The way to freedom: What is freedom?

Luke 10:30-37
John 8:31-38
Galatians 5:1, 13-21

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

And the same applies to the word ‘freedom’. Whenever we start talking about ‘freedom’ we very soon realise that we may be talking about very different things.

Our theme for the morning services this Lent is ‘the way to freedom’, and this morning we’re beginning with the question, ‘what is freedom?’ Clearly it’s an important question, because it might mean many different things. You only have to read a newspaper or listen to the news, to hear freedom mentioned, in all manner of different contexts; and it seems freedom is clearly something many people feel worth struggling over, and something many people feel is denied to them.

If you were to look in a dictionary, you’d discover that ‘freedom’ might mean:
The power or right to act, speak or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.
The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.
The state of being physically unrestricted and able to move easily.
(Freedom from): The state of not being subject to or affected by (a particular undesirable thing).
The power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.
(The freedom of) a special right or privilege given to someone, especially as an honour to a distinguished public figure, allowing them full citizenship of a particular city.
Unrestricted use of something.
Familiarity or openness in speech or behaviour

Many different things, and I suspect that different ones from that list will have appealed to different people here.

On 6 January 1941 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a famous declaration:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour – anywhere in the world.’

These sentiments were expanded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, which spoke of the need ‘to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ and ‘the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms’.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ (see above) are freedoms ‘of. . .’ or ‘to. . .’ or ‘from . . .’ Such understandings of freedom have become deeply embedded in our culture and way of life, although we might well think that more than sixty years later they are still aspirations rather than achievements. Around the world, Christians and churches have played a powerful role in highlighting them and striving to ensure their implantation in practice and, where appropriate, in law, especially where ‘religious freedom’ is concerned.

There have been several instances in recent years when Christians in the UK have been banned from wearing a crucifix at work, and have challenged this in tribunals or the courts on the grounds of religious freedom. One such case in April 2010 involved a nurse in Exeter who was moved to a desk job after refusing to remove her crucifix at work, and lost a discrimination claim against her employers. She had argued that the cross “ban” prevented her from expressing her religious beliefs. She said it was a “very poor day” for Christians in the workplace”, that “the law doesn’t appear to be on the Christian side” and that Christians would feel “quite persecuted” by the ruling.

In February 2010 Westminster City Council announced it was to outlaw sleeping rough and soup-kitchens for homeless people, run by churches and voluntary organisations, especially in the area around Westminster Cathedral. A Councillor stated, ‘’Soup runs have no place in the 21st century and it is wrong and undignified that people are being fed on the streets. However, soup runs on the streets in Westminster actually encourages people to sleep rough in central London, with all the dangers that entails.” One church response was “I was hungry and you gave me food – until the Council stopped you.”

However we define it, and however we chose to relate it to our faith, freedom seems to come in many different guises.

So, to try and make some sense of it, I want to consider what the Bible might have to help us. In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus is saying that it is ‘the truth’ that will set his hearers free. In John’s gospel the word ‘truth’ is not so much a set of abstract, rational statements, or ideas about the world and God, but rather ‘what is real’, ‘what you are really up against here and now, even if you don’t yet realise it’. In meeting and hearing Jesus, the people are being challenged to recognise in him the reality of God present and active, so the liberating ‘truth’ is God. It’s this new life with God that sets people free from all that is wrong in themselves and the world, says John.

Turning to our passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul is talking about freedom not being an opportunity for us to do whatever we like, but through love to care for one another. Strangely, therefore, Paul is suggesting that the freedom brought by faith brings with it a new kind of ‘slavery’, that of love in the manner of Christ and enabled by the Spirit.

We’ll sing a hymn shortly that explores that idea:
Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free;
force me to render up my sword,
and I shall conqueror be.

That doesn’t fit very comfortably with ‘freedom of choice’ which has become an ideal in our culture today. However, some would argue that in fact the ‘freedom of choice’ offered by the market is largely a myth, that the range of options on sale is decided by commercial interests rather than our own felt needs, and that through manipulative advertising we are pressured into ‘choosing’ rather than deciding for ourselves.

Our other reading, from Luke’s gospel, is such a well-known story that most of us think we know all there is to know. How does freedom look if you’re the priest or the Levite? You had a choice to walk or stop. How does freedom look if you’re the Samaritan? You had a choice to walk or stop. How does freedom look if you’re the man lying the road? You had a choice to go into a dangerous place or not.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed in 1945, had this to say:
‘To be free is to be in love, is to be in the truth of God. The one who loves because made free by the truth of God is the most revolutionary person on earth.’

Bonhoeffer was living in America in 1939, but decided to leave the ‘land of the free’ and go home to live under a dictatorship!

If freedom is anything, freedom under God, freedom in Christ, does that not mean that we cannot do whatever we like, but must follow God’s call to love, whatever that subjects us to, and wherever it might lead us?

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