Today, July 4, is American Independence Day, the day that we celebrate our declaration of independence from foreign rule and the birth of our Republic.
The two words that come to mind most often in thinking about Independence Day and the founding of our Republic are “freedom” and “independence." Conceptualized in terms of the American experience, “freedom,” on the one hand, is generally understood as freedom from tyrannical rule and government interference and overreach, while “independence” describes the ability of a nation to be free from dependence on foreign rule or meddling.
These two, freedom and independence, have formed the foundation upon which this blessed nation has been built.
Today, I wanted to take the opportunity to examine these two things, “freedom” and “independence,” from a Christian perspective.
First, we must make sure we have a sound understanding of what “freedom” is, because it can often be misinterpreted or misappropriated. Too often, we think of “freedom” as the ability to do what we want, whenever we want to. While there is some element of this present in the Christian understanding of freedom, it does not paint the entire picture of what freedom is.
Freedom in the classical understanding means having the ability for governing one’s self. A free person can assume the responsibility for his or her own thoughts, actions and life choices and has no need to be governed by a higher authority. This was along the lines of how our founding fathers envisioned the American Republic, and they greatly emphasized the need of the free individual to be governed by religious principles and morals, the reason being so that the person would not become captive to his own vices, which would lead to deviance, lawlessness, apprehension and ultimately imprisonment – the exact opposite of freedom!
Indeed, according to the vision of the founding fathers, the freedom of the individual came with a lot of responsibility – for one’s own life, for one’s choices and for one’s behavior toward others.
Now, let’s take a look at freedom from a Christian perspective. First off, we acknowledge the overarching principle seen from the time of Creation and throughout the whole of Biblical and human history: that mankind was created with free will and to live a life of freedom. However, in this case, it is freedom from the tyranny of evildoing and the captivity of sin and condemnation.
Recall that when God created the first humans and placed them in the Paradise of Eden, they were free to live on their own and given the responsibility of leading godly lives in relationship with their Creator. They were advised, for their own good, not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, yet they decided to use their free will to do something against God – something that would be detrimental to them both. This is the primordial example of the wrong understanding of “freedom” that I mentioned earlier. “Being ‘free’ means we can do whatever we want with no thought of the repercussions of our actions for ourselves or others.” Well, look what happened to Adam and Eve as a consequence of that attitude! Instead of freedom, they became enslaved to sin and captive to death, in desperate need of a savior and liberator all because they used their freedom without regarding the responsibility that accompanied it.
Fast forward to now: this is the predicament of each and every one of us. While we have also been created with free will, endowed with our mental faculties and a conscience as our moral guide, we all have laid aside our God-given responsibilities and in one way or another have traded our sacred freedom for the prison cell of sin and personal transgression.
Thanks be to God that he sent his Only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, for exactly this reason.
In Chapter 8 of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells those who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” In this passage, besides uttering one of the most well-known expressions in the English language, “the truth shall set you free,” Jesus reassures us that when we become acquainted with him, listen to him and follow him – meaning putting his Word to practice in our lives! – we have this freedom restored to us. We become free to choose him as Lord of our lives, free to choose what is good for our souls and free to stay away from sin, which harms and corrupts us.
Later on in this same passage he continues, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the Son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36)
In refutation of the twisted, hedonistic view of freedom I mentioned before, Jesus lovingly reminds us that if we use our freedom to sin, then we become prisoners to sin and thereby lose our freedom altogether. One cannot be captive to sin and continue to be called “free.” Thank God that Jesus Christ, the Son of the Heavenly Father, offers to “make us free,” and he did this not only in word, but with his willing death on the cross, as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 8:5) Today we are reminded to always seek after our Lord for the life-giving freedom from sin that he has promised us.
Now as concerns “Independence,” I’d like to start by acknowledging that dependence on God is vital to human existence and an essential tenet of our Christian faith. I do not believe that our founding fathers meant to imply that independence meant that people never had to depend on anyone, and certainly not on God. Recall that independence was conceived of more at the national, societal level rather than at the individual.
In the Christian understanding, we believe we are called to be dependent on God. After all, he is the source of our life, our breath and our salvation. Even our Lord Jesus demonstrated this dependence perfectly throughout his earthly life, as he constantly sought to be at one with God through uniting his own will to that of the heavenly Father. Conversely, we would be right in affirming that no Christian should be dependent on sinful dealings or evil behavior, or anything contrary to God’s commandments.
However, I do believe that somewhere in the middle there is some room to depend on the inventions of the world, the machinations of our hearts or the ministrations of our fellow man, as long as we are not overly dependent on these things. Do not misunderstand: all of these things are ultimately provided by God and, in good faith and in the right measure, are meant for us to trust in. What I mean to say by “overly dependent” is that we shouldn’t trust in these things of the world as things that our world has to offer us. Instead, we should always have in mind to give the credit to God himself and realize that it is upon him that we have come to depend – even when his aid comes to us in the form of our personal abilities, help from others or some tangible product of the world. Just a few minutes ago, we praised God for everything in our life, singing, “In all things you are blessed, Lord; we hymn you, we praise you, we give thanks to you, Lord our God.” In this beautiful praise song, we demonstrate both our dependence on God and our independence from want and need.
For a beautiful example of this, let’s take a look at today’s Gospel reading, which tells of Jesus’s feeding of the 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus’s closest disciples wanted the large crowd to be totally dependent on the world in that moment. “Let them go so they can travel on their own to the nearby towns and buy bread for themselves!” In other words, “let them go so they can disunite instead of unite, travel away from instead of toward their Lord and go to take care of their own physical sustenance rather than depending on the source of their spiritual and physical nourishment for all that they need in this moment.” Not the ideal solution for them right then and there.
Jesus had a better idea: “You give them something to eat.” In saying these six simple words, “you give them something to eat,” he summarized beautifully the idea that we can depend on God while receiving from others who have been sent by God for our benefit. While the disciples thought that the people had to depend on their own wallets and the nearby bakeries for food, Jesus knew that the people could depend on the disciples in that moment. Notice that he himself did not give the bread to the people, neither did he have any to give them right then. What he did have was the divine authority and wisdom to use one group of people and their abilities to bless another group that was dependent upon him. No doubt, the disciples needed the divine blessing from Jesus in order to perform this miracle, but in the end Jesus used them to provide the meal for the great multitude assembled that day.
The disciples depended on the Lord for the blessing. The people depended on the disciples for the food. Today, we depend on those people and the miraculous Gospel story that enshrines them in history for testimony, inspiration and, indeed, to prepare our hearts and minds to receive this same blessed and consecrated bread that is offered to us every Sunday at the Holy Table.
On this Independence Day, we pray to Almighty God that he would preserve our freedom as Christians, and help us to depend on him for all our needs in life.
Fr. Stephan Baljian, Pastor
Saint Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church
of Merrimack Valley
July 4, 2021