The apostle Paul would like the citizens of the greatest empire on earth to understand that freedom is not necessarily what they might think it to be, and that the pleasures of independence pale in comparison to complete obedience to the will of our Creator, in whose image and by whose will we were made. If only our desires and whims could be realigned with God’s, we would be complete. Only when our free will is united with God’s loving will for us are we truly free to be complete and perfect humans.
We catch glimpses of what that could be like, in moments of abandoned love, without self-regard and pure; in moments of communion with the rest of God’s good creation.
Paul was the Roman citizen, and the Pharisee, with civil and religious privilege. And he would give it all up for the freedom to follow God’s will instead of his own. He knew, from his experience of Christ and of the world, that no political system, even the lauded Pax Romana, can bring peace to our souls; that Caesar will not save his citizens; that we are citizens of another kingdom, the reign and realm of God.
We know the ideals to which we aspire. They are hardwired into us, since we are made in the image of God, and created for the love of God.
The love of God. The love of neighbour – every neighbour. Equality of respect and dignity for all, we hold these truths to be self-evident: this is how we would like to live.
But Paul knows that it is not so easy, since sin seems to have us cornered. Independence becomes individualism. Self-governance turns too easily to selfishness.
Independence does not mean that each man is an island. The Triune God upon whom we are modelled is a model of interconnectedness, of the unity of community. Independence from sin gives us the opportunity to explore our true interdependence, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ; following the dance of the Holy Trinity.
Individualism is not independence: this pandemic has illustrated that. None of us will be free from it unless we prioritize the health and welfare of the bodies around us to our own preferences and perceptions of freedom.
Washing hands, keeping our distance to preserve the precious breath that the Holy Spirit has placed in all of us, wearing masks, whether we like it or not, are acts of love, and it is love that, in the end, will set us free.
We know from our faith that freedom from tyranny means the freedom not to tyrannize.
Freedom from fear means the freedom not to frighten.
Freedom from oppression offers the freedom not to oppress.
We know from our history that freedom from discrimination only works if we claim the freedom to undo, unravel, repent and repair the damage that has already been done.
Freedom from the debt of sin extends the opportunity not to add to another person’s burdens. Remember Jesus’ parables? Forgiveness is always to be passed on; freedom from owing one’s neighbour does not free one from being a neighbour.
Freedom from sin means the submission of our free will to the will of the life-giving, loving, liberating God who created us for good.
In this sense, Jesus was the freest, most independent man who ever lived. Free from sin, free from all that the devil tempted him with in the wilderness; free from selfishness. Independent of ambition; he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey, while Pilate processed with pomp and ceremony from the other side. He was independent of the powers and principalities that tried to shape his life, shorten his reach; he told them clearly, “I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:15b,18)
He lived a life so perfectly aligned with the pattern that God had used for it, the pattern of unselfish, ungrasping, life-giving love that he proved himself finally free even from death, independent even of the powers of the grave.
It is in him, in his life, in his Gospel that we find our holiday, our celebration, our Sabbath rest. While we strive, with Paul, to do here and now what is right and good and promotes the life, liberty, and happiness of all around us, It is in God alone, with God’s help alone, with the love of God together that we find, at last, a more perfect union.