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A Sermon for July 4, 2004 based on John 8:31-36
David Zersen

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To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed


Only once every seven years, the American Independence Day, July 4, falls on a Sunday. This is a year when it happens. Seminarians are usually taught to preach not about secular holidays, but on the assigned lesson for the Sunday. However, at times there are words and acts so profoundly religious in scope hovering around us, that if we don’t reach out to grasp them and challenge their meanings, they will claim us for themselves—even take us by the throat.. Oppression and freedom are such words. These are words Americans have played political games with for centuries, but they have become urgent daily table conversation once again. That is not to say that we truly understand their meanings, however. Oppression is something we can only grasp in abstraction, so long have we lived free from it. Freedom, by contrast, is difficult to comprehend personally if we have not experienced its counterpart. Therefore, these two words to which the circumstances of the last year have given such importance, plead for definition. More importantly, they ask to be included when we talk about ultimate matters in the human community.

I would like to suggest that there are religious dimensions to these words, oppression and freedom, which we can indeed understand personally, and that without these personal understandings the more common secular or political definitions which currently fill our newspapers have no final meaning. We have, in fact, experienced dimensions of oppression from which we have been freed. The Scriptures are filled with such language, as is our Christian experience. Despite our occasional shyness about mixing matters of church and state, therefore, it would seem that a day when July Fourth falls on a Sunday is the perfect time to learn how our faith informs our life, especially in matters social and political.

Real Freedom is a Personal Experience
In our text, Jesus is talking to people who lack our contemporary heritage of freedom. Politically and economically, they were an oppressed people. They were subject to a foreign power and its imposed taxation. They could be enslaved if they were not Roman citizens, which few were. Women’s, children’s, and worker’s rights were primitive by our standards. Religious freedom, although possible, met with careful scrutiny and could be challenged when Caesars expected their own persons at times to be venerated with divinity.

To people for whom oppression was very real, Jesus offered a radical kind of personal freedom in the midst of their ongoing oppression. He offered to set them free from their bondage to sin, free to exercise their birthright of a life of service to an emancipating God. Repentant sinners were declared righteous and set free from a need to use obedience to commandments as a way of achieving acceptance before God. As a result, they were able to respond with gratefulness, not obligation; with love, not fear.

It is an important truth for us to appreciate because we can be as spiritually enslaved and oppressed as were people in Jesus’ world. There are demonic forces which surround us and dwell within us. We may live in the “land of the free, home of the brave,” but we can be oppressed and enslaved by media propaganda which gives false impressions of the truth. We can be suckered-in by glitzy societal values which promise false notions of affluence and happiness. We can be enslaved by ruthless competition or ambition, by condescending prejudice and bias. We can become enamored of temptation and greed or made to cower with fear and anxiety. On July 4th, it’s even worth remembering that we can be seduced by twisted forms of patriotism which encourage condescension to others and broad unilateral actions which endanger the larger world. In the midst of all such things which seek to make us less than we are called to be as humans, and precisely because of that, Jesus speaks a word of freedom which we can understand because we know all too well its counterpart.

The truth which sets us free is precisely the truth that is known personally in the midst of human bondage. Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor who spent much of his time imprisoned for his faith in communist Romania, made a great case for such an understanding. Although behind bars, sometimes tortured, clearly oppressed, he yet knew a freedom which transcended the liberty we prize on July 4 th. He knew that regardless of whether he would ever be allowed to leave his prison, he was a free man. Paul, himself often a prisoner, had this same understanding. In writing, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), he makes it clear that Christians who know they have been forgiven of all their guilt live now with a confidence and joy that is unrelated to their physical surroundings. Such an insight is important to establish as we seek to understand more specific meanings of oppression and freedom, especially those which are unknown to us or which we take for granted. A real understanding of oppression or freedom begins with a personal experience—and Christians have had this experience.

