This sermon was preached on Thursday, September 16, 2010, at Northwestern Christian Church in Detroit, as part of a three day revival. The CWCC choir joined me in sharing a message of freedom and service with this congregation pastored by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Eugene James.
Set Free to Serve
Two years ago I went to a pastor’s conference in Chicago, and before I left, someone, I think it was John Lacey, told me that I needed to connect with the Rev. Eugene James while I was there. With that in mind, I had my eye out for this pastor from Detroit, and on that very first day, as I took the elevator to my room, I found myself standing right next to a man named Eugene James. From that moment on, Eugene and I have built a strong friendship and a strong partnership in ministry. We’ve done a lot of talking and a lot of dreaming about joint ventures in mission, and while we’ve done more talking than doing, I know that good things are on the horizon. I am also pleased to affirm Eugene’s calling, along with that of Maggie Mills, to serve as co-regional ministers of the Michigan Region during this important time of transition, because I have great trust in their wisdom and spiritual discernment. So, having said all of this by way of introduction, I want to say how pleased I am to have received an invitation to bring my choir and share a message at this week’s revival.
The theme for the revival is simple and straightforward. If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you have been set free so that you might serve. Over the past several weeks I’ve been taking to heart this theme, and pondering what it is I should share this evening. What is it that God would have us hear from John’s gospel about the message of freedom that comes from Jesus? And what are the implications that can be drawn from this powerful statement:
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Yes, if you know the truth, which means if you’re willing to follow the teachings of Jesus, then you will be set free. For as Jesus says to his critics: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” We come here tonight to hear a word about freedom and service, two words that don’t seem to fit very well together in our society, and yet in Christ, they belong together, even as a hand fits in a glove. But, we must ask two questions: From what am I being set free and where will this freedom to serve lead?
1. The Starting Point
The Disciples tradition, out of which both our congregations emerge, isn’t big on confession of sin. We’re a pretty optimistic people and so we don’t spend a lot of time focusing on sin, especially original sin. But, experience tells us that there’s a dark side to life. There is evil in the land, and we dare not ignore its presence. But, not only is evil present in the land, but all of us at one time or another get caught up in its web. Whether we like to admit it – and it seems as if the people Jesus was talking to didn’t want to admit it – we all have experienced bondage to sin and need to be set free so that we can experience the blessings of God’s presence in our lives. We need to be set free from this web so that we can truly love God and love our neighbors.
If we’re going to be set free, however, we’ll need to know what it is we need to be set free from. Paul pointed out that the Law is there to shine a light on those areas of our lives that are contrary to God’s vision for our lives. Although we can summarize the commandments of God in two very succinct statements – love God and love your neighbor – we need more details. That’s what the Ten Commandments and the other laws do for us – they help us understand how we can love God and love our neighbors.
Sin, to give a simple definition, involves our failure to love God with our entire being and our failure to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. If we’re to be set free from this bondage, this slavery to sin, then we first have to acknowledge that we have a problem – something that Jesus’ audience couldn’t acknowledge. But, as we know from the many Twelve Step programs, you have to acknowledge that you have a problem, before you can get help.
So, what is it that we should confess? What is it that we need to acknowledge before we can be set free by the grace and mercy of Jesus? Could it be a false idol, such as a nicer and fancier vehicle, a bigger house, or fame and fortune? Could it be the kind of self-doubt that keeps us from recognizing that we’re created in the image of God, and therefore makes it impossible to embrace our gifts and callings from God? Could it be anger, jealousy, or unfaithfulness? Could it be the stereotypes, prejudices, and suspicions that separate us from one another?
I must say that I’m deeply disturbed by the growing polarization in our society. I’m concerned about politicians, pundits, and so-called religious leaders who seek to gain power by dividing us from one another. Paul may have said that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, (Gal. 3:28), but even the church has failed to live out this promise. Therefore, if we’re to be set free then we must first recognize our condition so that God can begin to transform us into the people we’re meant to be. And then as God changes our hearts and minds, we can better reflect the glory that is God in and through our own lives. Then we can sing with complete honesty that old song: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
2. Set Free for a Purpose
If we start with the premise that each of us needs to be set free from something, then the next question has to do with the nature and meaning of this freedom. We may all desire to experience freedom, but I doubt if we all define the word in the same way.
