Freedom

[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Freedom.”]

Freedom’s something we hear a lot about here in the US. America is, after all, “the land of the free.” The First Amendment of our Constitution grants us various freedoms, including the freedom of religion—and we are thankful for the freedom to worship that we have and remember those in many parts of the world that don’t have this same freedom. The Declaration of Independence affirms that, among the inalienable rights of all men—and women—are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Indeed, ‘freedom’ can mean different things to different people at different times. And I think relearning or rediscovering God’s idea of freedom is part of what Paul is trying to get at in Galatians 5.

I started, though, by Googling “freedom,” and the first result that popped up was actually an application for your computer called “Freedom.” This app comes on the recommendation of writers, authors, and screenwriters such as Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, the late great Nora Ephron, Seth Godin, and many others. And what it does is that it blocks your access to the internet for a specific period of time so that you can be productive.

You’re welcome!

Anyway … back to Galatians.

1. What we’re free from

In Galatians 5:1, Paul writes:

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

The slavery that he’s referring to is this idea that in order to earn right standing before God, you can, you need to, do things—in this case, for the non-Jewish Christians, follow the requirement of circumcision of the law of Moses. This is the idea that the outsiders were propagating, and the idea that Paul has come against full-force. He’s saying, “If you think that even a little bit of obeying the law will improve your standing with God, you’re disregarding the very core of the gospel of Christ, which is that it is all grace.

Some of you know that I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. I grew up going to a great church, where I learned the value of family and of reading and memorizing the Bible, and of the importance of a relationship with Jesus. I also learned—from church culture as well—what it meant to be a “good Christian.” A “good Christian” is someone who doesn’t get drunk, who doesn’t swear, who can recite Bible verses, who has as-close-to-perfect Sunday school and Sunday service attendance as possible, who knows the right words to say in a prayer, who knows the right words to say to someone who isn’t a Christian, who has said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ to invite Jesus into his or her heart, who has been baptized, and who doesn’t sin any more.

But I don’t think I really knew what grace really meant for a long time, because whenever I did mess up, whenever I did sin, I’d feel like I’d messed my whole life up, that I’d let God down and that he was looking down on me with disappointment and anger and judgment, that I was no longer welcome in his presence—not until I said sorry, and maybe did some penance.

Please don’t hear me wrong: repentance, confession, forgiveness, and absolution are all vital parts of the Christian life. They are part of how we relate to and interact with God: acknowledging wrongs and reconciling and moving forward. And it does matter how you live your life—I’ll talk about this more in next week’s message—but they don’t determine how much God loves us. Let me say that again: your actions, your addictions, your good deeds, your screw-ups, your triumphs, your brokenness, your baggage—none of this determines how much God loves you.

Years ago, I read The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning; and it changed my life. After years of guilt and shame at not being able to live up to the standard I thought I was ‘supposed to’ live up to, falling short in failing to always treat people kindly, in losing my temper (I was an angry teenager, too!), in struggling with issues of lust and pornography, in taking for granted the many blessings I had been given rather than accepting them with gratitude and using them to bless others, and in a hundred different other ways—for the first time, through the words of this book, I began to truly understand grace—amazing grace, the grace of Jesus Christ.

I realized—not just in my head but in the very core of my being—that I didn’t have to work to earn God’s favor any more. I realized that God wasn’t keeping track of the number of times I’d failed and fallen. I realized that God loves me, accepts me, and welcomes me, as I am. I realized what it means when Paul writes, in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

And in that moment, it was like a tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders or like I’d walked into the cool of an air-conditioned house from the oppressive heat outside. In that moment, I knew that God wasn’t some sort of record-keeper but a loving Father who only desires the best for those he has created. In that moment, I knew that there was freedom to make detours on the journey, to get lost, to make mistakes along the way, as long as my eyes were fixed on him, on home. In that moment, I knew I was free.

Free from feeling as if it all depended on me and that at any moment I might slip off the narrow path that God had meticulously drawn out for me. Free from striving, from fear, from guilt and shame. Free to live, as Jesus said in John 10:10, “life to the full.”

2. What we’re free for

In Galatians 5:6b, Paul writes, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

Our modern and postmodern minds like to keep things separate; it’s easier to understand that way. So we see faith as an entirely spiritual or mental thing and love as an emotional thing. We understand faith as a decision you make in your mind. If you asked the question, “What is faith?”, most Americans would probably say something like “belief in God” or “belief in a God,” and they’d be referring to the mental assent that there is a superior divine being.

On the other hand, love—we’re told—is an emotional thing, a feeling, something you know in your heart. So when you get all gooey around someone, it must be love; and then after a while, you stop feeling so great about them—you fall “out of love”—and you quit. Or you hear Jesus say, “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemy,” and you wonder how on earth we’re supposed to manufacture or drum up feelings of love for people that don’t like us or people that you find it hard to feel any sympathy for. Or you hear the commandment, “Love the Lord your God,” and you’re left with this impression, this understanding, that you’re supposed to feel great about God all the time, and if you don’t feel it, then you must be doing something wrong and God must have abandoned you.

But thankfully, the Bible’s understanding of faith and love is a little different.

The writer of Hebrews says, faith is “trust in God [that] is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see” (11:1, MSG). Faith is about trust: trust in a person; trust in a relationship; trust that Jesus’ life and his sacrifice and resurrection by God were and are enough to redeem and reconcile all of creation, including you. That’s faith.

And love clearly can’t just be that warm fuzzy feeling if Jesus expects us to love our enemies. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

Love as distinct from “being in love” is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit, reinforced by … the grace [received] from God.

This is love: seeking the good of the other through tangible action.

Our common cultural understanding of freedom is being unencumbered by restraints; it’s being able to do whatever we feel like, whenever we feel like it, with whomever we feel like doing it. Generations, and particularly the last few, have been told over and over again, “Do what you want. Do what makes you happy. Do your own thing. Be free.”

And so we look at the Bible, which says we’re free from judgment, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and yet there still seems to be so much talk about sin and doing good works and living a holy life, even having to trust someone (even if it is God) and being called to love—to take action, to put others before ourselves. But that sounds like more rules and regulations; that sounds like work; that doesn’t sound particularly free, does it?

Well, not by the world’s definition of freedom, no.

On July 3, there was an opinion piece in the New York Times called “The Downside of Liberty,” and in it, Kurt Andersen points out the impact of the world’s definition of freedom:

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators.

This culture of “freedom” has become—for individuals, companies, political parties—what Paul warned against in v.13: “an opportunity for self-indulgence.” The verse says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters”—freedom from fear, from shame, from the slavery of sin—“only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

Wait, free from slavery in order to be free for … slavery? I thought we were free!

Yes, we are. But this is true freedom: being free to be who we were created to be.

In Genesis 1:27—“God created humanity in his image, male and female he created them”—we discover that we are created to be like God, created to show God to the world, and given the freedom to pursue that purpose. And as we read through Scripture or look even at our own lives, we see how everybody in history has epic failed in being like God—in justice, in grace, in community, in relationship, in love, in seeking the good of others in tangible action.

All but one. Jesus was the full embodiment of God in human form. Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was loved by his Father regardless of what he did or didn’t do. Jesus lived the life we were meant to live—who showed us what it looked like to be truly human—and died the death that we were meant to die. Jesus was the freest of us all and calls us to do as he did in loving God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving others.

Jesus knew what he, what we, were made for. Jesus chose to use his freedom to live life as it was intended to be lived. Jesus became like a slave, washing the feet of his disciples—a servant’s task; and so Paul writes, “We also should become slaves to one another.” Jesus loved his neighbors; he loved his enemies; he loved the unloved, the outcasts, the marginalized; he gave himself for their good, so that all could be saved from the power of sin and death, restored to right relationship with God and to true freedom—he sought our ultimate good, even before we knew what that was. And the ultimate exercise of his freedom was to have faith in God and, in love, to give his life so that we could live. Even hanging on the cross, Jesus was free, loving his enemies and seeking their good: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We are called not to use our freedom for selfish means or self-indulgence, but to focus on the things that really matter—to be who we were created to be.

It is by the work of the Spirit, through our trust in God, that we are set free from sin and death. And we are set free for the purpose of being who we were made to be—to love God and to love one another.

For it is for freedom that Christ set us free.

Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

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