A Freedom Worth Dying For:
A Sermon on Romans 6:15-23
The immortal words of Patrick Henry are forever impressed upon the minds of Americans: “Give me liberty or give me death!” We barrel through American history courses holding onto this emphatic cry as the summation of what it meant to be a true American patriot fighting, above all else, for freedom. The words still continue to ring truth in our ears even to this day. Because without freedom, we have death. What would it mean to exist if we are not free? Is slavery even truly considered living? What a terrible fate to be subject to the will of another, to the will of another country or leader.
Freedom is such a popular word that its exact meaning has become a bit hazy over time. Freedom can mean so many things; it is often simply synonymous with “America” here in the States. Or perhaps when we say freedom, we are talking about the freedom a sixteen-year-old girl desires so that she can come home as late as she wants. We want the freedom to worship whoever and whatever we want, without the government interfering in our choice or forcing anything upon us. Even more simply, many of us just want the freedom to get a job and raise a family in peace and quiet.
When you boil it all down; freedom means freedom from anything that at all restricts what I want to do, or from anything that would hold me down. We need our personal space to move and act as we see fit. If something exists in my life that is telling me what to do or is limiting my options, I’m simply not free. The American individual is one who makes choices, with unreserved flair, and whatever I choose, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, ethical or unethical, is her free choice. I can be happy and take pride at the end of the day, that no matter the effect or outcome, that choice was my choice. All mine.
It is this sort of freedom that we hold as supremely valuable in this country. It is a freedom of the individual. In my freedom, which I claim as an inalienable right, I am entitled to act however I please. As long as our actions do not limit the freedom of others, we can act how we choose. We should avoid actions such as crime, murder, theft because those actions limit the freedom of others to live their lives in their own freedom. But we have the freedom to be whoever and whatever we want. We can carve out our own identity. Culture is full of labels that we can freely apply to our own lives.
America has showed time and time again through that this freedom is worth fighting for, and worth dying for. The freedom that we as Americans experience everyday is quite different from the experience of the rest of the world. We live in an unprecedented state of freedom, where personal expression and personal choice reign supreme.
In order to see myself as truly free, I have to break away from any sort of dependences I have in my life: mother, father, sister, brother. Thus, we are left in an ambiguous angst where we have a sort of guilty dependence on others, while struggling for true independence. Such radical independence is unsettling. It is so focused on individualism; it leaves one fundamentally alone wondering why freedom is so important. This sort of freedom does not put upon us any imperative to act in a certain way. If it does, freedom quickly disappears. If freedom is my freedom fromauthoritative sources like the Church or government, who coerce my actions and opinions, how can anything command that we be good, or that we be ethical? Freedom from everything is entirely devoid of any ethical thrust. Sure, if we hold freedom as supreme, we should not detract from the freedom of others through violence or oppression, but other than that it is all free game.
If this is freedom, it leaves us in a scary place. A place where we hope that others choose to do the right things, but we simply cannot offer them any compelling reason of why. Why should I sacrifice my own personal enjoyment and freedom in consideration of others? That betrays the very logic of freedom.
Paul talks about freedom with great joy and fervor in his letter to the Romans. But he mentions freedom in the context of slavery, or servant-hood. He says: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness.” Freedom from sin, that sounds great! But wait a minute, freedom brings about slavery to God? A picture of a different sort of freedom emerges here. Our American vision of freedom begins to feel a bit of tension when we read these words of Paul.
Freedom from anything else does not need Christ. Why would we need God to die for us, if America can and does give us such freedom through warfare? If Christ died on the cross for this sort of freedom, for individual freedom, then I think he can keep it. We don’t need you, thank you very much. Why worship Christ and become subservient to him for something America already provides for us? Church seems like a giant waste of time if I can just be a good American citizen, pay my taxes, and maybe buy a yellow ribbon. If Christians worship God for freedom from, we may as well give it all up.
If we were to apply this notion of American freedom to God, we would get a rather disturbing picture. A God defined by absolute freedom from any restraints would have the potential to act in whatever way God pleases. Such a God would be truly unpredictable and would always be able to change allegiances. This would be a horrifying God that would leave his worshippers in a constant state of pure fear without reverence. You would not be able to trust God.
