June 30, 2013

For Freedom Christ has Set Us Free

Passage: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
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For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.


“For freedom Christ has set us free.”  Many commentators consider this sentence the summation of what Paul has be building up to as he writes to the Galatian church.  What follow in the rest of this letter is an unpacking of what that means for life as a believer in Christ.  Keep in mind that Paul writes this in a Roman world where only a small percentage where free Roman citizens.  The church was full of people from the indentured underclasses of society.   “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  Imagine how that would resonate among such people and in such a world.  Paul is claiming that Jesus can free you and his desire is that you live in such freedom.

It is my conviction that the freedoms in which many live, in what we call Western democracies, arose as the gospel has had its impact in those societies over the course of history.  They are not perfect forms of government—democracy is often cumbersome and inefficient.  Still, the freedom of democracy is to be preferred over the central control of dictator or ruling council no matter how benign.  It is also my conviction that as Western society have moved away from Christian roots in the direction of secularism, those freedoms are under assault.  It is timely that this text from Paul’s Galatian letter is appointed to be read on this Sunday; for Canadians on the Sunday in advance of the celebration of Canada Day.

1. “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”, so goes the opening line of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This charter “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association.

How free do you feel as a Canadian?

You would conclude from the fundamental freedoms enumerated in the charter that you are guaranteed freedom of speech.  Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, however, have often ruled to the contrary.  Consider what happened to Quebec’s Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.  When one of his citizens complained to the Quebec Human Rights Commission about a prayer recited before council meetings and a crucifix in council chambers, Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay was characteristically defiant.  “I fight this battle because I adore Christ,” he told a tribunal investigating the complaint in 2011. “When I get to the other side, I’m going to be able to be a little proud. I’m going to be able to tell him: ‘I fought for you.’ There is no more beautiful argument.” Mr. Tremblay lost before the rights tribunal, which ordered him to halt the prayer, remove all religious symbols from city hall and pay the citizen, Alain Simoneau $30,000 in damages.

For Mr. Tremblay the story ends a little more happily; on Monday, May 26, 2013 Mr. Tremblay got another reason to boast if he makes it to heaven. In a decision sure to fuel debate over religion’s place in the Quebec public sphere, the province’s Court of Appeal overturned the decision of the rights tribunal and said the prayer and religious symbols can stay.  Still, why should a citizen in a presumably “free” society be subject to such treatment including the grind and expense of defense in court for publicly uttering a prayer?  (If you think I exaggerate and this unusual with human rights commissions I encourage you to read Ezra Levant’s book Shakedown.)

Paul’s assertion, “for freedom Christ has set you free,” is predicated on the gospel claim that only in Christ are humans truly set free.  Jesus Christ in his life reveals freedom; he is both its definition and the one who makes people free.  It is for this reason that Christians have been opposed by many governments.  Christians know their redeemer; are convinced that no government can give freedom; the best a government can do is protect the freedoms given by God.  The Christian’s allegiance is to the world’s rightful sovereign.  Rival sovereigns find such allegiance troubling.

It must be pointed out here that the text does not mean that Christ sets you free for the sake of freedom as some sort of end state.  Freedom is understood in the gospel as liberation from something for something else.  Freedom is to live in the life of Christ; freedom, like love, is what God is; to live in freedom is to live in him.  Out of this freedom all other freedoms find their place just as love for God orders all other loves.  I wonder if we treasure our freedoms, our liberties as Canadian citizens.  To say that Christ sets us free is to say that he gave his life for such freedom.  Stand firm, therefore, says the Apostle.

2.  Claudia Connell, a British journalist, recently wrote a painfully honest account about the bitter fruit of following what she called a “Sex and the City” lifestyle; a lifestyle reflected in a hit television show by that title. “I was part of that generation”, she writes, “successful feisty women who made their own money, answered to no one and lived life to the full.  When it came to men, our attitude to them was the same as it was towards the latest must-have handbag; only the best would do, no compromises should be made, and even then it would be quickly tired of and cast aside.”  Initially, she loved the unlimited freedom of her lifestyle.  But at the age of 46 she has changed her mind.  She summarize her new views on freedom in this line: “Freedom is great when you can exploit it; but when you have so much that you don’t know what to do with it, it all becomes a little pointless.”

Let me ask you; is Ms. Connells’ conception of freedom, freedom?  Many people conceive of freedom this way.  Is freedom simply self-determination?  Much modern thinking on the subject understands freedom as the “freedom of choice.”  You may indeed be at liberty to choose between painting your kitchen walls red or green—but is this freedom?  In this view freedom is a purely formal possibility that is so indefinite and without content that it can “freely” choose the good as well as the bad.  It is left to the human to will either the one or the other.  In this idea of freedom the human understands herself as an independent and isolated being.  This individual stands as an ultimate reality over against the things over which it exercises the power of choice or control. Freedom in this sense means that this individual is given authority to be the secret judge, the secret authority over all things.

Judge, the secret authority over all things.

Our post-modern culture of “whatever” with respect to people’s choices is the outworking of this idea of freedom.  Each individual is self-determined.

