Personal freedom is something we value deeply in our culture. Our country was founded on the promise of freedom from a tyrant king, an independence we celebrate this week. In our healthcare we want to be free to choose our doctors and treatment plans. People today are grateful for the ability to choose their own spouse. Many believe they should be free to carry their guns with them anywhere they choose. We can even choose a cell phone plan with “unlimited talk, text, and data” so that we are free to call as many people and stream as many videos as we want. As Christians, one of the claims that we make is that through Christ’s death and resurrection we are free from the power of sin and death. It is an idea that comes directly from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. But in today’s reading Paul claims that we who are no longer slaves to sin might now think of ourselves as slaves to righteousness. Replacing one kind of slavery for another may not sound like the kind of absolute freedom we have come to expect and desire.
But the point Paul is making is that no one is absolutely free. We all serve something or someone. At the very least, we must be governed by the rules of society, or else we end up in prison. One writer describes a friend who is a slave to fashion where “every season brings a new set of requirements, new clothing and accessories to be purchased, new trends to be adopted. . . . She has pledged her allegiance to Vogue and takes her orders from its editor. Some people are slaves to physical fitness, arranging their lives and relationships around trips to the gym and rigorous workouts. Some people have pledged their allegiance to personal wealth and are guided by the whims of Wall Street.” Every master besides God will eventually steal from us the good and abundant life God offers, and they can make us into instruments of death.
What Paul is telling us is that through Christ we are free from all of those allegiances, from every form of slavery – no matter how benign they may seem, so that we are free to live in allegiance to God and become God’s instruments of life.
Let us look for a moment at our spiritual ancestor Abraham. Abraham accepts the new life that God offers, a life far away from his home and kindred but marked by the promised blessing of land and numerous descendants. Abraham leaves behind the tyranny of his family to serve a new master, YAHWEH. But Abraham, too, will soon discover that this new freedom is not absolute. The story we read today in Genesis 22 is among the most difficult in all of Scripture for Jews and Christians alike. It seems unthinkable to us that God would ask Abraham to kill his son Isaac and unconscionable that Abraham submits to these instructions. I continue to wrestle with this story and find no comfortable resolution.
What I do discover is that true life and blessing is found when we offer our absolute obedience to God who will absolutely show up. While I find it hard to accept this test from God to Abraham, I also find it hard to imagine that God could accept any less. In Hebrews, Abraham’s faithfulness is reckoned to him as righteousness. Giving himself fully to God, Abraham finds freedom and life.
God wants our whole lives so that God can set us wholly free. Everything we turn over to God becomes and instrument for freedom and life. But anything, when held too tightly, when held above our allegiance to Christ our Lord, can become the cords of death that will entangle and then strangle us.
The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church has recently published a book, called Realizing Beloved Community, about one of the masters that has gotten a strong grip on this country: the master of white nationalism. This evil ideology works directly against the beloved community that this branch of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church has worked toward for decades. It has enslaved many powerful people, including lawmakers and elected representatives, who have put this heinous ideology and the earthly power it seeks over the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The words of Jesus today remind us of what God intends for human relationship to look like when God has the power:
“whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
In other words, never forget that at the core of every single person’s identity is God. And never forget that when you embrace or reject people, you embrace or reject God.
There has been a lot of attention on several of the Supreme Court’s decisions this past week: to restrict affirmative action in college admissions, to overturn the plan for student loan forgiveness, to support a website designer in discriminating against LGBTQ+ people. These were decisions about who among us can be rejected, who can be left out. Who the law says is not worthy of the same rights and dignity as others. Who can be denied just access to higher education, or who ought to remain chained to crippling debt, or who can be refused service by any business. And some of these cases were brought forth by people serving a master other than God, a master which seeks to reject and oppress many different kinds of people – according to their sexuality, skin color, or religion, to name a few – and to sanctify this in the name of Jesus. Nothing could be more blasphemous or dangerous. And nothing could be further from God’s heart.
Because Jesus reminds us that God is concerned with who is welcomed, how we welcome them, and why we welcome them.
This divine embrace is the freedom St. Paul imagines for us. It is not only freedom from but also freedom for, and freedom in.
Freedom in Christ is the gift of God’s grace, just as the call and promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 was a gift of grace to the nomad herdsman.
Our freedom in Christ is what gives us the freedom from:
freedom from the powerful grip of any master other than God.
And our freedom from those other masters is what gives us the freedom for:
freedom to be God’s instruments for healing, God’s tools for life.
If Jesus frees us from fear, we are free to show hospitality not only to friends but also to strangers. If Jesus sets us free from greed, we are free to give generously, not only to those causes which we respect or trust, but to anyone in need. If Jesus sets us free from self-interest, we are free to fully value others: their time, their ideas, their deepest needs and longings. The freedom we have in Christ compels us to extend that freedom to others, even those from whom we differ.
Free in Christ, free from enslavement to corrupting powers, free for the beloved community. This is the divine embrace, and to me, it is the only master worth serving.