Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:4-3:7 and John 8:31-59 (RSV)
Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31) Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase goes like this, “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.”
Jesus came to set us free. So the question is: are you free?
This is the question I have been asking myself this past week. I have been studying God’s word about this, and being in conversation with God about this, and asking myself this question: am I free?
My answer to this question is: it all depends on what it means to be free. And so my answer is: sometimes yes, sometimes no.
There are obvious reasons for this. For one thing, I’m a worrywart. I worry a lot. I worry about you. I worry about me. I worry about a lot of people. I worry about making decisions that will be helpful to others, decisions that will be successful, decisions that will be appreciated and understood by others.
Worry does not fit my idea of freedom. It doesn’t fit my idea of faith. And I think I need both freedom and faith in order to be happy.
On the other hand, if I didn’t worry, I think I would be a lot more like a bull in a china shop than I am. I would cause a lot more mess and a lot more breakage, if I didn’t worry. And that would make me really, really unhappy. I would not feel free. I would feel trapped.
Why would freedom from worry make me unhappy? Well, if I care about other people then I want to do well for their sakes, and I want to do them good. If I care, it wouldn’t make sense for me to be free from worry.
So I should be happy that I worry. It produces results that make me happy. Worry gives me a kind of freedom that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I am half-way joking about this. I am also half-way serious. There is a great temptation for us to misunderstand what freedom means. It is tempting, because a false understanding of freedom can be so very convenient.
Imagine that freedom was an important thing. That’s what Jesus does. Now imagine that the real meaning of freedom is the ability to be whatever you want to be, and to do whatever you want to do. And then, on top of that, imagine that you are married, and have a family, and that you want them to be happy and safe.
To love others and be loved by them, and to live in faithful devotion and commitment to them, will constrain you and limit you. Sometimes it will seem as though it limits you a lot.
On the other hand, the gift of loving, and being loved, is a great gift. No one will come to the end of their lives wishing that they had been loved less, or that they had loved others less.
Genuine love, with all its commitments and constraints, is the ultimate freedom. More and more, genuine love (with all its commitments and constraints) grows into wonder, and laughter, and thankfulness, and these are the fruit of freedom.
Love loves to make promises, and love loves to keep its promises. This is what makes love really alive. This is what gives love a sense of freedom.
We can see this in one of the most personal issues of human freedom. The world usually tells us that one of the main tests of personal freedom is sex.
The physical union of a man and a woman is designed to bring a child into a little world where those who have given it life have bound themselves to each other for each other’s sake, and have bound themselves to their child, for that child’s sake, by loving and lasting promises. The physical union of a man and a woman, when no promise or commitment has been made, does not really have anything to do with freedom, unless we don’t believe in the importance of love for the health of human life.
Sometimes, a young woman will seek to get pregnant without taking the time of finding a husband, because she thinks that the presence and the love of a baby will set her free. But, she has sought her own freedom at the expense of her baby’s freedom. That is not a good start in a life dedicated to freedom. She will find that the needs of her baby will be in conflict with the study and work she needs in order to give that baby a secure home.
She has gotten into this predicament because she has done what we all tend to do. We all tend to get confused about what freedom is for.
There are guys who want the freedom of sex without the greater freedom that comes from loving to be a husband and father. This happens because we all tend to get confused about what freedom is for.
The fact is that no one can fully understand freedom, unless they know who they are and what they are made for. We are made for freedom.
The Garden of Eden was designed for freedom. There were ten thousand things in the Garden of Eden that you could choose and say “yes” to. And there was Eve, in all her beauty. And for her there was Adam. And there was so much to say “yes” to.
And there was only one thing in the whole Garden of Eden for you to say “no” to. And it was not Eve. And it was not Adam. It was only the fruit of one single tree.
We are made for freedom, and we will reach out and try to grab freedom for ourselves without even knowing what true freedom is. And so we are likely to grab for something we think will give us freedom; but it only makes us worse and less free. We don’t know what freedom is until we let God show us.
