a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, UCC
July 03, 2022
John 8:28-32 NRSV
28 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. 29 And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” 30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him. 31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Do you want to be free? Freedom! Freedom! Any “Blues Brothers” movie fans here?
The high point of that movie for me was when Aretha Franklin sang about “Freedom!”
Oh, I want to sing like Aretha. Do you remember her hit, “Think?” She sang, “Freedom! Freedom! You better think what you’re doing to me!” She is warning her man that he may think he wants freedom, but he better think about the consequences of his actions. Now in one paragraph that is what I want to invite you to “think” about
today, when I ask the question, “Do you want to be free?” Our actions have
consequences – and so does our inaction.
Of course, this is the weekend we celebrate our “Independence.” The signing of
the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 stands as an iconic day in our history.
But now we stand on a precipice that seems to many of us to be one where our nation is
about to fall deeply into fascism while calling it “freedom.” Many of us fear that those
who demand “freedom” only demand it at a cost to others, not them. Many of us would
like to shout at them, “Think! You better think about what you’re doing to me!” But
sadly, most of those we would shout at would simply ignore us or taunt us or attack us
for demanding that they “think.”
So let me turn to the words of our Lord, as reported by the Gospel of John, on the
topic of freedom. Is there a source of hope, and truth, when it comes to freedom? In
the verses right before what we read this morning, Jesus is in a deep debate with the
religious leaders of his faith. They are challenging his relationship with God. They are
denying the truth of his words and actions. They are certain that they are the ones who
are correct, faithful, and true. And they are equally certain Jesus is a fraud, that he is
claiming to be something he is not. They accuse him of being downright crazy. Jesus
answered that he did nothing on his own, that all that he said and did was directly
through his relationship with God. John tells us many believed in him and began
following him. And then Jesus makes this clear promise: “If you continue in my word,
you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you
So let me focus this morning on several thoughts for us. First, Christ has set us
free. Others cannot judge our freedom or deny us our freedom. They do not have the
authority or power, because the freedom we live in is a freedom that comes from Jesus
Christ and from God our Creator. I am not speaking politically. To the degree we seek
to align ourselves with Christ and with our Creator we are free, no matter what others
say, think or do.
Now, the reality is there are a lot of people who define freedom very differently
from the way we understand Christ defined it. They define freedom as the personal
liberty to do anything they want and that no one has the right to limit their liberties. At
the same time, they insist on having the right to limit anyone else’s liberties, especially
if they feel your liberties infringe on their personal liberties - or if they disagree with
you on any basis they choose. Often, they choose to claim their prejudices, their
bigotry, their hatred are from God, too. They often cite single verses of Scripture they
have memorized, out of context, to back up their claims. And they often claim to have
the sole possession of truth. Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically, in their
view, wrong, and subject to the punishments of their version of god. That’s “god” with
a little “g.” Interestingly, to me, they sound a lot like these Pharisees that Jesus was
debating in the Scripture verses just before the ones we read this morning. So we are
free and no one can take our freedom.
Second, let us test what freedom means by the examples Jesus uses to
demonstrate freedom for us. He repeatedly shows and tells us that what he values as
freedom is freedom to serve others, to bless others, to set others free, to in fact, lay
down one’s life for others. He never demanded his own rights, he never demanded
others give up their liberties for his convenience. Again and again, he said, and he
showed us, that he would lay down his life for others as a sign of his freedom and of his
love and of his truth. This is the measure of freedom and truth we must use to define
everything we do if we want to be truly free.
The third thing this defines for us is that real freedom builds up community rather
than tearing it down. Freedom is found in being responsible to one another in ways that
build community between people of different experiences and realities. Many of us
believe in a God who loves the diversity of Creation and of the people God created.
Jesus continually reached out to diverse people: those of other nationalities, races,
religions, and many other forms of diversity.
Unfortunately, many live in fear and hatred of anyone and anything different
from themselves. They attack, they seek to take away the humanity, the personhood, of
anyone who is different racially, religiously or who doesn’t agree with them politically,
or in any other way. They seem to have no concern except to maintain a superiority, a
privilege that others are not welcome to share. Sadly, this is not real freedom. This is a
prison of selfish indifference or even hostility toward others. For me, and for many of
us this can never square with the values we see in Jesus Christ. We live in dismay that
they claim their views to be “Christian” and dismiss us and our views as “heresy” or
“unchristian” or worse, “of the devil.” Their fear and hatred are a clear sign to me that
we worship very different Saviors. For me there is no truth in their words and so there
can be no freedom.
So, this is the challenge for me: How do I strive for community with those who
refuse to accept me as part of their community? I find as much as I want to be in
ecumenical relationships with other Christian pastors, I often have to bite my tongue
and even hold my temper as I hear them say and do things that offend me. Yet I go out
of my way not to offend them by stating my views. Somehow that doesn’t seem like I
am remaining faithful to the example of Jesus, who challenged the false thinking and
teaching of those religious leaders. I am afraid I would not be able to be as wise, or
eloquent, or as patient as Jesus, so I just say nothing. This isn’t real community either,
though. In the end I often fail to be free enough to build that community that Christ
envisioned, or to speak the truth I know about God. So, what do we do?
How do we live strong and faithfully in the face of those who seem to be
determined to wipe out our faith, our values, and even our identities? My thinking right
now focuses on these things: First, I am not called to convert a brother or sister who
condemns me for my understanding of Christ. I need not waste time and effort on a
fruitless conversation trying to change someone else. I have to confess I still do try too
often. It never works. The best I can do is continue to clearly state who I am and what
I believe and why. I do not want to let them define me in the negative stereotypes they
want to use. As someone once said: “don’t focus on changing others, focus on
changing yourself; that’s hard enough.” I want to speak the truth about my own identity
and Christ has set me free to do that.
This leads me to the second point. The Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1, “for
freedom Christ has set you free.” I am free by the power of Christ. The power of
others is not greater than my Savior. Even their political and religious power-stealing
cannot take away the truth. What am I free for? I am free to serve and to build
community with those willing to be in community, free enough to be in community
with me. Those who will not be in community with me cannot take that freedom from
me, and I will work intentionally, and actively, to oppose their efforts to take that
freedom from me. I will work with an assurance that the truth will set us free; so I will
keep working for the truth. The truth is their chains cannot hold me enslaved, their
hatred cannot steal my joy, their commitment to take away political, religious, and
social freedoms will not win without a fight from me – and we will only fail if we – the
majority – let them – the minority, steal our freedoms. That’s the truth. Think about it.
Third, we have, I have, a moral duty to stand up for those who are my brothers
and sisters who need my support. I need to do this especially when my other brothers
and sisters are trying to take the freedom from others. The truth will set us free, and we
will continue to speak the truth and fight for the truth to set others free. And MLK, jr.
knew this. He said he wasn’t just fighting for the freedom of people of color who were
oppressed. He was fighting to free the oppressor from the hatred that oppressed his
sorry white, prejudiced heart too!
Finally, I can continue to extend the invitation to this table we share. I will keep
offering an open table, where ALL are free to come. I will serve at a table where all can
find the spiritual food and drink. This table is a sign of the freedom God offers us all. I
cannot force the food or the drink from this table on my brothers or sisters, but I will
continue to delight in its flavor, its richness, its power, its truth. The truth is this table
strengthens me to be free to love and serve others, even when others do not and will not
love or serve others. I think this is the truth about freedom in Christ.
I believe in these truths. I “think” about these truths a lot. And these truths set
me free to follow Christ as I know him. I want to be free, how about you? AMEN.