This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on September 5, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Lord God, in everything that happens in life, Lord, I pray that we would find ways to fix our eyes on you and to listen carefully for you. I pray that you would be with us and guide us gently in every season and especially in those times of trial when the world presses against us on every side. Help us not to be crushed, Lord. Help us not to be distraught. Help us to persevere in hope and faith in you and in one another in the things that are going on, in the things that we can participate in, and help us to have our eyes and our ears open to your calling and the opportunities around us to love people in the world so that in every season, whether it is good or bad for us, whether it is trying or easy, we might be part of the solution and not part of the problem, Lord.
Help us to understand love more and more every day. Help us to know what it is to love our enemies and still stand up for justice — to love our enemies and still know how to draw lines in the sand that say we cannot abide by these things. Help us not to become evil in our hearts and bitter. Help us to be patient and gracious, even as we strive to do what is right.
We want the world to know, Lord, what it is to be in the Kingdom of Grace, in a Dominion of Grace, in a place where Love reigns. We want the world to be able to see and experience that, and we want to see it and experience it, too, Lord, so as we look into scripture and as we meditate on our relationship with you, help us to discover the strength to persevere and the strength to love and the strength to stand up and speak the truth, even when people around us don’t want to hear it, because if we never speak up, Lord, then we know that nothing will ever change.
We love you, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I’m going to start this morning in Luke chapter 4. We’re going to be talking about freedom. Particularly, I want to talk about the idea that Christ sets us free and what that means, because if you live in America, like I do, that word “freedom” is loaded. It’s a loaded term. It means all kinds of things, and many of them are not good things. It’s exploited. It’s a word that gets thrown around to elicit a response and ideas without having to say anything explicit about what freedom means or what it is or looks like, and yet freedom is something we can’t escape when we go to scripture, because freedom is part of what Jesus does for us.
In Luke chapter 4, in verse 18, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah that says,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”Luke 4:18-19, NIV
I’m convinced that this is precisely what Jesus does. Not only to proclaim the year of the Lord, not only the proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near, but the actual living out of the kingdom of God drawing near. Not only the proclaiming of Good news to the poor, but the actual manifestation of that good news in freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.
I think part of the reason that the apostles follow him in the first place is because they find freedom in Christ that they didn’t find anywhere else. Freedom that the religious leaders couldn’t give them because they, themselves, were not free in Christ, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later.
Jesus’s ministry parallels the exodus story. In Acts chapter 7, Stephen is standing before the Sanhedrin, and he’s giving this account to them about himself, and what I find really interesting about that event is that Stephen doesn’t appeal to the actual ministry of Jesus. He doesn’t appeal to anything that Jesus actually did. Instead, he spends pretty much all of chapter 7 talking about Israel’s story during the exodus, and in Acts chapter 7, in verse 34, he says this line:
I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’NIV
It is this quote of the Lord talking to Moses getting ready for him to go back and free the people — free Israel from slavery to the Egyptians. Stephen gives this account as an answer of why he does what he does, because it’s Israel’s story that God lives into. God invites Israel to participate in the exodus story, and after he frees them, this is supposed to be their story. Their story’s supposed to be a story of freedom where the one true God comes in and sets them free from enslavement to be God’s people, and yet they pervert that whole story. They abandon it, entirely, in favor of a different kind of exodus story. They abandon it in favor of an exodus story that says, “God set us free so that we could lord it over you,” and the story of the promised land is not a story of coming into God’s bounty. It’s a story of overthrowing gentiles, and the story of Jesus isn’t one of being exalted into freedom in Christ. It’s one of overpowering the Romans.
When they’re looking for the Messiah, they don’t care about their own freedom. They care about political and military might, and so they pervert this story of freedom — this story of the exodus — and they ignore God’s claim to Moses that he has heard the groaning of his people, and he has seen their oppression, and he has come down to set them free, and so they miss out on everything that is happening in Jesus’s ministry, and we do the same thing as Christians, today.
