“Freedom and Spirit”
January 24, 2016
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.
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
“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
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
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
How do we express
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
Where the Spirit of
the Lord is, there is freedom.
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
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
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
Nor would the citizens of this new nation be required to hold to certain
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
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
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
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
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
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.