The Preacher as Liberator

Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

We preach to set people free.

Freedom is the hallmark of the Christian message.

We know that because it is such a familiar theme in the New Testament. Here is a partial list of the places where it shows up:

  • the Synoptic Gospels, where Jesus promises to “let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18)
  • the Gospel of John, which announces, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
  • the Apostle Paul, who reaches the conclusion “for freedom Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)
  • the book of Hebrews, as it celebrates Christ’s ability to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery.” (Hebrews 2:15).
  • the First Letter of Peter, in its insistence that believers must “live as free people.” (1 Peter 2:16)
  • the Revelation to John, which directs attention to Christ as the one who “freed us from our sins.” (Revelation 1:5)

Freedom is also the function of Christian proclamation. In other words, Preaching can—and should—play a part in God’s commitment to liberate. Simply by contemplating Jesus, who he is, where he is encountered, and what he accomplishes, the preacher has to act as a liberator.

The preacher’s primary task is not to instruct, to lead, or to form the spiritual health of a congregation. It is to set people free.

Instruction, leadership, and formation are all good things. They all have their parts to play in a sermon. But they remain secondary to liberation.

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With respect to the story of Peter correctly naming Jesus as the Christ, Matthew is the gospel whose account includes an enigmatic saying about “the keys of the kingdom” and things “bound” and “loosed” both “on earth” and “in heaven.” No one knows for sure what exactly Jesus is referring to here, although obviously some interpreters have insisted on their pet hypotheses.

Forget the hypotheses for now. What I find most remarkable about Jesus’ peculiar comment is this: it’s precisely at the moment when Peter and Jesus reveal key aspects of Jesus’ identity and destiny that the topic of freedom and subjugation comes up. Talking about who Jesus is, about how and why he dies, and about what might transpire as a result—that’s the occasion for talking about what makes for liberty and servitude. In other words, don’t preach about Jesus if you aren’t interested in committing yourself, your words, and your actions to setting people free.

Your words, like your deeds, have power. How’s that for a freeing thought?

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What a time we’re in, Working Preachers. People remain confined to their homes and to forms of social isolation. People continue to die alone, cut off from loved ones. Survivors become tethered to their sorrows as confirmed by psychologists’ warnings about the debilitating consequences of prolonged grief disorder. For many of us, these realities represent new locks to open if comfort is to have access into those spaces and if despair is to be chased away. Good thing you carry a large keyring.

We’re nearly six months into the pandemic and have developed skills in keeping our social distance and shopping during off-peak hours. But preachers know that their work is only getting more difficult as time goes on. Some stores will never reopen. Barriers of inconvenience, boredom, and insecurity have grown into walls that are trapping our neighbors in unemployment, food insecurity, and literal peril. How will those new captives find a community that can walk with them into freedom and restoration, now that congregational belonging, care, and compassion have become harder to find in this odd age of virtual church?

The chains are of course actual and nonmetaphorical, too. In a nation that is obsessed with mass incarceration and largely unwilling to reckon with the racist policies that built and fund our prisons, our sermons about “Jesus is the Christ” have to be enacted and not merely spoken. Sermons that do not commit themselves to the tasks of repenting of racist, dehumanizing theologies and setting prisoners free will wind up contributing to the inertia that keeps people locked up.

If our congregations aren’t trying to liberate, they’re confessing by default that they prefer to keep people in shackles.

None of this is easy, of course. The chains that bind us have hidden their keyholes well.

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But what a time to be preaching, Working Preachers. The needs are so plain. The opportunities are before us all.

This is no time to keep Jesus hidden away. Do not veil him in your sermons by distracting your audiences with clever anecdotes or sanctimonious ethics, as if you are going to keep him safely bound in heaven, away from the anguish all around us.

Remember that when the story from Matthew 16 continues, we will learn that Peter really has no idea how Jesus will be a liberator. Peter just got the title Christ correct, and even that was only because God revealed it and not because Peter had any superior insight. None of this is about certainty.

No one knows for sure how exactly your sermons—spoken and enacted—from this point forward will set people free. But that’s what sermons are supposed to do, which makes your work all the more necessary. And all the more joyful. The urgent circumstances and the priorities of public health are eliciting great creativity and courage. Call the people of God to live in their freedom and to make the reality of liberation known.

Finally, rely on the divine assurance, told through Isaiah, that God’s “deliverance will never be ended.”