What is Our Freedom For?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Festival of the Reformation + October 30, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

There’s an old Jewish story about a man with the habit of gossip. One day he decided it was time to change his ways, to repent of his sins, and to try to make up for the harm he’d done in his years of spreading rumors, hurtful stories, and lies.

He knocked on the door of the village rabbi and asked, “Is there something I can do to make amends?”

 The rabbi stroked his beard and replied, “Go home and come back with a pillow.”

 Relieved, the man soon completed the odd errand. Would such a simple gift be all that was needed to atone for this sin?

 When he returned, the rabbi continued. “Now, slice it open.”

 It was a windy day, and the breeze picked up the feathers, wafting them over the housetops and into the fields.

 “Now, go gather all of the feathers again and put them back in the pillow.”

 “But that’s impossible!” exclaimed the man.

 “In the same way, it’s impossible to repair all the damage that your words have done.”[1]

The point of the story is to visualize how our words can have effects that run far beyond our reach and our control. The image of feathers scattered through a village and across the fields might also help us understand what Jesus meant when he said, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Just like those feathers got out of that gossipy man’s control, so our sins can get out of our control — and too often they control us.

There are many ways to relate to that metaphor of being slaves to sin. One way is by thinking about the consequences off our misdeeds. We might do something wrong in a hot moment and immediately regret it, but the consequences of that one instant can have a hold on our lives for a long time. Some sins entrap us, like the classic case of a person who lies once, then must continue to construct lie after lie to avoid getting caught in that first lie. Some sins become habits and addictions, and it comes to feel less I am making a choice and more like that desire or that habit is taking over my body and my mind. Some sins are sneaky, like social sins; we may not even realize that we are trapped in sin because it’s the norm of behavior, everybody’s doing it. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” Jesus said, and we all know what that can feel like.

But of course, that wasn’t the main point of Jesus’s message. Jesus came to give freedom: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus proclaims that we are no longer slaves to sin; now we are children of God.

The promise given here is not that God will be the enabling parent who bails us out every time we do wrong; nor is God a heavenly eraser following behind us, rubbing away all our mistakes and wrongdoing. As I’m sure you’ve figured out during your life as a Christian, even after baptism, even after being born again, we still have to deal with the consequences of our sins. And we still have to work hard to break sinful habits or change the way we see the world or even just admit that we are wrong. We are no longer slaves to sin, but we are not getting off scot-free, and we are not made into perfect angels. This is why Martin Luther said that even as free Christians we are still sinners.

Our true God-given freedom is this: God will not define us by the sins we have committed. Other people will (at least some of them), but God will not. No matter what, God see us as God’s children, as justified, as forgiven and lovable. This is why Martin Luther said that though we are still sinners, we are also saints.

This freedom showed itself clearly in Martin Luther’s own life: before the epiphany of his core belief — that people are “saved by grace through faith” and not by our own efforts — Luther was paralyzingly fearful about his sinfulness. He thought of God as jailer and executioner, and he spent hours at a time in confession, fasted, did all sorts of acts of penance.[2] He was a slave to sin through his fear of being sinful and condemned. When he discovered God’s grace, God freed him from that anxiety, from that fear, from that feeling of being trapped. Today we celebrate how that freedom enabled — even demanded — that Luther boldly witness to the gospel, changing the church and the world through that same message of freedom.

From our beginnings Lutherans and other Protestants have been accused of uplifting this freedom to such an extent that we throw out the law and ethics and any idea of the need for good works. This is a misunderstanding of Lutheran teaching, but sometimes I think we deserve the criticism. I remember times in seminary where one classmate would make a claim like, “God wants us to care for the poor,” and at least three people would respond, “BUT WE ARE NOT SAVED THROUGH WORKS!!!” Sometimes we focus too much on what we are free from, on our freedom itself, and we forget to emphasize what God frees us for, what God frees us to do and to be.

