Tag Archives: freedom

Preserving Freedom

Paul has argued through Galatians against a group who wanted to impose full Jewish Law and practice on those who became believers in Jesus from outside the Jewish community. He insists that faith, and not obeying the detailed instructions of the Old Testament Law, is what makes a person free and right with God.

It might sound very remote in the twenty first century, if it were not for the difficulty we have today as Christians understanding how Christian life is supposed to work. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Clearly it would be terrible, having escaped from the life of a slave, to be returned to it again. But what is Christian freedom, and how is it to be used, and indeed preserved?

Today’s reading (Galatians 5:1 and 13-25) jumps from that verse to explain the difference between a selfish life, dominated by the indulgence of human appetites, and a free life powered and directed by the Holy Spirit. We have become expert at justifying what we want, having our own way, and imposing on others – yet know that this seldom ends well. What we have to learn is how thankfulness for a life set free can lead us to love and serve, and to cultivate the “fruit of the Spirit”. These are gifts we cannot obtain by self-discipline, but that God will develop in us as we allow them to grow.

Freedom can be lost! When Paul sounds as if he speaks from experience, we can echo his concerns. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. ” This leads back to the selfish life, enslaved by human desires. The alternative? “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

Independent?

Do you like being supervised? I imagine not. It doesn’t really matter whether we are being formally assessed (at work, in a medical test, even in sport), or just have someone looking critically over our shoulder – it makes for stress, if not resentment.

It should not be too difficult to understand Paul (Galatians 3:23-29), when he speaks of the Old Testament Law as a “guardian”. Yes, the Law tells us what God is like, and how our lives should go to fit God’s intentions and our purpose. But like a schoolteacher, it can limit our freedom, and doesn’t actually make us good at learning. We are reminded that children in the first century were sometimes under the control of a slave, who made sure they behaved and did their lessons, even though the slave had no status himself. The slave was hardly a friend, no matter how properly he did his job.

So, Paul suggests, becoming Christians is like gaining the freedom of family members. No longer subject to strict control, we share with other believers the equal status our faith releases. In this letter, Paul has been concerned to reject the demands of some who claimed that non-Jewish converts to Christ had to observe all the Jewish Law and customs. He insists (as did the Council of Jerusalem, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 15) that while Gentile believers in Christ should be concerned to maintain fellowship with Jewish believers, they do not have to live under Jewish regulations.

The freedom of the Christian is still important, and easily lost to judgmental attitudes or old fashioned habits. Yes, we need to understand how our lives are to be like Jesus’, showing the effect of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Old Testament remains important for us to understand God’s interactions and relationships with humans through the ages. But no, we don’t have to follow endless restrictions and traditions. Getting it right is difficult, but important.

Only two possibilities?

Christians are sometimes accused of trying to make a simple – even a simplistic – choice out of life’s endless moral dilemmas. It is complained that preachers unfairly make the spectrum of goodness and evil into a false two way split. But scripture does this too. There are many different metaphors which have in common a refusal to allow the hearer to sit on the fence. Think for example of Jesus parable about the two men, one building his house on sand, and one on rock. In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy several times urges a choice of direction: blessing and curse 11:26f, compare 30:15. Psalm 1 pictures two trees, one by the waterside, not a forest or even a copse. In today’s reading of Romans 8:14-17, Paul offers some explanation.

Of course, on the Day of Pentecost, named for its 50 day interval after Passover (Easter), we tend to focus on the dramatic story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, told in Acts 2. But for us who live a long time after those events, how does the Spirit make a difference?

Paul has spoken in Romans 7:14-23 of the way good intentions are not enough to overcome sin, experienced as selfishness, desire, addiction and many other things. In Romans 8 he explains that it is the Holy Spirit that breaks the monopoly of human sin. It is not that the Christian becomes perfect, or even loses the many temptations to fall back into a self-centred, desire directed, life. But the Christian can be “led by the Spirit of God” – directed by a greater force, though always responsible, never coerced. This is a life that pleases God, and is seen as good and constructive by those around. This is the way to become the person God intended, filling the place in the community (both the Christian congregation and the wider local community) that is properly theirs.

It is a strange balance. We do not lose control of our lives, yet what is good in them is given, not achieved. The choice has to be made each day, and even more often, yet going the way of God’s Spirit we have confidence in our direction, even when it is not obvious. We still sin, and need repentance and forgiveness, but the stranglehold of a sin-dominated life is broken, and wonderful opportunities are glimpsed.

Christians do believe in a division into two. Only God is able to give a final, accurate judgement, but scripture again and again speaks of a two way choice, not a range of assessments of good and bad.

