Religious Liberty Sabbath, January 25, 2014

Sample Sermon for Religious Liberty Day

Ganoune Diop, Ph.D.
Director UN Relations
Associate Director PARL
General Conference of SDA World Headquarters 
 

More than Liberty, Rights, and Respect: An Adventist Vision of Life 

Sermon Written in View of Religious Liberty Day for Preachers, Teachers, and Leaders 

Introduction  

One of the richest images about the church is that it is the body of Christ.The church is not a mere non-governmental organization. Whatever the church is involved in is based on a spiritual worldview that is biblically based, Christ-centered, Holy Spirit-driven, to the glory of God and for the good of His creation.  

Engagement with any aspect of reality, whether, social, political, legal, economic, judicial or any other sphere, should be clearly informed by a biblical worldview. 

Our work for PARL is deeper than mere religious freedom, freedom of conscience, or freedom of belief though these rights recognized by the international community are necessary. However, there are literally hundreds of organizations, NGOs in particular, who put forth significant effort and resources, working selflessly and with great sacrifices to promote and protect, and defend freedom of religion or belief.   

People of all philosophies or religious persuasions affirm human dignity based on various premises. Christians humbly believe that there is more that needs to be brought to the public square so to speak.  

Human Dignity as foundation for religious liberty 

Peoples from various religious and philosophical backgrounds and persuasions share the belief that the foundations for human rights reside in the dignity of every human person. But more specifically from a Judeo- Christian perspective, this dignity is based on the fact that humans are created in the image of God according to His likeness.  

Moreover, since the Bible states that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), Christians take the issue of human dignity further. Our connection with Jesus Christ makes human dignity inseparable from considering God’s sovereignty in our lives. In other words, our respect for people reflects our respect for God. 

Christians participate in the worth of Christ. In the whole universe, He alone is worthy, according to Revelation 5:4, No one is found in heaven, on earth and under the earth, worthy to open the book of destiny of the humankind but Jesus Christ.  

The angle from which Christians view the whole of reality is the grace and privilege to participate in the dignity of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. 

The rationale and objective of what we do in the context of PARL (Public Affairs and Religious Liberty) is to help church members, and any people of good will, develop not only a culture of human rights which is necessary but ultimately as a goal, a culture of respect for human dignity. Christians have adopted the premise that this dignity is grounded on the creation of every person in God's image, according to His likeness. 

This perspective implies respecting every human person and by implications, his or her civil, socio-political, cultural, and human rights.  

More than Mere Respect 

Ideally, if Christians live up to their calling, respecting every person they meet would be a minimum. God gives a clear commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. If Christians were to take this word of God seriously, the message of Christ would be more credible, and the world would be different. Talking even about freedom without building one’s relations with every one upon this foundation creates dissonance, not only cognitively but also existentially.   

All biblical laws and the entire Torah itself depend on the commandment to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself, says Jesus (Matt. 22:37). However, God explicitly expanded in many ways these two fundamental commandments for the purpose of helping us to be creative in affirming human dignity. He asks us, for example, to honor every person: 

“Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bond slaves of God”  (1 Peter 2:16)  

“Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king.

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Peter 2:17).
 

A Whole New Way of Thinking about Religious Liberty 

The central place of religious liberty has been widely recognized. It is said that, “Religious Freedom is the prerequisite for and the guardian of all other freedoms”[i]  

More fundamentally, however, a whole new paradigm of thinking about human rights, freedom of religion or belief, and human dignity, is needed. Paradoxically, it is a paradigm that has been initiated by Jesus Christ, the man who came down from heaven to promote on earth the kingdom of heaven.  

