Freedom! It’s a word that has the ability to arouse strong emotions in many of us. When I hear the word freedom, Janis Joplin’s words immediately come to mind bringing with it the chaos of the world as it was in the 60’s:
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,
Nothing don’t mean nothing honey
if it ain’t free, now now.
Following close behind are the words of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech where he imagined a world where every race would be free to live together:
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” I can never hear that speech without getting a lump in my throat and a swelling of my heart. Last week, on the 4th of July, we couldn’t help but think about freedom in the context of our national history and the hymn we sang; America the Beautiful, can easily move us to tears and feelings of pride and love for our country.
We live in a culture that places a very high value on personal freedom – established by our constitution but then given a whole new meaning by the capitalism that drives this country.The constitution gives us the right to gather, bear arms and say what we want. Every night the television presents to us the religion of pleasure by showing us all the “things” we are free to choose if we want to be happy and fulfilled. But we all read the papers about rulings of our courts and know that in fact, you can’t always say anything you want, and you can’t take a gun anywhere you want. Most of us are also well aware that we don’t have the financial freedom to have whatever we want whenever we want it. There are restrictions on our freedom no matter which way you turn.
To live in a society requires all kinds of cooperation, but deciding where to set the limits on individual freedom is no easy task. When philosophers ask ‘What is freedom?’ they are not asking for a dictionary definition. The definition of freedom you give usually implies your particular view about human beings and about the things we value most. In 1958, in an article entitled Two Concepts of Liberty, British philosopher, historian of ideas, and political theorist Isaiah Berlin described two kinds of freedom, negative freedom and positive freedom. These two concepts of freedom are helpful as we discuss the meaning of freedom. The concept of negative freedom centers on freedom from interference. According to Berlin, theories of negative freedom spell out the acceptable limits of interference in individuals’ lives. You restrict my negative freedom when you restrict the number of choices I can make about my life. The extent of my negative freedom is determined by how many possible choices lie open to me, or, to use one of Berlin’s metaphors, how many doors are unlocked. My negative freedom is a matter of my freedom from constraint.
Positive freedom, on the other hand, according to Berlin, is a freedom that comes from self-mastery or self-realization. It is a more difficult notion to grasp than negative freedom. Put simply it is freedom to do something rather than freedom from interference. Positive freedom is not a question of having more opportunities. Rather it is a question of being able to take advantage of opportunities that come my way by being in control of my life.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann argued that the greatest mystery of human existence is not the reality of evil, or injustice, or hatred. Rather, the greatest mystery in the universe is human freedom — the freedom that God has chosen to give you and me that enables us to order our lives in any way we see fit. We are free to become a Mother Teresa or an Adolph Hitler. We are free to give our lives to God, or to deny God.
Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, author, designer, inventor, and futurist and was best know for inventing the geodesic dome. At age 30, in 1925, Fuller had earned the first of his 25 patents. Within two years he was bankrupt and jobless, living in public, low-income housing in Chicago, Illinois. That same year Fuller’s young daughter Alexandra, with whom he was extremely close, died from complications from polio and spinal meningitis. Sunk in despair, Fuller found himself standing on the shore of Lake Michigan contemplating suicide when the thought came to him, your life is a gift and you have no right to throw that gift away. Deciding that he had no right to end his own life, he wondered what he could possibly do that would make living bearable. It was at this point that he had a remarkable realization that he had a choice. He could choose to make his “life an experiment, to find what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” In bondage to alcohol, depression and failure, Buckminster Fuller found freedom when he chose a particular purpose.
The passages from Luke and Galatians this morning call us to think about the meaning of freedom in a Christian context. Paul wrote to encourage his friends in Galatia: “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.” Jesus spoke to those who were following him saying, “Follow me.” One of them replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father. “Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Christian freedom does not mean that we live unencumbered lives where we are free from restraint. It means we are free to choose what direction our lives will take. As Richard J. Shaffer wrote, “Adopting a life of Christian discipleship cannot be a part-time or momentary commitment. It is a life-changing shift in direction and priorities.” Our lives and actions reveal the kind of freedom with which we live. It was the same choice that faced the early followers of Jesus.
By the middle of the 1st century C.E. there was an increasing number of gentiles joining the way of Jesus. One crucial issue that emerged among Jewish and gentile believers was the status of the Law of Moses. Did gentile believers have to convert to Judaism and be circumcised in order to become Christians? Paul’s answer was unequivocally, “No.” “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery,” he wrote the Galatians. As Christians, he told them, they were free but it wasn’t just any kind of freedom.
Their freedom, Paul wrote, did not allow them to indulge in any desire that came into their minds. Their freedom came with restrictions and responsibilities. Here is how The Message translates Galatians 5: 13-14. ‘It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.’
Paul then goes on to encourage the Galatians to make the choice to live by the spirit. “Live by the Spirit I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” By using the word, flesh, Paul was not placing the physical world in opposition to the spiritual world. A life lived according to the flesh is a “life that has abandoned the transcendent and become fixated on personal satisfaction,” comments ethicist and theologian Walter Wink. (Engaging the Powers) The “problems of the flesh,” writes Mark Douglas (Feasting on the Word) “are not that it desires but that its desires are disordered. It wants the wrong things or good things in the wrong way.” For Paul the solution was neither rejection of desire nor surrender to it but to desire properly. To desire properly takes discipline on our part and a working of the Spirit within.
According to Paul there are always two roads before us. The first one, the road that Paul would call the way of flesh, is the road that promises us pleasure, satisfaction and immediate gratification. This road looks promising but gets us nowhere. The other road, the road Paul would call the way of spirit, is the road of wisdom. It doesn’t promise immediate satisfaction. It is not about what pleases us or displeases us but it is the road to deep satisfaction and personal fulfillment and freedom. This road doesn’t always look promising but it takes us where, as people of faith, we want to go. The flesh is Paul’s short hand for self-centered living and the spirit is his short-hand for God-centered living.
The real issue is choice and it is in choice that our freedom lies. Maybe this analogy from author Eknath Easwaran would be helpful. Do you remember the famous chariot race scene in the movie Ben Hur? Imagine that your body is the chariot, you are the rider, the 5 horses pulling the chariot are your senses and the reins are your mind and will. For the vast majority of us, those powerful creatures, the sense, are utterly untrained. They pull us this way and that, dragging our mind and will after them and we consider this utterly normal. It doesn’t usually occur to us that there is a purpose for the mind, the will: to guide these horses, our senses and our actions, so that they pull together as we demand. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t help myself because I’m an extrovert or I just get angry or I’m controlling….that’s just the way
I am.” And our desires drag us off to the bakery when we are on a diet, or to pour
another drink when we are trying to cut down, or to be impatient with someone we love or cheat on our taxes to keep more for ourselves. Too often Christians seem to think we can just lean back and relax and leave our transformation up to God. God however needs our participation in following him. We have the freedom to choose. We make the choice. On the road someone asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said. Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.” Jesus said to another, “Follow me.” He said, “Certainly, but first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my father’s funeral.” Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!” Then another said, “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.” Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.” (The Message)
We are left wondering if these potential disciples followed Jesus. What road do you suppose they took? We can know what road we are on by the things we treasure, the priorities we take and the way we treat others. Jesus had the same choices before him. His choice was to abandon himself utterly to the purposes of God. But remember, patient practice of having our desires remade, of learning how to live as followers of Christ, takes time and spirit. God invites us to walk the journey with Jesus, to take the road of spirit and to live with his singleness of purpose. When we choose to take his road we are truly free. Amen.