Sermon 26th June 2016

Whether you are a preacher or someone who is regularly reading their bible in personal
devotion, every once in a while you open your Bible and to think, “well, that’s a gift.” A
verse connects with something going on in the church that needs addressing in a sermon, a
passage chimes with your own experience or life challenges as you read the Bible in a quiet
time or personal prayer, or maybe – like today – the passage simply says something to
what’s on everyone’s mind. Sometimes Scripture seems so right for the moment.
So listen to Paul: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit
again to a yoke of slavery.” It’s one of my favourite Bible verses as it happens, instantly
memorable because it almost rhymes. It’s a great passage to remember when we feel
oppressed or burdened with guilt. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore,
and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
It’s a verse however, that could be a cry of jubilation for the 52% who voted for Brexit on
Thursday, who have longed for freedom from what they see as the controlling,
unaccountable EU institutions. So they celebrate freedom, Independence Day. Their cry of
freedom, their victory in the Referendum now leads to…well we don’t really know yet. So
much has been thrown up in the air by this unexpected result, that everyone – including
most Brexiteers – are rather stunned by the outcome. Among the many reasons why the
majority voted this way has been a desire to be ‘free’ from unelected elites. If I may be
permitted one partisan aside in this sermon, let me point out the irony that the result of the
resignation of the Prime Minister is that now the next leader of our Government will be
chosen not by the people of this country but by the unelected members of the governing
party. The irony should not be lost.
However, that aside, “Freedom” is a great word. It has a powerful resonance and one that
can ring out in many different ways. From those living under the heel of a cruel dictator, to
those suffering years of hardship in an abusive relationship, to those for whom the word
implies the rights of the individual over the rights of society, it energises, motivates and
gives hope to countless people.
But freedom is also dangerous. There is the risk of the free-for-all, the breakdown of the
rule of law, mob rule, violence and anarchy. Perhaps the most tragic current example of that
sort of ‘freedom’ is the whole disaster of Syria. There is the risk of the rights of the
individual become so dominating that society is threatened by the freedom of the
individual, something which our American friends struggle with over the right to bear arms.
For us, the nature of the freedom that will come from Brexit remains to be seen. Freedom
can easily be abused when a vacuum of power and direction occurs. Despite the strength
and robustness of our democracy, it seems we are moving into uncertain times, times of risk
and possibly even danger. Many people are, frankly, frightened. As Christians we must pray,
pray not just for unity in uncertain times, but for responsibility among our leaders to ensure
that an almost equally divided nation is not further divided by a misplaced understanding of
freedom. Freedom brings responsibility. We need leaders now who will not abuse the
situation or inflame it into further prejudice or racial tension.
Which brings me back to Galatians, lest you should think this is not a sermon!
Paul is wise about the freedom that comes from being a Christian. He has gone to great
pains to rebuke the Galatians for their insistence that those who come to faith in Jesus
Christ from a Gentile background should be subject to the Jewish law. The freedom he is
speaking of in this passage owes little to the political thought of the Enlightenment. He is
talking about freedom from the burden of the Jewish law, with all its rules and regulations.
Christians, he says, are free from all that rule-keeping. Indeed, he goes further, saying that
we are united not by our keeping of the Law but by our identity as fellow-members of the
Body of Christ. That is the freedom we have been set free into. Freedom in Christ.
And yet, wise as he is, Paul knows that this can easily be misunderstood. So he goes on: 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 slaves to one another. That’s Paul’s
way of saying freedom brings responsibility. Specifically, he is saying to the Galatians that
the freedom we have in Christ from rule-keeping is not to be used as a pretext for one group
lording over another. We are members of one Body, and anything that deters us from
demonstrating our love for one another is to abuse the freedom we have. Indeed he puts is
as strongly as we can imagine, through love become slaves to one another. There is no
absolute freedom in Christianity save for the freedom to serve our brothers and sisters. As
he then puts it: ‘The whole of the law is summed up in a single commandment: you shall love
your neighbour as yourself.’ He then goes on to highlight the work of the Holy Spirit in
enabling us to love one another, creating holy community in the Church. It is the gift of the
Holy Spirit given to each believer that enables us to find the strength to love like this. It is
the Sprit who enables us to do what Christ did, to lay down his life in service for his friends.
He ends our passage today with a great list of the fruit of the Spirit, the virtues that the
Spirit gives which flesh out what freedom in Christian thinking looks like in practical life. It’s
a wonderful vision of what it means to be a church community, living, loving and serving as
Christ serves us.
So, in these uncertain and unexplored times, what can all this mean? First, I think it means
that freedom means responsibility. There can be no doubt that this Referendum has
exposed the divisions and tensions in our society. We are not as much the inclusive, tolerant
nation that we have imagined we were. There is fault on all sides for that, of course. A vote
for Brexit was not, in and of itself, a vote for bigotry. But for those of us who are Christians,
members of the Body of Christ before we are Brexiteers or Remainers, failing to bear
witness to the all-embracing love of God is to betray our calling. If and where necessary, we
must show our solidarity and support for those who feel threatened by the voices of
intolerance that have emerged on the back of this Referendum campaign. The virtues of the
fruit of the Spirit are our manifesto for society, and it is these virtues that need to shape our
politics.. Where love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and selfcontrol are not seen, we are to witness to their place in our public life and challenge those
who would foster dissension, anger, enmity, strife, factions and all other things that
diminish us as a nation. When Mr Farage and his like claim that Thursday was a victory for
“the real people, the decent people”, we set his narrow divisive politics aside and remind
him that it is unacceptable to imply that half the nation are neither real nor decent. Such
populist rhetoric is corrosive to our national unity. Fintan O’Toole, writing in yesterday’s
Irish Times reminds us of the risk we face. He says, “England has not had the time, nor made
the effort, to develop and inclusive, civic, progressive nationalism. It is left with a
nationalism that is scarcely articulated in positive terms at all and that thus plugs into the
darker energies of resentment and xenophobia.” It takes our friends to see us as we are.
Christians must, and should, resist these dangers with all our hearts.
Second, it means we are called to redouble our efforts to witness to the all-embracing love
of God by being present and available to those who are worried or fearful. If you are a nonBritish EU citizen and a member of this church, you are welcome here. This is your home, a
country that has always welcomed others and we are your family. If your livelihood depends
on the EU, as many do in London, we must listen to your worries and must support you at
an anxious time. We are your brothers and sisters and we are here to serve.
And finally, we must do what Christians do, which is love.. I am sure Jo Cox MP was no saint;
indeed I have no idea of her faith commitment. But in the week since her cruel murder, by
someone shouting the slogans of the darker energies of resentment and xenophobia, her
family and friends have untied behind a hashtag, a slogan. More in common. That is Paul’s
claim in Galatians too, that in Christ we find more in common than that which divides, be
that division religious, racial, cultural or gender-based. It is easy for church to become a
rather superficial exercise – an hour of space for reflection and then back to the day to day.
As we accept the outcome of this Referendum, we nevertheless remind ourselves that the
very values, the very virtues that are at the heart of what is given to us by the Holy Spirit
through our faith in Christ, are not just for ourselves but for the common good. Whether we
are Brexiteers, Remainers or simply those who fear an uncertain future, we share this unity
in Christ which is not just a matter of religious devotion, but a way of life to be lived out in
public, for the good of all. The decision is made, the die is cast. Now we all must play our
part in ensuring that, whatever we think or fear about the consequences of Thursday’s vote,
the virtues of the Gospel are visible in our lives and in our society. And for that, all we can
do is to turn to Jesus Christ again.
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 slaves to one another. Amen.