Freedom & Service
Luke 13: 10 – 13; John 8: 31 – 47; Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 15
Have you been set free? Do you want freedom? What’s it look like?
“Woman, you are free from your illness!” [Lk 13: 12(GN)] shouted Jesus to a woman who had entered the synagogue. She had been bent over for 18 years. That would have been an amazing experience for that woman! Just imagine being set free from something that had bound you for 18 years. One thing we all long for is freedom, whether it is freedom from physical or mental pain, or the pain of rejection or the pain of shame. Last week I spoke about how unforgive-ness imprisons both the victim and the perpetrator, and how forgiveness sets the victim and perpetrator free. The things that enslave us can be physical, mental, psychological, social and political. The desire for freedom in the human spirit is so imbedded that it begs the question as to why we are not free, but we are not.
Jesus says in John’s Gospel that the truth will set us free [Jn 8:32]. Jesus teaches that his freedom is grounded in his teaching and practice. Secondly, Jesus understands that humanity is enslaved or imprisoned by sin [Jn 8:34]. Jesus is talking about the condition of being sinful not sinful acts. The essence of sinfulness is that our minds are focussed elsewhere. Our chief focus tends to be on ourselves, and that inevitably comes at the cost of others. The Greek word used means ‘missing the mark’. I find that helpful. What we are focussing on is missing the mark. The true mark is Jesus. The false marks concern our interests. It is a matter of getting our deep life-shaping-priorities right. We want to exercise our rights and independence. But when all is said and done we find ourselves slaves to something. In reality we are never entirely independent of anything or anyone.
Freedom is a very big subject. We commonly think of freedom as liberty, independence, and latitude to do and say what we like. All I can do today is provide a Christian and Biblical picture of what the first Christians understood and secondly how we might become truly free. I pray that you might discern in this sermon God’s will for you.
Let us start with a word picture of the first Christians way of life and what it looked like. The first followers of Jesus, like Jesus, were Jews with a view on life. They believed that God would send the Messiah / the Christ to set the Jewish people free, restore the Temple and gather the twelve tribes. [Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Messiah.] There is no doubt that this is how they perceived Jesus. Jesus gave them hope and inspiration. But as the events unfolded their idyllic picture of the Christ began to fracture. Jesus’ crucifixion was not expected. The Christ was not meant to be crucified. Actually Jesus’ crucifixion was the absolute opposite of what was anticipated. Then came the Resurrection, which was followed by an out-pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The inspiring and empowering experience of Pentecost was followed by persecution, which led to their dispersion. They left Jerusalem and found refuge in other towns and cities. But they took their persecution and rejection as a badge of honour, because they believed they were the followers of God’s Messiah/Christ. When they were told to be silent they found the freedom to say ‘no’ to the Jewish leaders. They would not and did not remain silent. Instead the Spirit gave them the boldness to proclaim Christ Jesus more fervently [Acts 4: 20,31]. Secondly, when the Gentiles began to follow Christ Jesus the first Jewish followers found the freedom to loosen their ties to the traditional Jewish expectations of what was to happen. They no longer held to the view that the Temple would be restored. Nor did they dwell on the traditional belief that the 12 tribes would be brought together. They began to see that God was doing something different. God was building a new temple, but the stones of that temple were the hearts and minds of his followers. They began to see that the Gentiles sharing in the blessing of Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit meant that God was gathering in the Gentiles, not merely the 12 tribes of Israel. This meant that it was not Judea or ancient Israel that would be reclaimed, but rather the world was to be claimed for God in Christ Jesus. They understood that the mission of God encompassed the Roman Empire. The result of this was a radical freedom to preach the Gospel in face of rejection and at times deliberate and violent persecution. King Jesus set them free to serve the Kingdom of God.
Freedom was one of the marks of the first Christians. They were unfettered by fear of the authorities. They were untrammelled by meaningless tradition. They were unconstrained by small visions. So it is not surprising to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians – Freedom is what we have – Christ has set us free. Stand, then, as free people … do not become slaves again [Gal 5:1]. Paul goes on to speak of the calling to be free. This statement begs the following questions. What are we set free from? What are we set free for?
In the first place we are set free from the power of sin. In the ancient world sin would have clearly included being controlled by the demonic powers of evil. We westerners don’t think like that. However we cannot deny that our bad behaviour becomes bigger than us and like demonic power controls us. We find ourselves caught up in genocidal programmes, industrial slavery and prejudicial fears that systematically hurt and destroy people. Christ Jesus sets us free from such powers.
Secondly, we are set free from self. Paul and others make it clear that the freedom we have is not about doing just what we want to do. It is not about indulging ourselves [Gal 5:13]. We should never confuse licence to do what we like with true freedom. Christian freedom, true freedom, is doing something worthwhile. In looking to Jesus we lose sight of the self. Jesus steers our lives not our egos.
Thirdly, we are set free from traditions that stifle and control us. In Galatia the Christians were being pressured to follow Jewish laws that were seen to be unnecessary and unhelpful. This problem emerged in a number of places in the Church. It is not surprising that this enslavement to traditions continues to lie in the shadows of our lives. Reading through Scripture we get the picture that some wanted new Christians to comply with the old traditions, in particular circumcision. This would have impeded the growth of the Church. Today the church struggles with the pull of social conventions and traditional practices. Such conventions may be as innocuous as the way we sing our praises, or the way we worship, or the best time to worship, or the way we dress, or the way we use our buildings.
Those first Christians experienced a freedom to be what Christ wanted them to be. As I have already said, they went into the world and spoke boldly about Christ Jesus. If we are being set free from sin, traditions and ourselves what are we set free for? Here we come to the heart of the matter. We are set free to serve. Paul speaks about becoming ‘slaves to one another’ [Gal 5:13]. Jesus sets us free to preach the Good News. Jesus says, ‘Follow me’; I am the truth, the way and the life [Jn 14:6]. In following Jesus we will see that Jesus looked to God and then looked to earth and humanity. Then Jesus acted. He served humankind. His service was the love that wanted the best for all. He stood against untruth and evil to the point of surrendering his life; in that he demonstrated a power over evil and untruth. Jesus’ Cross was Jesus’ Crown. Jesus crown was made of thorns of pure gold. When Jesus’ disciples wanted to save Jesus from the Roman and Jewish authorities he told them he had come to give his life as a ransom for many [Mk 10:45]. When Jesus commends the faithful and watchful servants he implies that when he comes and finds his servants faithful and watchful he will take off his coat and serve them [Lk 12: 37]. Yes, Jesus keeps his focus by serving others.
I want to suggest that we will find a freedom in such action. I understand service to free us from our self-interests. Self-interest is the first devilish master or mistress we have. The by-products of service are freedom for us and empowerment for others. Compassionate service opens the door to freedom for all. Service is the best way of preserving our freedom and independence.
Hans Denk said; God forces no one, for love cannot compel, and God’s service, therefore, is a thing of perfect freedom.
Maybe another way of looking at the Freedom Christ offers us lies in the Revd. Martin Luther King’s words; “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others? ”
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 25/08/2019