July 6, 2014
Even though Janis Joplin thought freedom was “just another word for nothing left to lose,” the people of the United States of America still celebrated our freedom this July 4th, as we have every year since 1776. Freedom is a word that can be tossed around casually. Everybody wants to BE free and wants something FOR free. But what does freedom actually mean? Freedom from what? Freedom FOR what?
In the case of this country, the 4th of July marks our freedom from being governed by the British monarchy. In 1776, a group of leaders put forth a document that said, “We’d like to be free to choose our own rulers, to make and enforce our own laws. We would like the freedom to finance those things which are important to us and to refuse to finance those things which are not, to gather with the people we’d like to gather with, and to say the things we wish to say without fear of reprisals. We want to be free to pursue happiness.” That’s the basic context for our commemoration of freedom on July 4th.
Of course, we recognize that freedom wasn’t just handed our willy-nilly to everyone on July 4, 1776. Women, slaves, Native Americans, and immigrants did not enjoy the freedoms declared at that time. Ever since the American Revolution against Great Britain in 1776, this nation has had many mini-revolutions, as more and more people struggled for access to freedom. The Civil War. The Civil Rights Movement. The Suffragettes. There is always a struggle for liberation going on somewhere.
But is that freedom the same thing St. Paul is yearning for in his letter to the Romans? Paul talks about being in captivity, not to a person or government, but to sin. He speaks of being not unwilling, but actually unable to rise above it. What does freedom mean when it is not in the context of a nation or an oppressed group, but the faith journey of a community or an individual believer?
On a literal level, Paul spent quite a bit of time in jail, so he definitely had a sense of what freedom and confinement feel like. But today’s reading from Romans is about another kind of prison with which he was also familiar—the trap of the human condition, of wanting to do the right thing, but never quite being able to sustain it. I think Romans 7 is a great description of the Catch-22 of sin. It reveals all too plainly how, on our better days, we long to refrain sin—to cease doing or being anything that hampers the well-being and wholeness of the world—but how we keep getting twisted up. We succumb to our own fears and to the world’s greed and desire for power. Even when we try as hard as we can, we are bogged down by our inability to live into the kingdom we proclaim. We cannot shake off our own entrapment. We need to be set free.
Thanks be to God! Paul exclaims. Jesus has done that! Jesus has done all that needs to be done to ensure our eternal freedom. He has embraced the whole wide world, and said, “World, here I am, completely and totally yours. I know you are a mess, but I love you so much! I am going to give you all that I am, and all that I have. Come to me, you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
Ahhhh. What a promise! We may indeed be enslaved by a web of sin that wraps us all up in darkness, unable to do and be all the wonderful things that we were created to do and be, and yet, we are invited to come to Jesus. The captivity of trying really hard, of struggling to be good enough, to be worthy of God’s partnership, is not what Jesus is offering. That’s a prison we make for ourselves. Invariably it doesn’t work. What a blessing it is that Jesus never says to any of his followers, “Come to me after you have your act together and we’ll talk.” Or, “Make sure you have come to terms with your baggage before you come to me.” He just says, “Come to me,” and we can just see his arms reaching out to enfold us in grace.
Jesus knows that only by being in a meaningful relationship with him will we start to understand who and what God is. Only by connecting can we truly be released from all that weighs us down. Jesus wants to eat with us, to go to weddings and dance with us, to funerals and cry with us. Jesus wants to be intimately connected with the people he loves—to be yoked side by side with us, in a way that makes bearing the load easier for each party.
In Christ, we are free. We are freed from the death cycle Paul described in his letter to the Romans. We are freed from the oppression of never measuring up. We are freed from the need to please God in order to dwell in God’s embrace forever. Jesus did all the work; we are called simply to Come to Jesus and find rest.
We could hoard this Good News all for ourselves, but why wouldn’t we celebrate it with anyone and everyone? Why not rejoice in it with fireworks and picnics? We are free to share God’s acceptance of us! We are free to spread it around indiscriminately.
That, it seems to me, is the natural movement of freedom—it leaks! It spreads! One revolution against oppression leads to another, as the wind of freedom blows. Yes, we are invited into God’s heart, but God will not be confined to simply taking up residence in ours. God’s goodness and mercy is so enormous that it oozes out in every direction. We have been called to Jesus to find rest, and that rest energizes and empowers us to live generous, abundant lives. God’s delight in us allows us to blossom so that we can freely share with all those we encounter. God does not welcome us to rest because we’re doing everything right, nor because we have been forced to cultivate virtue, and been punished for anything less. No, God welcomes us because it is God’s nature to receive us. We don’t have to do anything. We don’t have to stop doing anything. We really are free. Now the only question is, what are we going to do with all that freedom?
~Pastor Susan Schneider