What Is True Freedom?
Romans 6: 12-23
This is the time of the year when Americans pause to celebrate freedom. July 4th is seminal to American culture – and is possibly the one national holiday observed by everyone. From 1776 to the present day, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American freedom from British colonialism.
So what is freedom? Is it fireworks, parades and concerts, family gatherings and barbecues? Of course it is – the freedom to gather together and to share the joy of family, and of nation is to be celebrated. And I want to congratulate you on your Independence Day.
There are some would want to point to deeper meanings – such as the freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment: the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, a free press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.
And some might pause this weekend and reflect on the ways in which American freedom has become hotly contested territory: there is disagreement about the freedom to read books, or to learn all of America’s history – or the freedom to select who get admitted to educational institutions.
Today I am wanting us to pause and reflect on freedom: but more specifically on the way followers of Jesus understand freedom. We will go to the teaching of the Apostle Paul: I want us to spend time in Romans Chapter 6. I will read from Eugene’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message.
12-14 That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God.
“You’re living in the freedom of God.”
St Paul writes these stirring words : you are living in the freedom of God! The apostle Paul wrote these words to the Christian church in Roma from the Greek city of Corinth in AD 57, just three years after the 16-year-old Nero had ascended to the throne as Emperor of Rome. His predecessor, Emperor Claudius, had expelled Jews from Rome, but now they were returning. Amongst these were Jewish Christians, who returned to the churches they had founded, only to discover that Gentile Romans had become the new leadership. So Paul is faced with complaints about the way some wanted to take away the freedoms of others:
They probably sounded something like this:
“We founded this church – and these newcomers want to deprive us of our freedom of worship. Tell them to worship the way our founding fathers designed it.”
And then the reply – “Well we also follow Jesus – and we have our own unique (non-Jewish) culture, and these returning Jews want to take away our freedom to be Gentile followers of Jesus.”
I wonder what we might have said in reply to them.
Some might say: “Well just start another church. Have one Jewish Church and have another Gentile Church – where you are each free to practice your own culture in the way you are most comfortable.”
If you read all the way through Romans Chapter 6 you will hear Paul’s reply: he does not say divide yourselves into separate parties. Instead, he says that there are two kinds of life: a sinful life, and a life set free from sin.
The sinful life is a life of bondage, where human emotions control you and lead you to judge the worth of other people according to your own sinful standards. You will spend your time deciding the worth of others by using the standards of your culture and upbringing. Paul is emphatic in his response: Romans 6:19:
19 I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?
Paul says: You have been set free from such sin – now live differently.
Paul writes further in the Letter to Romans about how we can move from judgement, to living by faith. This is a way of living that trusts that Jesus offers us a better way of living – one that trusts the power of God’s love to hold us all in community, irrespective of the culture that gave birth to us. True freedom is being transformed from the old judgmental way of life – to a new Grace-filled way of life.
Paul says that the problem with culturally separated churches in Rome is that you will continue to look down on each other. Instead, worship together – and learn to love each other’s cultures. Be set free from your prejudices about each other because Christ has set you free.
22-23 But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.
Isn’t this amazing – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus sets you free from the old, judgmental way of life. Remember those words of St Paul: “You’re living in the freedom of God”
Allow me to offer this teaching from the Apostle Paul to us this July 4th. When we celebrate Freedom – may we who are followers of Jesus discover the Grace to be more than our own culture, or language group, or political party. Let us discover the Grace to be free to celebrate the lives of other people who live in this country – people who are not like me, but who are nevertheless my neighbor, or my colleague, or one who buys at the same store as I do. True freedom is when I am able to let go of my narrow, sinful boundaries, and discover the Holy Spirit leading me to respect all who live here as fellow human beings – whether Republican or Democrat / gay or straight / Black or White or Latino or Asian / East-Coast, West-Coast or Mid-Westerner: we are all the beloved children of God..
I close with another quote from the Apostle Paul: this time not in his letter to Rome – but taken from another letter he writes these words about freedom:
For you have been called to live in Freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13)