The Readings for this Sixth Sunday of Easter:
First Reading Acts 10:44–48
Psalm Psalm 98
New Testament 1 John 5:1–6
Gospel John 15:9–17
It’s sooo hard for us to understand and accept true freedom. It’s so hard for us to use it well.
Our Monday evening online Bible study (you are welcome to email me for an invitation) has been studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which is a case study in this human dilemma. Paul scolds the gentile Christians for falling back from freedom to servitude. He explains that the Law of Moses, as well as every other kind of human religion, is twisted when it traps us into thinking we gain God’s favor through our efforts. “If you slip up, just try harder.”
But Paul has proclaimed the freedom of the gospel. Christ, who was so full of God’s love, was crucified as a violator of all rules, laws and prescriptions for trying harder. So, God was in Christ, freeing us all from the curse of just trying harder. It is a curse like that of the Greek god Sisyphus, who was condemned to an eternity of trying to roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as he neared to top. Luther says rightly, “The law says ‘do this’ and it’s never done. Only faith can see that it’s already done for you as a gift of grace.”
Through Christ God gives us the favor we so long for. God gives us dignity, and self-worth, and belonging—all as a gift. In so doing, Christ sets us free from the curse of Sisyphus, from our contorted view of the purpose of God’s Law, and from every prison of sick, constricting religion.
Our story from Acts is about the gentile, non-circumcised people of Antioch. It was obvious that the Spirit of God was blessing these people before they jumped through any of the religious hoops that the first, Jewish followers of Christ thought were pre-requisites. They were just like the Galatians Paul wrote to. The powerful gifts of the Holy Spirit were proof that the hoops weren’t necessary. And the great good things happening in the lives of these gentiles weren’t the cause, but the result of God’s favor.
So, the Good News—the Gospel—is that all the hoops, the restrictions, the formulas for getting God to love you—they are all swept away. When you follow Christ into such freedom, it is radical. You, like Paul, are dead to the law and to the cosmos—i.e. to the false religion and false reality that you earn your belonging.
But then our readings from 1 John and from the Gospel of John speak of the commandment to love. What is that all about? Are free to leave one cosmos of constraint for another?
Martin Luther wrote an amazing essay early in his reforming career: The Freedom of the Christian. In it he stated this paradox:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
When Jesus commanded us to love, it both freed us and constrained us.
It freed us from loving to be loved. In other words, it freed us from the paralyzing worry and distraction of striving to do what makes us look good to God or to others. It frees us to live in voluntary servitude to love of others–to do what is right and loving for love’s sake. And 1 John has reminded us in last week’s lesson that God is love.
So, on the other hand, trust in Christ puts us under a new constraint. We are commanded to love. Loving one another as God has loved us is the only hoop to jump through—the only rule for our life. It is not a matter of choice, or of lifestyle—it is a matter of obeying the God who is love.
This is the paradox that is so hard to come to grips with. It is the single thing that makes Martin Luther and Lutheranism so hard to understand and cope with—even for Lutherans. Only when we understand that God’s favor, or “righteousness” or “justification” is not something we achieve through our effort, or through faith with the added ingredient of our good works. It is, and must remain always, a gift. We are always accepted and in God’s favor. And this favor is the only thing that enables us to love with an enduring and pure love. It empowers us for the voluntary servitude of being a “perfectly dutiful servant of all.”
Today we hear arguments of false freedom: “I have freedom to be vaccinated or not, wear a mask or not, hire homosexuals or not, say what I want in texts, on social media, or in my rants.”
All of these are false, because they are not the freedom of the gospel. The gospel freedom—the only true freedom, is to put ourselves at the service of others. That is the kind of freedom Christ died to give us.
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I must say, I woke up this morning, after yesterday’s bible study on Galatians, feeling remarkably free and unburdened.
Beth: There is no better endorsement of a Bible study than just that. I look look at life and theology through the prism of family life; and I know that people thrive if they feel loved, accepted, in their family no matter what. That gives them the freedom to “sin and sin boldly, but believe in God’s grace more boldly still,” as Luther recommended. Freed from the fret about being worthy, we can more effectively pay attention to the need to belong that everyone else feels.
I’m sure your break in the magnificent Rockies also helped you feel unburdened.