Theologian Karl Barth is writing in Germany at time of the rise of the Nazi party.  He traces this view of freedom to the then-modern atheism and the thinkers of the Enlightenment.  He critiques such a view with the gospel asking penetrating questions.  “Is there a worse threat to freedom itself than the establishment of man as his own lord and lawgiver?  Who can exercise a worse tyranny over us than the god in our own breast?  And what further tyrannies does not the first and decisive one drag in its train?  What Barth understood was that everyone as their own judge would lead to chaos and into the vacuum comes the champion who will decide for our own collective good—namely the Fuhrer.

Biblically speaking, the very fact that I, in the sense of this controlling freedom, think that I can choose for myself what appears to be good and right for me, the very fact that in such freedom I am the authority to decide about good and evil, right and wrong, means that I am already choosing wrong.  This is precisely what happens in the story of Eden.  In the garden of Eden story when Adam and Eve choose to eat of the fruit of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” this isn’t some fruit that will clarify their thinking about right and wrong.  The “knowledge of good and evil” is a Hebraism that means the sum total of whatever the human mind can imagine; and in Hebrew knowing is used in the sense of experiencing.  To make this choice to pursue our own perceptions of what is good and right is to walk away from God.

In the garden story note where freedom exists; it is in God’s command that “you may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.”  Freedom, real freedom is found in obedience to God.

The gospel says we are bound in our sin and need to be freed from it.  Humanity, in its lost condition, is not aware of being bound; of its need to be set free by God.  We have mistaken our liberty to make choices about all kinds of things to be freedom.  We are content to say I know right from wrong and can choose just fine.  Barth’s questions bear repeating: Is there a worse threat to freedom itself than the establishment of man as his own lord and lawgiver?  Who can exercise a worse tyranny over us than the god in our own breast?

3. What is this freedom for which Christ has set you free?  As you read the gospel stories of Jesus do you think that Jesus lived freely?  Do you think that he considered himself free?  As I read those gospel narratives I get no sense that Jesus ever considered himself bound.   His life is lived in complete obedience to the one he calls the Father; indeed the very nature of the freedom he lives is derived from this obedience.  Even as he is being arrested, bound, tried and crucified there is this current that runs through his life that he is still freely living this obedience to the Father.

Biblically speaking, freedom is to have nothing inhibiting being who you truly are.  Only God is free—free to be precisely who he is.  We humans are riddled with sin unable to be who we were created to be—children of God.  Of course, Jesus is the one human who lived freely.

Freedom is found in giving ourselves away to Jesus Christ; and such giving is always characterized in a life lived in love of neighbour.  Paul writes: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;* only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,* but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Galatians 15:13-14)  Freedom—the freedom Christ sets us free to experience—is found in a life lived in obedience to Christ.  Such commitment frees us from the grip of all pretenders—all those other pretenders offering us freedom.

It sounds odd to many that the idea of freedom would presupposes such a commitment; we generally view freedom as absence of restraints—but this is to mistake freedom for licence.  Think about marriage for a moment.  The individual parties held prior to the wedding for the groom or bride are often spoken of as events that somehow mark the end of freedom.  Yet, one of the happy things of marriage we discover is the freedom we experience because of our commitment to the one who is dearer than life to us.  We are free to laugh and cry, succeed and fail, because we know ourselves to be loved and also because we know who it is we have given ourselves to be for.  Freedom does not mean a life of no obligations.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” said our Lord.  (John 8:31-32)  For the believer, the truth we know is the truth that is Jesus Christ.  Truth is not some instrument we use to determine if Jesus is true; he is truth.  The same holds with freedom; he is in his life this freedom in which he sets us free to know.  He is its definition and its reality.  And what we know about Jesus is that he gave his life to free us from that which is the root of all enslavements; to free our hearts from the both the penalty and power of our sin.  He frees us from sin to live for him.

Return with me for a moment to the Garden of Eden story.  We have already noted that freedom is found in eating freely from all the trees that are for our benefit; bondage is experienced in eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”—a saying that means the sum total that the human mind can imagine.  Using these two categories of trees consider again what we read in Galatians as Paul outlines how this freedom works out in our lives.

The freedom of the gospel of Christ is never to be used as an opportunity for self-indulgence.  “*Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  These things are the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of tree of good and evil are they not; from the category of the sum total of what the human mind can imagine.

“By contrast,” continues Paul, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Are these not of the wide array of fruit of those many other trees in the garden of which God gave us that we may eat freely? In fact you can’t over indulge in the fruit of these trees.

4.  You will notice that the freedom lived by Christ—and for which we are set free—is of the same character as the love of Christ—it is self-forgetful and self-giving.  By definition freedom is a gift of the grace of God and therefore must be treasured and received with thankfulness.  The bond of our freedom with respect to one another is gratitude to God alone.

Imagine if you would a nation of people bound to God in gratitude and to one another in love of neighbour.  Would we not be a truly free people?  The heart set free to love God is the heart freed to love the neighbour—a love that accords the freedoms to them that we want accorded to us.  I believe these include all kinds of freedoms—speech, assembly, economic markets, and so on.  It seems to me that the gospel and a free Canada go hand in hand.

For freedom Christ has set us free.