Sermon delivered July 4, 2010
Today our nation celebrates one of its major holidays. In fact, Independence Day is the preeminent day of the year in our nation’s history. As we know, July 4th is the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain by the Continental Congress in 1776. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration is viewed as the cornerstone of our nation’s freedom because it affirms the natural rights of man and the doctrine of government. The establishment of a free and sovereign United States of America laid the foundation upon which personal freedom is now built.
Today, one could say, that freedom to choose is the distinctive characteristic of being an American citizen. Unfortunately, the choices many people make today would be lamentable to our nation's Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock were motivated by a firm belief in God and sought to form a nation and a government that would allow people every freedom to seek justice and to do good. However, the United States and its people, despite having the free will to choose righteousness, have in many ways lost their inherent freedom and have become slaves.
The dictionary definition of freedom states: 1) the quality or state of being free, the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice or action, the liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another (independence).
This idea of freedom and free will is not new to us or to the Founding Fathers. They have existed from the beginning, when God created the world and humankind. The freedom to choose, to make moral choices between good and evil, between God and sin, is one of the central characteristics of humanity created in the image of God. Autexousion — self-determination, the ability to choose, that is what makes us ethical beings and sets us apart from the rest of creation, especially other animals.
Freedom comes from obedience to God. In the Garden of Eden God commanded Adam that he could freely eat of every tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17).
By making humankind in His image and likeness (Gen. 1.26), God gave to Adam free will. Free will is the ability to choose between good and evil. However, many people say that God gave Adam no real choice because He commanded that Adam not eat of the one tree. To understand correctly, there is a difference between what God commands and what He forces. The fact is that God never forced Adam to do anything or prevented him from anything.
People feel the Commandments of God are rules which limit their freedom. The fact that Adam and Eve actually ate of the Tree proves this is not true. God will never force us either. We have the free will to choose between good and evil as well, the ability to choose God or not to choose God. Christ, speaking to John, says: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20). Christ knocks but we must choose whether to open the door or not.
Because we have free will, does that mean that we are free? That we have freedom? This is an important question. Most people in American society would say yes. I choose, therefore I am free. Freedom is predicated on the ability to choose. As Orthodox Christians, our view is a bit different though. It is not our ability to choose, our free will, that makes us free. What makes us free, what gives us freedom, is what we choose or to be more specific, who we choose. John 8:34 says, “Jesus answered them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin’”. As St. Paul sees it, we are in bondage either way, to Christ or to sin. He says in the letter to the Romans, "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?" (Rom. 6:16). Again in Galatians 5:1, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage."
That is why in all the services, the faithful are referred to as doulos or doule tou Theou; not the ‘servant’ of God but the slave of God. It is our obedience, our slavery to Christ that makes us free. That sounds like a paradox and it is. Orthodoxy is full of paradoxes.
Where do I begin to gain freedom from the devil and from sin? Start by making little decisions or choices for Christ. Choose to pray once a day, even if it is just the Lord’s Prayer. Choose to put someone else first before yourself. That could be a husband or wife, your mother or father, your sibling, a friend, or someone you don’t even know. Choose to read your Bible each day. Start with maybe one verse. Memorize it or write it down and carry it with you during the day. Choose to go to liturgy or services instead of sleeping in, working or playing. As you make these small choices for God, you begin to wipe away that cruddy film.
The Sacrament of Confession is a necessary, essential part of this process. It is like going through a car wash. However, the cleansing action is not magical. We are not changed into a saint when we exit. Rather, it is mystical. The Holy Spirit removes the guilt and shame of sin that crushes our hope in Christ. We still have hard work left to do in order to change our sinful habits. As we open our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit our free will is restored and we begin to experience freedom again. St. Paul puts it well in Second Corinthians 3:18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
To conclude, the Founding Fathers of our nation wrote about inalienable Rights, among them were primarily Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. God gave us, in the Scriptures, His commandments as a way, not only to freedom, but as a way to salvation, as a way to eternal life. On this Day let us declare our independence from the devil and his demons. Let us welcome Christ into our heart, soul, mind and body, so that He may break the bonds of sin and death that operate within us. Someone once said, “Freedom is not a question of doing as we like but doing as we ought.” I say to you, there is no happiness; there is no joy without freedom in Christ. Choose Him!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.