Christians often talk about our freedom in Christ, or at least pastors do, but I’m not sure that we often talk about what the freedom actually is. If we do the farthest we often go might be our freedom from sin. Yes, Christ has freed us from sin. And that is something big. But I think borrowing the Apostle’s analogy, that is the milk of the Christian life. As one grows one needs to eat meat. And what is that meat, or at least some of it? We have not just been freed from sin and because of sin from death, we have also been freed from Satan and the powers and principalities. The Good Samaritan parable is a lesson in Christian freedom. We can be so bound in our identities, the laws, rules and chains of those powers, that we pass-by on the other side. Life – and the Lord who writes that life – presents us we many opportunities to exercise our freedom in being and becoming truly human. In becoming Christlike and triumphing over those powers. We can choose to be neighbors. We can choose to pay the cost of that. We can have our guts churned and be human. Or we can stay bound in identity chains. Christian freedom mean choosing to be a neighbor.
Biblical Texts: Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday Matthew 21:1-17, Matthew 27:32-66 Full Sermon Draft
Have you ever been in a situation where you knew exactly what was going to happen, what was going to happen was a travesty but the desires of everyone involved are just too set in stone? Every action and reaction is a cruel inversion of the claims of those doing them? That is Holy Week. The desires of the Galilean crowds, the desires of the Jerusalem priests and the desires of Rome are locked into a danse macabre . The thing about the dance of death is that it reveals all of our follies. All of our false pieties and crass ambitions are laid bare and open for us to see. Those groups dancing 2000 years ago desired messiahs not very much different from those we often desire. Jesus exposes them, and defines what the messiah is. The sermon explores our false messiahs and how they tyrannize us, and the freedom the true King offers us.
Worship note: I’ve left in a bunch of music this time. The hymns for Palm Sunday are probably the greatest in the hymnal. Between the palm and passion lessons the choir sings a pretty arrangement of the Palm Sunday Hosanna. The Hymn of the Day was LSB 444, No Tramp of Soldiers Marching Feet, a modern hymn which keys off of Pilate’s ironic words in the gospel of John “behold your King”. Truer words were never spoken that came off a tongue so false. The closing hymn, LSB 441, Ride on Ride on in Majesty, also beautifully connects the Palms and the Passion.
If you’ve ever read a good biography of George Washington you can’t walk away from it without a higher, if that is possible, appreciation of the man. Unlike Jefferson, who the more you read comes out pale in comparison to his foundational words, Washington grows. Ron Chernow has written the most recent “massive tome”, but I appreciated Richard Brookhiser’s shorter Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. That book’s purpose was not so much to recount the life but to understand what made it great. Washington, for the first 175 years of American History was the indispensable man. Even though Jefferson wrote the documents we quote, Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. And per Brookhiser, the reason is not anything inherent in the man – not a first class intellect, not a great natural general losing more than he won, given to pomposity at times with a volcanic temper – but the developed character of Washington. Washington strived to be a better person than he knew himself to be, and his country took heart at his example. He became a man for which other men would endure New York winters dreaming of Virginia summers, as Washington, childless, would dream of his “distant posterity”.
I couldn’t help but think of Washington when I read a much different understanding from New York Times editorial columnist Charles Blow. Quoting,
I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me…I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide….I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.
For Washington, character and freedom were in exercising will over oneself. For Blow, character and freedom are in being subject to the tide. For Washington, one struggled against our natural natures toward something better. For Blow, the greater good is accepting what our natures want to be.
Neither Washington nor Blow differ in their diagnosis of the human condition. Neither is actually that far from St. Paul’s lament, “I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Rom 7:22-23)” All three had an ideal in their minds to which they were not living up to. The real question is one of will. Is the proper course Washington’s – willing his recalcitrant self in line with his ideal? Or is it Blow’s – willing his ideals in line with his nature?
St. Paul’s answer accords with Washington. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Rom 8:5-7 ESV)” This process is never complete until the resurrection when we will have the renewed flesh, but it is already starting now. It starts in our renewed minds and moves to a renewed will. Only in Christ can we actually be free, because only in Christ can we actually exercise our will. Collapsing our ideals to our nature is not a free choice, but a surrender of our freedom to the tides.
C.S. Lewis had an arresting image of modernity he called “men without chests”. Modernity produces lots of people with strong heads. Some who even know what is right. It also produces lots of people with strong guts. In the ancient world the guts were the seat of the emotions, so what is meant by that is lots of people with strong emotions. Some of them even right. What it fails to do is produce a Washington. It fails to produce men with chests, men who have hearts or wills that desire and put into action the best of the mind and gut while denying to bring into reality the worst.
This is what James meant when he would say “faith without works is dead (James 2:17)”. A sentiment Paul would agree with when he would say, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (Rom 12:2)”. Likewise Peter, “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, (1 Peter 1:14-15)”. Do some cardio, workout your chest, your heart. In Christ, will to do the right.