More than a culture of human rights, but including it, we are called to promote a deeper culture of commitment to uphold, promote, protect, and honor human dignity in all our dealings. This is not just about human performance in the public square: programs put in place to get recognition, or accolades. Our adoption in Christ should give us the peace and confidence in every person’s infinite value. Adventists, who find the solution of all human predicaments in Christ and His coming, are called to guard themselves from estimating the value of a person through performance, connections, prestige, or being recognized, rewarded, and the like. The value of a human being is deeper than all these. Concerning Christ’s attitude to the pomp of society, Ellen White wrote: 

Jesus knew the worthlessness of earthly pomp, and he gave no attention to its display. In his dignity of soul, his elevation of character, his nobility of principle, he was far above the vain fashions of the world. Although the prophet describes him as "despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief", he might have been esteemed as the highest among the noble of the earth. The best circles of human society would have courted him, had he condescended to accept their favor, but he desired not the applause of men, but moved independent of all human influence. Wealth, position, worldly rank in all its varieties and distinctions of human greatness, was all but so many degrees of littleness to him who had left the honor and glory of heaven, and who possessed no earthly splendor, indulged in no luxury, and displayed no adornment but humility.”  {RH, December 22, 1891 par. 9}    

Texts from Scriptures that clearly portray Christ as our example or model are significant: 

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:21).   

Human dignity, then, elevates every person we meet to the status of one with infinite worth, a person to be respected, loved, and honored. 

Beyond Justice: God’s Righteousness 

Another key foundation to human rights and freedom of religion or belief that is inseparable from them is the idea of justice. But here too, Adventists while adhering, supporting, and promoting justice for all, for the sake of Jesus Christ and his teachings, take this issue further.   

Jesus Christ spoke about a righteousness that must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees of His day. What the law required was actually a minimum from the point of view of Jesus Christ. The follower of Jesus therefore goes far beyond than what the law requires.   

Christians are law-abiding citizens in so far as laws do not violate their conscience. They do not neglect the laws of the land. They surpass them indeed. They transcend the requirements of laws. They respect legislations, precisely by going beyond what they demand. They become societal signs of God’s righteousness.  

The Law demanded justice, even retributive justice. Jesus emphasized distributive justice also called righteousness. Jesus came to go beyond retributive or even restorative justice or reparative justice, to promote distributive justice that climaxes in love, even love for an enemy.  

The attention is no longer on oneself and on one’s needs and rights but rather on the others, the neighbors and their needs and what we owe them.  

The righteousness Jesus promotes is illustrated in the famous so-called “antitheses. They begin as follows:  

“You have heard that it was said ‘you shall not murder,’ but I tell you do not be angry against your brother, do not insult your brother.” In other words do not put people into boxes; for in doing so you confine them, which is contrary to the freedom, for which they were born (See Matt 5:21-26).  

Freedom and Beyond

The undergirding value in these words of Jesus is freedom, one’s freedom and other people’s freedom by not judging and confining one’s brother or enemy.  

The words of Jesus in the so-called “antitheses” climax in His unparalleled transforming statement:  

“You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what rewards do your have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  

Freedom is Christianity’s most central ideas.[ii] However, for Christians the supreme value is not freedom per se, for that would transform freedom into an idol. God is the supreme value. Loyalty to God is more important than freedom. In the book of Revelation, the victorious Christians value loyalty to God more than their own lives.  

The text reads: 

“They overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death” (Revelation 12:11). 

God is indeed the supreme value. Conformity to God’s person and purposes is the focus of all freedom lovers even at the expense of their own rights. Even when their rights are violated, Christians still seek the welfare of others for God’s sake.  

The freedom to love and fellowship with one’s brothers and sisters in humanity is deep in the priority list of God’s character and will. The recognition, respect, protection, and promotion of human dignity lead to respecting, protecting, and promoting freedom, all freedoms, and in particular freedom of conscience.   

Adventists have been historically sensitive to the need to resist restriction to religious freedom.  Revelation 13 is seen as a chapter that depicts attempts at imposing not only false worship but also coercion and restriction to freedom of God’s end time people, even beyond the religious sphere.     

In this context the words of Ellen G. White have had enormous impact on the church’s consideration of religious freedom as an essential and incontrovertible component of its mission:  

“The banner of truth and religious liberty held aloft by the founders of the gospel church and by God’s witnesses during the centuries that have passed since then, has, in this last conflict, been committed to our hands. The responsibility for this great gift rests with those whom God has blessed with knowledge of His Word. We are to receive this Word as a supreme authority. We are to recognize human government as an ordinance of divine appointment, and teach obedience to it as a sacred duty, within its legitimate sphere. But when its claims conflict with the claims of God, we must obey God rather than men. God’s word must be recognized as above all human legislation. A “Thus saith the Lord” is not to be set aside for a “Thus saith the church” or a “Thus saith the state.” The crown of Christ is to be lifted above the diadems of earthly potentates.”[iii]  

According to Ellen White, Adventists are entrusted two missions: 

1.  To restore truth
2.  To promote religious freedom 
 

The restoration aspect makes Adventism into a restorations movement, the emphasis being of the restoration of the whole chain of biblical truth, including what has been called present truth.  

The promotion of religious liberty has characterized Seventh-day Adventism since the early days of its founders, so much so that an organization for the promotion and defense of religious freedom was established as early as 1893. Advocating for the right to worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience has been part of SDA DNA. This right was defended for all.  

The connection between Adventism and freedom is also present in the name Seventh-day Adventist.   

Sabbath and Freedom 

Both missions (restoration of truth and promotion of religious freedom) are inscribed in the name Seventh-day Adventist.  “Seventh-day” refers to not only the Sabbath of creation which is the commemoration of God’s sovereignty as creator according to Exodus 20, but it was instituted by God as the commemoration of freedom (Deut.5). It particularly is freedom from slavery, oppression, and domination of one people group by another.  

Every Sabbath is Independence Day, a day of gratitude for deliverance, a day of fellowship in joy and peace. The Sabbath, more profoundly and in an unparalleled way and unprecedentedly in the history of religious thought, is connected to human dignity because of the special status of human beings in the created order. At creation God created human beings in God's image according to His likeness. God created the Sabbath for rest and fellowship.  

From a broader perspective what was said about human dignity and justice is also true for freedom. We support the freedoms recognized by the international community in the context of human rights. However, there are deeper reasons than mere solidarity with the human family. The Bible provides a deep perspective that we can only briefly mention here but develop in another upcoming publication. For the sermon on Religious liberty day suffice it to remind preachers and teachers and leaders sharing the Sermon that the biblical vision of freedom is core to the Christian faith. The following basics are in order.  

That Jesus came to provide freedom is clear in his inaugural address in Luke 4:18-19.  

In the Gospel of John he stated that it is the Son of God himself who gives true freedom.  

“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).  

Jesus’ death, on the Cross of Calvary, provides the necessary expiation to release us from the penalty of sin, death, Satan, and evil spirits. His resurrection inaugurates an era of true freedom. Death is defeated; communication, relationships, and life can truly spring.  

Freedom is inseparable from the Holy Spirit. Where the Spirit is there is freedom, says the Apostle Paul. (2 Corinthians 3:18) Christians have been called to freedom (Galatians 5:1, 13).  

Profile of a Free Person: 

A free person is a person full of the Holy Spirit, a person who bears the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

A free person is one who reflects God's character.  A free person is one who is willing to give up his or her freedom for the sake of others if necessary. Just like Jesus, just like the Apostle Paul who said: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more…I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel so that I may become a fellow partaker of it” (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).  

These words most likely inspired the reformer Martin Luther who wrote: 

“A Christian person is a free sovereign above all things, subject to no one” (by faith)
“A Christian person is a dutiful servant in all things and subject to everyone” (by love)  
 

Christian courtesy in the public arena is one of the most beautiful expressions of freedom. 

“True courtesy is not learned by the mere practice of rules of etiquette. Propriety of deportment is at all times to be observed; wherever principle is not compromised, consideration of others will lead to compliance with accepted customs; but true courtesy requires no sacrifice of principle to conventionality. It ignores caste. It teaches self-respect, respect for the dignity of man as man, a regard for every member of the great human brotherhood.” [iv]  

As religious freedom promoters, we are called to give heed to the following counsel:  

“None should feel at liberty to preserve a cold and chilling reserve and iron dignity,--a spirit that repels those who are brought within its influence. This spirit is contagious; it creates an atmosphere that withers good impulses and good resolves; under its influence persons become constrained, and the natural current of human sympathy, cordiality, and love is choked. The gloom and chill of this unsocial atmosphere is reflected in the countenance; and not only is the spiritual health affected by this unnatural depression, but the physical health is affected also.  

