freedom of religion and conscience. It was Jesus who called us to listen and hear others, and to then speak words of gentle truth in his name – to do which is to exercise the freedom of speech and press. It was Jesus who called us to share our lives with each other, to convene as a holy community and to bring his presence with us into the midst of every other community – to do which is to exercise the freedom of assembly. It was Jesus who gave us these gifts, and gave us the option of using them well or poorly. It was Jesus, speaking by his prophet, who bade us do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, by whose image all others share a common and equal authority with us. All these things are gifts of Jesus – so it's easy to see and appreciate why colonial preachers saw them as being incorporated in “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Galatians 5:1).

So we should absolutely stand fast, speak up, resist like good soldiers against encroachments that would steal the gifts of Christ from us in practice – stand fast in every way consistent with the holy walk to which Jesus himself called us. As we look at the life of the apostle who wrote these words, we see that Paul surely exercised freedom of religion (in following Christ rather than the dictates of the Sanhedrin, Caesar, or any pagan priest), freedom of speech (in his preaching the gospel), freedom of press (in writing his letters), freedom of association (in meeting with other believers, even where banned by illegitimate laws), and so on. Nor was Paul shy about invoking his rights as a Roman citizen whenever it was useful. He did, however, forsake his rights – though gifts of Christ – on occasion for Christ's purposes. He did accept limitations, aggressions, slave-like treatment, whenever it would create an opportunity for the gospel. He had plenty of rights, he stood firm, but on occasion he could honestly say, “I have made no use of any of these rights” (1 Corinthians 9:15), wherever he found he could worship and witness and work better without invoking them. Paul would surely invite us to do the same.

Paul would also be the first one to tell us that far more important than any civil liberty is our spiritual liberty – our freedom in Christ from the power of sin, our freedom in Christ from the demands of the old law, our freedom in Christ from every burdensome load that obstructs us from God's liberating embrace. We are called to this freedom; it is what we were made for, and we cannot, dare not sacrifice it. To turn away from our spiritual liberty in Christ, to burden ourselves with a bevy of rules and systems and old childish ways, is to trap ourselves in a man-made maze; it is slavery, it is prison, it is death. On this point, Paul's words are absolute: “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Don't play the Judaizers' game, or any game like it; don't give an inch to those who make up defunct rules, who call you to jump through their hoops, who want you to base your Christian life anywhere but in the wide open expanses of God's mercy. Accept no abridgment of the freedom you have to live as God's child, a child of promise, a child born through the Spirit. Accept nothing that would hinder you from running with the Spirit when Jesus takes off running.

And the colonial preachers admitted that was even more important. Levi Hart, another of their number, asked, “What is English liberty, what is American freedom, when compared with the glorious liberty of the sons of God?” Far more important than civil liberty, he said, was “that we are subjects of that spiritual liberty, which unites us to and interests us in the good of the whole kingdom of God our Saviour..., which shall last forever!” Simeon Howard called it “another and more valuable kind of liberty..., a liberty which consists in being free from the power and dominion of sin … Whatever our outward circumstances may be, if we are destitute of this spiritual liberty, we are in reality slaves, how much soever we may hate the name; if we possess it, we are free indeed.” On that score, Levi and Simeon are absolutely right. American rights, First Amendment rights, human rights – all great blessings, but nothing compared with the gospel liberty Paul has in mind.

The colonial preachers made much of Galatians 5:1. Less frequently did they venture onward to verse 13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). Not that they disagreed with the sentiment. Simeon Howard noted that liberty was no shapeless thing, moldable however we want it: “The law of nature which bounds this liberty, forbids all injustice and wickedness; allows no man to injure another in his person or property; or to destroy his own life.” Liberty, he said, is bounded by God's vision for human flourishing; 'injustice' and 'wickedness' have no place in a proper use of it. We may not use our freedom as an excuse to indulge our worst desires. That isn't real freedom; that's venturing off liberty's map and falling headlong into new slavery.

Simeon added that every community was bound to use its liberty “for the honor of God” and “to be an example of virtue to neighboring communities, and afford them relief when they are in distress.” And the same, I'd say, is true of us all: the proper way to use our liberty is to honor God, individually and as a church; and for each of us individually and us together as a church community to model a Spirit-led life of virtue to others; and for each of us individually and us together as a church to afford others relief when they are in distress. That is not slavery. That is real freedom. That is the right meaning of freedom: serving others in love, which is all the law was ever truly trying to get at anyway, “for the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).

All our rights – this is what they're for. This is why God gave them to us; this is the end for which Christ hath made us free. We are to serve others in love, to show them what the good life looks like, to help them in their times of distress, to do all this in every way that honors God. Freedom is for that. Paul and his interpreters in the American colonies, at their best, could agree on that. That purpose is what makes liberty worth standing firm over. And it implies so much about how we should live, about what our celebrated rights are ultimately about. The first step in standing fast for them is using them rightly in the first place.

This week, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, I'd encourage you to think about some of the rights you have – rights and privileges and liberties given to you by God, some of which are enumerated in our founding documents and supposed to be secured by good governance. Think of those liberties – freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom to have a voice in representative government, property rights, and so on – and ask yourself, “How am I standing firm on this? How am I using it to honor God? How am I using it to model the virtue of Jesus? How am I using it to afford relief to those in distress? How am I serving others through love with it?” But most of all, more importantly than all the rest, think of the spiritual liberty Jesus really died to win for you – and don't lapse back into the old routines that get you addicted and tie you down when Jesus is calling you up to action.

Stand fast, stand firm in every freeing gift of God in Christ, whereby your faith can use that freedom to serve others in love – love, service, and true worship are what your freedom is for. Having started this morning with a message by Rev. Simeon Howard, I'd like to close by turning things over to Rev. Jacob Duché. Hear his words for the First Battalion and for you:

Stand fast, then. Stand fast by a strong faith and dependence upon Jesus Christ, the great Captain of your Salvation. Enlist under the banner of his cross. … Stand fast by a virtuous and unshaken unanimity. … Stand fast by an undaunted courage and magnanimity. … Lastly, stand fast by a steady constancy and perseverance. Difficulties unlooked for may yet arise, and trials present themselves, sufficient to shake the utmost firmness of human fortitude. Be prepared, therefore, for the worst. … Coolly and deliberately wait for those events which are in the hands of Providence, and depend upon him alone for strength and expedients suited to your necessities. … In a word, my brethren, though the worst should come..., let us, nevertheless, stand fast as the Guardians of Liberty...

Even so, grant, thou great and glorious God, that to thee only may we look, and from thee experience that deliverance, which we ask, not for any merits of our own, but for the sake and through the merits of the dear Son of thy love, Christ Jesus our Lord! To whom, with thee, O Father, and thee, O Blessed Spirit! three persons in one eternal God, be ascribed all honour, praise, and dominion now, henceforth and forever!

No comments:

Post a Comment