Liberty or license? True freedom is fruitful faith in Christ!
“Everything is permissible,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible,” but not everything is edifying. No one should seek his own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)
For you, brothers, were called to freedom; but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)
Live in freedom, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Treat everyone with high regard: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:16)
Today I want to talk to you about “Freedom in Christ”. We often talk about freedom. It’s something we all want. When we’re kids, we want freedom. When we’re adults, we want freedom too. When we’re adults, we have a job, we have rent, a mortgage, car payments, taxes to pay. We long for freedom from these things. Yet when we were kids, we didn’t have any of these responsibilities, but we still wanted freedom. We had rules to obey. School to go to. Homework to do.
Our country wants freedom too. America’s birthday was July 4th, 1776, and we call it Independence Day – the founders didn’t want to be dependent, they wanted to be free.
Then there’s someone like Siddharta Guatama. Better known as the Buddha. And I want to talk to him because a lot of folks around here are interested in Buddhism, and know I used to study, and wonder how I came to move on to Christianity and why. So let’s talk about about Siddartha, in case you’re not familiar with him.
He was born into a culture that taught every person is born again in multiple reincarnations. Life is hard the first time around — tough luck – life is just as hard every second time around. On and on it’ll go, like a merry go round. He said life is suffering. He wanted freedom from this. He started the great religion of Buddhism, promising every one of his followers freedom from this problem of constant suffering – if they followed his meditation method to reach a higher level of consciousness.
We’ll talk more about him in a second —
But these are just a handful of examples of what we mean by freedom. Now let’s think about how we go about getting our freedom in each of these examples. When we’re kids, what do we do when we want our freedom? We break the rules, we throw a tantrum – we do what we want, and we pay the price if we have to!
When we’re adults, we think of it a little differently – most of us anyway. We take a look at the calendar and say, ok, maybe here’s a good week to take some time off for a vacation. Get away from my responsibilities. Or, you look at your finances, and say – here’s the debt I’m in. I’ll be free when I pay it off. Or maybe I’ll be free when I’ve socked away some savings, or maybe I’ll be free when I finally retire.
And the Patriots who founded this country, they said, “We need to go to war to secure our freedom. We’re in political bondage. No one’s going to give it to us – we have to take what’s rightfully ours!”
Well, this is a good point for pause. The Founders said, “we have these inalienable rights, endowed by our Creator – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They were so sure about it that they went to war for it. This is not the kind of freedom that you get from a vacation as an adult – in fact, they went after it more like we went after our freedom as kids – hell or highwater, I’m going to get what I want! War, even for a noble cause, is still a rampage – and in that way, it shows we aren’t much more mature than toddlers, perhaps.
But – why were the founders so sure they had these special rights endowed by their Creator? What Creator? Among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What liberty? What is liberty? When we’re talking about freedom in the context of our Creator, we’re talking about something higher than just our freedom to steal a cookie from a cookie jar, or to take a vacation – right?
Well, the answer to this question is to be found in Jesus. Today I want to talk a little bit about man’s “higher” idea of freedom, the metaphysical freedom that religious people and philosophers and, yes, Patriots often like to talk about. It’s something people are willing to fight for, even die for. I think we better wrap our heads around it.
But I want to start with Siddhartha Gautama. Firstly, because there are many people in our nation now who look to him for their spiritual liberation before they look to Christ, or instead of Christ, and I want to address that. Secondly, because even though our topic is Freedom in Christ, Siddhartha made his mark on the world before Jesus did, and when it comes to our concepts of freedom, we have inherited much more from him than you think.
Siddartha Gautama lived in Ancient India through the 4th or 5th century. He was born a prince, and then he became depressed – he began to see the same depressing patterns that King Solomon wrote about, “There is nothing new under the sun – all is vanity, vanity of vanities!”
Siddartha left his palace to join the poor religious men, yogis, who had made vows of severe fasting and poverty in order to worship God and come to know truth. In India, religious people were taught that there are many gods, and people are born to serve them – and if you don’t serve them well, you are in karmic debt to them. If you die in karmic debt, you’ll be thrown into karmic prison – that could mean not just an afterlife of hell, but it could also mean being reborn as a poor person, or even an animal. On the other hand, if you lived a life pleasing to the gods, you’d get a promotion – you could be reborn as a rich person, a king, or even a god.
In India, it was taught that the class you’re born into is determined by your past-life karma – nothing can change it. The poor religious folk of India accepted this premise – instead of questioning it, they sought a backdoor out of this cycle – they believed that through severe austerity and meditation, they could burn off their karmic debts.
