Freedom for Obedience
The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)
Old Testament: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalter: Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Epistle: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Gospel: Luke 9:51-62
Old Testament: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalter: Psalm 16
Epistle: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Gospel: Luke 9:51-62
God, you call us to go where Christ leads. Turn us from the ways of the world; guide us to fullness of joy in the Spirit, where bodies and souls rest secure; and grant us strength to follow the way of the cross, which frees us to love one another for the sake of all creation. Amen.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
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 neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:1, 13-15).
In the middle of Oxford University there stands a wonderful building, surrounded by well-kept grass. The building is a library, circular in shape, topped by a great dome. It is beautiful inside and out. People photograph it, paint it, admire it. It is called the Radcliffe Camera (pictured above), or more colloquially expressed by students at the university, Radders.
The grass that surrounds the building used to be protected with high railings, so high, in fact, unless you were quite tall they would obscure your view of the building itself. During the Second World War, however, the government had the ironwork fence removed and melted down to make armaments. Suddenly the Radcliffe Camera, and its grass were free from what was a rather forbidding barricade. During the 1950s and 1960s, small signs were posted requesting people not to walk on the grass. Mostly, people obeyed.
But then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the grass became a favorite spot for tourists to picnic. People would have parties there, and other characters from the town would hang out there, to drink, to beg, and sometimes threaten those who passed by.
People working and studying in the library found that it was getting noisy, and they could not accomplish what they were there do to. The grass was so trampled that it became worn out. The entire area no longer looked picturesque; instead, it looked scruffy and messy. Finally, in the late 1980s, the university made a decision: the railings (not as high as before) had to be put back in place. Now, once again, the grass and building are beautiful.
This story is about the use and abuse of freedom. It is one thing to be set free from prison or slavery, and quite another to decide what to do with our freedom when we have it. This is the issue faced by every person when released from prison: will I use my new-found freedom to commit more crimes, or will I use it to live responsibly and contribute to the greater good of the society? The fact that we are, in one sense, free to walk on, and even ruin, the grass around a beautiful building doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do. Freedom from restraint, if it is to be of any use, must be matched by a sense of freedom for a particular purpose.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul argues that all those who believe in Jesus Christ are free—free not only from their pagan past and its immorality, but also free from the claims of the Law of Moses, not because the Law of Moses is bad, but because that Law has now given way to what Paul refers to as the Law of Christ. Jesus has not only freed us from something, but he has freed us for something. We are now free to love—to love God and neighbor. What this means, of course, is that if we are to truly love God and one another, we cannot live as we please; for love demands that we live in a certain way. Controversies were raging in the Galatian church. These controversies led to serious disturbance in the community of faith, which Paul refers to as “biting” and “devouring.” It was essential that, in learning to be free, these Christians, who were young in the faith, come to realize that squabbling among themselves was a sign that they were still enslaved. Worse still, it was the way to destruction. If things went on like that, quite soon there wouldn’t be a church in Galatia at all.
In stressing all this, Paul quotes one of the central early Christian commandments, which is itself, taken from the Old Testament: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you want to keep the Law, Paul says, this sums it all up. Jesus himself said much the same thing (Mark 12:31). Christ has not set us free from obedience; he has freed us for obedience. We are free to be in service.
This is difficult for many to understand in our society that so often defines freedom as being able to do what we want. Paul says that our freedom is a platform for serving one another in love; and it is important to note that Paul does not leave it to us to define what love is. For Paul, love is understood in the context of Christ’s sacrificial giving of his life in love for us. Love is also inspired by God’s Spirit, and love is expressed in doing good and building up the church as the body of Christ, and in contributing to the common good.
The great Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis says that when we use our freedom to live life as we please, we find that in the end we are not free, but that we are slaves to our selfish whims and desires, that we are bound to our biological urges. We thus discover that we are simply living life like all the other gorillas in the forest. Freedom in everything leads to freedom for nothing. True freedom leads, not to lawlessness, to anarchy, but to the kind of order that works toward the common good, thereby freeing others to continue the work.
Have we taken our blessings and our freedom and used them in a way that we are keeping it all for ourselves, simply soaking it all in our self-imposed and selfish captivity; or are we ready to utilize our freedom in the way God intended—to move out into the community and into our world to give ourselves for others in the same way Jesus gave himself for us?
Let me end with a quote from the late Pope John Paul II, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
If indeed the Son has set us free, we are free indeed!
PRAYER: O God, you set us free in Jesus Christ with a power greater than all that would keep us captive. Grant that we might live gracefully in our freedom without selfishness or arrogance, and through love become slaves to the freedom of the gospel for the sake of your reign. Amen.
Check out my web portal to all things, “Faith Seeking Understanding,” here.