“Freedom and Spirit”

January 24, 2016


Isaiah 61:1-4

II Corinthians 3:17-18


The real estate developer and TV star who is running for the Republican nomination for President was in the news this past week—which, I know, doesn’t come as a surprise. He’s always in the news, always saying something that gets attention.

What caught my attention was that brief clip of him at Liberty University in Virginia. Citing scripture he said: “Two Corinthians 3:17—that’s the whole ball game….Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Naturally the crowd at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University went wild.  And, of course, my ears perked up.

Two Corinthians?

Certainly all of us in the know know that it is Second Corinthians. Even the reporter on the 5:30 news said the usual citation is Second Corinthians. In rapid response the expected detractors and defenders were off once again:

“How could he say that?”

“Well, it was an honest mistake, and not uncommon.”

And then there were many who came up with various “Two Corinthians walk into a bar” jokes.

After I got over my great outrage, I opened my Bible and started reading that section of Two—I’m sorry, I mean Second Corinthians. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” And even the translation in the New International Version of the Bible—the translation generally favored by Evangelicals—uses “freedom” rather than “liberty”—the translation for some reason preferred by those at Liberty University.

As those words were sinking into my spirit, I thought it might be good to use them as the basis for my sermon today. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not it was a good idea to let Donald Trump suggest the scripture to be read on a Sunday morning. But I think that Paul’s words can help us as we move through the caucuses and conventions toward Inauguration Day a year from now. For, in all seriousness, several important issues have been raised.

Listen to those words again: “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

One New Testament scholar tells us that this verse is “one of the most debated sentences in scripture.” So we’re already in difficult territory—and we’re just starting.

In this context, “the Lord,” here means “God”—in particular the God who was made known to Moses. But Paul also uses the word “Lord” to mean Jesus Christ. And as Paul sees it, those who turn to the Lord, that is, to Christ, discover a new, life-giving freedom and boldness, that comes from God who is the Spirit.

Paul isn’t trying to make a Trinitarian argument here. He’s teasing out an important aspect of the Christian faith: the freedom that we have as we live our lives; the freedom that we have as we seek to serve God. We are not held captive to the past but are set free to explore new ways of faith and action.

Freedom is central to the good news that Jesus announced. As the Gospel of Luke tells it, at the beginning of his public ministry Jesus read to the people from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah the same words that we heard this morning: “God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty—liberty!—to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

This hope of the Jewish people was fulfilled in their return from exile in Babylon. They were set free from captivity, they were released so that they could return home to rebuild, repair, and restore their nation and its cities. Freedom came with a purpose.

Jesus told those who were listening to him—and if we have ears we, too, will listen—“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We sing our prayer: “Set our hearts at liberty.” Even today we today seek the freedom that is known in Christ.

How do we express this?

We say that we are set free from sin—that is from all that would separate us from God, from one another, and even from the best in ourselves. We say that we are set free to love one another without the restraints of fear and caution that we impose on ourselves. We say that we are set free to seek the good even when we are confronted by evil.

And the stories of Jesus tell of other freedoms as well—freedom from disease, from disability, from brokenness of mind and spirit. In all those gospel stories of healing—in spite of the troubling issues that they raise for us—in all those stories we get the sense that in drawing near to Jesus people were restored to the lives for which they were made. We get the sense that our own lives, too, might be set free from all that restricts us, that we might become the people we long to be.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

Those are empowering words—inviting us to receive the new freedom, the new life that comes to us in Christ.

There was, however, something disturbing about Trump’s use of these words at Liberty University. For several decades now, the religious right has been actively engaged in seeking to restrict religious freedom. One example: As marriage equality has become the law of the land, they shout: “Gay rights will trample Christians’ religious liberty!”

But one of the worst violations of religious liberty actually came from the religious right itself—in the form of a 2012 constitutional amendment in North Carolina, which criminalized ordained clergy officiating at same sex marriages. I spoke about this in a sermon when that law was challenged by the United Church of Christ in 2014. “By depriving the Plaintiffs of the freedom to perform religious marriage ceremonies or to marry,” the UCC argued, “North Carolina stigmatizes Plaintiffs and their religious beliefs.” The court agreed, finding it to be an unconstitutional violation of their rights.

