A sermon from Vivienne Hayward, Darwin Cathedral.
On January 6, 1941, the newly elected President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, addressed Congress. He presented his reasons why American should become involved in the war against Nazism, making the case for continued aid to Great Britain and greater production of war industries at home. In helping Britain, President Roosevelt stated, the United States was fighting for the universal freedoms that all people deserved. Congress did not agree—until December that year when Pearl Harbour happened.
But when America did enter the war, these ‘four freedoms’ that he identified– freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – came to symbolize America’s war aims and gave hope in the following years to a war-wearied people because they knew they were fighting for freedom.
The ideas expressed in this Four Freedoms speech were the foundational principles that evolved into the Atlantic Charter declared by Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt in August 1941; then into the United Nations Declaration of January 1, 1942; and subsequently into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 through the work of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Articles 1 and 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state that
• All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
• Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
And where did the notion that all people should be free and equal in dignity and rights come from in the first place? It will be so surprise to anyone here that they came from Jesus’ understanding of the will of God for all people which he derived from his immersion in the Jewish scriptures and his commitment to proclaiming it in word and deed, as today’s gospel reading illustrates when Jesus told the crippled woman ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’
The idea of freedom as opposed to bondage or slavery appears frequently throughout the Bible. The Old Testament Law provides for the unconditional release of slaves. The most important, from the Christian point of view, is the use of the phrase ‘to proclaim liberty’ is Isaiah 61:1: ‘the Lord … has sent me … to proclaim liberty to the captives.’ And this passage leads directly to the New Testament understanding of ‘freedom’, for it was these verses which Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue with the significant comment ‘Today has this scripture been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:21)
The fact that through Christ this freedom has been realised is echoed again in Jesus’ words to Peter ‘the children are free’ (Matt 17:26) and to the Jews ‘If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36) St Paul insists upon it: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free.’ (Gal 5:1)
While Christians do have this freedom already it is their hope that eventually it will be extended to the whole creation (Rom 8:21), and even for Christians there is greater liberty still to come (2 Cor. 1:22).
So what is this ‘freedom’ actually freedom from? It is not simply from narrow, unloving literalist interpretations of the Law, like not healing (or plucking corn to eat) on the Sabbath. It is freedom from the Law itself and so from Sin and its wages Death ‘since you are not under law but under grace’ (Rom 6:14). In place of a spirit of bondage believers now enjoy the spirit of adoption and live as free sons and daughters of God, meaning ‘people who people who share and reflect God’s character’ (Rom 8:14).
But Christian freedom is not anarchy or self-rule. Christians have become bondservants of Christ: they are not their own; they have been bought with a price. And their subsequent behaviour will spring not from legal obligation but from overflowing gratitude. Freedom begets is own pattern of gracious living. ‘…through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ ’. (Gal 5: 13,14).
You could say that the whole of the New Testament is about the consequences of accepting Jesus’ understanding of the love of God and of the responsibility of those who God calls to reciprocate that love and to mirror it in the world. Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t use the actual word ‘love’ very much; certainly they don’t refer to God’s love as such. But John’s Gospel is full of it. Jesus, he says, is God’s love gift to the world, God’s beloved, the one who speaks God’s love in word and deed. And the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the overflowing plenty that Jesus brings to it, is the first of John’s signs, for those with ears to hear, that Jesus is the living Word of God.
And as we all know, Jesus’ great command to his followers was this. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. …. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ And those who accept the call of God in baptism are committed to loving as Jesus loved, loving as God loves. And loving means being committed to discipleship in deeds and not just saying words.
We need to grow in our Christian vocation, that is, to be Christians in our homes and our work places, every day. When babies are born and they start to grow up everyone takes a great interest in who they look like, what they like to eat, what aptitudes they seem to have and so on. But growing is hard work; and just as you don’t choose the family you are born into so also you don’t choose your fellow Christians. And learning to live together with your Christian family can be as difficult as learning to live with your family of origin.
We have all been given gifts to help us. Paul lists some of the kinds of gifts that occur to him in this first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor .12) but they seem a bit exotic in some ways: ‘discerning spirits’, and ‘interpreting tongues’ for example. But the details don’t matter: the point is that our calling, the calling of our baptism, is a call to love people regardless of their race, colour, sex, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, and to call out and help set them free from prejudice, ignorance, family, community and international violence, cruelty, greed, injustice, poverty, hatred, crime, racism, sexism and all that demeans or diminishes their personhood. Not to mention to care for animals and the environment.
So what is the essence of our Christian calling? It’s a call to keep growing in loving in the way that God loves, who never gives up on the world, in the way that Jesus loved, who gave his life for his friends; in the way that John loved when Jesus said to him on the cross, ‘Behold your mother’, and from that day the disciple took her into his own house. And incidentally the writer CS Lewis made exactly that promise to his friend on the friend’s deathbed in Word War 1 and kept it without grumbling for the rest of her life, and a difficult woman she was, too, by all accounts. It is a call to a love which ‘alters not with [time’s] brief hours and weeks; but bears it out even to the edge of doom’ as Shakespeare put it.
It is a call to love with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength. And it is a call to keep on growing in that love, knowing that our love is of and from God, who is Love. Remember the Beatles’ song? ‘All you need is love; love is all you need.’
The Beatles were right. All you need IS love; love IS all you need But what a calling that is!
So let us pray:
O God, you call your church to witness that in Christ we are reconciled to you:
help us so to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may turn to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.