The Freedom of Our Faith
John 8:31-36; Galatians 5:13-16
For the past two weeks, we’ve examined our faith through hymns. The first week our focus was on the joy of our faith through the hymns of Philip Bliss. Last week we thought about the importance that the single word “grace” has to our faith through the words of John Newton in perhaps the greatest hymn ever written, “Amazing Grace.” Today is July 3 and as Americans we our focus this weekend is on our nation’s birthday and the freedoms we enjoy in this country. But freedom isn’t just personal or national – it’s also a word used in the Bible when it comes to our faith. So, today our sermon focus is on the freedom of our faith.
This morning we focus on two hymns which speak to freedom and faith. Our opening hymn, This Is My Song, was written by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness. The tune, known as Finlandia, was written by Jean Sibelius. What we heard played is one part of seven musical pieces written in 1899 to symbolize the struggles, and the hope, of the Finnish people. It’s patriotic – just not American. For almost 100 years, Finland had been part of the Russian Empire, but it was allowed the right of local rule. In February 1899, Tsar Nicholas II put an end to that when he declared Russia’s right to enact laws in Finland, which in turn led to the imposition of Russian as an official language and the attempt at what was called the “Russification” of all aspects of Finnish life. Sibelius wrote Finlandia as a form of protest.
The words were written by two Americans. Stone, an American public-school teacher living in Hawaii, wrote the first two stanzas during the brief time of peace between WW1 and WW2. Stone writes of the love he feels for America, while acknowledging that others have the same love for their homeland. Stone ends with a hope for peace: “O hear my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine.” The third stanza is different from the first two. The hymn turns into a prayer, borrowing a line from the Lord’s Prayer: “This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms, thy kingdom come on earth thy will be done.” The last stanza was written by Georgia Harkness in the late 1930s. Harkness, born in 1891, is known as America’s first significant female theologian. She was a lifelong Methodist, a seminary professor, and one of the first women ordained in the Methodist Church.
Our closing hymn is God of the Ages, written by Daniel Crane Roberts in 1876. Roberts served in the 84th Ohio Volunteers during the Civil War and afterwards was ordained an Episcopalian priest. He wrote these words in honor of our nation’s centennial celebration. The song was first sung to a tune called the “Russian Hymn,” apparently also called “God Save the Tsar,” and the national anthem of the Russian Empire until 1917. In 1887, as the U.S. was preparing to celebrate the centennial of the adoption of our Constitution, it was decided the hymn needed a different tune. George Warren, the organist for St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City, wrote the tune we sing today, entitled simply the “National Hymn.” The words of the hymn are patriotic, but affirm that God is God of the world. The words may paint a picture of Roberts’ view of God in American, but they evoke the much more ancient story of God leading the children of Israel through the desert. The hymn ends with a reminder that the most important thing is that glory and praise be given to God.
Our Scripture for today, from John 8:31-36, raises an important question: What is freedom and what does it mean to be free? If freedom means we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, then none of us here are really free. Anyone here ever gone to work when you really didn’t feel like it? You were legally “free” to miss work, but how “free” were you really? We know there are limits to our freedom from the time we learn to speak. What is one of the first words we are taught as children? “No.” No you can’t play with fire, no you can’t play in the street, no you can’t hit your brother. Then there are the “have-to’s” in life. You have to go to school. Have to go to work, have to pay bills, have to run errands, have to get up when you’d rather stay in bed. Our freedom comes with limits. Most of the time, though, when we think of freedom, especially around July 4, we think of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Unlike many countries around the world, we have the freedom to complain and to criticize our government and our leaders, and we see that freedom on full display all around us right now. We have freedom of speech, freedom to travel from state to state without restriction, freedom to gather here today in worship without worrying about being arrested. There is so much we take for granted.
But in John’s Gospel, freedom takes on a whole different meaning. John 8:36 defines real freedom this way: “So if the Son (Jesus Christ) makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus offers us freedom in its deepest and fullest meaning. To understand how we get to kind of freedom, we start with v. 31. What is the foundation for true freedom? “If you believe in me and if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Discipleship leads to truth and truth will make us free.
The Jews who hear Jesus speaks these words object to them. Their response is that they are children of Abraham and have never been slaves. Were they forgetting four hundred years of slavery in Egypt and years of rule under the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires? Even as they speak these words, they are not exactly free in the Roman empire either. I think what they were saying is that simply because they were Abraham’s descendants, the chosen people of God, they thought of themselves as spiritually free. They thought they had a “get out of jail free” card because of who they were – that what they believed and how they lived didn’t matter. In v. 34, Jesus tells them they’re wrong. Everyone, Jesus says, who commits sin is a slave to sin. Who commits sin? As Paul says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is part of our very human nature. Everyone sins and everyone is a slave of sin. Sin is more than a bad act; sin is a power inside of us and over us that causes us to think, say, and do bad things; and our sin separates us from God. There may be kinds of freedom in this life we can make for ourselves, but not this one. This slavery to sin runs too deep, all of us have it, and Jesus alone can set us free from it.
In John 8, Jesus explains that sin enslaves us in two ways. First, sin enslaves us by making the things of this world look more desirable than Jesus. Sin whispers in our ears and in our heart that money is the most desirable thing. Or a house or car that others will envy. Or looks. Or fame. Or power. Or … the list goes on. Second, sin enslaves us by focusing us on our own glory and keeping us from honoring God in how we live our lives. What sounds like freedom, Jesus says, leads to death and destruction.
The Apostle Paul opens Galatians 5 with these words: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” In vv. 13-16, he defines what Christian freedom really means: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become enslaved to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
True freedom comes through Jesus, not in ourselves. The path to freedom is laid out in John 8. The first step is belief in Jesus. To believe is more than accepting that Jesus lived – or even that he died and rose from the dead. The Jews to whom Jesus was talking certainly believed in his existence. He was standing in front of them, talking to them. That doesn’t mean they believed in him as the Son of God or that they were willing to give up their own desires and commit to following him as Lord. Jesus says that belief in him is not enough. The second step, Jesus says, is this: “continue in my word and be my disciples.” That’s the commitment part of the path to freedom. John’s Gospel tells us that some of the “believers” listening to Jesus speak thought him to be a prophet, some recognized him to be from God, and others even believed him to be the Messiah. But when it came to following, to being his disciples, his words were too demanding. “Continue in my word” means committing to studying what Jesus said and how he lived. Being a disciple means putting what you’ve learned into practice in your life. The key word here might just be the word “continue.” Following Jesus isn’t an easy decision and isn’t something that is done overnight; it's a lifelong process of discipling, of persevering, of enduring. Third, as we give up our own desires and follow Jesus, our lives reflect not what we want but what Christ wants of us. As Paul says, in Galatians, real freedom means we intentionally make the decision to become enslaved to one another. Our freedom allows us to commit ourselves to obedience. We accept that freedom comes with a cost, and at the heart of it the cost is love of God and love of others over love of self. It seems that Jesus’ message is that true freedom is found when we surrender what we think of as freedom to follow him. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” My question for you this July 4th week: How free are you really?
Let us pray: “This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms. Thy kingdom come on earth thy will be done. Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve Him and hearts united learn to live as one. O hear my prayer, thou God of all nations, myself I give thee let thy will be done. Amen.”