Free to Love

Free to Love

June 30, 2019   Free to Love Galatians. 5:1, 3-25. Luke 9:51-62

            Leo Tolstoy was a Russian writer who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time. He received multiple nominations for Nobel Prizes: Five years in a row, from 1902 to 1906 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902 and 1910.  In the 1870’s Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual awakening. He wrote about this in his non-fiction work “A Confession”.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount resonated with him and he took Jesus’ sermon literally. The words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” resulted in him becoming a pacifist. He reflected on nonviolent resistance in his book “The Kingdom of God is within you”. His ideas on nonviolent resistance had a profound impact on people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

            As a gifted writer he had a remarkable way with words and many of his sayings are worth remembering. When I prepared for this sermon I came across two of his quotes and I think they could help us in our reflection on today’s Scripture readings.

            The first one is: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

            In our Gospel reading, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem and he sent his Disciples to a village of the Samaritans. The Samaritans did not receive him and the reason given was: “that his face was set toward Jerusalem”. What does this expression mean? The references to Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem shows that God’s plan with the world is about to be fulfilled. Jesus is determined to go to Jerusalem to fulfill God’s plan. He will go to Jerusalem, he will suffer and die. Luke shows that God is at work.

            Let me remind you that the Samaritans, after the destruction of Samaria in 722BCE became a separate people from the Jews. The top layer of the population had been deported to Assyria, those who left behind lost their identity, they now worshiped on Mount Gerizim and they only read the Greek translation of the OT and not the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish people despised the Samaritans and we can assume the Samaritans felt the same way about the Jews. So it was expected that the Samaritans did not receive Jesus.

            Jesus’ disciples immediately wanted to punish them for this – with fire from heaven. There are a few reasons why they wanted to punish them so severely:

            The first reason was that they were angry. Who do these despised people think they are? How dare they?

            The second reason was that John and James, a few verses earlier, were present on the mountain top at the transfiguration of Jesus. That was when Moses and Elijah appeared. As Jewish people they knew that Elijah let fire come down from heaven to consume people in 2 Kings 1:10-11.

            And a third reason was that James and John were also known as Sons of Thunder because of their temper. When they get angry they want to act – they were ready to punish the Samaritans.

            In a sense James and John responded the way we would respond: They did not tolerate people with a different view, people who disagree with them had to be dealt with! They wanted to change the world by changing others!  Perhaps what is behind their response is a self-righteousness. “I am right – you are wrong- you need to change!”

            It is therefore interesting that Jesus, in spite of the fact that he was the one who was not received, rebuked them. And some old manuscripts gave a reason (in a footnote in your Bible): “You do not know what spirit you are of for the Son of man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them”. I think that this addition is a very helpful one! The 2 Disciples were self-righteous enough to destroy those who were different (Samaritans -not Jews), to get rid of those who had a different view (they followed Jesus- Samaritans did not receive Jesus) and those who dared to question Jesus’ mission (his face was set to Jerusalem).

            I suspect it would be helpful to Christians and non-Christians alike to remember that it is better to change ourselves than try to change others.

            The way I read church history it seems to me that the official church was guilty on many occasions trying to change others: by forcing them to convert, by punishing them if they held different views, by being so thin-skinned when people questioned her. When the church did missionary work in far-off countries, she often tried to change the population to become like her! And if they refuse they were punished-physically or emotionally. And unfortunately, it still happens. People are accepted in the body of Christ only if and when they change! And sadly, the church, in spite of the many good things the church has done, she has also destroyed the lives of many. The Son of Man, Jesus was sent, not to destroy the lives of people but to save them!  Changing the world starts when we are changed or transformed! Not when we demand change from others!

Which brings me to Tolstoy’s second profound quote: “Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.

            Paul’s letter to the Galatians reveals a crisis in the early church. The church in Galatia is questioning the Gospel that Paul was proclaiming. They at first had heard the message and had accepted the message. They had become Christian believers and had been baptized. They had accepted that they had received freedom. But now they had come to doubt that they are truly free because they lost their initial enthusiasm and they had problems with the “flesh”, that is sinful transgressions. Paul’s opponents offered them an alternative: Torah and Jewish rituals and practices. They coupled Christian faith with the safeguards provided by Jewish laws. So instead of embracing and rejoicing in the freedom that Christ provided, the were falling back into slavery of rigid laws!

            The Apostle therefore says: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” And then he explains: “You were called to freedom -only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”

            This is somewhat complicated so bear with me. Paul is saying that freedom implies that Christians have a choice: You can allow your existence to become a base of operation for the flesh or for the Spirit of God. If you allow the flesh to get the upper hand you lose your freedom for freedom is the gift of the Spirit. The German NT Scholar Hans Dieter Betz in his excellent commentary says it like this: “Christian ethics can be defined as the exercise of freedom, or as the preservation of freedom; the corruption and loss of that freedom is then identical with the return under slavery of the elements of the world.”

            And here is what it boils down to: Real freedom, the gift of God in Christ, is shown when people through “love become slaves to one another.” That is the test of the pudding! For the whole law is summed up this way: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself!”

            America is a freedom loving country. We are after all, in addition to the home of the brave, the land of the free! Our freedom is a precious gift that was paid for dearly by those who sacrificed. Now, the freedoms we talk about as citizens are of course not the same as the freedom that God gives us in Christ. The freedom that Christ gives is perfect, it is complete and it is eternal. Any other freedoms measured against the freedom of the Gospel will fall short. That does not mean that as people of faith we cannot learn from and apply some of the eternal truths to our understanding of our freedom as Americans. In other words, is there anything we can take from our understanding of what the Apostle Paul teaches and apply it to our lives here and now?

            I think there is. We have to be honest that our freedom as Americans has become an individual freedom – sometimes to the extreme. I determine what is good and what works for me. Any and everything that is not about me is seen as a burden. Freedom in short is defined as: “What is in it for me?” And if I am not the beneficiary then I am not interested.

The freedom of the Gospel is different. It is more about: “What is in it for my neighbor?”

            Last week the sermon title was “Free to serve”. Today it is “Free to love.” Christian freedom, or Christian ethics, according to the Apostle Paul, is about focusing not on myself all the time. It is to love and to serve others. Thus Tolstoy’s quote: “Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.”

            Now let’s be real here: Saying that freedom is not about me but about my neighbor is dangerous and idealistic. What if my neighbor takes advantage of me loving and serving him? Is it not a great risk to become through love “a slave to one another?”

            Well, in all honesty I have to say: yes, it is a huge risk and it is very dangerous! So much so that we most likely won’t be able to do this all by ourselves. We need God’s help to be free to love and serve our neighbor.

            God has given us the Spirit. We who live by the Spirit should also be guided by God’s Spirit. And here is how the Spirit of God guides us in Christian freedom.  The fruit of the Spirit is helpful to guide us: Love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

            People who manifest these things, are led by the Spirit. They are truly free to love and to serve!

            So today God’s Word informs us that Christ came into the world to transform us and not to destroy us. Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

            In Christ we are free – free to love and serve our neighbors. Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.”