An escaping prisoner emerges from his tunnel, shouting I’m free! I’m free! That’s nothing, a passing little boy says, I’m four!
Jesus said that we he had come that we might be free, that we might have life and have it to the full. The honest truth is that many regard religion as something that constrains and restricts us. They fear that they will get a good telling off if they come too near. When we first hear the good news about Jesus, as Paul for instance outlines it in the first five books of his letter to the Romans, we can be filled with joy and exultation, just as we read in chapter five. The reality is that as we progress in the faith, we seem trapped in the wet long grass of our fears and inadequacies. We know we should be holy and loving like Jesus, but we are painfully conscious of the fact that we are not, and furthermore we fear that others are also conscious of this fact about us as well. In the film, Private Ryan is saved, but he seems to spend the rest of his life enslaved to guilt and regret, as he strives to be worthy of the sacrifices made on his behalf. This is not the Christian view of how we live our lives.
Don’t you realise, Paul says, that when you enter the Christian faith, you are entering into a real relationship with God? Jesus is sending his Spirit to live within you. Your baptism symbolises your burial in the tomb with Christ, and your rising to new life with him. He is reminding us that this is not just theory; it is a living experience as we see ourselves as the essence, the reality of God in everyday life.
So what is going on? Here is the paradox. You find true freedom in service. A lovely motorcar is fulfilling it’s purpose when speeding along the motorway. A bird finds freedom in soaring into the heights. We find freedom in fulfilling our purpose and vocation, which is to serve God.
We were created to live out the words “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”, in us. From the beginning, though, we have echoed the disastrous choice made by the first humans, that we want our kingdom to come, our will to be done. Even when we are doing things for others, it is because in some way it pleases us and meets our needs. Thus Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that if they speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and do all manner of good things, but have not love, it is worse than useless.
Thus we find ourselves to be slaves to sin. This simply means that we constantly fall short of the high ideal that we find in Christ and that we set ourselves; that we find that every act and motive is in some way polluted; that every time we see a line drawn that we should not cross, we cannot help ourselves from wanting to cross it, if only to prove our own independence and autonomy.
But not now! We are dead to sin. If you lose your memory, you cannot remember things. If your hand is cut off, you cannot use it to pick things up. If the part of us that delights in independence and selfish actions has died, we no longer have to do wrong things.
The problem is that the part of us that delights in sin has not realised yet that it is dead, and we ourselves need constantly to be reminded. I am told that amputees often imagine feelings in the limb that they no longer possess; it gives them pain, or it itches. It takes a while for the reality of their sad loss to sink in.
In exactly the same way, we carry on like headless chickens, acting as if we are sinners even when we are not. We say things like “I cannot help being grumpy, it’s just my way”, or “nobody’s perfect”, as if this absolves us from the need to strive to live sin free lives.
Sin is optional. We have a choice. As we realise that we are alive in Christ and his presence is in us, so we find ourselves naturally walking in step with his Spirit, aware of his promptings, conscious of what will please him. In other words, we find our true freedom in deliberately learning to be slaves of Jesus. Our slavery to our old master, sin, stopped when we died (it is almost a comical picture of the furious master whipping a dead slave). We have begun our new lives of service to our new master, and we are free.
How does this work exactly? Paul says that we have come to obey from our heart the pattern of teaching to which we have been committed.
Obedience is key. We long to obey in every detail.
Heart is paramount. As we learn who Jesus is, we fall in love with him and seek to please him.
Teaching is essential. How can we obey God if we do not know about him? We can find it hard to love him if we have not been helped to understand more about him.
But we need all three. Obedience on its own is impossible. If we feel that we are failures, obedience leads us down that spiral of defeat and guilt that robs us of joy and assurance – we become de-motivated sad folk. If we feel that we are good at being obedient, we become puffed up and arrogant, and generally difficult to know – people do not see Jesus in us.
We need all three. I meet countless people who have warm, spiritual feelings about God; these do not seem to have any practical effect on how they live their lives, however, or motivate them to work to change the world for the better.
We need all three. I meet folk who love God and want to serve him, but are woefully ignorant of who God is or what he is like, or how he wants us to live. They therefore find themselves believing the wackiest things, following the strangest notions, and then saying “Well of course, I knew all along that religion is harmful or untrue”.
Two out of three will not do. If you know your bible and love God but are disobedient, you will be disappointed and guilty. If you know your bible and are obedient but do not love, you will be hard-hearted and like a Pharisee. If you love God and seek to be obedient but do not study the scriptures, you will be prey to cults and easily led astray.
Paul says that we receive the teaching, we read the word, we study the scriptures, we learn the truth that makes us free. As we encounter Jesus, the living Word, in his word, so we find ourselves drawn to love him and to want to please him, and we find ourselves unconsciously echoing the words of Jesus: “I delight to do the Father’s will”, “I do what I see my Father doing”, “I speak the words my Father gives me to speak”.
Let us count on God’s fatherly goodness, the forgiveness he gifts us in Christ, and the presence of his love-shedding Spirit in our lives. Let us rely on it the way that we rely on the unseen money that drops into our bank accounts; we issue cheques or flash plastic and things happen. In exactly the same way we adopt our roles as members of God’s household, and liberated slaves of Christ, walking with him through life.
1. How does it feel to be a slave? What difference does it make to you to be alive in Christ?
2. Given that all three, obedience, heart and teaching are essential, which do you struggle with most?
3. Pray for each other in the group, for a fresh encounter with God, to grow in him, to fully realise all that he has done and is doing in you.