Christians, however, do not worship such a God. The character of God is made known through the revelation of the Word and through the Church. God is not an arbitrary force, but the eternal source of the Good and is defined by Love. As such, God is utterly incapable of doing evil. But God is also ultimately free. God’s freedom exists in perfect harmony with such a limitation. This is because God’s freedom is not primarily freedom from, but it is freedom for. That is, God’s freedom is found in the ability to do and act according to God’s own nature without anything to limit or distract God from being God. The mere option for God to do evil would be a restriction of the divine freedom because then God would be acting as if he were not God.
When we look again upon our human condition, we can understand human freedom in terms of freedom for. In order to be considered free, we must be actively expressing our true human nature. Because there is one eternal end, and one purpose to human nature. It is our understanding of our purpose that allows us to understand what freedom is. We were created to serve and love God and to be in divine relationship with the Triune Lord. Therefore, if we are acting in any way that distracts or pushes us away from God, then we can simply be said not to have the freedom tobe fully human.
The Christian narrative rejects the fabled state of the American individual who possesses the power of free will to choose between good and evil. Rather, in the fall, humans found themselves literally enslaved to the powers of sin and death. Paul tells a story of humanity that is not free at all because they cannot help but choose evil at every turn.
The good news that Paul had to share with the Romans is that there is a way out of this enslavement. Humans have tried for so long to break free from the habitual failures of sin and death, and have been altogether unsuccessful. But Paul has been set free through Jesus Christ, and the freedom he finds is unlike anything ever experienced. When Jesus took on human flesh and died for our sins, it wasn’t so he would bring freedom from all religious and political control, nor to establish an earthly, physical kingdom where Christ could reign supreme. Rather, he died for us in our slavery to sin, that we may find the freedom to be exactly what God created us to be. Finally, we can do the good things that are pleasing in God’s sight. Freedom is found in this new option to do good which is provided for us.
American democracy is built around the assumption that freedom is an inalienable right as something we deserve. Believing this, it is understood that our allegiance to America only holds out as long as it supplies such a freedom. The freedom Christ bestows through the resurrection and the new creation is ultimately a gift. A gratuitous, overflowing gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not at all something we deserve. This gift of freedom cannot be acquired, bought or purchased, because it is already given by Christ. This is the gift leads us to serve and praise God eternally without reservation.
True Christian devotion and worship is not characterized by guilt or duty, but it comes as an outpouring of the human nature as God created it. God has freed us to be as we were meant to be. That’s why Paul describes free Christians as “slaves of God.” Service towards righteousness is freedom. This is a freedom that boldly declares its limitations. Christian salvation is the beginning of a process where one learns to close off the option of sin and evil, resulting in liberation. This freedom is certainly worth dying for! God invites us to die to ourselves, that, in Christ, we may be born anew in baptism.
Christian freedom is so powerful because it does not see other people as a threat or limitation of our freedom. The general mode of engaging the other in Christianity is an approach of love, rather than competition. Loving your enemies, as Christ entreats us to do, is far easier to imagine if we cease to think of them as a direct threat to our freedom. Living in a world of individual, selfish freedom one can not help but to see each person as having the potential to crush or enslave her individuality. Christ points toward seeing community as the expression of freedom, and offers a compelling reason to be with others. Christians find joy in dependence, because should we be left to our own independent ways we would find ourselves quickly cast back into slavery to sin. This dependence is made evident in the Church. The body of Christ relies on one another and upon the Holy Spirit for strength and friendship.
I do not claim that God has no interest in freedom from oppression, slavery and political domination. God brought this sort of freedom to the Israelites from the Egyptians. The picture is far more complicated than that. Christian freedom, however, is primarily defined by God bestowing to us the freedom toact in the way we were created to do. Freedom is characterized by this opening up of new opportunities, and the closing off of those foreign to our nature.
Christians are not free because we can do whatever we want, and we just happen to choose the good options. Christians are free in the action of yoking ourselves to Christ. Christians are free because we are endlessly drawn towards doing good and living in discipleship to Christ. Because it is there we find holiness and the freedom to act in a truly human way. We claim that humanity has a purpose and we shed the burden of having to define ourselves. In our freedom, we do not find nothingness of individualism but we find purpose and joy. The gospel is the good news of freedom found in being enslaved to God. Alleluia!
In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.