Four hundred years ago, in 1619, a woman named Angela set foot on land along the Virginia coast, near Point Comfort, in what we now call Hampton. Nineteen or so other Africans followed her, probably rowed ashore in one or two boats from a Dutch warship anchored nearby.
All we know about Angela is her name and that she arrived in the summer of 1619. And that she worked for Captain William Pierce of the Jamestown settlement. And that she was a slave. The first one on these shores, as far as we know.
Nothing freed Angela. It appears that she was someone’s property all her days. The peculiar freedom of a Christian, as Martin Luther has said, is that we choose servitude. We choose the slavery that sets us free.
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” And so we choose to heed the shocking invitation of Jesus in the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel: Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple, cannot be my student, cannot learn what I am teaching. And: None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
What is it that makes the voluntary servitude of a Christian unlike any other kind of slavery? It’s a slavery we choose. When I say yes, when you say yes, when we respond to the baptismal invitation, we are saying yes to living into a life that sets us free – free to embrace servitude.
We’re saying yes to being the slave and not the master. We are acknowledging that there is a boss, and we are not it. And so we choose to shackle ourselves. We choose to take up the cross, knowing that it’s not a cross that any of us thought up, that it’s a cross that came from God the Creator as part of God’s own eternal design. We choose to take up the cross knowing that Jesus, who is now journeying to Jerusalem, is inviting each of us along every step of the journey. Up the hill, knees breaking, shoulders aching, blood and sweat pouring, to the cross.
And each of us falls to the ground at the foot of the cross and surrenders unbridled freedom. You give up, I give up, all of us give up licentiousness, which is living as though I’m the only person in the world, the only one who matters, and that relationships are optional. And we take up the liberating servitude of knowing that loving God means being in loving relationship with everyone else on the planet.
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. The Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred in Germany in 1945, said this in his book The Cost of Discipleship. The book was published in 1937, by which time the German government had enslaved the Church in Germany and made it a nationalist arm of its unspeakable goals. And yet Bonhoeffer and others like him insisted that Martin Luther’s freedom of a Christian is still there for the taking – if anyone cares to accept such a scandalous invitation.
Come and die with me.
Come and die to whatever enslaves you and me, whatever possesses us, whatever we idolize, whatever holds us, whatever shackles us, whatever claims the largest share of our hearts, our attention, our minds, our pocketbooks and wallets, come and give up all your possessions at the foot of the cross and guess what?
Now you’re free – free to live in love for now and for all eternity.
In 1839, a group of people from the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone were captured and transported on the Spanish ship La Amistad, which means “friendship.” They led an insurrection and wound up off the coast of Long Island. It took two years for the United States Supreme Court to rule in an 8-to-1 decision, that they were people, not possessions, not property. In the movie version of this story, the group sits in a jury box still wearing handcuffs and leg irons and a collar chain around their necks. Cinque, the group’s leader, stands up and begins to chant some of the very few words of English he has learned: Give us – free. Give us – free. He’s caught the concept of what his attorneys are arguing for, he knows what he has said through an interpreter, and he knows what he wants for himself and his community. Give us – free.
No handcuffs here. No leg irons rubbing my ankles raw. The collar around my neck is symbolic of the yoke of slavery. It’s one I gladly put on, one that I choose to snap around my neck each morning because it reminds me that this is a servitude that I choose, a shackle that I wear because Christ has called me to come and die.
Each of us here this morning is here because we have chosen to come and die. We have said yes through our baptism to placing at the foot of the cross all our burdens, all the things, all the idols, all the worries, all the fear. When you and I come to the foot of the cross, we say this: All that I am afraid of, all the what-ifs, all the unknowns, all the greed, all the envy, all the selfishness that makes me the center of the universe – take it all, dear Jesus. Take it all and let it die.
Because the foot of the cross, on which Jesus gave up his life, is a place where Jesus gave up the possession we each of us holds most dear. He gave up life itself. And in so doing he cast away all our shackles for all time.
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.
Choose life, not death. Choose liberation, not slavery. We’ve been there and done that. Moses is reminding his people: You are so close to possessing the land that God has promised. Just don’t let it possess you.
And Paul says the same thing in his letter to Philemon, urging him to welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Not a slave. Not property. Not a possession. But as a person. And it’s pretty revealing that Paul points out that he could order Philemon to liberate Onesimus. But he doesn’t. Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love. I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. A prisoner.
Paul knows how to choose life. He knows that all we possess, all that you and I hold dear, can shackle us and tie us down and make us choose death over and over again … except the love of God in Christ Jesus. Because that love possesses Paul, who has spent time in actual prison and is happy to call himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He has it for himself – and because he has chosen that servitude, he wants it for all his brothers and sisters.
God did not create anyone to be a possession but rather to be possessed by life everlasting.
The words of Deuteronomy and the psalm, of the letter to Philemon and the shocking words of Jesus himself in Luke’s gospel – all point to the same idea. To take up the cross and follow Christ is to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is not enough to choose to be a slave to Christ, the slavery that Paul claims. When you and I choose that kind of liberating servitude for ourselves, that means we choose to be possessed by the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Choose life. Choose a different kind of slavery. Choose the only servitude in which you and I put on our own shackles. Choose to be enslaved by taking up the cross and following Him. And we will find our hearts and our hands and our minds and our souls emptied of all the meaningless possessions and fears we treasure. When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die, Rev. Bonhoeffer says. But what he doesn’t say in words his what his heart sings, and yours, and mine: Come and die in Christ – then you are free to live.