This is reinforced by the role of the Holy Spirit in making us God’s adopted children and heirs. Again, the division – those who receive the inheritance, and those who do not. Adoption is a gift, yet a gift in which we may have confidence, and for which we may always be grateful.

The story of the birth of the church that Pentecost is striking, and still of great importance. The Holy Spirit, working in Christian believers, leads them to the life God intends, and gives a new position as adopted children.

It’s so good!

What will heaven be like? John’s vision (today we read Revelation 21:10 and 21:22 – 22:5) has some interesting things, which ring true. We read of the centering of everything on God, Father and Son, and the way they provide light. Although strange at first, it is something significant. It is the light of God that has shown us the way, and will do so in future. It is light that makes possible free movement, and comfort, and recognition of people and places. As we fumble in a power cut, and shiver in an eclipse, we enjoy a sunny day. How much more joyful the light of God, which is more than physical.

We sometimes speak of “security lights” – those annoying lamps with sensors to turn them on, usually not quite when you want them. In heaven, the illumination is effective; there is no need to shut the city gates (usually a night-time security measure). Similarly it is a good place, where there is no “bad behaviour” or attempt to deceive. There is, not just a negative safety, but a positive thriving.

The opening verses of chapter 22 speak of the river, recalling Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:1-12), bringing life to dry places. Here too the tree of life gives life and healing – for the goodness and holiness of God seems to be almost infectious. On earth we are used to the way viruses and evil spread. We sometimes forget that love, joy, hope and many Christian fruit are seen, and that witness will also spread on earth.

The reign that continues for ever is not one of conquest or colonisation, but the good order, transparent justice, and continuing healing of all in the city. It is no wonder that God is worshipped, and we are encouraged to join in, even in anticipation from where we are now.

It’s a Revelation!

There is also a comment on Exodus 14 and 15 here, and four on John 20:19-31 as Good Doubt, Constructive Doubt, John 20:24-, and Why.

For some people, Revelation is a book of horrors and nightmares, but I want to convince you otherwise. We have 6 readings from Revelation in the next 6 weeks, and they have some positive things to say. So Revelation 1:4-8 starts off with the offer of free gifts. Not a bad strategy, but are they worth having? – you judge:

grace and peace be yours from God” verse 4

Not just God being nice to us, although we don’t deserve it (good!), but also we are given grace. I wonder if we take that seriously enough. Peace – again, not only are we no longer in rebellion against God, but we are given peace, not to worry about everything ?! not bad, and not finished:

“by his sacrificial death he has freed us

free gifts in 8 verses – its enough to get you in the habit of Bible-Reading! But there’s more. There is a good deal here about Jesus. We tend to think of Jesus the preacher and teacher, but this is later:

“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness “

to God’s ways and nature, which we need to know about;

“first to be raised from death”

The first, not only one who will be resurrected.

“ruler of the kings”

Now in power, exercising great power, in a way we still need to learn about.

“first and last”

Alpha and Omega, the A-Z of the Greek alphabet. We might say something like “Pioneer and Last Word”.

Was . . Is . . is to come.

This is a different picture, and an important one – the Lord of power, who won the highest place by obedience in accepting the lowest.

Free Gifts, from a Lord with power and honour, and then there’s us:

“He loves us “

You can’t truly say that of many in power, but Jesus has demonstrated the point, and still does!

“made us a kingdom of priests” ?

We are all to bring people to God, and God to people; here we are told it is what we are for.

Why? “to serve his God and Father” can you think of anyone better to serve? even yourself? (do you live up to his standard?). So here we are, in Revelation, blessed with Free Gifts, given by a Risen and Powerful Lord, so that we may not live selfishly and idly, but be equipped and ready to serve God in a ministry to all the world. Surely that is worth paying attention to?

What is Jesus all about?

The story of Jesus in his home synagogue (Luke 4:14-21) is an announcement of what Jesus is all about, and it demands attention. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1,2, but he’s talking about the fulfillment of the greatest hopes of a people. I’m not sure if we have such clear and unified national hopes now – we don’t even talk easily about our personal hopes – but the Jewish people of the first century knew what they wanted. They wanted freedom, and the life that God had promised – a good life, a life of wholeness and plenty and right – right relations and right order – to happen in their time.

And Jesus comes to his home synagogue and says “Yes, its happening now.” And we blink, thinking, have I missed something, what happened next? Look back, and you will see that in Nazareth they took offence, and he narrowly escaped violence. Jesus had stopped quoting Is with “the time has come when the Lord will save his people” it continues “and defeat their enemies”. Perhaps Jesus didn’t need to speak of that, because it was shown to be happening.