Real Freedom is a Posture of Positive Action
As Americans, we can lay claim to possessing freedoms. Our Bill of Rights guarantees many of them to us. However, just because we possess some of these, does not mean that we live as if we were free. In the name of freedom of speech, many people lie, slander and use perverse means of communication. In the name of freedom to bear arms, many have used weapons against people at times other than in self-defense. In the name of freedom of the press, media, supported by advertising in a capitalistic society, at times gives the public what it wants to hear rather than the truth it needs to hear. People who do such things are oppressed by misguided notions of truth or temptations to secure their advantage at the expense of others. Only one who is truly free is capable of reaching beyond herself/himself to be concerned about larger truths in society, those truths which seek the advantage of others beyond oneself. This kind of true freedom comes through faith in Christ who has canceled the power of sin and death for us and opened us to a future which knows no end. The world is crying out for Christians who know this freedom, who are freed to be free to live with and for others in the world. Everywhere, those who are oppressed with various forms of personal or societal bondage need to know how to

--break through walls of resentment and retaliation with love,
--recognize even in scoundrels God’s good creation,
--ask in cases of personal estrangement whether we too bear some built,
--seek not merely to destroy an enemy, but to bring an enemy God’s love, and to
--approach the clefts of our divided world, working to build bridges and perform
Samaritan service on both sides.

If there are Christians here today who know they have been freed to be free, but who are crippled by anxieties of one kind or another and find it difficult to move out in love, this is the day to name the oppressive demons which hold you back and call upon the Name who has and will again set you free. It is the time to cry with the lepers, the possessed and blind of the first century, “Jesus, have mercy on me. Set me free.” Set me free to leave my guilt behind me along with my self-centered and self-serving interests. Set me free to make choices which serve the best interests of all those whom I encounter on a daily basis.

If we spend some time reflecting on how we feel no longer to have to deal with judgment and burdens of guilt, then we can understand why Christianity is a religion of joy and confidence. It is a future oriented, not a backward oriented faith. It propels us away from ourselves to find those who themselves long to be set free. Such positive feelings clear the table for us as we seek now to understand oppression and freedom in the political sense.

We have not known oppression from outside governments for a long time, and our hysterical reaction to 9/11 demonstrates how unaccustomed we are to dealing with oppression. We have so little understanding of what it means that 350,000 people in southern Sudan are about to be slaughtered in a form of religious hate war that we tend to push it out of our minds. On the other hand, there are freedoms known in some countries which may exceed our own. In the Scandinavian countries, for example, they enjoy a freedom to experience a quality of medical care with lower rates of infant mortality and higher rates of longevity than we have ever known. Yet our own privatized approach to medical care has so prejudiced our ability to accept this data that we waive such success stories aside and choose not to understand them. Oppressions and freedoms in the larger world are not always easy to understand. However, if we rely on our Christian experience, we can know that oppression is a burden and freedom brings joy. We can know that a global desire to be freed to be free is not only a virtue to be valued by us as Christians, but we can know how and where such freedom from oppression begins.

On July Fourth, we have a legitimate opportunity to ask ourselves as Christians how it is that we who have a personal understanding of the meaning of freedom from oppression can participate with people everywhere in a discussion of the question how our slaveries can be set behind us and all of us can be affirmed as members of the family. This is an enormous challenge for people everywhere and there are surely many ways to go about it. Knowing what we know about freedom from oppression in Jesus Christ, however, we may not/cannot use our freedom to tell others when and where they agree with us at the expense of having military or economic pressure placed upon them. Members of the family don’t act that way over against one another, and those of us who have learned this, must call our government to account which it fails us in this regard. It is not that our government is expected to be Christian, per se, but that those who hold dear our own emancipation from sin to serve the greater needs of human kind, can call our government to an exercise of those standards which treat people everywhere as our equals.

July Fourth is an interesting day on which to gather to remember heritage and enjoy the company of family and friends. It is also an opportunity to remember that the understanding of oppression and freedom is rooted in a personal experience we have had with those concepts. Jesus is calling us to share the bold, yet gentle joy, the caring and serving love, which comes from such experience with all the members of the human family. May such insights lead to dialogues and debates, discussions and seminars, everywhere. May the meaning of oppression and freedom captivate us all. May terrorists and soldiers, housewives and businessmen, sit at table together. May war not an option to resolve suspicions, anger, or aggression. May we discover together what it means to be freed to be free.

Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin
Austin, Texas