Galatians 3:26-29 | Order of Worship

Freedom is an ideal, which means we celebrate it, we measure ourselves against it, and we constantly consider the extent to which it stretches.

Baptists know this in particular, as the freedom we extol nationally on this day is a particular conviction for Baptists. When it came to extending that freedom to religious conviction and practice, Baptists have been among the most active advocates. The 18th century Baptist pastor, John Leland, for instance, proclaimed “The government has no more to do with the religious opinions of [people] than it has with the principles of mathematics.” An outspoken advocate for the separation of church and state, Leland was a vocal opponent of the Constitution when it came up for ratification in his state of Virginia, because there was no explicit provision for religious freedom. Leland was up to be delegate to the ratification in Virginia, running against James Madison. So Madison sought a meeting with Leland, arriving to his home late one night. As the story goes, they were seen walking out into an oak grove where, ostensibly, they discussed their differing views. We don’t know what was said. But we do know they met, as we also know that soon after their meeting, Leland withdrew his name from delegate election and supported James Madison, which many assume is because Madison promised him that as soon as the Constitution was ratified, he would present a Bill of Rights, with the first amendment being a provision of religious liberty: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

JM Dawson – the first executive director of the Baptist joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. – once said, “If you were to ask the researchers of the world who was responsible for the guarantee of religious liberty in the United States of America, the prompt reply would be ‘James Madison.’ But if you were to ask James Madison this same question, he would quickly say, ‘John Leland and the Baptists.’”

Freedom, to its fullest extent, is core to who we are. But beyond a Baptist principal or a national ideal, the fullness of freedom and the liberation of all people are absolutely core to our faith in Christ, and this is the message proclaimed so loudly and compellingly in the book of Galatians. It’s been called Paul’s “Manifesto of Freedom” and a “magna carta of liberty” with its promise of freedom to love and live out the virtues of Christ, and freedom from anything that would seek to limit or restrict. Specifically, Paul is writing with urgency and anger against those he terms the “Judaizers,” who were insisting that Gentile Christians be circumcised. This was the greatest conflict and question in the early movement: whether or not participating in Christianity meant following the practices and particularities of Jewish law. And while we’re distant from this specific question, we can understand Paul’s desperation. This is one of his earliest letters. The heart of the gospel was at stake for him. In Paul’s terms, the Judaizers were proclaiming “another gospel” altogether. For Christians are free. And to make this point, again and again, Paul uses the harsh and violent image of slavery, saying, “You are no longer slaves.”

From Galatians 4: “So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child.”

In Galatians 5: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free… do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

And, of course in our passage today from Galatians 3 comes that egalitarian creed for Christians: “There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, no longer slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” This promise from Galatians 3 is thought to have been a formula for baptism, so that as you emerged from the waters, marking identity in Christ, it was to the echo of “There is no longer slave nor free.”

It echoes still for us, and asks us what freedom always asks, which is just how far this extends. It’s a question for every setting, and each generation as we seek to live into the fullness of identity in Christ. It’s the question that one of our greatest Americans, Frederick Douglass, was asking along with those who were literally and physically living amidst the horrors of chattel slavery. Frederick Douglass had read this verse from Galatians, about all being one in Jesus Christ, and was able to hear in it the promise of God for him and all who were enslaved. So he began to call this nation to understand the full extent of freedom, and the ways in which we were continuing to fall short of the liberation of all. In one notable instance, July 5, 1852, Douglass was invited to give a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration in Rochester, NY, and he asked famously,  “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He acknowledged the Declaration of Independence, celebrated the call to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but then continued, “Such is not the state of the case… I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Frederick Douglass’ call to liberation, and his appeal to the very founding documents of this nation, is the same rhetorical strategy that would be used a century later by the great preachers of the Civil Rights movement in America, specifically Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said his dream was “rooted in the American dream.” In Dr. King’s words, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

Our family traveled to Washington D.C. earlier this summer, and our kids loved the Lincoln Memorial. We visited several times. Many of you know the power of that place, with the towering monument, the speeches etched on the wall. But I found it most powerful to turn from the statue of President Lincoln, to walk down the first flight of stairs, and to find the marble marked “Dream” commemorating the very spot where Dr. King proclaimed to the nation in 1963. Standing there, looking out at all memorialized and idealized in that spot is a reminder of our responsibility to apply that fullness and extent to our place and time, to reckon with our history and interrogate all the times we have failed to reach the full extent of freedom, and to commit to live up to our highest ideals and live out the true meaning of our creeds.

Which is not only the work of nations and governments, but also the work of movements, and specifically the movement we call “Church.” It is our urgent work to read our ancient creeds and sacred texts, to take in the view of all we’ve memorialized and idealized, and to find how it calls us forward into a fuller extent of the liberation and justice of our God.

The book of Galatians has provided such an ideal for Christians, calling us ever into fuller expressions of freedom.

A former professor of mine, Dr. Brad Braxton, describes a moment this happened for him. He was traveling throughout the Continent of Africa, which was a pilgrimage of deep power for him as a Black American and descendant of enslaved Africans. He encountered the horror of the ways that slavery and Christian tradition had been intwined. At one spot, he visited a coastal prison for enslaved persons, the last site before they were forced into ships for the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, and he realized that just above the cell on the floor overhead was a Chapel, where enslavers would sing, and pray and quote scripture, even as they practiced this worst of human brutality. It recalls something Frederick Douglass once said, reckoning with the fact that the very Bible in which Jesus claims to have come to set oppressed people free was used to defend slavery. “We have men sold to build churches…  Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave trade go hand in hand.”

