Leonard issues call to claim ‘the things that make for freedom’

Bill J. Leonard, Dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, in his office in Wingate Hall on Wednesday, March 4, 2009.

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FORT WORTH—Baptist church historian Bill Leonard challenged students at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School to carry out their calling by claiming, reclaiming, discovering or recovering “the audacious freedom we call gospel.”

Jesus announced the coming of God’s kingdom—“God’s new day,” Leonard said, and his followers today need to claim and proclaim “the things that make for freedom.”

brite divinity logo300Leonard, the James and Marilynn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and professor of church history at Wake Forest School of Divinity, spoke at TCU as part of an event sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas.

Perhaps without knowing it, James Baldwin captured the feeling of freedom in God’s kingdom when he described the African-American experience in The Fire Next Time, Leonard observed.

Baldwin wrote about “a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare.” Baldwin compared the unpretentious honesty of oppressed African-Americans among each other—people who “had no need to pretend to be what we were not”—to the freedom evidenced in Black gospel, blues and jazz, “something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged.”

Leonard called on the divinity school students to claim the things that make for freedom—“freedom that often sounds like jazz, feels like the blues and acts like grace.”

Gospel freedom begins with vulnerability

He urged his audience to recognize Jesus taught gospel freedom begins with vulnerability, living as lambs in the midst of wolves.

“That’s no fun at all. But to take the gospel seriously and live free—to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your neighbor and your worst enemy as yourself—is to be extremely vulnerable to those who don’t see life that way,” he said.

The vulnerability gospel freedom demands means recognizing, as British Baptists did in a 1660 confession of faith, that faithfulness may demand suffering persecution and loss, Leonard added.

“God’s new day may require relinquishing the old support systems, making ourselves vulnerable to friend and enemy alike, living out Jesus’ insightful counsel to be ‘wise as serpents, innocent as doves’—a vulnerability that makes for freedom,” he said.

Receive and offer community

Vulnerability produces the freedom to receive and offer community, Leonard said.

“Community is fragile, difficult and frequently dysfunctional, but when it works, it is a centerpiece of gospel freedom, a community that began eating and drinking with Jesus,” he said.

The freedom of peace accompanies community, Leonard said, noting Jesus’ instruction to his followers to “speak peace” to any household that welcomed them, trusting “if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person.”

“Think of it,” Leonard said. “As voices of God’s grace, each of us can bring a peace that rests on other human beings. Even if only for a moment, we have the freedom to bring peace to persons inside and outside the church, in Texas and around the globe.”

Leonard recalled an experience taking a group of Wake Forest students to the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese shared their food with their visitors, and then they insisted their guests enjoy naps, giving up their own beds and hammocks.

He remembered one student, whose eyes filled with tears, asking, “Bill, is this like the kingdom of God?”

“Close enough,” he replied. “Close enough.”

We don’t always agree

While freedom can create community and deliver peace, it also can bring distance, Leonard warned.

“Freedom—gospel and otherwise—means we won’t always agree. Indeed, some disagreements challenge our consciences so dramatically that we must forfeit the Beloved Community,” he said.

“Sometimes division, even violence, results from human confrontations—a long, long way from peace. Some ideas and actions are so debilitating that we must shake off every vestige. Sometimes our freedom seems anarchy to others, and they’re the ones doing the shaking.”

But the good news of God’s kingdom is that “sometimes grace wins out,” Leonard said.

“Let’s admit it. Our world … holds terrible forces of horror, abuse, cruelty, murder, exploitation, hatred—an almost endless list. Yet sometimes, gospel freedom prevails, and the demonic is actually done in,” he said. “People find healing in the things that make for freedom.”

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