So we are set up by Luke to ask if we recognise these things in the gospel story – both the story he tells, and the story our lives re-tell. Jesus as the bringer of good news: not always happiness, sometimes hard work (but never pointless). Good news which includes being set free – not free of all constraint, but free of evil, free to learn to live with other people as difficult as we are ourselves.

Then there’s recovery of sight. Jesus did heal some blind people, but more than that, he has made it possible for many of us to see –

  • to see something of God, his character, his activity, and purpose
  • to see in people not just what they are, but what they might be, and how God might view them.
  • to see the collection of Christians not as grumpy, quarrelsome bunch, but as the potential citizens of a new kingdom.

Some of the oppressed are free, and some of those who profited from their oppression are quite annoyed. We see a struggle developing, and already we are involved. Do you think Jesus should have known his place and kept quiet in his home town? Or are you hearing what he says and saying, even without quite getting all the significance, “Yes!”

Luke is only beginning. But he warns us that this is no story that we can read and analyse like an instruction book or technical specification. We are drawn in; right away we either rejoice that freedom is announced and healing practised, or we worry that we may lose out if things change too much.

God is in charge, the Holy Spirit is leading a new wave of history – and it continues for us. As we read on, where will your sympathies be, who will you support, what will you do?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on Jesus, because he has chosen him to bring good news to the poor. He has sent him to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people”

Yes?

Introduction – with vigour

Who do you think you are?

It was a question John the Baptist would have used. ~ Luke tells us that “he proclaimed the good news to the people” (last verse of the reading Luke 3:7-18), but he certainly didn’t mince his words. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John, in his uncompromising, vigorous style, was not out to make friends and influence people. This prophet, speaking for God, was direct.

His first function was to prepare the way by bringing people to repentance, reminding them of the holiness of God, and their compromised status. The process of baptism was an admission of the need to begin again with God, because of sin, failure. Preaching repentance remains an important, if undervalued, part of Christian ministry. Not for the outsider alone, but for all of us to realise that we are not ready for the coming of God, we need to repent, to root out the evil which so easily takes root in us, and to respond again to God’s goodness. John had some very practical advice about how that might work (verses 10-14).

John’s second function was to point to the Messiah. Verses 15-17 make clear that he is not the one, but is a forerunner to a greater figure yet to come. It’s not easy to point to someone else, but this was his role, and privilege. Like his morality, preaching the Messiah would have excited some, angered others. Messiahs came fairly often – in popular imagination – and dealing with them at that time was usually bloodthirsty. During John and Jesus childhood, the roads of Galilee had been lined with crucifixions after one such rebellion.

His third function (which we return to in January) was to start Jesus’ ministry by baptising him. In each case, John was taking risks, and dealing with dangerous topics – which is what they remain.

Morality, personal and business ethics, can be a sensitive issue. But as Christians we draw some very definite patterns from New Testament teaching. You are free – and your abuse of that freedom can lose you your status as a Christian. You are responsible, and the God who forgives failure still expects obedience.

Jesus as Messiah is also a sensitive issue. Can we not accept all religions, all leaders? No – we can respect them, but Christians follow Christ without compromise, even if that is politically incorrect, embarrassing, or commercially disadvantageous.

John the Baptist was a “blast from the past”, even in the first century; he remains someone who highlights critical issues for our faith and discipleship today. To be ready for the coming of Christ now, you must repent, respond to the Goodness of God in Christ, and follow the Messiah faithfully and without confusion.

For example – Peter

Peter’s great recognition of Jesus as the long-promised and expected King (Messiah) is a turning point in each of the first three gospels (Matthew 16:13-20).  It brings into the open – though only for the disciples at first – the most important truth.  For us, who sometimes think “Christ” is Jesus surname, we wonder at the significance.  (Christ is actually the Greek form of the Hebrew “Messiah”, literally anointed one, so King).

We might see its importance for us by looking at Peter.  Peter was a tough fisherman, who took time to take Jesus seriously, and then personally. Luke tells us how (Luke 5:1-10), after Peter lent his boat for Jesus to preach from, a big catch of fish taken by following Jesus’ instructions led to Peter’s admission of sin and failure. Jesus doesn’t go away as Peter suggests, but commissions him as a fisher of men.  Freed from the guilt of his past failure, Peter is also freed from being “just a Galilean fisherman”. He becomes a leader of apostles.

Many Christians have found the freedom of faith liberated them. Some were aware that guilt crippled them, and forgiveness made new life possible. Others concentrated more on the acceptance and dignity that God gave to lives lived in difficult or demanding circumstances. No one else might know or care what happened to them, but if God did, they could walk on, and walk tall.