And as Dr. Braxton continued his pilgrimage, he describes one morning sitting on the porch of his hostel room in Gambia, reading the Greek text of Galatians, when his eyes fell on a phrase, and he heard it as he never had before, from Galatians 4, “You are no longer a slave.” Dr. Braxton recognized how it was so much more than a metaphor, but a call to freedom not only for those suffering amidst the literal yoke of slavery, but for so many more bound by injustice even today. And he remembered again that for all its words, the call of the gospel, is to live fully into the extent of the freedom and love of God.

This is continual work, even in our own reading of our texts and interpretations of our texts. After all, Paul did not write only write about freedom. You know this. In fact, in 1 Corinthians, he admonishes enslaved persons to “Remain in the condition in which you are called,” meaning to remain enslaved. And in the brief letter of Philemon, he describes how he is urging an enslaved person to return to his enslaver. Philemon had enslaved Onesimus. Onesimus is a name that translates, “Useful” — a person known only by his use. But Onesimus had heard the call of Christ. He had believed that freedom was for him, and he sought it for himself. And when he reaches Paul, whose preaching had inspired him, Paul encourages him to go back.

The African American mystic and theologian Howard Thurman, himself a teacher of Dr. King, illustrates the conflict of these words in describing how he used to read the Bible to his grandmother, and one day he opened it to the letters of Paul, the book of Philemon, and his grandmother said sharply, “Do not read that part.” When he was curious, she described how she was born enslaved, how she sat through church services led by her enslavers and their preachers, and how they would frequently read from the letters of Paul. “And I told myself that if freedom ever came, and if I could ever read the Bible for myself, I would not read that part.”

As we have said, Paul is writing to specific occasions, at specific times, and often his words to one conflict with his words in another, leaving us to make decisions about how we will read. This is the work of interpretation. In the Black Church tradition, especially, there is a clear sense that the word of God and the words of a particular scripture passage are not always the same thing. The Bible can be read against itself, even, with interpretive choices made in light of liberation, freedom and the love of God we meet in Jesus, so that when you hear Paul writing an enslaver about the return of the enslaved person, you hear even louder the voice of Jesus saying, “I have come to set captives free.”

In fact, we might even imagine that Onesimus himself did this. Our friend, Dr. Jonathan Walton, in his book A Lens of Love, imagines that when Paul told Onesimus to return, Onesimus could have replied with Paul’s own words, and used Paul’s own proclamation against him. Onesimus had been baptized, he had become a brother in the movement, he had heard and read words of freedom like in Paul’s own letter to the Galatians that had inspired him to live into the fullness of that call and seek it for himself. And when Paul says to him, “Return to the one who has enslaved you,” can’t you imagine those words being drowned out by that echo from the baptismal waters, “There is no slave nor free.”?

This is the arc of our movement. This is the swelling extent of our story. This is the fullness of freedom. This is the revelation of God that continues even in our own work and reading and interpreting and preaching and proclaiming as followers of Christ. And it seems that those subjugated, oppressed, marginalized by this word have always been able to see and hear in our sacred texts the love and freedom that were there all along, and call the rest of us to live into that fullness.

We’ve seen it in women, kept on the margins of the movement, told by some to remain silent in church, to relegate their leadership to specific places and platforms, to limit their role and silence their voices, and yet reading the story and seeing the boldness of Mary, the leadership of Phoebe, the proclamation of Mary Magdalene and knowing the call of God extents to them just as much as to any man.

We see if in LGBTQ persons who have remained committed Christians, even as so many in the Christian tradition have fumbled about trying to decide whether or not the inclusion and affirmation of our God extends to them. They have been regarded as sinful or outside the love and welcome of God, and yet they have read this witness of God’s love from the creation of this earth to its final rest, and been able to hear the voice of God saying to them “You are good… you are beloved… in you I am pleased.”

Or consider enslaved people seeing and hearing the call to freedom, when some would use the very same texts to keep them in literal bondage. Yet they could hear the voice of Jesus saying, “I have come to proclaim liberation and release for the captives…” and they could believe that applied to them, and that the full extent of Christ’s freedom was beyond what so many in their world were willing to see.

For there are always Judaizers, of one kind or another, who cling to external standards, especially if it preserves their power; or who implicitly work against the liberation of all people as though freedom is uniquely in their possession; or who quote scripture in the service of subjugation. So, too, there must always be those who can hear the words of God, “For freedom, Christ has set you free,” and who work for the full extent of this promise for all.

Again and again this movement towards the full extent of freedom happens in our story. It can even be seen in the very writings of Paul. As I mentioned, Galatians was one of Paul’s earliest letters. The letters of Paul and attributed to Paul are arranged in our Bible from longest to shortest. But chronologically speaking, that longest letter, Romans, is actually Paul’s last. And at the close of the letter, there’s a portion so routine you almost miss it. It’s the salutations and greetings, “I commend to you Phoebe… Greet Priscila and Aquila… Timothy, my co-worker, greets you…” On and on these formal words go. Until in passing in Romans 16 it’s written, “And I, Tertius, greet you in the Lord…”

Tertius is a word that means “Third” — a person named only by their order and use. In other words, a person who is enslaved. And in this case, an enslaved person who was the scribe for Paul in this last extensive letter. But at some point in the writing and recording, Tertius breaks off and offers his own greeting, claims his own identity and place in this movement, and writes his own name. He does this because he’s read the words proclaiming his freedom, he’s understood the call, he’s heard the echoing promise of his baptism, and he’s embraced the full extent of this freedom, even before anyone else.

“I, Tertius, greet you in the Lord.” Which is another way of saying, “I am no longer a slave. I am God’s child.”

And may we proclaim the same for all, living ever into the fullness of Christ’s freedom until all are one in Christ Jesus.