Monday, November 12, 2007

FREEDOM

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in Deuteronomy:

1When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. (Deut. 26:1-10, NRSV)

God gives freedom. The whole story of the Exodus tells us that God had made a covenant with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Those descendants were down in Egypt, enslaved, oppressed. God, as the passage says, led them out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and led them into a fruitful land. God set them free.

But it is, in a sense, a terrible thing to be part of God’s people. Freedom given from God is not freedom to do as we wish. It is freedom to be what God intends us to be. The people of Israel did not put aside their idols and false gods. They oppressed the poor among them and bribed judges. God warned them that they were to live as holy people for God had set them apart as a light unto the nations. Ultimately because they misused their freedom God took away their freedom and punished them.

But something happened in exile in Babylon. There was a renaissance of faith in God. There was a renaissance of obedience to God. The people of God began to see that outward slavery did not deny freedom. The people began to celebrate their freedom. The Sabbath meal became a meal of freedom. While God’s people might labor six days a week, on the seventh day they rested for, as it says in Deuteronomy, God commanded them to do so for God had led them out of slavery. (Deut. 5:12-15) The Sabbath was a celebration of freedom.

So was the Passover. Every year the people would gather and remember that God had set them free. No matter how awful daily life might be, God was still a God who brought liberation.

But freedom always exists within bounds. I remember hearing James McCord when he was president of Princeton Seminary preach one time that God was not only a God of liberation. God did not simply lead the people out of Egypt. God led them to the Mountain and gave them commandments. True freedom can only exist within limits. St. Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please.” The assumption behind this statement is that if we love God we will seek to please God. We please God by living as God commands us to live. To live as if freedom means there are no limits is to live in chaos. This is precisely the problem we have in America and in the PCUSA today.

People drive up the street I live on with stereos that have massive bass speakers in their cars. They turn the music up loud and the bass reverberates through the neighborhood. My house shakes and I can hear the bass notes even with the windows closed. Now I like loud music as much as the next person. But when in my house I want to hear my own music, not that of someone driving by. Fire and police sirens I understand. They are necessary. So are train whistles. But as nice as the driver with the bass booster is to share his music with me, I wish he wouldn’t. He probably claims to have the freedom to play the music as loud as he wants. What about my freedom to be at peace in my house?

And if we all thought we were free to do as we wish the roads would be a colossal mess. If we all thought that we don’t have to stop at stop signs or at red lights traffic would be so snarled that no one would ever get anywhere! (Oops, I forgot: there must be a new law I haven’t read that says that four cars can turn left on red!)

I’m going to come back to the limits on freedom. There is another freedom that is important: the freedom God gives in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came and taught the way of freedom. He lived the way of freedom. He died and rose again to set us free. And curiously the way of freedom for Jesus was the way of obedience to the Father. We are set free from the powers of sin and death because Jesus chose to obey the Father, to allow himself to be arrested, to die in our place. Jesus shows us that the way of freedom includes the way of obedience to the Father.

Martin Luther puts it this way:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all. Martin Luther, A Treatise on Christian Liberty)

As Luther points out, this sounds like a contradiction. It isn’t. God made us for freedom. Jesus died to set us free. But Jesus didn’t die so that we could do as we please, totally ignoring God. As Paul says in Romans, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2 NIV)

I spoke previously about the covenants God makes. God always acts with grace first. Then God calls people to be the people of God, to be holy, to live for God. Our freedom then is to be dedicated to serving God.

That is freedom for the people of God. What about freedom for others? Contrary to what Christians did for more than 1500 years, we cannot impose obedience to God upon others. There are at least two kinds of freedoms in a free society. There is the freedom of the people of God, which is freedom to serve God. There is also freedom for everyone. When Christians come to legislate in a free society they cannot impose their beliefs on others as law. We must make a case that the laws we propose, (and this must be true for all), are good for all no matter what people believe. In a sense we could say that law is based on freedom. One cannot kill another because killing takes away the freedom of the other to live. One cannot pay another substandard wages because the worker deserves the freedom to live and eat. Law must be for the good of all the people. Christians cannot impose, say, attendance at Christian worship upon others.

The problem with freedom in America and in the PCUSA today is that freedom is too often no longer seen as freedom within limits so that all may be free. Freedom is seen as the right to do what I want no matter how it affects the other. As participants in a consumerist society we believe we have the right to riches beyond the imagining of the rich in the past. We forget that riches are earned and that even the possession of riches comes with commands from God, to serve God and other with riches.

