Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.            

Freedom to Love

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Jan 31, 2021, 4th Sunday after Epiphany

The Man with an Unclean Spirit

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

When I was in junior high school I was in a patriotic musical. It was fun and, in many ways, had a big impact on me. The musical finale was a song that went:

Freedom isn’t free!
You’ve got to pay the price
You’ve got to sacrifice
For your liberty!

Those words return to me a lot as an adult. They’re a reminder of what it has cost us, and continues to cost us, to have a nation that is, as we say, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal.” Americans have taken risks and died for our liberty and for the liberty of others. The song always reminds me that the concept of liberty is not built around the idea of the right to “do your own thing.” My liberty and your liberty are intertwined. For my liberty to mean anything, you have to be fully free as well. Sometimes I have to make sacrifices in order to ensure that you are free. Freedom isn’t free.

Freedom was largely at the core of the Gospel message that the Apostle Paul brought to the mostly Gentile congregation in the city of Corinth on the island of Achaia in modern day Greece. This is a congregation that Paul himself first established, spending 18 months there preaching and teaching. Paul taught them that Christ had set them free—free from sin, free from human rules, free to live a life in harmony with God through Jesus Christ, and free from God’s judgment after death. In many ways the core of Paul’s Gospel preaching was freedom. He taught that Gentiles who became Christian didn’t need to become Jews first. They were free from circumcision and from the restrictions of Jewish law.

They were free, for instance, to eat food offered to idols if they wanted. That sort of thing would have been considered idolatry to most Jews, but Paul taught that since God wasn’t threatened by other gods, it didn’t matter whether we ate food offered to idols or not. As he puts it right here in this letter, “Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” In other words, eating sacrificial food in God’s eyes has no meaning whatsoever. In fact, 1500 years later, Martin Luther would build on this to say that in some cases to do things like eat food offered to idols was an act of faithfulness to God, to prove you were free of human expectations and belief in the power of false gods.

I remember the time that teaching really hit me forcefully. It was in college. I was a leader in a college fellowship group that had ironclad expectations about how Christians were to behave. But I had other Christian friends, Kim and Kestina, who were my escape valve from all this smug rule making. They loved to dance and drink beer and have a good time.

One night we were at the local pizza place, Perini’s, when the tight-laced president of the Christian fellowship group, Dave, came in with a couple of other folks. He primly said hello to us—looking archly over his wire-rimmed glasses at me because he didn’t think Kim and Kestina were appropriate company—and ordered his pizza. Kestina looked at me. “Order a pitcher of beer!” she said.

“Yes! Do it!” Kim said.

The two of them could barely contain their glee.

“But—but—” said I. I had never had a drink in front of these sort of super-Christians before. Certainly not in front of Dave, who seemed to disapprove of anything fun. But Kestina and Kim could not be swayed. “Do it!”

So—I did. I was kind of quiet –“We’d like a pitcher of beer”–so Kestina repeated it much louder. “WE’D LIKE A PITCHER OF BEER.” (It’s important to note here that Kestina was a Lutheran.)

The looks that came at us from Dave’s table! And then the beer came, and we drank it and I relaxed. I admit, it was one more nail in the coffin of my relationship with Dave and that fellowship group. But it was also an important lesson in being myself. In many ways, one of the key points that Paul wanted us to understand when he taught Christian freedom is that in Christ, we are free to be who we truly are and who we are truly meant to be. There are a million caveats to that—I’ll talk about a few in a minute—but the point is that Christ frees us from the restraints and expectations that shackle us so that we can be both who we are, and who we’re meant to be in God’s eyes.

After that experience, one of the folks who’d been at the table with Dave that night came over to me and said, “You remember that night at Perini’s when you ordered beer? That was pretty cool.”

And this goes to one of Paul’s other points about Christian freedom. Paul firmly believed that the perception that God makes rules to restrain us and control us and limit our pleasure in life is an obstacle to the Gospel of Grace—God’s unconditional love for us. How can grace be free and unconditional if it comes with rules and regulations? My friend who liked that we were drinking that night liked the idea that one could be Christian and not have to be tied down by rules. I think this made a big, positive impact on his life over the next couple of years.

This Gospel of freedom and liberty that Paul preached had been a big selling point to the Corinthians when they first became Christians.

But then, it became a problem. And Paul had to address it.

There were a lot of problems in the Corinthian church after Paul had left it, too many to really review right now. Suffice it to say that because prestige mattered in pagan Roman Corinth, it started to matter in Christian Roman Corinth, too. Wealth, education, and success were the most important thing to most Corinthian citizens, and the worth of individuals was judged by their wealth, education and success or the lack thereof. And the same thing was happening in the church.

What really got to Paul was that it was happening at the Fellowship table where communion was served. It appears that in those days it was common for the church to have a Love Feast—that is, a full meal like we’d have at a church fellowship night, with the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine, as the centerpiece. The Corinthians had turned this into more of a bacchanal in which the wealthy got the best food and the poor got the dregs. One of the things that the more prestigious Corinthian Christians were doing was bringing meat offered to idols and eating it right there in front of everybody, right there at fellowship and in front, it must be noted, of “weaker Christians”—that is to say, new Christians who had just been weaned off the worship of idols, for whom anything that looked like idolatry was a temptation to return to false gods, who would be deeply offended or hurt in their faith to see food offered to idols being eaten.

This was the equivalent of our youth fellowship leaders inviting the middle school youth group to a gigantic keg party. The justification for all of this was that, “Hey, Paul said we are no worse off if we eat, and no better off if we do! We’re free to do what we want!”

But Paul says no. You are not free to do that. Why? Because these new Christians are “weak,” as he puts it. Their faith isn’t strong enough to understand the difference between eating meat offered to idols and idolatry. Paul is furious with the Corinthian Christians who think they are so wise and so smart and like to prove their superiority at the expense of the faith of younger, newer Christians. Freedom is not a license to do as you please, he warns them. “Knowledge puffs up,” he fumes, “but love builds up.” These smug, superior Corinthian Christians have flaunted their freedom at the expense of love.

And love, Paul tells them, is everything to God. Everything. He will in this very letter write a whole chapter on love, I Corinthians 13. “There abide faith, hope and love, these three,” he says, “but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the purpose of Christian freedom. It is the whole reason Christians are free. In Christ, we are free, at last to love. We are free so that we can grow into who God intends us to be—people who love without restraint, the same way God loves without restraint.

And what the Corinthians were doing was not love. Far from it. Theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that

“Freedom is not a quality of a person, nor is it an ability, a capacity, a kind of being that somehow flares up in one. Anyone investigating humanity to discover freedom finds nothing of it. Why? because freedom is not a quality which can be revealed–it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence–but a relationship and nothing else. In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means “being free for the other,” because the other has bound me to them. Only in relationship with the other am I free.”

This is exactly Paul’s point. Freedom is not a quality inherent in an individual. It is gift from God—but it is a gift worthless unless it happens in relationship. And so freedom must be practiced always and only in the service of love. We are free to be “free for the other.” Only in relationship to the other am I free.

For Paul, to be free means that you are more concerned for the other than you are about yourself. He saw God’s grace as freedom from piety and guilt and self-awareness. To him, this was the problem with religion in general: it makes us way too self-aware. We’re constantly worried about, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I sinning? Is God angry with me? Is God blessing me?” Me, me, me. Paul hated that and he thought God hated that too. We become so concerned with how I am doing that we don’t really think about our neighbor and what she needs—unless it’s in the context of me, me, me like “I must be good to this poor person so I can win brownie points with God.”

To Paul, God frees us from this constant self-centered soul searching so that we can stop worrying about me and start genuinely and selflessly caring about our neighbor.

Obviously, some of the Corinthians failed at this. For them, to be Christian was just one more pathway to self-awareness and self-prestige. They’d mistaken their freedom as a license to do what they want instead of a calling to love others freely.

Freedom continues to be a misunderstood quality today. Often talk of freedom today is around “My personal freedom”—I have a right to this, and I have a right to that. This is as if our freedoms are personal, they are individual, they are innate, they are endowed. That is the way we talk about rights as Americans.

But it is not how the bible understands freedom. Our freedom is not for ourselves. It is not an excuse for selfishness or to pursue our gain at the expense of another’s loss. As Bonhoeffer says, “Being free means being free for the other, because only in relationship to the other am I truly free.” Freedom is the pathway to selflessness, to service to others, to freely giving ourselves to others. Unfortunately, the way we often look at it is from the perspective of selfishness.

Freedom has always been important to both Christians and Americans, but freedom in both Christianity and the US Constitution has always been understood as a social contract. The Constitution understands that my rights are not guaranteed if your rights are not guaranteed. The Constitution is a social contract that says Americans have rights by mutual consent. You consent that I have rights and I consent that you have rights. The point here is that whether we understand our freedom to be Constitutional or Biblical, it remains true that freedom only exists in the context of the other.

But Christianity takes it further. Our freedom exists for the sake of the other, and it includes the freedom not to do something you have the quote right to do unquote if it means you might harm another person physically, spiritually, or mentally. This is Paul’s point. He tells the Corinthians that he has the freedom to eat meat offered to idols if he wants, but he has freely chosen to only eat vegetables so that he doesn’t “cause another to stumble.” He has freely put his self-interest to the side for the sake of others. It’d be nice to see a lot more of that in our common discourse—people less focused on their right to do something and more sensitive to others’ needs and concerns.

Thank heaven there is the church. Every day and in myriad ways we see folks here at St. Stephen freely do things for the sake of others at the expense of their freedom and “right” to do something else. Despite the pandemic and its limitations on all of our freedoms, we have church people who are nervous going out to the supermarket and confined to home still finding ways to make sandwiches for the homeless, thousands and thousands of them. People express their freedom to love by giving generously of long, impersonal Zoom meetings. Sure business people do this too. But church folks are not paid to do this. They are volunteers. They give of themselves freely out of love.

Communion was a big problem in the Corinthian church because of people misusing their freedom. But St. Stephen has gone a different direction, in fact a lot of churches have. All of our denominations have rules about how we serve communion, who is welcome at the table, and so forth. But here at St. Stephen, and in many other churches, we’ve come up with a way to have online communion that really stretches those rules and, in the process, welcomes more people to the table, rather than fewer. The PCUSA recently determined that they will do communion the way we have done it for years—it is open to any who seek to know God through Christ. We hope that many online visitors are feeling free to have the Lord’s supper with us because of the way we’ve loosened the rules.

That’s how we are called to use our freedom. Not to exclude but to include, to welcome and embrace, and support others. That is the true meaning of Christian freedom.

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