100 years ago this past Friday, July 2nd, 1910, my grandfather, Tom Charlton, arrived in the city of Philadelphia. He and his family had departed from Liverpool, England and boarded the "Friesland" as steerage passengers and immigrated to America. They were not escaping tyranny, but looking for a better life, for greater opportunity. I’m glad they made it here.
Today, as we celebrate the 4th of July, we think about freedom. Freedom is absolutely foundational to who we are, both as Americans and as Christians. And as Americans who are Christians, it is incumbent upon us to look at freedom in particularly important ways.
On this 4th of July, may we remember some important truths about freedom.
1. Diversity is good.
Freedom is wonderful, but it is also very, very complicated. When people have freedom they begin to disapprove of how some people exercise their freedom.
It is very obvious we live in a society full of division. Some politicians – and some clergy, I might add – complain about the divisiveness while at the same time using it for their own personal or political gain by exploiting that divisiveness. The truth is, there is no way around divisiveness in a free society. When a society is free there will be so many opinions that a certain amount of divisiveness is impossible to avoid.
And divisiveness – political divisiveness – is not new to the American scene. In 1800 a newspaper, commenting on the election campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams printed the headline God-And a Religious President or…Jefferson-and No God.
(American Gospel, by Jon Meacham, page 104)
We are a very diverse people, and I’m not sure when it happened, but it seems that diversity has become a dirty word in recent years. We shouldn’t be bothered by diversity; we should celebrate diversity! We should thank God for the wonderful variety of people and opinions he has created and not fear the differences between people and their point of view.
I believe our world is becoming far too fearful of diversity. I believe people ought to be who they are and they ought to have their own opinions and speak their opinions. I hope you have speak up about your opinions, be they political or spiritual. I know you do, because I have heard some of them. Some of them I agree with and some of them I don’t. But that’s okay, because you won’t agree with all of mine.
As Disciples, this is where we have such an advantage over many churches, because it is such a powerful part of our heritage – it is part of our spiritual DNA – that we not only respect diversity, but we encourage it.
Diversity is the blossom on the flower of freedom. Diversity means we have freedom and that freedom is being exercised. When diversity is restricted, freedom is restricted.
2. Religious freedom is a wonderful gift.
If you were to name the most significant religious event since the time of Jesus, what would you say? For me it is this – the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in the year 312 AD. Constantine was the first Christian emperor and in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which stated we should let both the Christians and all others follow whatever religion they wanted to, so that whatever God there is in heaven may be happy and pleased with us and with all our subjects. And with a stroke of a pen the persecution inflicted upon the church from its beginning had come to an end.
I mention this because we must understand the church was born into an environment so very different from ours. In the earliest centuries of the church Christians were persecuted and put to death, sometimes for no other reason than for the entertainment of the Romans. Nero used them as human torches to light his garden at night, their executions were a sport in Rome’s coliseum, and they faced all manner of other types of persecution.
While we enjoy a government that provides us with security, education, roads, and many other services the government was anything but the friend of the earliest followers of Jesus. We are guaranteed the right to worship as we choose; the earliest followers of Jesus met in places like the catacombs to worship. The catacombs were tombs. Imagine, while we sit in the comfort and beauty of this place, the early Christians sitting among the stench and decay of corpses and death in order to worship.
The fish symbol you see on cars and other places – called an Ichthus – was a symbol used to guide early Christians to safe places of worship.
Persecution is, unfortunately, alive and well today. In China, for instance, it is estimated that between 80 and 100 million people attend house churches, and the Chinese government in the past few years has stepped up their persecution of those house churches (http://www.persecution.com/public/media.aspx?mediapage_ID=MjQ1). The country that finances so much of our debt, the country that manufactures so many of the products we buy, that country is also one of the most intense persecutors of the church.
We must pray for our brothers and sisters around the world that are persecuted because of their faith, and may we never take for granted that we drove to and walked in this building unmolested this morning. No one has to give approval or sanction our gathering this day. No one tells us how we must conduct ourselves or what we must believe as we gather here. We are free! Free to worship and free to follow our beliefs!
3. People were created as free beings.
God intends for people to be free and to remain free. We must pray for and agitate for the freedom of others.
But not just for political freedom, but spiritual freedom as well. In spite of our political freedom there are many who are bound by the chains of fear, of addictions, of poverty, of violence, of abuse, of materialism, and so many other things that bind the human heart and mind. Political freedom does not guarantee the freedom of an individual’s heart and soul, a large bank account does not mean there is not a poverty of the soul, and an abundance of food does not alleviate terrible spiritual hunger.
4. God does not enforce belief, so neither must we.
My journey back to the Disciples was a journey back to my roots, but it was also a journey away from the narrow legalism and enforced uniformity of other traditions.
There are far too many examples of forced uniformity in churches today. Disciples are one of the shining – and increasingly rare – examples of soul freedom. Our Scripture reading from the book of Romans is a passionate plea on Paul’s part to resist legalism. Disciples have always resisted a legalistic and narrow approach to faith.
5. We should never confuse patriotism and faith.
Patriotism and faith are two very different matters. I love God and I love my country, but I understand they are not the same. I do not worship my country. I am grateful to be a Christian and I am grateful to be an American, but sometimes the two are in conflict. Faith will sometimes compel us to challenge others and speak up and speak out about what we see. This is the great American tradition and even greater, it is the Biblical tradition. Imagine if Nathan had not been willing to confront King David after David, in order to cover his own sin, had Bathsheeba’s husband killed. Nathan, the great prophet, dared to stand in front of the king and say You are the man! (I Samuel 12:7) as he brought into the open the sin of David. Imagine if the apostles had silenced themselves as instructed by the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin ordered the apostles to be flogged and then ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus (Acts 6:40). Imagine if Paul had not stood up to the authorities, on a local level and all the way to Rome to Caesar himself. Imagine if the bold faith of our forebears in faith had been silenced by the persecution of Rome. In Disciples’ history, imagine if Thomas and Alexander Campbell had not spoken out for an open communion table and spoken against the stifling of personal opinion.
One of my favorite movies is Braveheart. Near the end of the movie is a scene when the character of William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, is to be tortured and executed for high treason. Wallace, from Scotland, led his fellow countryman in their quest to win their freedom from England. He is told it will all end quickly if he admits his guilt and begs for mercy. Instead, after enduring the pain of torture, with his final breath he yells out freedom! It’s a very stirring scene as it reminds us of the great quest for freedom throughout history.
Freedom. It is for freedom, Paul writes, that Christ has set us free.