We miss out on all the freedom for the sake of all the little things — for the sake of the power — and you’ll see this in lots of conversations today. You read any current event, and the topic is really power. Whatever’s going on with LGBTQ, with abortion, with Democrats vs Republicans vs governments and corporations vs the people vs whatever… Any current event you want to read: it’s about power. It’s the struggle and the power dynamic of systemic injustice and who gets to make the rules.
We buy into the same false story — the same false narrative — that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day bought into when they abandoned the emphasis of the exodus story of freedom from oppression — [of] freedom from the groaning of suffering, [of] the being led into God’s bounty — for the sake of a vain struggle for power.
In John chapter 8, Jesus confronts some leaders about this very thing. He says [they’ve] abandoned the Father for the sake of another father, and in John chapter 8, in verse 35, he says,
“Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”John 8:35-38, NIV
He says, “You don’t know me, because you don’t know God. You don’t know me, because you don’t know my Father. You don’t believe me, because you don’t believe in my Father,” and they say, “We are children of God. We are children of Abraham,” and he says, “If that were true, you wouldn’t be tryin to kill me.”
Yet, we look around everywhere in Christianity today, and we find Christians who are making the same mistakes as these leaders were. They have bought into the power struggle and have abandoned the freedom that comes in Christ, and because they have abandoned freedom for themselves, they cannot be part of freedom for others. We can’t set free captives if we ourselves are captive, and in Galatians, Paul rebukes the Galatians for this similar thing.
Some people have come into their midst, and he tells them in Galatians 5, [verse] 1,
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.NIV
Christ sets us free for the sake of freedom, and when allow other people to enslave us again, we stop being free, and when we stop being free, we become unable to free others. That’s how freedom works. Slaves don’t free slaves. That’s what Jesus said. He says, “If I am the son in the family, then I have the authority to free slaves, and if I tell you you’re free, then you are free,” and if somebody else comes in, Paul says, and tries to tell you again that you’re not free, then they have missed the point, and if you allow yourselves to be enslaved, then you also have missed the point. We have freedom in Christ.
So, when we read these parables, like the one of the ungrateful servant who turns around and refuses to forgive the debt of another servant — when we read those parables, we need to find ourselves in there and be careful. Whatever it is that we’ve received from Christ, we ought to turn around and give to others.
When we receive freedom from Christ but we refuse to turn around and give freedom to others, then what are we doing? We’re not truly free then, are we? We’re not truly grateful for what we’ve received, are we? And if we claim to have received from Christ and yet don’t act like we’re free, then we enter into that same problem that Paul rebukes the Romans for, and here, also, for the Galatians. When they start to talk in Galatians 5 about circumcision vs uncircumcision, he says if you keep living as though you have to be circumcised, then you’ve missed the point, entirely. You claim to be free in Christ. You accept that you’re free in Christ, and yet you still live as though you’re not free in Christ, because you keep giving yourself over to these rules thinking that they’ll save you.
We do that same thing in American Christianity. We say the Lord forgave us. We say we’re free in Christ. We say we’re free from sin, and yet, we keep living into this power dynamic, as though we have to appease the sinful and we have to conform to the ways of the world and we have to maintain the status quo. Otherwise, we have no power, as though that’s where real power comes from.
So, when we get to passages like Matthew 28… In Matthew 28, we have what many people call the Great Commission, and the problem with this passage is not the passage itself but in how we treat it: as though we are not free in Christ. In Matthew 28, in verse 18, he says,
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”Matthew 28:18-20, NIV
And so we come here, and we read: make disciples, baptize people, and teach them to obey our commands — not our commands; Jesus’s commands — and we take that “obedience” and we lift it up as a primary importance. We say the most important thing in this passage is the obedience, and we make that same mistake that the Galatians were starting to make in chapter 5 when they had taken the freedom of Christ and instead of being free first — instead of being disciples of Christ first — they are persuaded that obedience is of first importance, and they give up their freedom for the sake of obedience. Somebody came to them and said, “Well, here are the commands. Here’s the rule. Do this and do this and do this,” and the Galatians buy into it, and what Paul says to them in Galatians is, “Who bewitched you? Who captivated your sight so that you can no longer see the freedom you have in Christ?”
