One of the memorable questions from last spring's synod assemblies was: "Bishop Hanson, in one word, what is your hope for every ELCA member?" Since then I have asked others that question, and the responses have varied: faith, salvation, hope, love.
My response was "freedom." My hope is that every ELCA member knows that in Christ we are both bound to be free from the power of sin, death and the devil, and free to be bound to God in faith and to our neighbor in service.
"Freed in Christ to Serve" is the theme for the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, but it is more than just a theme. It expresses the heart of our faith.
My mother, who taught me the faith and who as a teacher of English and Latin recognized grammatical nuance, would appreciate the significance of freed (rather than free). Freed in Christ makes clear that our present status of freedom is God's work and it is already accomplished, as Martin Luther explained in the Small Catechism: "[Christ] has purchased and freed me from all sins."
This freedom won by Christ is a fact of history. This freedom was not won on a battlefield, ordered by a court, argued as an axiom of political philosophy, achieved through self-actualization, granted by God as a reward for righteous living or right teaching.
Freedom in Christ happened both once and for all on the cross, and once "for you" in the baptismal dying and rising with Christ. Being freed in Christ is God's gift of grace received through faith so there is no doubt about it. "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).
The character of this freedom in Christ is relational. Relationships today often are imprisoned by distrust, suspicion, alienation, cynicism, polarization. In contrast, the relational freedom in Christ is trust. In faith we trust Jesus' promise: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:31-32).
Luther called this freedom the "power of faith," the freedom of the "inner person" who is liberated from all the powers that would keep a person separated from God.
Freed in Christ also means we are in relationship with one another, liberated from the powers that separate us from each other. Faith in Christ actually places us in restored relationship with God and with God's people in Christ.
So, freed in Christ, Lutheran Christians move very quickly to their neighbors, whom they are freed to serve. The familiar slogan "free to be me" is too little freedom for Christ's liberated people. Standing together, we are a church that rolls up its sleeves. We experience our liberation in working together for the common good. Our voices and bodies sing freedom most fully and truly when we work to restore the human community to reconciled wholeness.
This service is a mark of the life of the baptized. Freed in Christ and living in the covenant God made with us in baptism means serving all people, following the example of Jesus, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth.
When we are freed in Christ to serve, we also serve the very gospel through which freedom in Christ is given. What does it mean that we serve the gospel?
In the Affirmation of Baptism, we promise to "proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed." That means you serve the gospel as an everyday evangelist. Serving the gospel might mean singing "Jesus Loves Me" with a grandchild, extending a hand of friendship to a new neighbor, calling a grieving friend, helping someone in need, seeking reconciliation in the midst of conflict or speaking words of forgiveness.
We serve the gospel whenever we share the good news of God's love in Christ for the whole world.
Freed in Christ to serve is our faith and our way of life. It calls for humility and mutual accountability, courage and compassion. It causes us to ask, "Who is my neighbor?" It reminds us that we are freed in Christ to serve. Thanks be to God for God's gift of freedom in Christ.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers