Monday, October 03, 2011

Freedom from or for what?

October newsletter

We are a country of people who ostensibly love freedom. We take pride in the Declaration of Independence and it’s proclamation that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We consider liberty or freedom to be the freedom from oppression, tyranny, unjust laws and taxation, etc. From this founding document others later argued against the injustice of slavery and inequality. Thus, when we talk about freedom, it is usually understood as freedom from something. Freedom from what constrains, holds back, imposes expectations or limitations on us.

Yet even in a free society, we recognize that this freedom is not completely unbounded. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. humorously put it: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.” We also talk widely about freedom of expression, and as that is practiced in countless forms, we see an increasing degree of individualism. Is that always necessarily good? If our “freedom” is not only to be free of any restraints and expectations but also of any responsibility and participation in community—is that freedom well-used? Will that freedom be used selfishly, or for the good of others?

Matthew Harrison, President of The LCMS, writes that for Martin Luther, the freedom that we have in Christ was not merely freedom from something, but also significantly, freedom toward something. In other words, that freedom has an object or a goal. In the Small Catechism, Luther wrote that we are freed from sin, death, and the power of the devil so that “I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (explanation of the 2nd article of the Apostles’ Creed). There is a goal and a purpose for our new-found freedom in Christ—to be put into the service of others in God’s kingdom.

So when we are freed in Christ, it’s not so that we might be self-serving (which, ironically, is a return to the slavery of our sinful desires cf. Gal. 5:13). Rather, it’s a “freedom toward community. It is a freedom that pulls one outside of oneself. It is a freedom toward communal purpose, vocation, service, and mercy. It is a freedom toward eternity” (Harrison, Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action, 82-83). What a contrast between a worldly notion of freedom, and the freedom in Christ! The freedom in Christ is a freedom that pulls us outside of ourselves, and turns our love and our mercy toward the good and toward the need of others. Here freedom is not merely for one’s own purposes, but embraces responsibility, the care for others, duty to one’s calling (vocation), and heartfelt love. This freedom does not shirk responsibility as a constraint or limitation, but is thankful that God has freed us to serve Him without fear.

This is the freedom that Zechariah sang about. He sang that God had redeemed us, saved us from our enemies, shown us the mercy He promised to our fathers, so that “we might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). This is the freedom that Paul describes: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Freedom for service to God; freedom toward the good of our neighbor. This responsible use of our Christian freedom is such that it does not demand our rights over against another, but thinks of others first (Phil. 2:3). This responsible use of Christian freedom builds community, extends forgiveness, and works for the good of all, not only for the individual. Jesus Christ did not set us free from one another, but for one another. Truly, this is freedom worth celebrating and giving thanks to God for! In the freedom that Jesus won for us by His death on the cross, may we be bound together with one another in His love! Amen.

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