Baby Linley mentioned in the sermon is the grand-daughter of my A/V support, so the podcast version might be a little later. There is something deeply fitting about having a baptism on Reformation Day. Baptism is of course shared by the entire church, but each tradition chooses to emphasize a different understanding. And that actually gets to the core of this sermon. I hoped to present a uniquely Lutheran understanding of the Gospel. And to truly do that you need to consider baptism.
Objectively in baptism God has made you part of the family. Its His baptism. Its his word and promise and work. Through his work you belong. Subjectively it comes by faith. It’s true, but you need to make it your own. You have to believe it. And then you become it. As Luther says about baptism in the catechism, “the old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned…and the new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God”. We daily live out our baptism. We are daily becoming more like Christ. A Lutheran understanding of the gospel is a meditation on baptism.
For me the fullness of the gospel is best expressed by the Lutheran understanding. Everything else either adds something (Jesus and ______) or subtracts something (Sacraments just signs or just spiritual). That is why Reformation Day gets its observation. It is a yearly call to live our Christian Freedom bestowed in baptism. A call not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by Christ.
Talking about end times or eschatology always inspires lots of speculation. But that is exactly what Jesus says don’t do. The false prophets claim “I am he” or “the time is near”. Pop Christianity waits for a rapture, which is flatly against Jesus’ teaching. The troubles that come on the world are the Christian’s opportunity for witness. The compelling message out of Jesus’ end times words are comfort. This world is constantly trying to get you to fear. And out of fear run to some false savior or false messiah. Jesus does the opposite. Even though you will be persecuted and some will be put to death, not a hair of your head will perish. The purpose of Jesus’ and Christian eschatology or end times teaching is incredibly here and now focused. When the whole world is losing its head of fear of what is coming into the world, the Christian is free and fearless. She know her redemption is drawing near. Which means that we can act with purpose and resolve here and now whatever comes, because its all in the Father’s hands.
Its peculiar to me that the “reality based” label afixes or is claimed by atheists or agnostics. I understand that the resurrection seems a fantastical event. I would go so far as to say it is an absurd belief – in the same way that Paul says Christ crucified is foolishness to the gentiles. But here is the difference, the fundamental story the Bible tells of the world gets proven to me time and again. And Christian eschatology is a great example (which dispensationalism or rapture belief throws away for fantasy). Jesus says these things will happen (famines, wars, persecutions, etc.) and they are necessary. God is directing them. People not grounded in Jesus’ teaching are easily led away to false saviors of every strife that comes into the world. Either wanting to know when like global warming to stop it, or claiming they are the savior like most political movements of the right claiming rescue from big government or the left claiming rescue from big business or the ills of society which are just the results of a sinful world. The christian is freed from those and with a clear eye can focus on what is within their power – being Christ to their neighbor. That is much more real than any large plan. Don’t be led astray.
There are biblical verses that confound moderns – try Eph 6:12 or Eph 2:2.
The Bible consistently affirms there is more to creation than we can see. While it is most easy to understand the Bible as saying there are real spiritual entities (angels/demons) that influence the stuff we see, that is probably not the only valid way to interpret the verses. (The Nicene Creed confesses belief in the Father Almighty…maker of all things visible and invisible – so you can see it there also.)
A simple belief or confession in angels/demons runs smack against Occam’s Razor or the old jokes about angels on the head of a pin. And we should be clear that these are the approved and controlling beliefs of the age. If I can’t see, smell, touch, taste or hear something (i.e. put it on a scientific bench) it’s not there. That type of belief is also why (although all opinion polls would refute this), religious people always caricatured as a superstitious lot. (Why I say polls refute that is because they always find secular people believe it ghosts, ET, the evil eye and such at far greater rates than believing Christians.)
Read this article about the Facebook formula for what/who gets on your Facebook news page. The same thing could be said about Google’s search formula. And in a larger reach the collective wisdom about what is news to be covered and what isn’t. It used to be just the NY Times editor’s board. Today it is a little larger. (Men in Black spoofed this in a funny way with “J” always reading the Weekly World News as the best reporting on the planet.) You can get carried away by paranoia and conspiracy, but that is not the gospel response. It would seem to me that you could talk about these things like the facebook algorithm as “the spirits of the air”. These are things with little corporeal existence, and yet they clearly have influence over our lives. If Google’s formula doesn’t deliver links we probably don’t know it today. I wonder how many husband’s and wife’s are strangers to each other on facebook? And then which relationships are more real, the marriage or the “friends”?
Although not the easiest or most child-like way to read the Bible, it would seem to be valid that when the Bible speaks of ‘Spirits of the Air’ to understand this a those unseen agreements and agents that influence the way we live like the Facebook algorithm. Christian freedom is the freedom not to be afraid and paranoid of these things, but to live an authentic and faithful life in full knowledge of them. God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim 1:7).