A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Cry for Freedom
June 27, 2019
Independence. Americans cherish it so deeply that they name their country’s birthday not by their country’s name (as does my native Canada), but by its most cherished value: independence. I am reflecting on that today, since next Thursday there will be no weekly letter, as we will be celebrating, yes, Independence Day.
As much as we celebrate independence, we need to acknowledge that it is entirely a secular value. Nowhere is independence lauded in Scripture. Instead, the Bible commends dependence (on God) and interdependence (on each other). What the Bible does promote is “freedom” – release from imprisonment.
Imprisonment takes many forms. Our border teems with refugees seeking asylum from captivity to oppressive conditions in their homelands. They just want to be free. As do all of us. As I reported in last week’s letter, my parents are experiencing bodily imprisonment, having been immobilized by recent medical events. Last year’s General Assembly sought to rally the church to respond more proactively to the dire imprisonment of many in our country to opioid addiction and to suicidal urges.
It is the Holy Spirit’s nature to break the chains of our imprisonment. It happened literally and repeatedly to the apostles who were jailed for their bold witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. (E.g., Acts 12:6-11, Acts 16:19-34)
Jesus declared that releasing captives lay at the heart of his mission. (Luke 4:16-21) The most difficult imprisonment to break is not one from literal jail cells, but from slavery to sin, legalism, and fear. It is such forms of imprisonment that Paul was addressing when he proclaimed freedom in Christ for all who have been shackled by sin and by the Law. (Galatians 5:1-15)
National independence may be a noble aspiration, yet when that impels us to treat other nations as economic foes rather than allies, our own people eventually lose. The pursuit of absolute independence is sure to impoverish us rather than strengthen us, because inter-dependence is essential to the order of God’s creation.
While the notion of national independence may be problematic, the idea of independent churches or believers is vastly more disquieting. Paul addresses the interdependence of Christ’s followers repeatedly, nowhere more evocatively than in his picture of the church as a single body of interconnected members. When one of Christ’s followers suffers, all suffer. Likewise, when one rejoices, all rejoice. (1 Corinthians 12:26)
The Christian’s yearning for freedom is not for freedom from each other, but for freedom with each other. Freedom from the need to slow down someone else to get ourselves ahead. Freedom from trying to prove our worth by putting others down. Freedom from the vexation of striving impossibly to earn that which has already been given to us unconditionally.
The Gospel promises to liberate all who are enslaved, whether by others who have taken advantage of them or by inner forces that have proven irresistible. This freedom in Christ is both a gift and a trust. Paul simultaneously celebrates that Christ has set us free and urges us to guard our freedom diligently. (Galatians 5:1)
Ever since Israel cried for freedom from the brutal hand of Pharaoh, God’s people have sought true freedom. There is no mystery about what Israel wanted freedom from – the shackles of slavery. Moses led them to understand that their need was not just freedom from something, but even more significantly freedom for something. Speaking through Moses, God called repeatedly to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, that they may worship me.” (Exodus 7:16, 8:1, and so on.)
True freedom is marked less by liberation from external bondage than by having our world ordered rightly, acknowledging God at the center. It is freedom to worship God and God alone. When God is at the center, we have nothing left to defend or control or clutch, because we know that God can and does supply all we need. Freedom at last!
Yours in Gospel freedom,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister