The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
April 15, 2022
It’s an old Galveston story, a story you probably already know. On June 19, 1865, General Granger of the United States Army arrived in Galveston. The Civil War had all but ended, and Galveston remained one of the final outposts of the Confederacy. Granger and his men landed at the port, probably along 21st Street, and went to the old Osterman Building on the Strand. Some of the first Union soldiers from Ohio who arrived wrote down what they thought of the city – they said Galveston was a “decidedly hot place” (Cotham, Juneteenth, 181). But then just a few blocks from here, General Granger issued General Order Number 3. “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
The long American struggle over slavery was coming to an end. The blood spilled at Antietam, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville had accomplished its purpose. Freedom. Liberation. I think of those slaves in Galveston back then – they woke up on June 19 enslaved, held in bondage – they went to bed as free people. I doubt any of us here have a sense of the joy they must have felt.
Freedom. Liberation. The very same ideas we are remembering today. The blood of our Lord was spilled on the cross so that we would be emancipated, liberated from the power of sin and death. Because of this day, because of Jesus dying upon the cross, we are free. Free from the power of sin, liberated from the craft and deceit of the devil, free from death so that we can live with God in new life. Today is our emancipation day. And that proclamation was made known by Jesus himself, he bows his head and says, “It is finished.” What is finished? It is the work of redemption. The hard battle for our liberation. The world woke up on Good Friday, bound to sin, death, and the devil – and the world went to bed that night perfectly free.
But here’s the catch. Did anybody know it? Did it make a difference? When those formerly enslaved people in Galveston woke up on June 20, 1865 – had their lives, in practice, changed that much? Think back to the rest of General Granger’s order, he wrote, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” In other words, keep doing what you’re doing. Stay where you are. Work for the same people who used to own you. Is that freedom? Wouldn’t it seem that the victory was hollow? All those men who bled, all that money spent, the war, the fighting, the Emancipation Proclamation – had it all been in vain?
Today, we gather to thank God for our Lord’s victory over sin and death. We thank God that we are liberated. But it doesn’t really seem that way, does it? While we know that we are freed from the power of sin, that doesn’t mean that we’ll leave here this afternoon as sinless people. And though Jesus has beaten down death, it doesn’t mean that we won’t die. We’ll leave here today and, most likely, things will not have changed for us. We’ll probably keep on committing all the same sins as before. And we are still going to die. So has it all been in vain? Are we really free?
I don’t want to draw too many close parallels to our American history, but we can’t help but notice the similarities. June 19, 1865 is rightly celebrated. But think about it – only a fraction of the people who were held as slaves in Texas actually lived in Galveston. So only a few of them knew that on that day, Juneteenth, they were free. Contrary to public myth, that original order was not read aloud by any Union soldiers or by General Granger. In fact, he had an aversion to speaking in public. So though that day was the day of victory, of emancipation, of freedom and liberation, it took a long time for the word to spread. It had to be printed in newspapers, and notices, and handbills. It took weeks for the news to spread. And think of it – the thirteenth amendment, outlawing all slavery, wouldn’t be ratified until December of that year. Separate but equal was still the law of the land for almost another hundred years. Juneteenth may have been the day of victory, but its ramification had not yet come to fruition. It was the promissory note.
This lesson is instructive for us. We linger in this uncertain place, on this uneasy Good Friday. Fully aware of the power that sin and death can still wield and yet confident of the victory that has been won for us. Jesus’ death has trampled down death. On this day, Jesus has defeated the power of sin. “It is finished,” Jesus says. And yet we can see that now only as the downpayment, the promissory note that is still being paid, still being worked out.
And just because it has happened, just because his death has set us free from death, does not mean that everybody knows it. Like that first Juneteenth ordered that effectually only liberated a few enslaved people, the overwhelming majority of people who follow Jesus were not there that day on Golgotha. We were not there, we did not share the last meal with him, we did not see him bleed and die, we did not help bury him. We only heard the word of victory later. So it is our duty, our solemn obligation, to spread the word so that the world would know it is free from sin, free from death, free from lonliness. We won’t make them free by spreading the word; Jesus already did that. But we must spread the word so that they would know they are free.
So yes, Easter will come with its lilies and chocolate and seersucker suits. But today, today is the celebration. Today is freedom from death. Today is emancipation from sin. Today is liberation from evil. Today is the victory.