2006 Lenten Sermon Series
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:1-15, ESV).
CLAIMING TRUE FREEDOM
To remember, in this day and age, tends to be thought of exclusively as a cognitive enterprise, as an exercise of the mind done in quiet solitude. From a biblical perspective, however, remembering is nothing of the sort. To remember in the Scriptures is to recall and retell the past for the benefit of ages to come. It preserves the significance of the past by handing it down to the future (e.g., the Passover, Lord’s Supper); remembering is in the act of retelling. It is in this sense that we, this Lent, commemorate the 100 th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birth. We do not simply reflect upon the fact that he was born, but much more, we remember his life and work, honoring him in the reiteration of his salient voice preserving for us not only a man of worth from the past, but a man for all seasons. In my reflections on today’s text, I will often be using Bonhoeffer’s own thoughts and words as he struggled with the issues of bondage and freedom.
His voice, like that of John the Baptist, once cried out in the wilderness of this world, a wilderness of governmental tyranny and ecclesiastical ambivalence. This preacher’s voice heralded a message of repentance. To the ambivalent, to the timid, he called for civil courage, a courage that “can grow only out of the free responsibility of free men” (Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years,” Letters and Papers from Prison, 6). But what does it mean to be free? This question is not unique to Bonhoeffer, but has plagued the church from its very conception. In fact, it is that concern that prompted St. Paul to exhort the Church in Galatia: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
You might think that once the taste of freedom has been savored, any thought of slavery would be discarded. This, however, seems not to be the case. For the devil, the world and our sinful flesh constantly seek to subjugate us, ruling our thoughts, words and deeds. The evil one is subtle, and for us sin-sated children of Adam, it is all the more bewildering. The masquerade of this evil has played havoc with us. It comes disguised, lurking in the shadows of light, charity, duty and social justice. It often uses the guise of good, the pretense of piety, and the appearance of virtue to enable us to justify the pursuit of our own wants and desires.
Like the churches of Galatia, therefore, which were persuaded and deceived to trust in another gospel, we, too, are easily deceived and persuaded by the alluring promises of the flesh and this world. We, too, have submitted again to a yoke of slavery; we have given up freedom in Christ for a fictitious freedom by chasing after self-justification through works of the law. It is a worldly wisdom and self-gratification.
Is this not the case? Do we not attempt to rationalize every deed, seeking to justify ourselves and our actions? Do we not naively think that if we applied a bit of reason to the manifest evil in this world, we could overcome it? We arrogantly set out to force the dislocated back into place, making reasonableness a new law. In so doing, however, we have actually submitted to a new yoke of slavery, a slavery to reasonableness. But the unreasonableness of this wicked world brings with it complacency and resignation, and, in the blink of an eye, we find ourselves in submission to it, frustrated into inaction (4). This was Bonhoeffer’s very own thought.
Or, how often have we been seduced by fanaticism and duty? How often have we thought that our resolve, our desire for the good, is sufficient to engage in battle with the devil, the world and our sinful flesh? How often have we been seduced by dreams of grandeur and glory? And so like bulls, we rush at the red cloak instead of the person holding it. We become exhausted chasing these worldly ideals in the name of righteousness. Dazed and confused by the futility of this fight, we become enslaved, seeking our own ends in lieu of the good of our neighbor (4–5). This too was Bonhoeffer’s experience.
It is in such times when we then begin to assert our freedom, a freedom from the world, a freedom to stand alone, face to face with evil. In boldness and confidence, we resolutely assert our freedom ready to sacrifice what is necessary to maintain it, but in this act we fall into bondage once again. For in order to maintain this freedom, we assent to what is bad to ward off something worse. We compromise by taking a middle path, and this mediating mindset will always yield to opposition in the interest of self-preservation. We thus slide down the slippery slope of slavery by perpetuating a freedom that is ultimately a fiction, Bonhoeffer maintained. (5).
Seeking to avoid this, we sometimes use our freedom to withdraw from the world in order to maintain personal virtue. We thus shut our mouths and close our eyes to the injustice surrounding us. We deceive ourselves into thinking that we can keep ourselves pure by avoiding action altogether. Faced with two opposing evils, we become deaf, blind, and dumb. We become enslaved and consumed by our own piety, unable to sympathize or empathize because we are too busy staring at ourselves, Bonhoeffer insists (5). In the final analysis, when faced with the variety of tyrannies in this wicked world, we become ambivalent, enslaved to a new tyranny.
Who shall stand fast in freedom? Who will be courageous in the face of evil? “Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God,” writes Bonhoeffer (5). For you know as well as I do, that if truth be told, we cannot, we will not sacrifice these things, no matter how hard we try. O what wretched people we are! Who shall save us from this body of death? Who shall stand fast despite us? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
For, in the fullness of time, Christ Jesus came down from heaven and became man. Not despising humanity, but seeking fellowship with it, God became human for our sake, Bonhoeffer reminds us (10). Born of a woman, born under the law, he came to free those enslaved by the law, so that they might be free receiving adoption as sons. On the cross, our Lord became a slave under the law—he became sin knowing no sin himself—to free us from the bondage of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature. Dedicated to the law of love, he submitted willingly to the law of wrath paying the wages of sin, sacrificing his freedom and virtue, so that we would be freed from rendering its payment. His life was given for our lives. He became sin for our righteousness. He became a slave for our freedom. He stood fast; he had courage for our ambivalence.
“For freedom Christ has set you free.” You are free indeed. In the waters of Holy Baptism, God has broken the sin-shackling chains of slavery. Through water included with God’s command and combined with God’s Word, he has corroded and broken your chains of bondage and released you from your slavery. He has forgiven you all your sins, all your self-congratulatory virtues and fictitious freedoms. He has washed them away giving you new life and salvation, adopting you as sons of the free woman, the Church. As sons, you are also heirs; heirs of the promises of God. You are free; the inheritance is yours.
But what does it mean to be free? True freedom is freedom in Christ. Freedom in Christ is a fervent love for our neighbor which flows from faith in the liberating and redeeming love of Christ. True freedom is, therefore, a freedom for, not a freedom from, the law. True freedom is faith working through love, on account of love. For it is only because of Christ and his liberating and redeeming love, that you are free from the threats and punishments of the law. This newly found freedom, this freedom from the law of wrath, is translated into freedom for the law of love. Since you are freed from wrath, you actually delight in the law of love, and this delight is manifest in faith and love: faith toward God and fervent love toward neighbor.
This love, however, did not originate in you. Rather, you love because God in Christ Jesus first loved you. Who then shall stand fast? Who will be courageous? It is none other than Christ whose love for you also works through you. In the freedom he won for you, love reigns instead of fear. Freedom in Christ for the law of love shall be your steadfastness. And so you, too, stand fast by virtue of Christ’s love for you. You stand fast in Christ with a courage that “depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture,” is Bonhoeffer’s bold claim (6).
Therefore, fellow Christians, do not be deceived and persuaded by the devil, the world and the sinful flesh that the purchase price paid for the redemption of your sins is too small. Do not be deceived by the evil of this wicked world that would have you place your faith, hope, and trust in yourself. On the contrary, remember you are free in Christ. You are perfectly free, subject to none while simultaneously servants to all. So when in this worldly wilderness you are faced with two evils, let not your hearts be troubled, and “sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world” (Luther’s Works, American Edition 48:282). In this way you shall love boldly also, by virtue of the freedom in Christ accomplished through his liberating and redeeming love. Amen.
Jason M. Braaten