On this Sunday version of July 4th then, we are reminded that our temporal liberties are always in service to something bigger. We are reminded that it is a worthy thing to celebrate and even to fight for “the protections and responsibilities of religious liberty;” it is a worthy thing to fight for “equal protection under the law.” But all of those blessings are NOT ENOUGH. For God didn’t create and redeem this world merely so that we might live freely among its sinfulness and brokenness. God didn’t engage the world through the person and work of Jesus merely to make a sinful world a little bit better place. He ushered in a new and eternal kingdom amidst the temporal kingdoms of the world so that all might receive His everlasting kingdom by grace through faith, and then live in service to others, both now and forever. Wow!
It’s proper, then, to say that temporal freedom is a blessing; it is to be cherished. But it is also proper to say that it is not enough for the human flourishing that God wishes the world to have. The freedoms we enjoy (temporally and eternally) compel us to live freed, virtuous, and moral lives that are motivated and empowered by God’s grace and mercy for the sake of our neighbor. In other words, we are freed to be faithful to God and then to our neighbor in His name. Temporal, religious liberty and the protections of the Constitution are precious. We celebrate them, but as John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers, reminds us:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
On Memorial Day we were reminded that in life, there are some things worth dying for. We honored the men and women who gave their lives so that we might have liberty and freedom in our country. But today, when July 4th falls on a Sunday, we are reminded that there is something even more important to our lives than mere temporal, political, or civil freedom. It is the freedom that comes from God’s redeeming work on the cross through Jesus alone. In that gracious work God in Christ literally took upon Himself the sin which destroys us and enslaves us in eternal bondage to death. He then gifts us with the reality of a life of freedom and liberty not just for now, but forever. Such a freedom, received in faith, is worth celebrating and even fighting for, not merely for ourselves, but also for the right to share it humbly and graciously with others.
So let this Sunday, July 4th, be one of those times when you cherish both temporal and eternal freedoms. But also realize that, while both are precious, one matters most of all. On this July 4th Sunday then, I leave you with another side of the story of the real Saint Nicholas (Yes, that St. Nick!). While we often reflect upon and even seek to mimic some of his generous acts at Christmas, I think July 4th is another appropriate day to be reminded of his life. As a bishop of the early church, he endured suffering and persecution for his faithfulness to the Gospel amidst the tyrannies of Rome.
Then, when gifted with new-found temporal freedom via Emperor Constantine’s legal recognition of Christianity, Nicholas put that freedom to work in fighting back against the fourth-century heresy of Arianism (a false teaching that diminished Jesus’ divine nature as the God/Man Savior of the world). At the Council of Nicaea, Nicholas rose to the occasion by defending and proclaiming the Gospel, faithful to the Scripture. He did it with such commitment that at one moment, overcome with zeal, St. Nick arose to literally “fight off” such heresy in order to preserve God’s saving message for all.
According to this legend, Nicholas was so angry at an advocate of Arianism that, overcome by apostolic zeal, he struck his opponent.
He literally defended and proclaimed the truth of the freedoms of the Gospel with his body during times of persecution, with his heart in his many episodes of service, and with his soul when he boldly stood up for Jesus for all to see. He not only slapped Arianism back, his advocacy for the truth led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed that blesses the Church to this day. The stories of his kindness and his life of merciful service to the needy call us to acts of service even today.
It is a precious thing to have temporal freedoms and liberty. But let us never think such things are “enough.” For we were meant to put those freedoms to work for the sake of the ultimate freedom in Christ that comes by grace through faith in Christ alone. Happy 4th! And a blessed Nicene Creed Sunday to you all!
The Rev. Dr. Gregory Seltz is the executive director of the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty.
Hear Rev. Tom Baker discuss theological distinctions between Law & Gospel with guest Pastor Wes Reimnitz on the topic of religious liberty in higher education.
Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison joined with other religious leaders in asking the U.S. Secretary of Education to preserve protections for faith-based student organizations on public college campuses.
“O Lord, grant justice in Your left-hand kingdom, especially in the governments of this nation and of all the earth. Correct wrong. Punish and thwart evil . . . Grant peace that Your Gospel may flow all the more freely, especially to those most blinded by evil. Remind us, O Lord, of Your own prayer for those who crucified You, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:24). Let us not be overcome with anger, but overcome hatred with love. Amen.”
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