As I stand here tonight in this pulpit, I’m quite conscious of the fact that I’m a white pastor of a predominantly white congregation, who has brought an all-white choir, to share a message of freedom in a predominantly black church. I’m a historian by training, so I know the history of our nation. I know about the long struggle for freedom and civil rights that has marked the African American story in this nation. I know the story, but I’ve not experienced it. Therefore, if I’m going to address this theme with integrity, then I must make this confession. Although I can speak to the issues and I can sing the spirituals with gusto, I know that my experience and that of my ancestors is different from the African-American experience. But, even if I can’t completely understand the full meaning of freedom as it is understood in the African-American community, I take refuge in the knowledge that in Christ we are indeed one, and that in him we can experience true freedom.
By making our confession, we’re ready to hear the good news. God has provided us with a road to freedom, a road that leads out of the land of slavery into the land of promise. And the one who will be our guide along this journey is Jesus. Just as Moses guided the people of Israel out of Egypt and toward the promised land, Jesus shall do the same for us. And even though Moses died before he could cross the river, leaving the rest of the journey in the hands of Joshua, the Gospel story tells us that Joshua’s namesake, the one we call Jesus of Nazareth, not only leads us out of slavery but he also leads us across the river.
In the story of Good Friday, we hear the bad news that the Romans had cut short his journey. When they laid him in the tomb, Jesus’ followers thought that it was over, that they’d never get to cross to the other side. But the message of Easter tells us that God has turned aside the attempts of those who would keep the world in bondage. By raising Jesus from the dead, God provided a way for us to cross to the other side of the river so that we might experience true freedom.
The message seems clear; if we will embrace Jesus as our Lord and embrace his teachings, which call for us to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, then we will experience true freedom. But freedom isn’t an end in itself. With freedom comes responsibility, which is a message that many of us neglect to hear and embrace.
This is the point that Paul was making when he responded to those who claimed that “all things are lawful.” “All things may be lawful, Paul says, but not all things are beneficial. True freedom isn’t the opportunity to do whatever we want, whenever we want. True freedom means seeking to do that which builds up the entire body. As Paul told the Corinthians, seek that which builds up. “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor. 10:23-243). In difficult times, like this, it’s easy to put our own wants and desires first, and take advantage of our liberties at the expense of others, but the word that we hear from the scriptures is this: Take hold of your freedom, but do so in a way that is responsible, so that the body might be built up.
3. Gifted For Service
When we hear the word freedom in our cultural context, we often hear it in very individualistic ways. This is especially true right now, in this political season. Everybody is looking out for themselves. They want what they think they’re entitled to get, and if that means getting what they want at the expense of others, then so be it! Unfortunately, what is true in the political realm, is often true in the church. Too often we define the church in terms of our individual wants and desires. In the New Testament, however, the church is defined in terms of community. The church is a body, whose members may be different from each other, and yet in Christ and through the Holy Spirit of God, they are made one.
To get a sense of what we’re called to be and do, as people who have been set free by Jesus, we need to look at the fourth chapter of Ephesians. In Ephesians 4 we hear a word to the church about God’s gifts to the church, gifts that are intended to be used for the up building of the body of Christ, so that we might come “to the unity of the faith, to maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ.” As we continue reading, we hear a reminder that we’re no longer children, who are tossed to and fro by doctrines, trickery, and deceit. Now there’s nothing wrong with being a child, if you’re a child, but if you’re an adult, then childish behavior and attitudes aren’t appropriate. So, if we’re to be truly free, then we must move toward maturity in our faith.
So that we can hear this message clearly, I’d like to read from the fourth chapter of Ephesians (verses 4:1-16).
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’
9(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended* into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
As you reflect these words of scripture, consider the words that begin the chapter: