I recently watched a documentary on the Civil Rights movement in America in the 50’s and 60’s and was reminded again of some of those immortal speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King in which the word “freedom” is the centrepiece of what he has to say.
There are very few words in any language that arouse more passion, more emotion than the word freedom. I mean, people desperately crave freedom…they strive for freedom…people take extraordinary risks on the high seas to find freedom…yes, people are prepared to die for freedom. Many countries around the world feature their monuments, their sacred sites, their special days to commemorate their journey to freedom. Here in Australia, there’s the Anzac tradition which seems to be growing in significance and popularity with each passing year.
Of course, freedom is a dominant theme in the Bible – from the story of the Exodus, (with the children of Israel being delivered from Egyptian captivity by Moses), right through to the book of Revelation, which promises freedom from death and the assurance of Life Eternal for the people of God. But it’s Jesus himself who has the honour of making the most startling…most profound…most powerful comment about freedom – and it comes in John 8:36 – “If the son sets you free you will be really free.”
Some older versions say, you will be free indeed. And this statement from Jesus serves as a reminder, a stark and unequivocal reminder that the Christian life is all about freedom; it’s all about liberation; release and fulfilment…
But what does Christian freedom look like in everyday life? How can we know if we are really free?
Despite Jesus’ clear and unequivocal statement that He has the power to set us free, so many people down through the years and even today, have the idea Christianity is about restrictions, regulations and repression. People cite the laws, the commandments, the long list of do’s and don’ts they associate with the Christian faith. Sadly, the Church of Jesus Christ has, in many ways, conveyed this distorted impression but nothing can take away from the fact Jesus made a clear declaration: “If the son sets you free, you will be really free”.
What does this statement mean in our practical, down to earth, everyday experience? I believe “really free” means a number of things. First of all, it means freedom to live! I just don’t mean freedom to exist, but freedom to experience life without the debilitating impediment of guilt and remorse…life in which we discover a clear purpose for living…life in which we experience first-hand the truth of Jesus’ teachings that it really is in losing that we find ourselves; it is in giving we receive and it is in dying to the self we live.
I mean, so much of what passes for freedom today is really a concealed form of captivity – (and in many cases, not so concealed!). For instance, if we pursue materialism as a way of experiencing real life, we can easily become ensnared in a relentless quest to acquire “things”, none of which really satisfy our inner longing for peace and contentment. It’s the same with pleasure. If that becomes are all consuming reason for existence, it’s not long before we’re confronted with the futility and fragility of that scene. We need only look at the lives of many celebrities who’ve gone down these pathways, to see evidence of the sadness and despair that can be associated with that sort of lifestyle.
In contrast, in my work, as a Pastor, I see people who are as happy and fulfilled as they can possibly be – but it has nothing to do with the amount of things they’ve acquired, the amount of money they have in the bank or the type of pleasures they indulge in.
I’m thinking of a friend in India, a doctor, who has spent 31 years serving in a small mission hospital in a rather remote town about 5 hours’ drive from Mumbai. Over the years he’s had plenty of opportunities to go to the West and pursue a lucrative career in either private practice or within the hospital system of countries like Australia, the US and Great Britain. However, when speaking to him recently, he told me, with a huge smile on his face, how he is simply responding to what he believes to be a strong call from God to invest his entire life into the health care of the impoverished people who live in his region. He gets enormous satisfaction and a sense of true freedom doing what he believes he was put on this earth to do.
As Jesus says: “If the son makes you free, you will be really free”
I believe Christian freedom also means freedom to forgive – to really forgive. Let’s be honest, quite apart from any spiritual principle involved here, even basic psychology tells us our sense of freedom and happiness in life will be directly affected by our capacity and our willingness to forgive. If you’ve been in a situation where you’ve allowed feelings of bitterness and resentment toward another person to gradually build up and take hold, you know how debilitating that can be – how all-consuming that can be – robbing us of joy and peace.
It’s like the old saying which is so accurate: “bitterness and resentment are like drinking poison while expecting the other person to die”. Well, in what way does Jesus give us the freedom to forgive? Primarily because of the grace and forgiveness He has extended to us. Grace and forgiveness represent the very epicentre of the Christian message. Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 1 verse 7: “For by the sacrificial death of Christ, we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God which He has given to us in such large measure…”
In 1 John 1:9 there’s a promise that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will both forgive and cleanse our sins. When announcing the birth of Jesus to Joseph at that first Christmas time, the word from the angel was: “You will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. And people may say, well what’s the big deal about having ones sins forgiven – why is that so important? Well, here’s the thing: only the forgiven can truly forgive! Only when our emotional and spiritual wellbeing has been blessed by grace and forgiveness are we able to truly extend grace and forgiveness to others.
A guilt ridden person or someone who believes they’re deserving of forgiveness (but not receiving it) – is going to be less inclined to forgive others because they’re likely to be thinking: “Well, why should I forgive? I’m not being forgiven!” In one of His parables, recorded in Matthew 18: 21-35, Jesus was scathing in his condemnation of a man who had been forgiven a huge debt by a ruler, only to go out and immediately bale up a guy who owed him a few dollars.
Jesus makes it clear: that’s not how forgiveness is meant to work! We receive grace and forgiveness from God not only to cleanse and renew us, but so that we in turn might extend grace and forgiveness to others.
Freedom to live…freedom to forgive…these are some of the practical out workings of the statement made by Jesus long ago: “If the son sets you free, you will be really free”.
But Christian freedom is also freedom to learn. It’s a very liberating thing to be sure and comfortable in our beliefs and convictions – while at the same time being open to new thoughts, new ideas and new concepts which may lead to even greater enlightenment. Closed-mindedness, bigotry and inflexibility are among the main reasons behind conflict and prejudice – and these were realities Jesus was addressing all the time. The religious leaders believed they knew it all, that there was nothing more to learn. They had their fixed ideas about their religious practices, their worship and their understanding about what the Messiah would be like. And their refusal to be open and to learn meant they totally missed the Christ event and were responsible for His premature demise. In contrast to this sort of unwillingness to learn, Paul says in Ephesians 3:18 and 19 that God’s love can never be fully known. In other words, we never reach a point in the Christian life where we “know it all”, where we have every aspect of theology and doctrine all sewn up. In fact, every new season of life, every day, provides us with opportunities to learn and to grow. I look back over my own life and sometimes marvel at the way some of my ideas and opinions have changed over as I have gained more knowledge, more understanding and more insights into some of the realities of life. Yes, Christian freedom means freedom to learn.
-And it also means freedom to love! NO, I’m not referring to “Free Love” made famous by the hippie movement of the 60’s; I’m referring to our capacity to build strong relationships with others, based on mutual trust and respect – relationships motivated by what we can give, not what we can get; relationships characterized by genuine care, compassion and empathy. I’m referring to the building and strengthening of a genuine sense of community within the body of Christ. And as we saw with the notion of forgiveness, so with love for each other, the modelling comes from what we experience from God himself, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In his first letter, chapter 4 verses 19-21, John says (and I’m reading form the Message version):
“First we were loved, now we love. God loved us first. If anyone boasts “I love God” but goes on hating someone, they are lying. If we won’t love the person we can see, how can we love the God we can’t see?” The command we have from Christ is blunt: loving God includes loving people. We’ve got to love both.”
When it comes down to the wire, the resilience and health of community life in a local church is so vital. You can think you’ve got your theology right and your beliefs all lined up – but if people aren’t feeling genuinely cared for in their time of need, we’ve missed the mark.
If the Son makes you free, you will be really free!
In our everyday lives that means freedom to live, freedom to forgive, freedom to learn (to keep growing and having our minds expanded) – and freedom to love! To express that Christ-like quality of love in which we say, even to the most unlovely person: “I love you, not because I need you, not because I want you. I love you, because you need me.
Father God, thank you for the freedom we enjoy from the One who promised to make us really free – even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.