Do you see what’s going on?

The religious right’s long-term strategy has been to take the time-honored principle of religious exemption, intended to protect the individual right of conscience, and to expand it to apply to whole institutions, even for-profit businesses.

Such efforts go back to the 1970s and the support of Bob Jones University’s “right to discriminate,” based on religion. As recently as the 1980s, Christian Right activists defended racial segregation by claiming that restrictions on their ability to discriminate violated their First Amendment right to religious freedom. Instead of African Americans being discriminated against by Bob Jones, the university argued it was the party being discriminated against in being prevented from exercising its First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court disagreed. But similar efforts continue.[i]

As a UCC church in the Congregational tradition, such attacks on true religious liberty strike close to who we are as faithful people. At its heart, our Congregational Way is a way of freedom. Our tradition values “the undisturbed right of each person to follow the word of God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.” It is not that we simply don’t care what people think or how they act. We value the freedom of conscience because we read scripture.

This freedom grows out of a deep sense that, as Paul puts it, we see “the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror. None of us has all of the truth. None of us has seen God. We have at best a mirror image—a reversed image, a fuzzy picture.

And, yes, our Congregational tradition also knows first-hand the downside of religious control of civic life as well as the religious life of other people. We fled from this in England but then established a mirror image of it in the colonies; our Congregational ancestors found the religious freedom they sought, but wanted to deny the same to their Baptist neighbors.  

Over time, of course, in a new country, in this country, there came a new vision, a new relationship between church and state without parallel in the other nations of the world.

In this nation there would be no dominant church over the state.

There would be no state that would control the church or any other religious group.

Nor would the citizens of this new nation be required to hold to certain religious beliefs.

It was a new vision of a free church in a free state. And when the Bill of Rights was added to our Constitution it included the words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Freedom of religion meant that government could not coerce people of faith to conform to regulations in doctrine, morals, or polity not of their church's own making.

Freedom for religion meant that religious leaders were free to speak their mind, even criticizing policies and practices of government without fear of punishment or retribution.

Freedom from religion meant that even atheists have rights of conscience in a free society. The power of government would be used to check the tyranny of religious groups against those who preferred no religion at all.

We support freedom from coercion by government in religious matters and freedom from the doctrines of one faith being imposed on others by law.  We are discovering that even in a free nation, the right to make decisions for oneself must be guarded. In a church like ours, with a tradition that affirms the right of individual conscience before God, we must continue to seek and use the freedom we have.

In our congregation and in our own lives we are set free to test limits, to move in directions not defined by the past. We can question old ways and try new paths. We find freedom to seek the good, a freedom that, if it is limited, it is limited only by our love for God and our love for one another.

Where the Spirit of God is, we discover this freedom—the freedom to love one another as we have been loved, to set aside the quarrels and dissentions and factions that have become endemic in our common life and to choose instead the way of kindness, generosity, and faithfulness.

Freedom is meant to express itself in love.

Our freedom is grounded in the crucified and risen Christ.[ii] It is the freedom of the spirit that seeks out the freedom of the whole person—body, mind, and soul. And it is a freedom that seeks out the freedom of all people.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. In a sense, as Mr. Trump said, “that is the whole ball game”—thereby proving the statement that even a broken clock is right twice every day. But we must nurture and defend that freedom among ourselves and for all people. The religious views of one group cannot be inflicted on others under the guise of “freedom.”

Instead, let us use the freedom that we experience in the Spirit to continue the work begun in Christ: bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, comforting those who mourn, proclaiming liberty to the captives and the year of God’s favor.

[i] Paul Rosenberg, “This is the religious right’s radical new plan: The very real efforts to create an American theocracy in plain sight,” Salon, January 16, 2016. http://www.salon.com/2016/01/16/this_is_the_religious_rights_radical_new_plan_the_very_real_efforts_to_create_an_american_theocracy_in_plain_sight/

[ii] Ebeling, The Truth of the Gospel, pg. 243