Freedom in itself is never the goal. Freedom is what we need in order to live in a different way — and that difference is what we really desire when we desire freedom.

Let’s go back to the metaphor of slavery. Maybe, if we imagine with all our concentration and all our powers of empathy, we might imagine the faintest hint of what it may feel like to be a slave, to be owned by another human being. Your body, your time, your energy, your relationships, your future, are all controlled by someone else. As a slave, freedom would be your chief desire. But even then, it’s not freedom itself is not exactly what you would be dreaming of; it’s all that freedom offers; it’s freedom to live a different life in all its details. Freedom to work for your own profit; freedom to keep your children by your side; freedom to rest when you need to rest; freedom to come and go and sing and love and dream.

We might be able to relate a little more easily to a soldier’s longing for freedom from wartime service. That longing is not simply for an end to the war, for freedom from bullets and bombs and trenches; it’s longing to be free to live differently. In the TV series Band of Brothers, the soldiers share dreams of what they long to be free to do. One man, Liebgott, says: “First thing I’m gonna do is get my job back at the cab company […] Then I’m gonna find me a nice Jewish girl…marry her, then I’m gonna buy a house, a big house, with lots of bedrooms for all the little Liebgotts we’re gonna be making.”[3]

In Forrest Gump Forrest’s wartime friend, Bubba, dreams in detail of going home, buying his own shrimping boat, and cooking up “shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo…pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp…shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes…”[4]

At the very least, I think all of us can relate to the desire to be free from particularly stressful seasons in our life. But at those times we don’t just imagine a life free from piles of paperwork or constantly being on the road; we imagine being free to do other things with our time. When I was in school, during finals I didn’t daydream about not having to write papers, I daydreamed about being free to read novels, go out with friends, and sleep for a full eight hours at night.

As Christians freed from the slavery to sin, what are we free to do?

The answer is not “we are free to sin without fear!” Or at least I hope that’s not what you were thinking.

Martin Luther wrote a paper called “On the Freedom of a Christian.” In it he pointed out that as Christians — freed from fear and anxiety about our sin, our forgiveness, our lovableness, our eternal fate — we are free to boldly serve God and neighbor, to boldly do good works. That is what God dreams that we do with the freedom God has given us.

It sounds like kind of an obvious answer, or even a trick. “Freed from slavery…to be a servant? That doesn’t really sound like freedom at all.” But consider how hard it can be to figure out the right thing to do. I know I’m supposed to love my brother: but in this situation does loving him mean paying off a debt he owes, or making him face the consequences of his actions? Sometimes it seems like one Bible passage teaches me to act one way and another Bible passages teaches me the opposite. Libraries of books have been written in attempts to discern what exactly is God’s will, how we are to read certain passages of scripture, how to make the right decisions based on specific situations. And let’s be real, there are no easy answers to the hard questions. Fear of sinning and earning divine wrath could leave us frozen, but through Christ we are free to take the risk of acting, hoping and praying that we are doing good, but knowing that we cannot lose God’s love.

During today’s service this year’s confirmands will be publicly affirming their baptisms, and the rest of us will promise our support to them in their life in Christ.

Baptism reminds us both that we are free from something and that we are free for something. In baptism we are freed from slavery to sin, from fear of punishment, from the thought that God might not love us or forgive us. And in baptism we are freed into a covenant with God, rooted in the forgiveness and new life that God gives us. We are freed to:

…live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.[5]

 This is God’s dream for our Christian freedom. May we live it out. Amen.

[1] Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), ch. 7, kindle edition. Based on a traditional Jewish story as told in Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Harper, 1998), p. 3.

[2] James Kittelson, Luther The Reformer, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishing House, 1986) p. 79.

[3] Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight,” episode 9, directed by David Frankel, written by John Orloff, (based on the book Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose), HBO, October 28, 2001.

[4] Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Eric Roth (based on the book Forrest Gump by Winston Groom), Paramount Pictures, 1994.

[5] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 236.


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