There are scarcely two whose experiences are alike in every particular. The trials of one may not be the trials of another; and our hearts should ever be open to kindly sympathy, and aglow with the divine love that Jesus manifested for all his brethren.”[v]  

In a world of controversies, conflicts, violence, and wars, freedom is at all times at risk.

From a spiritual perspective, to maintain one's freedom, one must wear the whole armor of God as mentioned in Ephesians 6:10-18. Revival and reformation should position us as restorers of truth including truth about freedom, true freedom.  

Our understanding of freedom is connected to the very reason God created humans in His image according to His likeness. Freedom is a prerequisite to love; it is therefore at the root of the covenant between God and humans and also between themselves.  

Adventists have been sensitive and aware of the toxic nature of coercion as it violates human dignity. In connection to freedom, chapters 12 and 13 of the book of Revelation depict murderous beasts that try to restrict the freedom of God’s people. Their mode of operation is coercion, intimidation, and the use of threat and fear as weapons. To stand for peace, regardless of the violations of one’s rights, is in accordance with the character of God who desires the freedom even for those who reject Him, mistreat him, or crucify Him.  

Conclusion and Suggestions for an Appeal to a Renewed Commitment to God’s Mission  

Adventists have been promoters of both freedom and truth. This tradition must continue because it does much good. However, in order to be consistent and relevant in our day and age--that some people call post-Christian, postmodern, and postcolonial--to promote religious liberty must include a life dedicated to freedom, justice/righteousness, and peace just as Jesus showed in His life.  

To embrace true freedom means to renounce a spirit of domination, abuse, or use of people. Recognizing infinite worth in others for the sake of Christ their Lord goes with the determination to honor all people, to affirm human dignity in all.  

Ellen White wrote about the depth of this freedom God endowed to every person.  

It is not God's purpose that any human being should yield his mind and will to the control of another, becoming a passive instrument in his hands. No one is to merge his individuality in that of another. He is not to look to any human being as the source of healing. His dependence must be in God. In the dignity of his God-given manhood, he is to be controlled by God Himself, not by any human intelligence.  

Furthermore, she forewarned the church as follows: 

“There is coming in among us a spirit which God will not suffer to rule. Never should Christians feel that they are lords over God's heritage. There should not be among Christians a spirit, which makes some patrons and some protégés. The commandments of God forbid this. "All ye are brethren" (Matthew 23:8). 

No man is to think that he is the owner of the minds and capabilities of his brethren. He is not to think that others must submit to his dictation. He is liable to err, liable to make mistakes, as every man is. He is not to try to control matters in accordance with his ideas.”[vi]

My prayer during this religious liberty day is:  

May God help us renounce all forms of violence, coercion, and violations of people’s consciences and physical and emotional integrity. 
May He grace us with the strength to embrace peace in all its dimensions.
May He give us the determination to uphold every person’s dignity.
May He also create in us the will and the passion to work for the freedom of everyone until the One who is coming comes. 
 

Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus. 

                                                                                                                           

[i] Religious Freedom: Main Statements by the WCC 1948-75 (Geneva, 1976).

[ii] Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), perceptively wrote “’freedom’ is the central theological concept which sums up the Christian’s situation before God as well as in this world. It is the basic concept underlying Paul’s argument throughout the letter…Christian freedom is the result of Christ’s act of having liberated those who believe in him (the ‘indicative’), but this result is stated as a goal, purpose, and direction for the life of the Christian (the ‘imperative’).  Furthermore, he insightfully stated the following: “It was the gift of the Spirit which enabled the Galatians, as all Christians, to experience freedom (3:2-5). This experience amounted to a liberation from the elements of the world’ and their tyrannical regime of evil (1:4, 4:1-10), and included liberation from slavery under the Law and sin (cf2:19; 3:13, 25; 4:5), from death (cf2:20; 3:11; 5:25; 6:8), from ignorance of God (4:8-9), from superstition (4:8-10), and from social oppression and religious cultural discrimination (3:26-28). (p.256)

[iii] Ellen G. White. .”—The Acts of the Apostles, 68, 69. – {ChS 161.3}

[iv] Ellen G. White. {AH 426.2} 

[v] Ellen White. {BEcho, December 1, 1886 par. 14, 15} 

[vi] Ellen G. White. TDG 192.3 {CH 345.2}