The same is true in the PCUSA. We have taken on the language of rights, the watchword of the Enlightenment. People say they have the right to be ordained. No one has the right to be ordained. God calls people to particular tasks and gives people the gifts to enable them to carry out those tasks. Many tasks demand a certain amount of holy behavior. A congregation should not call a pastor who openly has a wife and a mistress. Yes, I know, there were people in the Old Testament who had concubines. In fact it was even a habit that was not ruled out among Christians in the early years. But we have come to see that God calls most men and women together to be one, to be married. One cannot be one with more than one other person. Check out the stories of those in the Old Testament who had more than one wife! Everyone man who had more than one wife or wives and concubines had troubles.

In the Church we have freedom within limits. We are free to serve God. Even if we are oppressed for our faith we are free because Christ has made us free.

Let us so live that our freedom shows that we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. That is true freedom.

Pastor Bob

8 comments:

Viola said...

Thanks Bob,
Freed to walk with Jesus Christ,freed to belong to Him that is true freedom.

Jim Jordan said...

Great sermon.

You wrote We have taken on the language of rights, the watchword of the Enlightenment.

I think the church has adapted the cultural "freedom to..." and turned away from the biblical "freedom from..." Would you agree>

Pastor Bob said...

Jim

I think you are, in part, correct. Certainly Christianity has as it's fundamental proposition that Jesus frees us from the power of sin. I believe we also have freedom to. However that means that we are now free to serve God through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Jodie said...

I don't see too much evidence that Jesus frees us from the power of sin.

I do see that Jesus frees us to do certain things, for each other, for him, to forgive, to love, to live...

But the power of sin has never been greater, and it holds everyone in its grasp. One needs to look no further than the front page of the news, or read the daily diatribes on the pages of the Layman Online to see how true that is.

Viola said...

Pastor Bob,

Something I wanted to add. Not only does Jesus free us from sin to serve him but the Holy Spirit unites us to the risen Lord and when God the Father looks on us he does not see either our sin or our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That frees us to serve God without fear or condemnation. "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, (Romans 8:1)." And the end of that chapter in Romans lets us know that no power in heaven or earth can separate us from Jesus Christ. Therefore not only do we show the righteousness of Christ, no power on earth, no demon from hell can trouble us.

Jodie said...

Not to pick on Viola but that last sentence is wrong in a very big way:

"Therefore not only do we show the righteousness of Christ, no power on earth, no demon from hell can trouble us."

We most certainly do NOT show the righteousness of Christ, and powers on earth are troubling us all the time. The very existence of the New Wineskins is predicated on being troubled.

So if the "therefore" is true, then the first part (the scriptural reference) is not, and if the "therefore" is not true then her >understanding< of the Scripture is wrong.

For me it's the understanding of Paul's words that is completely off.

It's what M. Scott Peck was all about in his book "People of the Lie".

Yehudi01 said...

Shalom everyone... I just happened to find myself reading through this post and the comments, and I would like to share a couple of things.

First, the parable of Jesus, (Yeshua), regarding the New Wineskins was referring to the First Covenant which was for us Jews only and remains in place to this day, and the New Covenant which now includes non-Jews. It is referring to the reconciliation between Jews being Torah-observant and non-Jews...whether they must be circumsized, kosher, Torah-observant, etc...

Also, Martin Luther, in my mind is a horrific example of Christian love. Here is a quote from him:
"What shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? First, their synogogues should be set on fire...Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed...Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds...Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more...Fifthly, passport and traveling priviledges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews...Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury [charging interest on loans]...Seventhly, let the young and strong Jews and Jewsesses be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses...We ought to drive them rascally lazy bones out of our system...Therefore away with them...

To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden-the Jews."

This is the founding father of modern Christianity. Why did he say these unthinkable things about the people that G-d loves so deeply? Because we wouldn't convert en masse.

Is the Christian creed of, "I'm free, I'm forgiven," a license to sin? Non-Jews who love the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov are still required to do.."do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with your G-d." Be holy as He is holy...thank you for allowing me to share.
Lech l'Shalom, Yehudi

Pastor Bob said...

Yeudi01

Thank you for your response. As I made no direct comments on Jesus' remarks about new wineskins I'm not going to comment on that. I will on Martin Luther.

The history of Christendom, (Christianity as empire), is rife with sin. Certainly the sin against Jews is among the worst if not the worst. I make no excuse for Luther's hateful writings about Jews. He was wrong. He sinned.

He also wrote some great documents on other issues, such as freedom. Go figure.

As to his being the founding father of modern Christianity, I beg to differ. Certainly he was a central figure in the Reformation. But there were others, Calvin and Knox to name just a couple. And the Catholics, in the counter Reformation, came up with some good works too.'

That, of course, is no comfort to Jews who were persecuted.

I would like to believe that Christians have learned from the Holocaust that persecution of others for any reason is simply not acceptable. Alas I have no such confidence in human goodness.