Our nation’s Declaration of Independence makes this claim:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
This week we pause as a nation to celebrate our independence
from a foreign power fought and won over two and a quarter centuries. We do well to contemplate what this freedom
means for us individually and corporately as a nation.
As I gazed on this document under the glass at the National
Archives this week I was drawn again to one of the formative essays in my
formation as a Christian. This piece is
an essay on “History and Good” written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while in prison
(see “History and Good ” in Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Volume 6, Clifford
Green, ed.; Richard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglass W. Stott, trans., [Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 2005], pp. 245-298.)
Jesus said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John
14:6). Bonhoeffer notes that this
changes how we think about the world.
- The question of what life is changes here [in Jesus] into
the answer of who life is.
- Life is not a thing, an essence, or a concept, but a person
– more specifically, a particular unique person (pp. 249-250).
In other words, while Thomas Jefferson may have taught us in
our Declaration of Independence that freedom is defined by ideas of life,
liberty, and happiness, Christians know that our Freedom is defined in our
relationship with Jesus Christ – “the One Who Is, the One Who Was, and the One
Who Is to Come” (Revelation 1:4).
Bonhoeffer went on to say this about Jesus:
Jesus stands before God as the obedient one and the free one. As the obedient one he does the will of the
Father by blindly following the law he has been commanded. As the free one, he affirms God’s will out of
his very insight, with open eyes and a joyful heart …
- Obedience without freedom is slavery, freedom without obedience is arbitrariness…
- Obedience binds the creature to the Creator, freedom places the creature, made in God’s image, face to face with the Creator…
- Obedience knows what is good and does it. Freedom dares to act and leaves the judgment about good and evil to God…
In responsibility, both freedom and obedience become
real. Responsibility has this inner
tension. Any attempt to make one
independent on the other would be the end of responsibility. Responsible action is bound and yet creative
So how are we who live in a free nation to act? “Those who are responsible act in their own
freedom… They themselves have to
observe, judge, weigh, decide, and act on their own. They themselves have to examine the motives,
the prospects, the value, and the meaning of their action… Those who act responsibly do so while bound
to God and neighbor as they encounter me in Jesus Christ, the only bond that is
liberating, totally liberating (pp. 283-284).”
This next week in our reading through A Wesleyan Spiritual
Reader we will be exploring what it means to reach out to the poor (see pp. 66-73). Yesterday folks around the world focused
through “Live 8” on the issue of the debt burden borne particularly by
sub-Saharan Africa. This issue is a reality for me because of my experience working in Kenya,
but let’s face it – paying $3.00 for bottled water at a concert when two-thirds
of the world does not make that in a day will not change the world. What will? A living relationship with Jesus.
James, the brother of Jesus, offers these words to us The
Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation of scripture:
My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you
live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an
expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and
you say to the man in the suit, "Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in
the house!" and either ignore the street person or say, "Better sit
here in the back row," haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved
that you are judges who can’t be trusted?
Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by
now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the
kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves
God. And here you are abusing these
same citizens! Isn’t it the high and mighty who exploit you, who use the courts
to rob you blind? Aren’t they the ones
who scorn the new name–"Christian"-used in your baptisms?
You do well when you complete the Royal
Rule of the Scriptures: "Love others as you love yourself." But if you play up to these so-called
important people, you go against the Rule and stand convicted by it. You can’t pick and choose in these things,
specializing in keeping one or two things in God’s law and ignoring others. The same God who said, "Don’t commit
adultery," also said, "Don’t murder." If you don’t commit adultery but go ahead and
murder, do you think your non-adultery will cancel out your murder? No, you’re a murderer, period.
Talk and act like a person expecting to
be judged by the Rule that sets us free. For if you refuse to act kindly, you can
hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every
time (James 2:1-13, The Message).
You see, when we know Jesus we know what to do. We don’t complain about our rich brother who
does not freely part with his resources for fear of falling into poverty. We don’t complain about our poor sister’s
smelly clothes or offensive behavior. We
see in each our brother Jesus – and in that relationship I know what I need to
do, because I know that the other is my brother and my sister.
So today on this celebration of our freedom let us come and
feast at the table of freedom prepared for all people by our Lord Jesus Christ.