July 4, 2010

For freedom Christ has set us free

Passage: Psalm 81:1-2, 8-19, Galatians 4:8-5:1, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20, Galatians 5:1

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Last November the Chicago Tribune reported that a 15-year-old boy called 911 and reported that his parents had taken away his Xbox video game system; the boy asked if his parents were within their rights.  Officers went to the house and after hearing the story told the youth that his parents were within their rights to take away his Xbox as punishment and advised him to listen to his parents.  Is freedom the right to play an Xbox video game whenever you want?
Was the late singer and songwriter Janis Joplin right; “Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose”?
What about the legendary Scot William Wallace who was the subject of the movie Braveheart? At the battle of Sterling he encouraged his army, though vastly outnumbered, with the idea that in facing the enemy they would say to their enemies that while indeed they may take our lives, they will never take our freedom.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 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.  The freedoms are then enumerated which includes the freedom of conscience and religion.  Is this freedom?
What is the freedom the gospel speaks so gloriously about?  This sentence is the hinge of Paul`s letter to the Galatians: For freedom Christ has set us free!  His arguments have been building to this point and the rest of the book unpacks the idea of living in such freedom.  Jesus promised that if he sets you free you are free indeed.  I invite you to reflect with me about gospel freedom; in it is the promise of true freedom.
1. There are some misunderstandings about freedom that need some clarification.  Many people think that freedom is doing anything they fancy, the removal of every restraint.  These people quickly find themselves jaded and bored.  Frequently they fall prey to self-destructive habits as well.  What these people label “freedom” is actually licence.  Licence isn’t the same as freedom.  Licence – the absence of restraint – isn’t freedom at all but is rather arbitrariness or indeterminism.
Those who confuse licence and freedom find that it’s all left a bad taste in their mouth and they can’t figure out why.  Still, the confusion persists.  Our society as a whole thinks that freedom means doing whatever we have a yen to do.  Thoughtful individuals within a society sooner or later recognize that what most others call freedom is in fact a form of enslavement, a form of bondage.  We are bound by the relentless pursuit of the next choice.
We speak, for example, of financial freedom as a lofty goal.  What we generally mean by that is that the absence of financial restraint—at least to the extent of financing the lifestyle we imagine we would enjoy without the need for gainful employment. But does that make you free?  Do you not find that after you have acquired sufficient wealth for “financial freedom” that this wealth demands your attention so you hold on to what you have?  I see the Porsche 911 through the window of the dealership; is the fact that financial restraint means I will not be driving it home mean that I am not free?
It a world where we have equated freedom with the ability to make choices—any choice we desire—have we not in fact found we are bound or enslaved by those desires?  And after we have made the choice we desired have we not found the profound dissatisfaction which ever leads us onward to the next choice with the hope that this one will really be it; and eventually the bitter taste of disappoint morphs into cynicism about life in general.  Even though surrounded by every choice we desired the melancholy of profound unhappiness taints everything.
2. To talk of freedom we need to begin in a different place; the gospel speaks of freedom so glowingly because of its true source. Gospel freedom—the freedom the Christian knows and enjoys—is a reflection of God’s freedom.  God is free not in the sense that he can do anything at all (such a God could never be trusted); God is free, rather, in that nothing prevents God from acting in accord with his true nature.  Nothing within God; nothing outside God; nothing inner or outer impedes God from acting in accord with his true nature.
The difference between a proper understanding of freedom and the popular confusion of freedom with licence is illustrated by everyday objects, like swimming pool filters.  A swimming pool filter is designed to filter water and thereby promote safe, enjoyable swimming.  Purifying water is the nature of the filter.  Now imagine that the filter has become clogged.  We say that the filter doesn’t work.  Do we mean it doesn’t hum quietly?  We mean it doesn’t do what a filter is meant to do.  Someone unclogs the filter.  We say that the filter has been freed.  If a bystander says, “Freed, did you say?  Is it truly freed?  Is it free to make peanut butter?”  The proper response is that a filter which is perfectly free will never make peanut butter just because it isn’t a filter’s nature to make peanut butter.  It’s a filter’s nature to filter water.  Freedom doesn’t mean doing anything at all; freedom means acting in accord with one’s true nature.  God isn’t free because there’s nothing he can’t do; God is free because he can do what it’s his nature to do.
Those who heard and heeded our Lord’s preaching; those who heard and heeded the apostle’s word; those who hear and heed the gospel in any era know and experience and enjoy a freedom they haven’t known before.  “If I make you free,” Jesus promises, “then you are free indeed.”  He is saying, “Genuine freedom, ultimately profound freedom, is the freedom I bestow.  Such freedom can’t be found anywhere else, anyhow else.”(John 8:36) Freedom, human freedom, is God’s gift.
3.  The implication of the gospel is that we are not free; in the experience of life often freedom seems elusive thought we enjoy many liberties. To continue the water-filter analogy, what is the clog-up we need freeing from?  What debris, clutter, even unsightly “grunge” has to be removed if we are to function in accord with our true nature?
One of the ways the scripture speaks of this clog is sin. Sin is defiance of God; a defiance, a disobedience, an ignoring of him that amounts to disdain.  Scripture gathers up defiance, disobedience and disdain into one word: unbelief.  Sin as unbelief (in the scriptural sense of “unbelief” of the heart) is the root human problem.  It is a root-level disorientation and disease.  It has to be dealt with.  To come to faith in Jesus Christ (he is the presence and power of God) is to be freed from this root malaise, root disorientation.
Paul has been speaking in Galatians about another face of this root problem: “the law”. The gospel was heard, and is heard, as good news in that the gospel announces unambiguously that in Jesus Christ, righteousness or right standing with God, right relatedness to God; this is gift, affirmed and owned in faith to be sure, but always and everywhere gift nonetheless.
The good news of the gospel relieved people, released people, who had slogged laboriously for years, thinking that right standing with God had to be earned.  They had thought his favour had to be curried.  They had thought his kindness had to be won.  Now they had profoundest assurance that right-relatedness to God isn’t the prize awarded those who pass a religious test; it isn’t the prize given those whose moral achievement is exemplary; it isn’t the profit margin given those who make the best deals with God.  It is simply gift.
In a word, to be freed from the law is to be freed from having to win something from God, having to outperform in any sense, having to gain promotion or pass a test or merit recognition.  To be freed from the law is to be freed from anxiety concerning our relationship with our Father.
People are anxious concerning much.  Who needs religious anxiety piled on top?  The gospel is good news because it frees people from a preoccupation with gaining right standing with God and left them gratefully rejoicing in a gift.
4. Many people who disdain the gospel assume that faith stifles self-expression and self-development.  They tell us they want room to “be themselves.”  They don’t want to be forced into a religious mould or stamped by a religious cookie-cutter.  Faith is thought to simply suffocate one’s self.  Religion ruins the “self” just because religion leaves no room for the self to be itself.  We must be free from God if we are to become and remain our most authentic selves.  God is said to be so vast and therefore so overwhelming that we become mere pawns as God moves about to do what God would do; who could resist Him after all?
In the first place the God who is infinitely above is isn’t merely above us.  In his Son incarnate he comes among us.  In the cross of his Son incarnate he renders himself wholly vulnerable for our sakes.  The God who renders himself wholly vulnerable for our sakes isn’t a God who is going to stifle us.  The God who renders himself wholly vulnerable isn’t on a power trip that reduces us to pipsqueaks.  The stunning thing is that the cross of Jesus shows us God believes in people.
In the second place the fact that God is overwhelmingly vast does not diminish us as humans.  The ocean is overwhelmingly vast compared to the smallest fish (or even compared to the biggest fish.)  Still, the smallest fish isn’t more truly “fish” for being taken out of the ocean.  The smallest fish can thrive as fish only in the ocean, however vast.  The ocean’s vastness doesn’t imperil the fish, but the ocean’s disappearance would. This being the case, God’s presence and purpose, God’s density and immensity; so far from rendering the self impossible, God’s presence, purpose, density and immensity – sheer vastness – will ever be the condition of our most authentic selfhood.  So far from stifling me, God’s gracious, vulnerable coming to me alone will allow me to thrive as me. If humans are made for God, the campaign to get rid of God would finally profit us as much as draining the ocean would profit the fish.
We are made by God for God.  Then only as we live in God are we most authentically ourselves.  Since the Master frees us from every hindrance to living in God; since he thereby frees us for living in God, to be freed by the Master is to be freed to become our authentic “self.”  This is gospel freedom and the true foundation of all freedom.
4.  Of course we are freed “from” in order to be freed “for.”  We are freed for acting, doing, being in accord with our true nature as sons and daughters of God.  What we are freed for is for love of God and love of neighbour.  We do not become our true self by focussing on me—that is “selfism”.  We are freed for self-forgetful service of Christ and neighbour; Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve. He came not to be pampered or coddled; he came to give himself for others in their pain and loneliness.
As I reflect on this text of scripture, having just celebrated Canada Day, I think of the liberty in which I live in a democratic society.  I am mindful of the long history that gave rise to the freedom we often take for granted in Western democracies; I am mindful of the role that Christian thought and texts like this one played in that rise. I am also mindful that the Apostle Paul wrote these words to a church whose membership included many slaves.
It is good for us to ever keep in our hearts and minds that human freedom is rooted in God’s freedom; our freedom comes from God.  The notion that a Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes you free is simply false; the rule of law at its best protects the freedoms God gives.  The idea that Governments dispense freedom often turns them into the tyranny of those who think they know what is good for you; the freedom of the gospel points us, I believe, in the direction of limiting the power of government over its people.
Additionally, I am ever astounded by God’s love of humans revealed in his utter regard for the person; the cross of Jesus Christ shows me that though God is vast and powerful he never runs roughshod over the individual; he woos each of us to believe.  Today the sun rose at his behest for the exercise of our freedom without regard for how each individual treats God.  I wonder sometimes about the number of laws that govern Canadian life; my guess is that the number far exceeds the 613 of the Mosaic law; have you ever read out tax code?  So many laws aimed at curbing the behaviour of a few—like the governing of cell phone use while driving—end up assuming everyone incapable of making free rational judgements.  When I compare that to God’s profound belief in people in giving himself for them I am staggered at his love of me.
Freedom “from” is ever freedom “for”.  I read a story last week that typifies this truth.  Columnist Jonathan Kay wrote about attending the citizenship ceremony in which a Filipino nanny who worked for him became a Canadian citizen. He wrote: “It’s only been five years since my nanny brought her family to this country. In that time, they’ve become Canadian citizens, bought a house, found jobs, become active and devout members of the Catholic community and set two children on course for academic success. Despite the endlessly trumpeted cries of “institutional racism” we Canadians have become used to hearing, here is a visible-minority family that has vaulted itself into the upwardly mobile middle-class in the space of half a decade.
And how did they do it? Hard work, family values, a commitment to education and religious faith.”
For freedom Christ has set us free.