When we lift up obedience for the sake of obedience, it becomes idolatry, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve been in a lot of communities that say obedience is so important that it overrides every other thing. It overrides every freedom in Christ, and without obedience, there is no freedom, and obedience becomes a God to itself, and the only thing that matters is how obedient you are to this rule or that rule, this scripture or that scripture. Those communities are not free in Christ. They don’t know what it’s like to accept the freedom of Christ, because as he tells the Galatians, for the sake of freedom, Christ has set you free, not for the sake of obedience.
Christ doesn’t free us so that we can be obedient. Christ frees us so that we can be free, and in our freedom, we learn to love, and in our love, we become like Christ, and when we become like Christ, we can see and hear like Christ, and we can participate with God like Christ. Everything begins with freedom.
He says in Galatians 5 and verse 6,
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.NIV
“The only thing that matters,” and Paul echoes that in Romans 13, in verse 9: all of these commands and every command that there is is fulfilled in this: love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says the same thing. Love the Lord your God is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like the first: love your neighbor as yourself, and everything hangs on these two. All the law and the prophets are summed up in these two.
We forego freedom in favor of obedience, and when we forego freedom in favor of obedience, that’s what we call slavery. Literally, the definition of enslaving somebody is to forego their freedom in favor of their obedience, and we do that to ourselves by foregoing our own freedom in Christ in favor of obedience to the rules that are given to us by others. We make hypocrites of ourselves and pervert the will of God when we forego freedom for the sake of obedience, and we make obedience an idol, and we worship it when we should be worshiping God.
So the exodus story that Stephen quotes or relays to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7… God says, “I have seen the oppression of my people, I have heard their groaning, and I have come to set them free,” and so we should be sure: when our questions, when our actions, are the opposite of what God is doing — when our rules and our obedience are the opposite of what God is doing — when they oppress people, when they blind us to oppression, when they’re deaf to the suffering, and when they seek to enslave our neighbors, we can be sure that we are not acting in accordance with God’s Mission. Like the church leaders who opposed Jesus, when we act in this way, we reject the entire story of the exodus that was the identity of God’s people in the Old Testament, and because we reject that story, we become unable to be grafted into it, and so we lose out on our own freedom in Christ.
For freedom, Christ set us free, and if the commission to make disciples becomes our worship to the idol of obedience, then as Paul said to the Galatians, we might as well just go ahead and emasculate ourselves, because we have been bewitched.
And to those of you who might be listening who are being oppressed right now — to those of you who are groaning and crying out about your oppression — don’t be deceived. Don’t let the oppressors convince you that they are doing the will of God. It is for freedom that Christ came — your freedom and my freedom — and anyone who uses freedom as an excuse to steal away someone else’s freedom is opposed to the will of God — is not living into Christ’s likeness, is not exemplifying the love they have received — and when the time comes, they will be thrown into prison until they can pay every debt that they owed. That’s what the parable says.
You are loved, and your voice matters, and you are right to cry out, and anyone who will not stand with you is a part of the problem.
I believe that God stands with those who are oppressed, with those who are enslaved, with those who are trapped in a system that idolizes obedience for the sake of power, and I am inviting you and everyone who claims to be a disciple of Christ to live into a different Way — to live into a Way that doesn’t favor oppression for the sake of obedience, that doesn’t favor oppression for the sake of power — into a Way that says the means are not justified by the end, that the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love. The only thing that matters…
I am inviting you into the love of God that sacrifices itself to show the world that oppression is not okay. If you want to be part of that — if you want to know what that freedom in Christ is like — then I invite you to explore a relationship with Jesus. I invite you to come and join us as we build something better than what we have been given by the world.