Next Thursday is July 4. In the U.S., July 4 is also known as “Independence Day,” when thirteen British colonies declared their independence of Great Britain. We in the U.S. consider this day the founding of our country. It doesn’t happen too often that the readings for the Sunday on or close to a secular holiday have direct pertinence to that holiday, but I think that is the case for the readings we have this Sunday. The Scripture readings, I think, do speak to us of freedom, and what freedom might mean for disciples of Christ.
I would first like to reflect on what freedom is not. In our second reading from Galatians, St. Paul writes: “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom… But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love…But if you go on biting and devouring one another (does this sound familiar?), beware that you are not consumed by another.” To see my freedom as more important than yours, which then gives me the license to do whatever I want, no matter how it affects you or anyone else, is not being free. Sure, it feels like it, but I wonder if it is really only slavery to greed and lust. Am I free if what I have is never enough?
To be caught up in hatred of the “other,” because of fear, because of assuming that “they” are the enemy, because of assuming that “they” want to take over, or want to take what is ours, is not being free. Does this mean that we don’t defend ourselves? Of course not! But, if we love as Jesus loves, ought we to assume that our freedom is more important than theirs?
In our Gospel reading, Jesus has set His sights for Jerusalem. The route He chooses to take goes through a Samaritan town, but the town refuses Him entrance because His destination is Jerusalem. This is all from age-old divisions and resentments between Jews and Samaritans. So James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” ask Jesus if He wants them to “call down fire from heaven to consume them.” Were James and John free? Or were they slaves to the old prejudices and hatreds? Were they slaves to vengeance?
For me, our Scripture readings even call into question how we relate freedom to “independence.” As countries and nations, we all want independence; we all want to be self-governing. We claim the right to determine for ourselves which way we should go. As individuals, we also want to be independent; we want to be free from interference by others, and many times that even includes God. But can we really be free in isolation from others? Or can there be freedom in the love and service Paul was talking about? Can there be freedom in following Jesus? After Jesus rebukes James and John, He runs into people who pledge themselves to Him. And Jesus’ responses seem rather harsh. But I wonder if that is so because Jesus could see that they were not really free to follow Him. I think this is summarized in what Jesus says at the end of our Gospel reading: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what is left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” If we really want to follow Jesus, we can’t always be looking for the “Exit” signs. We can’t be looking for loopholes and exceptions to loving as Jesus loves. Jesus was free to love and care for others wherever He was. He was not bound by hatred and fear and self-absorption. When Jesus was arrested and condemned and put to death on a cross, the world would say He was a captive. But we believe He was free!
We are free when we are more and more willing to love and give of ourselves. And that extends to accepting the care of others. Last weekend I was in Cleveland with my brother and one of my sisters and some of our friends to watch a couple of ballgames. After the first game, I decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator. At one point, a woman guided my hand toward the rail. Now I could have been embarrassed and resentful of the fact that I was considered old, or I could have been free to accept her help. Just as I was free the next game to help a man climb over the row in front of us to his seat next to us, and he in turn helped his wife to do the same. These are little things, I know, but they point out how in receiving someone’s love and service, we can be free, even when it looks to the world and ourselves, that we are too dependent on others.
Could we take this July 4th to celebrate this kind of freedom?
Fr. Phil, CP