Sermon: “To Set You Free” (May 29, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“To Set You Free” (Galatians 1:3-4)
May 29, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In 1957 following the Supreme Court case Brown versus the Board of Education, nine African American students faced waves of discrimination as they enrolled in Little Rock Central High School.  Arkansas governor Orval Faubus resisted and called in the Arkansas National Guard before he was overridden by President Eisenhower.  These students became known as the Little Rock Nine, and their experience inspired a young Paul McCartney to write a classic song.

Last month Paul McCartney played a concert in Little Rock, and met two of the surviving Little Rock Nine in person: Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Wair.  At the concert he introduced this song as follows:

Way back in the Sixties, there was a lot of trouble going on over civil rights, particularly in Little Rock.  We would notice this on the news back in England, so it’s a really important place for us…we would see what was going on and sympathize with the people going through those troubles, and it made me want to write a song that, if it ever got back to the people going through those troubles, might just help them a little bit…that’s this next one.

Then he sang these lyrics:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
(From “Blackbird” on the 1968 album The Beatles)

“All your life you were only waiting for this moment to be free”—that is what I am preaching on from today’s opening passage of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:3-4).

Jesus Christ died to set you free.  This was part of his mission from the start.  After his baptism in the Jordan River and subsequent temptation in the wilderness Jesus arose in the synagogue and read the following from the prophet Isaiah:, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).  John records Jesus as later proclaiming, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free… if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:32, 36).

In his Letter to the Galatians Paul sets forth a simple paradigm of the Christian life: Law—Gospel—Holy Spirit.  The Law shows us what God’s standards for our lives are, and that we cannot meet those standards and are therefore guilty of sin.  The Gospel is the good news that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our sins have been completely forgiven and we have been set free.  The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are God’s children and empowers us to respond to the Gospel by loving and serving God and others instead of ourselves.

But in the churches of the region of Galatia some were trying to impose a different paradigm of the Christian life.  Instead of Law—Gospel—Holy Spirit this other paradigm was Law—Gospel—Law, so that the Holy Spirit was replaced by more law, and the Christian life reduced to another impossible to-do list.  This line of thinking still pops up in parts of the church today.

Instead of enjoying the freedom of being fully known and fully forgiven and the freedom of what Paul later writes to the Galatians about living by the Spirit, walking by the Spirit, being guided by the Spirit—some were turning back to the law.  That’s why, as we read in today’s lesson, Paul wrote, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6).  They were trading in the gospel of grace for the “different gospel” of returning to the law.

This is why Paul later wrote to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free…if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law” (5:1, 18).  Similarly to the Romans Paul wrote, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2), and to the Corinthians, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

We need to be set free, don’t we?  We need to be set free from our sin, set free our addictions, set free from our self-centered agendas of “my kingdom come, my will be done,” set free from, as Paul put it in today’s passage, “the present evil age.”

A couple illustrations from song lyrics… One of Bruce Springsteen’s hits of the 80’s was a live cover of a Jimmy Cliff song called “Trapped” in which he sang:

Well it seems like I’m caught up in your trap again
And it seems like I’ll be wearing the same old chains
Good will conquer evil and the truth will set me free
And I know someday I will find the key
And I know somewhere I will find the key

Well, it seems like I’ve been playing your game way too long
And it seems the game I’ve played has made you strong
But when the game is over I won’t walk out the loser
And I know that I’ll walk out of here again
And I know someday I’ll walk out of here again

But now I’m trapped…trapped…trapped

(From the 2003 album, The Essential Bruce Springsteen)

On his brilliant 1996 album, The Charity of Night, a different Bruce, Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, puts it this way:

I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everything
All that I could pillage
All the spells that I could sing
It’s as if the thing were written
In the constitution of the age
Sooner or later you’ll wind up
Pacing the cage

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
Today these eyes scan bleached out land
For the coming of the outbound stage
Pacing the cage
(From the song “Pacing the Cage”)

Can you relate?  Do you ever feel trapped or like you are pacing the cage?

One of my favorite movies is Braveheart, which won the 1995 Best Picture Oscar.  Steph and I saw it in the theater on our fifth anniversary—not exactly an ideal date movie, but unforgettable nonetheless.  Mel Gibson stars as William Wallace, the thirteenth century warrior who led the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England.  At the end of the film Wallace is tried in London, found guilty of treason, and condemned to public torture and beheading.  In the midst of his unspeakable suffering as he is hanged, drawn, and quartered, Wallace is given the chance to say “Mercy” and be granted a quick death, but instead, in an iconic scene, he musters his remaining strength and yells, “Freedom!”  This inspired Robert the Bruce, who eventually became the King of Scotland, to lead the Scots to victory over the English at Bannockburn and win their freedom.

I recently visited my daughter Cate in Washington, D.C. and while there walked over to Ford’s Theater, where one of my heroes, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated in April 1865.  Standing in the theater next to the box where he was shot, and then standing in the bedroom of the Petersen House across the street where he breathed his final breath, really moved me.  Two and half years before his assassination Lincoln had written the following in the Emancipation Proclamation—“On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever, free.”

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War, in fact, before some of its bloodiest battles were ever fought, including Gettysburg and Chickamauga, but his words still came to pass.  In his own way, Abraham Lincoln, like William Wallace, died for freedom— and Abraham Lincoln was shot on Good Friday.

And on the very first Good Friday Jesus died to set you free.  Instead of choosing mercy for himself, he endured unspeakable suffering in your place in order to show you mercy, in order to set you free—“then, thenceforward, and forever, free”—from sin and death.

Jesus did not die to give you a spiritual to-do list, or to give you another cage in which to pace, but to set you free.  The Christian life is not Law—Gospel—Law, but rather Law—Gospel—Holy Spirit.

And the expression of this freedom is serving God by the power of the Holy Spirit, or as we pray in the Collect for Peace from The Book of Common Prayer, “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord…to serve you is perfect freedom” (99).

Jesus died to set you free.

This is very good news for any of you who may have places in your life where you may still feel trapped, where you may still be wearing the same old chains, where you may still be pacing the cage.  In his death and resurrection Jesus has issued your eternal Emancipation Proclamation, and no matter what struggles remain in your earthly life, Jesus will complete his freeing work—“if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

And at your resurrection you will see that Jesus will indeed heal your broken wings so you can learn to fly, and that “all your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

Amen.