On the first Sunday after Government restrictions were lifted, our Vicar reflects on the meaning of Christian freedom.
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 25th July 2021, The Feast of St James the Apostle
During this service a child, Alexander, was baptised
One of my more over-exuberant clergy colleagues Tweeted this week that this Sunday at his church is “Freedom Sunday.” Presumably he was building on the language of our sometimes over-exuberant Prime Minister, for whom last Monday was described as “Freedom Day” – they day all the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
Here at St Mary’s we have worked hard to enable everyone who wants to come to worship to feel as safe as possible across the past year. At the same time, we have recognised – and still do – that there are some whose ‘freedom’ is not yet able to be realised – those with underlying health conditions being the most obvious group. We’re a global church here as well and, whatever our ability to live our lives without government constraint may be here in England, we recognise that our freedom is dependent on the freedom of the many people around the world whose vaccination programmes are yet to be as well advanced. Martin Luther King’s famous quote “we are not free until everyone is free” seems to have a very concrete meaning in this context.
The idea of ‘freedom’ has been a strong driver across the pandemic, particularly for those who are driven by the powerful social and political traditional of personal liberty. People have demonstrated in modest numbers against what they have seen as unjustified government intrusion on personal freedom. Such concerns should be taken seriously, as long as they don’t become ridiculous conspiracy theories. The events at the US Capitol on January 6th show the consequences of such foolishness. Freedom is precious and should be treasured.
But what does ‘freedom’ mean for those of us who follow Jesus Christ? What does it mean to long for what St Paul calls “the glorious liberty of the children of God”? As we baptise Alexander into the community of Christian disciples this morning what sort of freedom are we baptising Alexander into this morning?
Our Gospel reading this morning occurs in both Matthew & Mark’s Gospels. In Mark, James and John make the request to sit at Jesus’ right hand in his kingdom; in Matthew, it is their mother. No matter: both come to Jesus with what we might call in contemporary language, a sense of entitlement. Because these two have been called by Jesus to be his closest followers and – as we discover elsewhere – they are not only among the Twelve, but part of an even closer inner circle – because of this they feel they have a right to ask for this great privilege. “Give my boys the best seats in the house, Jesus.” “They’ve been with you from your earliest days, they deserve it.”
We can laugh at such attitudes in others – the caricature person who announces to some sort of authority figure “do you know who I am?”, but it’s often not difficult to find such attitudes lurking inside us from time to time. The idea of personal liberty is tied up in our psyches with the sense of rights that we possess, which entitles us to certain outcomes. It’s easy to point the finger at young millennials here, who are often characterised by their sense of feeling that they deserve so much that previous generations fought hard for, but let’s not point one finger at them without reflecting on how much the rest of us think like that. “I’ve worked hard all my life. I deserve it” isn’t an attitude reserved for the twenty-somethings. The reason why L’Oreal has its famous strapline “because you’re worth it” is because they know that deep down many of us think we are.
Jesus will have none of this. What you ask is not for me to grant, he says. It’s for my Father in heaven. But more than that, he knows that, although they think they can drink “the cup” that he is about to drink, which in this context means his suffering and death, they haven’t yet realised that their status as his closest followers means that the only thing that they are entitled to, for want of a better phrase, is to suffer and die as he does. Not something any of us would put near the top of our list of freedoms.
And it’s clearly not just James and John with an issue here. The disciples are also in possession of a misunderstanding about what it means to be free; they have their own sense of entitlement. So it’s time for Jesus to give his disciples a primer in freedom, a crash course in the way of Jesus, which can be summarised as “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” “It shall not be so among you” he says.
Christian freedom, the liberty we enjoy, is first and foremost a liberty from the way the world works. Dog eat dog: It shall not be so among you. My rights over yours: it shall not be so among you. The freedom to hoard possessions money “for a rainy day”: it shall not be so among you. The petty jockeying for status, influence and power: it shall not be so among you. It will not be so among us because, brothers and sisters, we are loved by God and possessed by God’s Spirit. We mark that in Alexander’s life this morning by baptising him, something that marks him (and us) out as God’s children, claimed by and inhabited by the Spirit of Jesus Christ whose life, example, death and resurrection is to be the shape of our lives. At its heart this moment, and our baptism, is a sign of God’s love claiming Alexander and us for a different purpose. When we know ourselves beloved of God, when we actively follow Jesus Christ, we walk in love and fellowship with one who helps us through these daily challenges of status and entitlement. In this sense our Christian freedom is a “freedom from” the pressures of the way the world works; we learn that we are free to live a different way of life in fellowship with Jesus. Learning that, learning that “It shall not be so among you” is a lifelong journey of being “free from” the culture of entitlement, shaped instead by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. That’s part of what it means when godparents say, “I turn to Christ”, “I repent of my sins”, “I renounce evil”. We are free to march to the beat of a different drum. Free from individualistic notions of liberty, our lives are to be shaped by the Cross.
But, more than just about a genuine liberty from what we might call the “way of the world”, Christian liberty is about “freedom for” as well as “freedom from.” Listen to Jesus, “the Son of Man came not to be served by to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” Or listen to Martin Luther, excusing his old-fashioned language. “A Christian is an utterly free man, lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is an utterly dutiful man, servant of all, subject to all.” If you look at the life of Jesus, there can be no greater example of someone who knew himself free in the way I’ve talked about. But what does he do with his freedom? He serves. He doesn’t stand on his rights. He serves. He doesn’t lord it over others. He serves. Our calling as Christians gives us an honoured status: I don’t think there’s point in denying that. Our status as disciples of Jesus is a great blessing and an honour, to be counted among those who belong to Jesus. But that privilege is to be put to the service of others, like Jesus who offered his life as a sacrifice to others. Even, to use the most shocking language, even as a slave.
Our status, Alexander’s status, is one of great honour. To be able to know oneself belonging to and loved by God. But armed with that knowledge, it is not entitlement that drives us, it is service. It’s a misunderstanding of Christian freedom to equate it with the freedom to act as we would like; our freedom invites us to put that liberty at the service of others, whether it’s a simple thing like how we act in this new world post-government restrictions on Covid, or more fundamental questions about the decisions we make about the big things in life: how will my freedom to exercise my liberty impact on others ability to exercise theirs? How can I put my life to the service of others? How can I guide Alexander to fulfil his baptismal promises I make for him today? How can I fulfil what I promised at my baptism or confirmation: I turn to Christ. I repent of my sins. I renounce evil.
Living a life of freedom to serve is a constant challenge. It’s a challenge we live out in community as the Body of Christ, which is why Alexander is welcomed by the church today, as the people who are working all this out in their lives. We can only really learn to live this way together. At the beginning of the history of Christian faith, a man called James, who we remember today, had to learn this tough lesson, not to stand on his rights and status, but to learn what it meant to live a life of service. Ultimately, as the Acts of the Apostles records and Jesus predicts, James paid for his service with his life. He does drink the same cup as his Lord. Whether it comes to that for us or not – and pray God that it won’t – matters not. But as Alexander is marked by the same sign of the Cross with which we were marked at our baptism or confirmation, we are reminded that the life of the Christian is one shaped by the Cross, by a willingness to lay down our lives – and our freedoms – for the sake of others. Pray that by our service others may know the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God.” Amen.
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