The Truth that Frees From Fear

Andrew R. H. Thompson

(A sermon preached at Chapel of the Apostles, March 29, 2023)

What could we accomplish
if we had no fear –
fear of failure,
of others’ judgment,
of rejection?

Freedom from fear is what unites
our readings today.
At first glance,
they seem like two very different stories:
on the one hand
the heedless courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
in the face of the furnace of blazing fire;
and on the other hand,
a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees
over the freedom that comes from God.
What these two passages share,
is the promise
of freedom.
It is the promise of freedom from
whatever earthly forces claim our obedience
or purport to offer us security.
The promise that we need fear
neither the great powers that threaten to engulf us
nor the nagging intimations of our own inadequacy or insignificance.
When Jesus rejects the Pharisees claim of self-sufficiency
on the basis of their descendance from Abraham,
he is rejecting their attempt to ensure their own identity,
to secure their own worth –
to free themselves on their own terms.
True freedom,
he tells them –
he tells us –
comes only from the truth.

There has perhaps been no more prophetic critic
of these earthly powers
than the Episcopal lawyer and lay theologian William Stringfellow.
In Stringfellow’s analysis we can see clearly
the straight line between the Pharisee’s delusions of self-sufficiency
and Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace of blazing fire.
Stringfellow argued that biblical language about principalities and powers
can help us understand the systems and ideologies
we live under today.
According to his reading of the Bible,
the powers rebel against God
and hold dominion over human beings
with false promises of salvation.
In the face of human insecurity and anxiety,
the powers offer security and meaning,
and so we give them our obedience.
This applies to institutions of all sorts –
economic and political systems,
and universities –
that demand our loyalty and promise us salvation.
According to Stringfellow
even the church
acts as a principality
when in prizes its own self-preservation
over the gospel of life.
This is what ties together the two readings:
Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace
and the Pharisees’ self-sufficiency
are the contrasting faces of the powers
with their simultaneous promises of freedom
and demands for obedience.

Stringfellow also saw clearly how Jesus frees us from these claims.
“[Christ’s] resurrection,” he said,
“means the possibility of living in this life,
in the very midst of death’s works,
safe and free from death.”
In Christ’s confrontation with the powers of his day,
in dying at their hand and overcoming death,
he shows that their promises and threats are empty.
The best that the powers can offer are lies;
and their worst threats are powerless before God’s power.
The truth is that the powers have nothing to offer us,
and we have nothing to fear.
This truth sets us free –
Free from fear,
free from anxiety about our own worth and meaning.
Free to denounce the powers
and to imagine other ways to live.

In Stringfellow’s time,
one of the best examples of this freedom from fear
was the Philadelphia eleven –
the eleven female deacons who were ordained to the priesthood in 1974
against official church policy –
and for whom Stringfellow acted as attorney.
In his view,
their ordination stood as a rebuke
to a church that had conformed itself to the world
and was preoccupied with its own preservation (282).
And now, at the close of women’s history month,
seems an appropriate time to recall
their courageous confrontation
with the powers and principalities.
A year after her ordination in Philadelphia,
at the ordination of four more women in Washington DC –
still without the approval of General Convention –
one of the eleven, Allison Cheek,
delivered the charge the ordinands
in words that recalled both her own struggle
and Stringfellow’s theology of the powers.
She exhorted:
“My sisters…
in our church at the present moment there are those
who confuse the good order of the church with the corrupt use of power.
Be very clear about the distinction,
for in your hands, too,
lies the good order of the church.
Where it is present you will find love and justice and shared power –
mutuality, and respect for each other, under God.
Where there is corrupt use of power,
you will find arbitrary control and emotional manipulation –
prejudice and exclusion.
Go forth clothed in [Jesus’s] divine humanity –
that the universality of his priesthood may be proclaimed.”

Another of the eleven, Carter Heyward,
insists that at the heart of the Philadelphia and Washington ordinations
was a moment of breaking free –
breaking free from traditional ideas of women’s roles
and from patriarchal Christianity.
This breaking free makes possible the transformation of the world and the church –
transformation that, Heyward reminds us, is still incomplete.
The courage of these fifteen women
is a testament to the truth
that makes us free.

What could we accomplish
if we were free from fear?

Because fearlessness is surely what is needed.

As we grieve the sacrifice
of still more children and adults
to the idol of guns this week in Nashville.

As yet another United Nations climate change report last week
reminds us that we have all but squandered
any hope of stopping catastrophic climate change,
even while the US government
approves an enormous new oil drilling project
on previously untouched land in the Arctic.

As more and more laws are passed
in Tennessee and elsewhere
to deny not only the rights but the humanity
of anyone who is not a cisgender male.

Stringfellow was clear
that all ideologies and institutions are powers
and all are fallen;
but some are more devoted to death than others.
And they must be named.
The gun industry.
The fossil fuel economy.
A political ideology of hate and intolerance.
These are the names of demonic powers,
powers in rebellion against God
and devoted to death.

We name them,
and because we who follow Christ
have nothing to fear from them,
we are free to tell the truth about them.

The truth is that
these powers claim to promise salvation –
in the form of wealth,
solutions to our problems,
a better life –
but they deliver nothing but death.
They make us less free
and imperil our lives and the lives of all creation.
The truth is that these powers
capture our imaginations with their lies,
making us believe that there are no other options,
that we have no choice but to serve their gods.
This is sin,
a sinful system,
and this is what it means to be slaves to sin,
as Jesus says in the gospel.

But the truth is
that the truth makes us free.
Because the powers exercise their dominion through lies,
telling the truth about them weakens their hold on our imaginations.

The truth is that we are free –
that the powers do not own us.
The truth is that we are not what we consume,
what we own or accomplish;
we are not who we become by excluding or harming others.
We are nothing more or less than beloved creatures of God.
The truth is that this is our real worth, our real meaning.

This truth makes us free to denounce them –
all the powers and principalities,
the ideologies and institutions
that promise fulfillment
but deliver emptiness;
that promise security
but only make us more insecure;
that promise freedom
but hold us captive.
And it makes us free to envision another life,
a life worthy of creatures of God,
made in God’s image.
A life freed from fear,
from the fear of death and death’s works.
A life of continuing in Christ’s word,
as Stringfellow says,
“confident and joyful in leaving [ourselves]
in the judgment and mercy of God,
in all things,
for ever and ever.”

A life of truth.

And not only to envision such a life,
but to live it;
to organize and mobilize
and act and live
free from fear.

The truth will make you free,
says Jesus,
and then
“you will be free indeed.”

The question, then,
is not what would we accomplish if we were free from fear,
but what will we accomplish
now that the truth
has already made us
free indeed?

Published by Andrew Thompson

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