By MOST REV. JAMES D. CONLEY
(Editor’s Note: Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., gave this homily at an ecumenical prayer service for religious liberty at Zion Church in Lincoln on Friday, June 27, 2014. After the prayer service, representatives of the Diocese of Lincoln, the Nebraska Family Alliance, and faculty members for the University of Nebraska conducted a roundtable discussion on religious liberty.
(Bishop Conley delivered this homily only days before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.
(The Diocese of Lincoln kindly granted The Wanderer reprint permission for Bishop Conley’s homily. All rights reserved.)
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Pastor Kearns, dear brother priests and clergy members, dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is a privilege to come together today with you to pray for the good of religious liberty. I am grateful, Pastor Kearns, that you are hosting us. And I am grateful to the Nebraska Family Alliance, and Greg Schleppenbach, for helping us to arrange this prayer service.
Today, we pray together as disciples of Jesus Christ for the good of our nation, and the good of religious believers around the world.
King David says in Psalm 133: “How good it is when brothers dwell in unity.” Today, we dwell in unity with one another — the unity of our common Baptism, our common redemption, and our common need for the freedom that comes in the salvation of Jesus Christ.
In the redemption of Jesus Christ, we’re set free from the chains of sin that enslave us. In the redemption of Jesus Christ, we’re set free to live in the world as sons and daughters of God the Father — set free to worship, to work, and to pray as disciples. In Christ, no matter the circumstances of our daily lives, we’re freed — and in Him we’ll enjoy an eternal life of real liberty. In eternity, we’ll possess the freedom for the highest kind of human activity, the worship of the Blessed Trinity.
The freedom promised to us by Jesus Christ assures that no matter how we fare in this world, He alone, in eternity, will be victorious. It’s important to remember that. We needn’t be discouraged in temporary defeats.
But it’s also important to remember that what happens in this world matters. The freedom Christ confers on us: the fundamental freedom God gives us in creation — is for our vocations in this world — lived out now, in our real lives.
We’re set free by Christ so that we can know Him, love Him, and serve Him. We’re set free by Christ so that we can be instruments of his divine Providence. We’re set free by Christ for our sake, but also for the sake of the poor, the marginalized, the unborn, and the lonely.
We are set free by Christ so that we can love as God loves.
Freedom is the responsibility to choose goodness over profit, or comfort, or consequence. As the Letter of St. James says, freedom is the responsibility to “be doers of the word, not hearers only.” We are praying today for religious liberty. But we should also pray that we each use the liberty we’ve been given to be good disciples of Jesus Christ.
Our freedom is a grace. But it is also a tremendous responsibility.
In my own mind, the preeminent Christian hymn to freedom is John Newton’s Amazing Grace. All of us know the lyrics. Grace, recalls Newton, sets free captives, brings sight to the blind, and brings sinners to the freedom of eternal life with God. Some of you may know something about its author. John Newton was a sailor on slave ships that ran between Africa, England, and the Caribbean, in what Eric Metaxas called the “Triangle of Death.”
He was a believer — he had become a Christian during a shipwreck in his youth. But shipwreck conversions sometimes lack depth, and Newton’s might have. He gave up gambling, and drinking, and profanity, but for years after his conversion, he continued in the slave trade.
The Lord transformed John Newton’s heart. Slaves had made him wealthy. They’d given his family great opportunities. They’d funded his studies in theology, and allowed him to become an Anglican priest. Comfort and profit blinded John Newton. But the Lord worked in Newton’s heart. And eventually, his eyes were opened to truth.
John Newton became an abolitionist, and a mentor to William Wilberforce. His influence led to the 1807 Slave Trade Act, which began the process of abolition in the British Empire. Through Christ, John Newton brought justice to the world. He loved, in a real sense, with the merciful love of God.
Grace sets captives free. And freedom is the grace to know the fullness of truth, and to respond.
The Darkness Of Sin
Our religious liberty has the potential to transform the world. God may well use the Christians of our generation to end the shame of abortion. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we may well restore the family, and protect marriage, and bring peace to the poor. If we work together in the Holy Spirit, Christians can be the hands and feet of our redeemer.
Is it any wonder that religious liberty has so many enemies? Should we be surprised that the freedom to live as Christians is under attack?
The human freedom to choose goodness is a great threat to the chaotic injustice of the Devil. The darkness of sin has no greater enemy than those who carry the light of Christ.
In Massachusetts, and D.C., and Illinois, Christian adoption agencies have been shut down in the name of “tolerance.” In Colorado, believers have been barred by law from respecting the natural law of marriage. In several states, providing care to undocumented immigrants — to children even — has been outlawed.
And today, or perhaps Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether Christians have the right to bring the faith into their business administration. Churches, and hospitals, and universities are still being threatened.
All of these threats are coming to the state of Nebraska. We are not immune from the great force of secularization that is reshaping the moral landscape of our nation.
Of course, Christian persecution in our nation pales in the face of the threats believers face around the world. In the Middle East, and Asia, and Africa, Christians are still beaten, and tortured, and crucified. This is happening today. Right now.
Our religious liberty is threatened because of the tremendous influence religious believers can have on the world. Persecution is a force of evil.
Pope Francis says that religious persecution is the “great challenge of the globalized world, a sickness, in which weak thought even reduces the general ethical level, in the name of a false concept of tolerance that ends up persecuting those who defend the truth on humanity and its ethical consequences.”
Religious liberty is threatened by those who would use government as a tool for tyranny, for oppression, and for the triumph of hedonistic self-interest. But the best solution to the threats we face is to do the opposite — to live active, joyful, just lives as Christian citizens.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we’re called to make disciples of all nations. And if we actually commit to doing that, we’ll overcome the forces of secularization and hedonism. The greatest response to the threats we face is a commitment to real evangelization.
Pope Francis said last week that “every human is a ‘seeker’ of truth on his origins and destiny. In his mind and in his ‘heart,’ questions and thoughts arise that cannot be repressed or stifled, since they emerge from the depths of the person and are a part of the intimate essence of the person. They are religious questions, and religious freedom is necessary for them to manifest themselves fully.”
Men and women enslaved by sin are searching for truth. The truth is knowable. Jesus Christ is the truth. And the way. And the life. If we are witnesses to that fact, then the slavery which threatens religious liberty stands no chance. If we use our freedom to choose the goodness calls us to, our freedom will beget more freedom. Our love will always beget more love.
St. Paul says that we must not be “conformed to this world.” He tells the Romans that we must be “transformed, by the renewal our minds.” Today we are here to renew our minds — to deepen our understanding of God’s plan for us — and our understanding of real, divine freedom.
May we understand freedom. May we exercise it. And may Christ use us each to transform the world.