As I write this, we are still in the month of July, which begins with a celebration of freedom—the independence of the United States from Britain.
That got me thinking about freedom, beginning with a passage from Galatians. In chapter five of that book, Paul says famously that “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul then reminds us of the responsibility this freedom brings: “Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.”
Informed, in part by passages like this, Martin Luther ended up writing a treatise called “On the Freedom of a Christian,” in which he developed his idea that as people freed from sin, Christians are not bound to some kind of law to obtain salvation, but instead are called to freely serve God and their neighbor out of gratitude. Freedom was such a central idea for Luther that he actually changed the way his last name was spelled to match the spelling of a Greek word for—you guessed it—“freedom.”
Fast forward to the 20th century, when a book from another theologian—Richard John Neuhaus—picks up the idea of freedom again. The book is called “Freedom for Ministry,” and I think it’s one of the best books about the particular calling of ministry—but also a wonderful reminder that ALL of us are called to ministry in God’s church. As Neuhaus writes: “the vocation of the Church is to sustain many vocations.”
He also talks in the book in various places about how this fact—that the Church exists to sustain many vocations—means that we are called to be different from one another. While this difference is a gift, in a world filled with pressure to conform, being different isn’t always easy. And paradoxically, exercising the freedom to be ourselves also requires us to be obedient. “Conformity,” Neuhaus writes, “means accepting a direction or destiny that belongs to someone else; obedience is the actualization of our own destiny. Obedience, then, is not the enemy of freedom but the exercise of freedom. Liberation is not the absence of duty but deciding which duty is ours.”
Neuhaus argues that when we have the courage to act on these differences that make us most fully ourselves—when we are obedient to God’s particular call to us—then we help other people, in turn, to act “upon the difference to which they are called.”
Finally, this unity in difference—or, going back to the founding of our country, the idea that “from many come one” (E Pluribus Unum)—is what gives us true community. “Real community,” as Neuhaus writes, “is not homogeneity. It is the discipline and devotion of disparate people bearing with one another in the hard tasks of love.”
To which I say: Amen. May we be filled this year with gratitude for the differences to which each of us are called as we live more and more into God’s community of freedom.
With Freedom in Christ,