Peter’s trust in Jesus wasn’t just an escape from guilt and a limited life. It brought his a freedom to serve.  At Caesarea Philippi, he recognises Jesus as the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of what the OT looked forward to – and he has the courage to say it.  (Of course, he hasn’t become infallible – his next line will be mistakenly telling Jesus that he doesn’t need to suffer!).  This is the pivot of the gospel because it makes clear that Jesus is Lord.  Not just a teacher, explaining a theory, nor just a miracle worker.

Again, after Jesus Resurrection and Ascension, Peter has seen James arrested and executed.  But he is set free by an angel (Acts 12:1-12). He won’t escape execution for ever, but he has years of service to give first, travelling, teaching, telling the world about Jesus.

Perhaps the freedom to serve is something we are not so good at.  We want to be free from things that limit and diminish us, but are not so good at understanding what use to make of our freedom. Peter shows us how a life in Jesus’ service might indeed be the intended use of freedom.  If the picture we get from Peter is freedom from sin, guilt and the limitations of a small life, it is also of freedom to serve, grow, and for him to be a leader and pioneer.  Peter is a good example of Christian life!

Christ the King (Kingdom 4c)

This week we celebrate Christ the King.  Most of us have some idea what a King (a ruling King, rather than a constitutional monarch) might look like.  Words like power, glory, majesty, and rule come to mind.  Power and authority are hotly contested in our world.  We expect a strong man, with more than words behind him.  Glory is less obvious; I might think of magnificence, but I suspect the re-discovery of the word “awesome” may be closer the mark.  Majesty might imply the right person for the right job, someone with the necessary qualities, like wisdom, intelligence, experience, understanding . .  We have an idea what a King might look like – but is it the right idea?

The reading is Luke 23:33-43, the story of Jesus crucifixion.  It is no mistake.  This is the enthronement of Christ the King, but we may need to take time to come to terms with it.  Jesus as King has power.  Here, on the cross, he does what only he can do, and offers his own life as a sacrifice to win our freedom and to win the victory over evil.  While it may not be the sort of power demonstration we expect, this is the final showdown.  There is no greater power than this.

The glory of Jesus is the glory of service.  As king, he does not subjugate, but frees.  If he has coercive power (remember the cursing of the fig tree?) he much prefers to heal, reconcile and liberate.  This is real glory.  In the same sort of way, his majesty is not expensive clothing, a luxurious setting and careful stage management.  This scene is awe inspiring for what it is, not for how it is made to look.

This may be a surprise, or just a reminder that we all have to remind and re-educate ourselves, so different is the Christian understanding to what we are used to in our cultures.  Yet all scripture points this way:

  • the gospels all build up to a climax at the cross, recorded in detail.  There is no “alternative ending”
  • the gospels also record Jesus trying to warn the disciples, explaining what will – what must – happen, and his refusal to escape to personal safety.
  • the early Christians preach Jesus death and resurrection as central to their story and their hope
  • in that Christian story, the figure of the coming King (Messiah) is also the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah

And it is not only scripture (or my interpretation of scripture!).  Christians still, in different traditions, celebrate by remembering Jesus words of sacrifice at his last meal with the disciples – this is my body, given for you . . this is my blood of the new covenant.  They still hold to the creeds, with their recital of Jesus death and resurrection as of central importance.  Hymns and worship songs again and again return to the cross, Jesus death and sacrifice – for these are the source of Christian commitment and motivation.

Let’s celebrate Christ the King!

War and Disaster (Kingdom 3c)

The Christian gospel is good news – that is the literal translation of the word also translated “gospel”.  But sometimes you read a passage like Luke 21:5-19, and see reference to the destruction of fine buildings, war, disasters, persecution and betrayal, and think, “Good news”?

But the gospel is indeed good news, because these evils are recognised.  It is so easy to reduce Christian faith to a parody: “Be nice to people, enjoy the countryside, help those less fortunate.”  There is nothing wrong in any of those, of course – but without a strong reason to motivate a life of service and sacrifice, it is only platitude – so much hot air.

The reason comes as Jesus speaks of the sometimes painful reality of human life.  And it is the fact that he not only speaks of evil, but faces it himself, that gives weight to the way he leads.  Jesus faced a plot to kill him, was slandered and betrayed.  It is after he has been flogged and during his crucifixion that he forgives (as he had taught others).  By facing the evil of the real world, he overcomes it and offers us freedom.

The good news is about a kingdom where peace and justice rule, and healing and truth are found – a kingdom open to all who will admit their need of forgiveness and follow the one who leads the way through death to life.  Without the reference to the hard realities, it might seem just another bit of wishful thinking – a tale for children, to be left behind with childish things.  But a gospel which depends on one who lived this, went to his death by torture forgiving, and returned to encourage those who, despite their failures, wanted to be his followers; – that is a gospel for the real world, and for people who have grown to know some of how hard it can be.