"What Is This Love? Liberation."
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
June 2, 2019 -- Seventh Sunday in Eastertide
Acts 16:16-34; John 17:6-7, 20-26
Liberty seems to be a god in our time and place – in the America of the twenty-first century. Of course, it didn’t start in our lifetimes. “Live free or die” was adopted as the state motto of New Hampshire – the more conservative and fiercely independence-minded of the New England states – way back in 1945. It was quoted from the 1809 letter of John Stark, a Revolutionary War general, who in turn was inspired by Patrick Henry’s speech to the second Virginia congress in 1775, which included the cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” The general idea was that even death is preferable to enslavement. It’s ironic, then, that the principles of liberty did not extend to the slaves held by these and other patriots. Liberty and bondage seem to live side by side in our history. It is liberty that we worship, a god with a small ‘g’ – and bondage of some form or another has even been defended as a necessary sacrifice to the god “liberty.”
Today’s text from Acts is filled with contrasts between liberty and bondage. A slave woman with a “snake spirit” – a reference to the Delphic oracle – attests freely that Paul and Silas are also slaves. The slave with the gift of divination is doubly enslaved – she is both possessed by the snake spirit and a possession of her masters – and yet she seems to be at liberty to follow Paul and Silas around town, much to their annoyance. Paul unbinds her from the snake spirit, but doesn’t seem too worried about her status as a slave, nor the fact that her liberty may mean that she is cast aside by her masters, or worse, demoted to more menial and captive servitude. All citizens of the empire, as well as residents of territories occupied by the empire, are subjects of their “master” – or “lord” – in Rome – the emperor. This is where we first learn of Paul’s protected status as a citizen, and yet it does not free him from the charges of sedition against the state – evoking the same grounds on which Paul’s master – his “Lord” – Jesus – was bound, tried, and executed.
At precisely the bleakest moment – the darkest and most captive and vulnerable circumstance – the tables are turned once again. Released from their physical bondage in the innermost cell by the earthquake – again strikingly parallel to the earthquake in the innermost chamber of the temple at the moment of Jesus’ liberating death – Paul and Silas are suddenly the masters of the jailer’s fate. Despite the liberty that presents itself, the disciples, still in their place of captivity, choose to “liberate” the jailer from death by his own hand. In response, the jailer tends to their wounds like the Samaritan had done for the traveler left for dead on the side of the road. Who is captive and who is free? And what must each do for salvation? In each case in this narrative, as far as we know, those who were captive remain in their captive state despite being “saved,” delivered, unencumbered, or liberated. Salvation, then, in this context – the context of the good news as it was first shared beyond the boundaries of Judaism – does not mean a change in the particularities of captivity, but a redemption of the particularities of slavery – it means a liberation of the whole person and restoration of the wholeness of the community. I am reminded of the clarity with Richard Rohr conveys the alternative to the punitive, substitutionary paradigm of salvation:
“Jesus didn’t come as a remedy for sin – as if God would need blood before God could love what God created. The idea that God, who is love, would demand the sacrifice of [God's] beloved [Child] in order to be able to love what God created is the conundrum that reveals how unsatisfying that quid pro quo logic really is.
“... Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing: God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. This sets everything on an utterly positive foundation. Rather than being an ogre, God is Love. Rather than being sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are inherently and forever loved by God, no matter what we do or don’t do.”[i]
During the twentieth century, as the conditions of oppression and corruption blossomed in Latin America, a new movement in Christian theology with deep roots in the Torah, the Prophets, the Wisdom Literature, and the Gospel also blossomed – though in the case of this movement, called Liberation Theology, it was also watered by labor movements, emancipation movements, suffrage movements, and critical social analysis. Liberation theology observed God’s preferential option for the poor and sought to bring liberation by empowering the poor to organize and lead. The idea was not to escape the condition of poverty to climb the ladder of material success. Leaders in the base Christian communities stayed in their circumstances of captivity, like Paul and Silas remained in the innermost cell, in order to bring the light of Christ – even to the jailer.
Richard Rohr continues:
“Liberation theology focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (i.e., what Pope John Paul II called ‘structural sin’ and ‘institutional evil’). It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own naughty behaviors, which many people identify as the only meaning of sin. In our individualistic society, structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level. Large companies, churches, and governments get away with and are even applauded for [violence], greed, vanity, pride, and ambition. The capital sins are rewarded at the corporate level but shamed at the individual level. This is our conflicted Christian morality!
“Instead of legitimating the status quo, liberation theology tries to read history and the Bible not from the side of the powerful, but from the side of the pain. Its beginning point is not sin management, but ‘Where is the suffering?’
“The world tends to define poverty and riches simply in terms of economics. But poverty has many faces – weakness, dependence, and many forms of humiliation. Essentially, poverty is a lack of means to accomplish what one desires or needs, be it lack of money, relationships, influence, power, intellectual ability, physical strength, freedom, or dignity.
“God hears the cry of the poor. And we, created in God’s image and likeness, must do the same to be like God.”[ii]
Beloved, the work of resurrection love is liberation by disentangling us from restrictive bondage and captivity, imposed upon us through the sin of others, systems of sin, as well as our own self-imposed sin – estrangement from the good that God intends and declares for us. To borrow again from Rohr, the work of resurrection love “is to keep people free for God.”[iii]
“We get trapped in chains of guilt and low self-esteem, focusing on our imperfect church attendance and inability to live up to the law’s standard. As if the goal of religion is “attendance” at an occasional ritual instead of constant participation in an Eternal Mystery! Prophets turn our ideas of success and belonging on their head, emphasizing God’s unconditional and unmerited love in response to our shortcomings. God is always breaking the approved “rules of God” by forgiving sinners, choosing the outsider or the weak, showing up in secular places.
“Our job is to love others the way God has loved us. In [our lives, we]’ve experienced God’s unearned love again and again. God has persistently broken the rules to love [us] at the level [we] needed, could receive, and [were] able to understand throughout [our lives]. The magnanimous nature of divine love keeps liberating [us] at deeper levels where [we’re] still entrapped.”[iv]
Liberty may often be worshipped as a god, and served in the hope that we will become masters – Lords of all we survey. Instead, we know God to be the Lord of love, the Master of compassion, the One who reaches into our pain and plants a new seed – a seed of resurrection love – a love that trusts in hope – a love built on a foundation of mutuality – a resurrection love of liberation. In the resurrection love of Jesus, the slave woman becomes the prophetic voice, the jailer becomes the good Samaritan, and the Apostles choose to remain enslaved to the God whose love takes us, shakes us, and unshackles us in order to redeem our brokenness for the sake of liberation.