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We Will Be Free Indeed

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (Jn. 8:31–36 ESV)

We are concerned with the issue of “freedom” as we celebrate our political independence. As a professor of U.S. history I teach my students about the American sense of mission, the seeds of which were sewn in the first colony at Plymouth. Those who arrived there to practice their religion without state interference felt obligated to use their new found liberty as an opportunity to build a society that expressed the blessings resulting from their “pure” (hence, Puritan) worship. By creating this model Christian community, the settlers of New England hoped to make a compelling example for the rest of the world, to draw them back to God. They would be, as John Winthrop famously remarked, a shining “city upon a hill.”

The decades between the founding of the New England colonies and the American Revolution were marked in the Atlantic world by the advance of Enlightenment principles that would come to form the foundation of the U.S. system, embodied in the term Liberty! The openly religious mission envisioned by John Winthrop and the Puritans was transformed by Enlightenment thinking into a more secular enterprise. The holy undertaking of demonstrating the model Christian society was transformed into an ideology that saw Liberty! (i.e., political freedom) as the primary American export. And so, always and still in the mind of Americans and often in the imagination of others, the United States came to be associated with freedom.

Who would think that the descendants of Israel in first-century Palestine had a similar sense of themselves? Of course, the correspondence is not exact, but there is an eerie coincidence in the response of these “Jews who had believed him” to Jesus’ offer of freedom. “We are offspring to Abraham,” they said. We “have never been enslaved to anyone.” Isn’t that what we would say if Jesus came to our 4th of July picnic and offered to set us free? Wouldn’t we laugh and say something like, “What are you talking about? We are the children of Washington and Jefferson, of Franklin and Lincoln. This is the land of the free!” But those to whom Jesus spoke apparently forgot the bondage in Egypt, the exile in Babylon, and the contemporary harsh rule of the Romans.

You already know where this is going. Like the ancient Israelites, no matter how much freedom we think we have, we are still fettered in many ways. We are enslaved to materialism, shackled to misunderstanding and prejudice and cruel injustice, chained to a life that for all of its physical prosperity cannot satisfy our deepest longings. Some of us have more than we can possibly use and others cannot find their next meal. As long as anyone anywhere suffers want or oppression we cannot say we are truly free. No one will deny that Americans have been able to produce remarkable advances in political freedom and prosperity. But for all that we have yet to achieve the human constructed paradise envisioned by the Enlightenment philosophes. We still live in a world bound by sin and corruption. “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn. 8:34 ESV).

This is where Jesus meets us. When we point to our achievements he replies, “Yet you are not free. You will only be free in me. Take up your cross and follow me.” He wants us to follow his road: the sacrificial road that leads through death on the cross and the burial of pride and selfish ambitions to a new life in glory. The day we surrender to this freedom will be the day we will see fulfilled in our hearing:

            “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

                        because he has anointed me

                        to proclaim good news to the poor.

            He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

                        and recovering of sight to the blind,

                        to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

            to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV)

Let us use the freedom we have been given to live out this promise. When we do, we will be free indeed. Happy 4th!

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