We find this in the scene in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is talking to people about freedom. Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
The scene is a debate. It is a debate between two brands of freedom. And both brands claim to be spiritual.
The truth is, if we want to understand freedom, we have to look at the freedom of Jesus who claimed to be able to make us free. We have to see how his freedom is different from the freedom claimed by the people who blamed Jesus for interfering in their lives, and in their claim to be free.
The freedom of Jesus consisted in knowing that he was sent here by his Father to set others free. Jesus was here in order to be good news. Wherever Jesus went, you could look at the world around him the way God looked at the world during creation, and you could say, “It is good”.
The freedom of Jesus’ competitors was their right to be unmoved by the needs and the worth of others in God’s creation. Their mistake was that they had no right to be disconnected from a God-given commitment to others, but they claimed that right and freedom anyway. Jesus stood against their claim to freedom.
In the previous chapters of the gospel of John, Jesus had healed an invalid on the Sabbath (5:1-15), even though that was the wrong time to do it, and he had forgiven a woman who was guilty of adultery (8:1-11), even though she didn’t deserve it.
Jesus gave them both the freedom of a new life: a healed life, and a forgiven life. His opponents found reasons why Jesus should not have done these things.
Jesus found reasons to faithfully commit to others. Those who claimed a different kind of freedom found self-righteous reasons for not committing to others. Jesus found reasons to do something good. Those who claimed a different kind of freedom found reasons for not doing something good. For Jesus there was no wrong time and no wrong person for his grace.
Jesus’ willingness to bring good news to others knew no boundaries. Those who claimed a different kind of freedom knew far too many boundaries, and they still thought they were free.
Jesus knew where his freedom came from, and he knew that those who were against him had a freedom that came from some where else. The people who hated the freedom of Jesus were holy people, spiritual people, whose freedom came from their sins: from their pride, and from a righteousness that only served themselves. They did not know this because they did not know themselves at all.
Their freedom was a deception and a lie. Their freedom was hurtful and destructive to others who were made in God’s image.
So Jesus told them that their father was the Devil, because the Devil is a liar and murderer (8:44-47). In the Garden of Eden the Devil lied in order to make the first humans feel unfree and discontented. The Devil lied in order to murder our freedom and trick us into being his slaves. The people who talk the loudest about their freedom to do what they want are really secretly slaves to the enemy of life and freedom.
Jesus told them about the hidden motives that made them slaves. It may sound harsh, but Jesus told them this in the hope that they would listen to him and let him set them free.
When Jesus tells us to continue in his word, he means for us to listen, and contemplate, and regurgitate, and not let go of his message to us, because we are always at risk for being like those who were against him.
We can imagine that we are free when we are not. We can imagine that we are being faithful to God when we are being faithful to our own sins, and self-deceptions, and our instinct to hurt and destroy: and we call that our freedom.
We tend to forget that the sons and daughters of God are here to be givers of grace and freedom to others. To keep us right, we need to hold onto Jesus words, and listen, and obey, and not let go; until his words get through to us and open our eyes so that we can see the truth, and be set free.
Let’s look at one more thing.
To hold onto Jesus’ word is something we do, and we can find freedom through doing that. But something more has to happen. It is not our wonderful job of continuing, and holding on, and obeying that does the trick.
Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (8:39) Jesus’ words are more than something for us to do. They are the message that Jesus must do something for us.
Jesus does the work to set us free in his living for us, in his dying for us, and in his rising from the dead. In his dying and his rising, his life becomes our new life. He makes us a new creation.
Jesus becomes our partner and our brother; as well as our Lord and Savior. This is the heart of the truth that sets us free.
And it is as if Jesus becomes our own Garden of Eden where there are so many opportunities, so many trees to harvest, and so few to avoid; so much to love, and so little to fear. Jesus is our new land where we have the freedom to find what we are created for, and bring others to that land to live with us there.