Jesus Means Freedom
“There are two freedoms: the false, where a man is free to do as he likes; the true, where he is free to what he ought.” (Charles Kingsley)
I borrowed my sermon title from a book of the same name by New Testament scholar, Ernst Kasemann; the very first real theology that I ever read, one through which I discovered that there really was was a relationship between the Gospel and my life after all, and one of the factors that started me on my journey into the ministry. Take today’s story from Acts:
This is a story about being imprisoned, but it doesn’t begin with Paul and Silas. Who else is imprisoned in this story? It begins with a girl who is imprisoned in several ways.
Just how is the girl imprisoned? She is a slave, thus imprisoned by owners; she is also ‘possessed’, i.e. imprisoned by a demon or mental illness (anyone who has suffered the torment of mental illness or who has a friend or loved one in the grip of schizophrenia or depression could tell us about this kind of bondage); and she is female, thus captive to a male dominated society.
One would think that the freeing of a young woman, chained her whole life to the hell of mental illness, might lead to rejoicing, but her owners are not free to do that. No, they are not free either. Somewhere along the line, religion has become mixed up with economics, and her owners do what people always do when their interests are threatened. We might have a difficult time relating to the kind of imprisonment of the slave girl, but her owners?… Well, let’s just say that the story is getting a little closer to home.
Meanwhile, Paul and Silas are locked up, and the liberators have become the captives. Now, do Paul and Silas languish in jail? No, about midnight they start to sing and pray, and the other prisoners are listening. Lo, the earth heaves, the prison shakes, the doors fly open and everyone’s chains fall off.
Hooray! Everyone’s free! Well, not quite. Don’t forget the the jailer who, knowing what happens to jailers whose prisoners escape, is understandably horrified, and he prepares to make the honourable exit from this world. You see, just having the key to someone else’s cell doesn’t make you free.
Paul comes to the rescue once again and stops the jailer committing suicide. The jailer is perplexed, “But you were bound in chains; now you are free to escape.”
Paul says, “No, we prisoners are now free to stay; free to stay. You, on the other hand, are chained to your sword; nevertheless, you, too, can be free to escape.”
The jailer asks, “What do I have to do to be free?” And so he was baptised into freedom.
“A Christian is the most free of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” (Martin Luther)
So what is freedom? By the end of the story, everyone who at first appeared to be free – the girl’s owners, the judges, the jailer – are shown to be slaves. And those who first appeared to be enslaved, imprisoned – the girl, Paul, Silas, the other prisoners – are free. Once again, God is turning everything upside down in a show of Easter surprise.
Now the point of having this story in Bible is not to relate a bit of unlikely history, but to touch the place where the story still plays out in us and our world. What has you imprisoned? Who pulls your strings. Think for a moment about the times you have felt imprisoned, locked in by what is happening to you or by your fears.
There are the obvious forms of imprisonment: obligations you can’t escape, housework, care of children, maintaining a reputation, feeling financially secure, et al. When you stop to think about them, you can start to work yourself free of them. More dangerous are the sly imprisonments, the kind that masquerade as freedom; e.g. the young person who finally is old enough to leave home and all the restraints and rules, to be free to do as he or she pleases without parental oversight, only to find that life on one’s own, making one’s own way in life, comes with many new and constraining responsibilities and obligations. There is freedom and then there is freedom.
How does one grab hold of the freedom the Gospel promises: the freedom to live as Jesus did, losing life in order to live, the life the Bible calls ‘eternal’? I think the most pervasive, insidious cause of imprisonment is fear, and we are puppets on the strings of those who control our fear. Fear is the force that will most likely try to deny us the life of radical freedom available to the children of God: fear of death and all of the sub-fears that surround it: fear of being dependent on others, fear of powerlessness, fear of discomfort, of poverty, of loneliness, even of success…the list goes on; in short, every fear that prevents us from going over the horizons of life where we cannot see; every fear that keeps us from risking life, from reaching out to others in love, from risking the creation of a fair and just society.
Jesus taught that, to gain the kingdom, one must be willing to give all, to give up even concern for our own well being. The cynical response to this is: “Fair go, mate; in this world if you don’t look after number one, no one else will,” and reality provides plenty of evidence to back up this statement. We might not actually say it quite so cynically, but we live it. We couch it in nice terms: “I pay my own way so that I’m not a burden on anyone,” or “I have a responsibility to provide for and protect my family.” Some people even withhold or limit their love for fear of losing those whom they love; people who love life so much, and so fear losing it, that they cannot risk living it. I know this because I do it, too; I fear. And I know that to a greater or lesser extent, you fear, also. We are humans, and human beings fear. Jesus came to free us from fear.
In the recent federal election campaign, did you take note of just how much of the political rhetoric is designed to play on our fears? Fear of unemployment, even though there is currently a shortage of labour; fear of financial insecurity, even though we live in a time of unprecedented prosperity, fear of people who are different, fear of terrorists, fear of criminals, fear of water or energy shortages….you won’t have to listen very long before you realise how the powers-that-be influence and manipulate people through fear. Businesses, too, advertise in ways that pique our fears: fear of ill health, fear of loss of popularity, fear of bad luck, fear of germs, fear of odours: buy our products to be beautiful, safe, admired, health, and so on. These people and institutions, the ones that control through fear, are the last ones who want Jesus coming along with a message of freedom. These are the same kind of people that killed him, but they couldn’t kill his message; they couldn’t kill freedom.
The freedom that Jesus brings is available through the faith that overcomes fear, the Easter faith that overcomes even the fear of death, the faith that is held and nurtured by the church community. Faith is the antidote of fear, and each of us has something of this faith in greater or lesser measure. To the extent that we do, we are able to be free to live and walk the way of Christ despite the fears that would turn us away. To you it may not seem enough, but together, our faith becomes greater than the sum of its parts and, with it, we can do great things for God.