Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They responded, “We are Abraham’s children; we’ve never been anyone’s slaves. How can you say that we will be set free?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” -John 8:31-34
“They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” -Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963
Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again. – Galatians 5:1
There are many, many examples of Bible verses that talk about freedom. God is always working to set God’s people free from the bondage of slavery, sin, and oppression. In many of those cases, God’s people are literally enslaved. For instance, the Israelites are slaves in Egypt. They are later ruled over by the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans… to name a few.
Now, to be perfectly honest with you, I have pretty much always made those verses about slavery figurative when I read them. I don’t mean that I doubt the historic oppression, rather that I have a hard time connecting to it. I’ve never been enslaved to anything, held captive against my will, or forced to do anything more menial than helping with yard work at my own home. (To clarify, parents making their teenagers help with chores is not in any way like slavery.) In an individualistic way, just like the Jews speaking with Jesus, I can confidently say that I have never been anyone’s slave.
And, just as Jesus said to them, he would say to me: sin makes slaves of all of us. The brokenness and wickedness of the world catches us, even without our doing anything wrong, and we are bound up in it. When this happens, we need freedom. We cannot seize our own freedom. We must be set free. This is what Jesus does. Forgiveness and love break the chains of sin.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, I am reminded that my freedom is not enough. If I am satisfied with my freedom while my siblings languish in captivity, whether figurative or literal, then my freedom is in vain. MLK spoke of the sin of white supremacy and racism, holding Americans captive, all the while declaring that the love found in Jesus Christ could transform that evil into freedom. He spoke, too, about economic injustice. If my retirement account thrives while my neighbor cannot pay for their insulin, my freedom is in vain.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Did you notice that “us”? Freedom isn’t individualistic. Freedom happens in community, when we love and forgive one another on account of Jesus Christ. Freedom happens when we do the hard work of seeing those who are held captive and work against their oppression.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. This modern slavery impacts 40.3 million people around the world, including thousands right here in Iowa. These victims need freedom. Until our freedom drives us to set the captives free, our freedom is empty. To paraphrase MLK, our freedom is bound to the freedom of all who suffer in captivity.
We cannot reach freedom alone. We need each other. We need the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ. We who have been set free and forgiven must never submit again to slavery and sin. Not for ourselves. Not for anyone.
God of freedom, God of Abraham, God of Martin Luther King, God of me: show me your freedom and forgiveness. Make me bold to show your freedom and forgiveness to my community. Let freedom and forgiveness ring in my life. Amen.