My sisters and brothers in Christ, it is my great privilege and joy to be with you today in the bond of ecumenical fellowship and in our common worship of the God of life and hope. It is especially gratifying for me personally to thank you, PCUSA delegates and staff and congregants, for your many decades of faithful support of the ecumenical movement and of the World Council of Churches. You are us!

I bring you greetings from the rest of the WCC fellowship, its 352 member churches in 120 countries in the world. And we wish you well in the continued deliberations at this Assembly.

Two kites were flying alongside one another each tied to a string controlled by someone on the ground. The one Kite said to the other, “Oh! How I wish that I was not tied to this string and controlled by someone else. It is so restricting. If only I had my freedom I would soar into the sky and reach my full flying potential.” And what do you know? Just at that moment there was a sudden jerk and the string snapped. “Wow!” the kite shouted to its friend, “My wish has come true. See you!” And off it went into the sky. But it only lasted for a short time. Instead of gaining greater height it took a plunge and went straight for the light pole and got stuck on the wire. With great sadness it said: “Oh, dear, how I wish I was on that string again. I wouldn’t be in this fix.” And so, it lingered in hope that one day it would be with its friend again.

I am inspired by your theme of living into hope and its implication for recognizing in others “the right to be” and to be affirmed, each of us, in our full humanity. The readings today offer vital clues to how we as Christians can live in hope, in a world that often seems bereft of cause for hope. Here we also find specific guidance for how we are to live that hope and how it can redeem the world. The key thing to understand as Christians is that our hope is tied to Jesus Christ. It is not some shoddy sensational feeling, a romantic gesture or a shallow experience. Instead, it is grounded in the historical suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This hope is real and now, even though it is something of the future. 

Paul tells us that our freedom is in Christ. His focus is not on freedom from law but freedom in Christ. But we need to know what Christ stands for. When we understand the scriptures correctly, we discover that Jesus brings love and forgiveness, redemption and restoration, justice and peace, acceptance and inclusion, compassion and mercy, he comes to save and not condemn, he comes to give life and hope. He moves us from darkness to light and from death to life. So, if this is how we understand the Christ of the bible then what do we learn about the right to be, the right to be human and free in Christ. For this, let us turn to our readings to look at Christian freedom. And I like to share three important points with you about Christian freedom and its impact on hope. 

1. Christian Freedom is characterized by Liberty 

To love God is to obey God’s commandments and his commands are not burdensome. To do what God calls us to do should be a thing of joy and thanksgiving. Why? Because everyone born of God has overcome the world and enjoys victory over the world.  Yes, there is still sin, suffering and evil in the world but as believers in Christ we are made more than conquerors. It is Christ Jesus who gives us the strength to overcome. We are set free. Freedom does not mean that we are without ties and obligations. The Apostle Paul says that we are always enslaved to something. Whatever we obey, whatever we bow down to, whatever we give in to, whatever we worship – enslaves. Paul thus suggests that instead of being enslaved to sin that we should now be enslaved to righteousness. 

The purpose of Paul’s epistle to the Church in Galatians is to remind the church that Christianity is not about legalism, which leads to bondage and slavery, but rather about freedom and liberty. The Apostle Paul makes this point clear in Galatians 5 when he speaks about the freedom the believer has received in Christ. Paul is writing in the context in which Jewish zealots were challenging his doctrine of grace, claiming that to do away with rules and standards the churches would fall apart. Paul dismissed the need for circumcision stating that Christ has set us free from the law. Paul was not asserting a negation of the law instead he was attempting to stress the new freedom availed to those who believed in Jesus Christ. He was stating that we are no longer covenanted to the law and are not bound by the curses of the law but set free indeed by the risen Lord. The Apostle attempts to draw believers to the new life they have in Jesus Christ. Paul aims to show us that because Christ has set us free, we are able to overcome the world. It is Jesus who has already done that for us. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble but take heart for I have overcome the world.”

Talking about the world. Right now, it is a shocking and messed up place. We are living amidst a climate catastrophe, aftermath of a pandemic, forced migration, wars, violence, racial and ethnic conflicts, economic injustices, gender injustices, the rights of people are violated, International human rights laws are disrespected, political leaders are on their own mission with no accountability and responsibility for their actions. Stop and see how many have died in Gaza, Ukraine and Russia, Sudan, and other countries. Stop and see how many innocent civilians, women and children have been killed senselessly. Stop and see how many migrants drown as they flee their countries for safety, security and a better life. Stop and see how many children go to bed hungry every night. Stop and see the places where people do not have the right to life and livelihood. The right to be the children of God.

In such a global context, Paul pleads forcefully. He argues that real religion, authentic Christian commitment, is not about religious observance. It’s not defined by our distinctive marks of identity, as a denomination or faith community. And it is not about our standards of belonging or inclusion or righteousness—who’s in and who’s out.

Real religion, he says, is first and foremost about our joining Christ in faith, loving God and helping each other. Liberating us from our own preoccupations or others’ expectations, it brings about in us an ever-deeper engagement in the mystery of God’s love—the ultimate horizon of our lives—as revealed in Christ’s life and death and resurrection. And this brings us to the next point. 

2. Christian Freedom is characterized by Love and Hope

If the Christian life is characterized by liberty, then does that mean that anything and everything goes? Does that mean that we are free to do anything, as we please? It begs the question; “How free are we?” The Apostle Paul answers this question in Romans 6: 1-3 

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who are baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (v11)”. 

The key words here are “in Christ Jesus”. That is what the Apostle Paul is attempting so desperately to convey, that our freedom is not in freedom itself but in Jesus Christ. Our freedom is to be found in the one who sets us free from sin, oppressive laws, the works of Satan and the powers of death. Jesus has conquered them all” “If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed!” 

We are then like that kite even though we have our freedom to fly; we are attached to Jesus, the one who keeps us steady, stable, secure and firm. As long as we remain attached to him, we are safe! This consequently requires that we live according to what God desires. We cannot go on living lives as we did before we knew Christ. Paul therefore reminds the Church about this in Gal 5: 13 when he says, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love.” 

Paul makes a significant point here by saying that freedom must be translated into serving one another in love. We are called to use this freedom to choose the things of God. We are called to have faith in God for “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (v6) We are called to use this freedom to love God. We are called to use this freedom to love and serve others. The Christian, having received her freedom from Christ then freely surrenders that very freedom to become the servant of God and others.

Such an understanding tells us that our freedom is not intended for us to lord it over others, look down upon others who are different from us, to be condescending, condemning or judgmental. Instead, it tells us that we must follow the example of Jesus who came not to “condemn the world but to save it.” The way of Jesus is the way of ‘suffering love’. Our love for others causes us to suffer with them as we point to life in the Risen Lord and Saviour. It is not the way of self-righteousness, fault-finding and exclusion but of humility, genuine interest in others and inclusion. It is not of ‘how can we write you off’ but of ‘how can we bring you into’ God’s community. Freedom in Christ is love in action. 

In ecumenical circles, this idea is captured in the idea and reality of “transformative discipleship.” Faith-driven, Christ-inspired engagement in meeting the concrete needs of those around us transforms us, even as it transforms the situation, the context, potentially even the world. Setting forth each day, advancing each moment, our discipleship commits us to renewal—personal, ecclesial, societal. 

It sets us on a sacred journey with Jesus and each other as we learn to give our lives over to God, to love’s imperatives, and to the flourishing of humanity and the earth. The WCC ecumenical banner, the Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation, and Unity, aims to capture this opportunity, this reality and mandate. We Christians live in the hope, the vision, the incipient reality of God’s reign, the dawn of God’s New Creation of justice, peace, and love.  As Paul said, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:3).

My sisters and brothers, we cannot afford to abandon this hope for transformation, for ourselves and everyone else. It is the lifeline that we as Christians and Christian churches can uniquely offer to our fractured, wounded, and imperiled world. 

Live into hope of liberty,
the right to speak, the right to be, 
The right to have one`s daily bread, 
to hear God`s word and thus be fed

Convinced of God’s love, we know we each are God’s great work of art, fashioned with great love. Each of you is called to a unique purpose that only you can fulfill. Likewise, we know this of everyone else, too. Each person is uniquely endowed with dignity—a Christian conviction that is the fountainhead of our notions of human dignity, human rights, and human potential. We must recognize and support that dignity in everyone and in every venue. “The right to be,” urged in Jane Parker Huber’s hymn, encompasses the right to be seen, heard, valued and affirmed, each with our gifts and vulnerabilities. That has enormous implications for our collective commitment as communities of faith. As Jeremiah said, in our first reading, 

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.

Today we needn’t look far to meet the outcasts and aliens among us: 

  • migrants fleeing violence and in search of peace and security 
  • the LGBTQ community and especially transgender persons, increasingly assaulted and assailed
  • the economically disadvantaged, laboring for less than a living wage
  • all those still suffer from the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and colonial conquest, and the persistent scourge of racism in employment, housing, education, and policing.

Doing justice with and for the marginalized will entail sacrifice on our part. We must transcend our comforts and even the reassurances of “church” to embrace the costly imperatives of discipleship. Belief, by itself, is not enough. Belonging is not enough. Even resistance to the Powers That Be is not enough.  Life in the Spirit, as Jesus himself averred, demands renunciation of our boundaries and borders and dearest illusions about ourselves and others. It means leaving “home,” in a sense, and heeding the call of God, nurturing hope through concrete, committed, and creative engagement with and for the marginalized. It is loving God and neighbor as yourself. 

The radicality of Jesus’ call cannot be overstated. Yet such bold witness is hardly unknown in the PCUSA, whose very founding struck a historic chord for freedom and against slavery. 

3. Christian freedom is Life in the Spirit

In Luke’s narrative we see Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth. The same Spirit that acknowledged him at his baptism, that drove him into the wilderness, and that enabled him there to renounce power, glory, and wealth, has led him home with a renewed sense of mission, identity, and purpose.  In the synagogue, he boldly proclaims with Isaiah:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to set free those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus is clear in his mission when he says the Spirit is upon me. Not only in spiritual terms but material. He challenged unjust laws and religious self-righteousness. The Pharisees were at the receiving end most times.

Like Jesus, we must let ourselves be moved by the Spirit to live into hope. Inspired by him, moved by his love for God and for us, and empowered by that same Spirit, we too must find our identity in God and God’s plan for humanity. We too must surrender to the Spirit and the voice of God as we discern him speaking to us today. We too must proclaim God’s gift and affirmation to the excluded, the left out, those in pain and captive physically or emotionally. We must offer hope. Living in the Spirit enables, empowers and fuels hope. Amidst hopelessness, fear and despair we can trust God for the present and future. That all will be well. The hungry will be fed, the oppressed set free, the weak strengthened, the downcast raised up and wars will cease. 

This will not always be easy.  Jesus’ homecoming to hilly Nazareth did not work out particularly well: they ran him out of town and tried to throw him over a cliff.

In today’s world, we can all agree, we are in a heap of trouble. Climate change and disasters, steep economic inequality, societal divisions, wars everywhere, persistent racism: they defy hope and threaten the very survival of the human endeavour and the planet’s health. How can we offer hope in face of such mountainous challenges? 

Even the churches themselves are challenged by declining numbers, real divisions, and the betrayal of religion by abusers and demagogues. How can we offer solutions to the world, when we have such problems ourselves?

As Christians, our hope stems from our trust in the promise of Christ’s resurrection, from a more profound engagement with the central mysteries of our faith, and from an ever-deeper discipleship in and for the world. Moved by Christ’s love for us and empowered by the Spirit, let us make ourselves utterly available as Christians and Christian communities for the transformative work of God in the world. We live with resurrection hope. Hope that creation will be restored. Hope that justice will come. Hope that peace will come. Hope that forgiveness and healing will take place. Hope that we will all be one in Christ.

The Apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, offers us encouragement and direction in the quest for a realistic hope. His letter is rightly called the Magna Carta of Christian freedom. Paul argues that the liberation we experience in Christ and his resurrection can free us up and empower us to live in the Spirit. It can renew our personal and ecclesial lives and even the well-being of society and the course of humanity. 

Hope is an eschatological gift for the future, but it is proleptic, meaning that with the resurrection of Jesus hope breaks into the present. A present in which we continue to hope and work for transformation and renewal. A hope that says all will be well. God’s rule of justice, peace and love will come. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. We keep hoping but hope is not passive resignation it is working with God as God’s instruments to bring in God’s kingdom.

In that Spirit, as we gather for your 226th General Assembly, I pray that in your liturgy and common prayer, your fellowship and critical deliberations, you remind one another of your liberation in Christ, your transformative hope, and its potential to redeem the world. We aim at nothing less for, as Jesus himself said, “With God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). Living into that hope, let that promise find fulfilment in us.

But let me conclude with the story of the kite stuck on the light pole. Fortunately for it one day a strong wind blew it down again and someone found it, repaired it and flew it again. It met up with its long-lost friend and said, “I never want to let loose of this string again. This is my freedom.” The Holy Spirit constantly blows on us again and again and brings us into the love of Christ which sets us free. He reminds us that in Christ we are truly free for Christ is our freedom. May that always be the message of the Church as we serve the world in the suffering-love of Christ! 

Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay 
General Secretary
World Council of Churches