Bishop Mark Hanson: God's Household of Freedom

Christ liberates us for lives of generous, loving service

Freedom! We go to court to protect it and to the halls of government to legislate it. We go to war to defend it. We go to therapy to experience it. We go to worship to receive it. But what in the world is this freedom? 

On our way to the 2011 Churchwide Assembly, with the theme "Freed in Christ to Serve," we participate in a national celebration of freedom on July 4. This annual celebration is an appropriate time to reflect upon freedom and how we live in it as Christians.

We have some ambivalence about freedom. We cherish it deeply but worry when it seems there is too much freedom or license. Some see traditional codes of conduct eroding, thereby weakening a shared inheritance of moral values that weave together the diverse strands of American society. Others are concerned that freedom seems to be slipping away through the erosion of civil and human rights and the encroachment on privacy by big government and big business. 

Beneath the impassioned rhetoric about freedom, observers across the political spectrum advocate for a combination of liberties and restrictions. All sides claim to be the rightful heirs of America's legacy of freedom that we celebrate on Independence Day. Some voices call for sacrifice in order to defend the freedom we have, but others call for continued work so all people in this society will experience the freedom enjoyed by many.

Christians participate fully in these debates because they affect the well-being of people throughout the world. In doing so, Christians contribute the witness of the Scriptures and its distinctive description of the relationship between freedom and humankind's problems. 

While the Scriptures join the lament over humankind's immorality, they do not attribute it to excessive freedom but to slavery, bondage and captivity. Slavery to sin, the bondage of serving idolatrous gods (including oneself), and captivity to the powers of evil and death are humankind's real problem.

Some experience this slavery as a greedy, consumptive preoccupation with oneself - being turned in on oneself. Others experience this bondage as being trapped by lesser demands - social status and expectations, career progress and affluence, and personal and family schedules. This servitude leads to neglect of one's primary relationship to God and a confident life in that relationship. 

Slavery, bondage and captivity, however, are not our destiny. In Christ God promises freedom. Christ liberated us from the "curse" of the law's condemnation by becoming a curse on the cross. In Christ we are adopted into God's household of freedom. "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Galatians 3:134:55:1).

This freedom does not return us to sin's captivity but liberates us for lives of generous, loving service. "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" (Galatians 5:13). As German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "Freedom is not something we have for self but for others. Freedom is not a presence, a possession, an object; it is a relationship and nothing else." 

This serving freedom liberates us from self-centeredness and self-neglect. It calls us beyond ourselves in generous and confident service of our neighbors and the world. It calls us into the dignity of working for justice so the power and privileges of some are not at the expense of others. It draws us into the discovery and wonder of caring for God's creation.

This freedom even calls us and gives us the confidence to recognize the freedoms others have to love their country with what theologian Joseph Sittler called a "loving, personal identification with one's own land [that] has never been a breeder of arrogant nationalism ... [but] the practical and earthly ground for respect of [others'] love of their land."

We don't earn this freedom. It comes to us freely as a gift, and it becomes our way of life. For as we often hear on this national holiday, freedom is also very costly: Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, pick up our cross and follow him as we serve the gospel and our neighbor.

[Taken with permission from the Presiding Bishop's column in The Lutheran magazine, July 2011.]