Independence Day in Christ

We are fresh from the Midland Hills Fourth of July parade in my neighborhood. It’s something my family looks forward to every year. Scheduled as “never on time at 9:00 am,” a firetruck leads a happy band of Hillcresters for a couple of blocks, ending at Pulaski Heights Elementary. Everything and everyone is decorated in red, white and blue - scooters, wagons, bicycles, humans, and dogs. My puppy participated for the first time, complete with her own American flag bandana. Surveying how the other dogs were decked out, we might need to up our game next year. Let’s call it a healthy competition. Other highlights are that neighbors have a chance to visit, there is plenty of lemonade and cookies for the kids, and the mood is joyful. 

The finale consists of a local resident reading the Declaration of Independence into a loudspeaker. Loud hoorahs go up at mention of the self-evident, inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then, as soon as the king of England gets mentioned, the crowd boos. It’s great fun. As the reading progresses, we are reminded of how this great nation of ours began. “The history of the present King of Great Britain (cue the boos) is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.” The grievances against British rule are then listed one by one, until the final declaration: “We, by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.” The crowd cheers at the birth of American freedom, and we wrap up until next year. 

The Sunday following Independence Day is an interesting day in church. We’re fresh off a national holiday and a parade or two, for which emotion and conviction run deep. Our celebrations spark a certain zeal for the founding values of our country and the freedoms we enjoy. However imperfectly our government and local communities actually live out these values at any given time, we are moved by them on the Fourth of July. Sometimes that common zeal leads us to radically different opinions about the current state of things and what ought to be done about it. But regardless of our political differences, we hold our nation’s ideals in common. And so it seems natural to sing some national hymns on the Sunday of the holiday weekend, and to give thanks to God for the freedoms we enjoy. 

Yet here in church, we are quickly reminded that we belong to another kingdom, possessing something like dual citizenship in both earthly and divine kingdoms. The two should never be conflated into one, because that has always been a form of idolatry. While we cherish an American understanding of freedom, in this place, we are reminded that freedom in the kingdom of God is a freedom all its own. 

Take Naaman for example, a high ranking commander of the army of King Aram. His story is a remarkable one about healing, but it’s also a story about freedom in the kingdom of God. Naaman is strong, powerful, rich, and good looking to boot (his name translates as “pleasantness”). He has everything going for him, except his diagnosis of leprosy. It’s an awful disease, for the record, and a hard one to hide as it progresses. And despite his wealth and power, none of the doctors in his country can heal him. A nameless Israelite servant girl takes a risk and sends a bold message to him, essentially that he needs to go talk to a prophet over in Israel to be cured. I imagine that sounds something like: “Sorry UAMS didn’t work out, but there’s a crazy witch doctor with some snake oil over in Tennessee, and he can take care of you.” Miraculously, he takes her up on the idea, and shows up at Elisha’s house with an enormous amount of gold and silver, a letter from the king, and new clothes to offer. Basically he shows up with his impressive Pentagon resume and a whole lot of money. Whatever Elisha’s price, he’s prepared to pay. It’s how things work in his world. He doesn’t yet realize that he has stepped into not only a different earthly kingdom, but into God’s kingdom.

What follows is pretty delightful. Elisha doesn’t even get up off the sofa to greet Naaman. Instead, he sends someone to give the mighty Naaman a message. This infuriates Naaman, of course, and he almost misses the message. But his entourage gently coaxes him into listening. They must be used to his temper. All he has to do is go wash in the Jordan seven times. You really have to picture this to get the full impact. It means stripping down whatever armor or multi-layered dress uniform he’s wearing. And don’t forget he’s got a whole entourage watching this. And then he has to step into the shallow, muddy water of the Jordan, which probably comes up to his knees in the deep parts. Holding his nose, he has to dip down seven very undignified times (Barbara Brown Taylor). And it works. 

This is the story of Naaman’s cure from leprosy, but the cure is for so much more. He does not find healing because of his credentials, money, power, beauty, or his righteousness. God works through different channels - a Hebrew prophet and a very unpowerful, nameless Israelite girl. Nothing Naaman does or says earns him that healing. It’s a gift from God, a grace freely given and unearned to a Gentile. We find out over the next verses that Naaman converts that day. And while he is not very good at being religious per se, he understands that his good standing before God has nothing to do with his resume or winning personality. That’s its own kind of freedom.

And if you want some New Testament evidence for this different kind of freedom in God’s kingdom, just look at the calling of the seventy in Luke’s Gospel. Remember that Jesus has been grooming twelve disciples in a mentorship program. The curriculum covers demon possession, miracles, feeding people, and forgiveness. The disciples have been hard at work in their studies, and no one is acing the difficult material just yet. And then, mid-stream, Jesus calls seventy more disciples and essentially says to them, “You there, with no training whatsoever, you go ahead and take on the mission, too. You have all you need to carry out the Lord’s work.” Imagine how that went over with the first group of twelve. This new group doesn’t have to go through the Commission on Ministry or even an interview. There are no college transcripts or spiritual autobiographies to present. They are just sent out. And they discover that they can cast out demons and break bread with strangers. Whatever their resumes or winning personalities, and whatever they might lack, they are already free to further God’s kingdom.

I take this to mean that we, too, are already free in God’s kingdom. We are already free to receive grace. We are already free to do ministry and to further the kingdom of God. God’s not waiting on us to get our acts together. In fact, God doesn’t seem particularly  interested in our acts at all. In a secular world that sizes up entourages and wants to be impressed by credentials and winning personalities, this is surely a liberation. 

So on this holiday weekend, as we celebrate our secular freedom, let’s also celebrate our spiritual freedom. Each one of us is already graced enough that we can stop showing up here with our resumes in hand and our arguments for why God should or should not accept us. We are free from all that measuring. Each week we come into this space and hear a declaration of our independence from the works righteousness of the secular world. The ministry of Jesus is ready and waiting for us to carry it out. 

Into this amazing freedom, we are about to welcome baby Danielle through baptism. It will surely be a bit more dignified than stripped down Naaman splashing around in the Jordan. But the good news is the same. Danielle will receive grace not because she has earned it at such a tender age, but because God is gracious. We will promise to raise her with an understanding of that grace and of her spiritual freedom. We will remind her that she will never need to be sized up or credentialed in order to receive God’s favor and mission. There might not be a big parade or fireworks today. But it’s just as big of a celebration as Thursday, because today is her independence day in Christ. 

Kate Alexander