I’m simplifying like crazy here, but —
Siddartha lived this type of austere religious life for some years until he had an epiphany, meditating under a tree. He said that he had a flash of omniscient insight, and he discovered the secret of life, and freedom: everything is empty. Karma, the gods, the class system, life, death – everything, it’s just an illusion. No more, no less.
Invigorated by this experience, he started a religious movement that was revolutionary in its day. He claimed he could teach his students to reach the same insight he did, and they’d find freedom in nirvana – a state of mind and being in which one is released from the grip of the illusions of life and death.
His religion spread like wildfire. Now, we tend to think of Buddhism as something that thrived in the Far East, in China, Tibet, Japan. No, it spread much further, into the West — in ways direct and indirect.
Now, we don’t have a projector screen, but I want you to imagine in your mind’s eye that we do have one, and we’re going to pull up a map of the spread of Buddhism; and then we’re going to superimpose over it a map of the Empire of Alexander the Great. And I want to assure you, that the boundaries of both are nearly identical west of India.
Scholars of Buddhism tend to focus on the eastward spread of Buddhism, where it evolved many distinct Buddhist sects we’d recognize today: Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhism. Buddhism appropriated most cultures east of India.
But in the West, it was the opposite: the western cultures appropriated Buddhism, where it morphed into other forms that we wouldn’t necessarily call Buddhism. When Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, his Empire was rife with the teachings of what is called Greco-Buddhism – which was one philosophical piece of a bigger cultural pie called Hellenism.
Here’s the point: the People of God in our Bible were no strangers to Buddhism. This isn’t a new thing in our times – this is very, very old. Buddhist doctrines of liberation were very familiar to the Hebrew nation in the cultural philosophies of Hellenism. But far from embracing these teachings as a beacon of freedom, they rejected them — eventually.
This was the era of the Book of Maccabees, which contains the story of Chanukah – the era of the Greek Empire, the era of the 3rd Kingdom is what they called it, based on Daniel’s prophecy.
At this time, many Hebrews were losing their religion. After generations and generations of occupations by the Babylonians, then the Persians, and now the Greeks, the Jewish culture was divided between patriots and Hellenists – if you want to know what Hellenists believed, Hellenists gave us kabbalah, a mystical system that came from Persian and Egyptian magical traditions; and Gnosticism, a mystical belief system borrowing from Buddhism; and of course, classical Greek philosophy.
Now I’m telling you all this because I want you to understand that there’s nothing new under the sun. A few years ago, Madonna had a comeback and became a spokesman for kabbalah. A little later, a Gnostic writing called the Gospel of Judas was restored and translated in National Geographic, and all of a sudden Gnosticism had a big comeback. The yoga lifestyle is in vogue, with its roots in the very religion which Siddhartha Gautama rejected.
And of course, Buddhism is back in a big way!
In America, we have a religious culture that is very much like the Hellenist culture of Judea in the time of Greek empire. People are spiritual, but not religious. This was the way it was back then, too.
So, what happened in this time? The story of Chanukkah. The devout Jews gathered around the leadership of the Maccabee family and rebelled against Greece and fought off Hellenization. They wanted their own culture, their own nation. But the Greek Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes wouldn’t have it. If you control the culture of the people, you control them politically – he knew that, and he didn’t want to lose control. So he fired back with a violent persecution, slaughtering men, women, and children who wouldn’t assimilate to Hellenistic culture.
After a bloody conflict, the Maccabees secured their new temple, they fortified the priesthood and they put a new Judean king over themselves. And the people took courage and comfort in all this, because everything that happened unfolded just as foretold by the prophet Daniel, in Daniel 8 – and the cherry on top, God’s stamp of approval, was the miracle of the Chanukah menorah, where God miraculously sustained their lantern light in their darkest hour.
Now, it’s time to think about something. This happened almost two hundred years before Jesus Christ was born. I want you to think about the story here: Judea is overrun by Greeks. This is the third kingdom to put Israel underfoot – how is this possible? Put yourself in their shoes. God promised Abraham that his seed would be a great nation and rule over the world – Moses came and set the children of Israel free – but where’s the freedom?
In the story of Chanukah, you see that the type of freedom promised by Siddartha, the kind of freedom promised by the Hellenistic philosophy cults, this was antithetical to the freedom promised to Israel. It was just fancied up complacency and subjugation. The freedom of nirvana is metaphysical, based on a fatalistic worldview where nothing can change the class you’re born into – what good is that to the people of God when they are under the rule of a persecuting regime? When your beliefs are being outlawed, your culture destroyed, and finally, your home and your family are under attack – what good is the freedom of nirvana?
But the God of Israel says of his children, “He who touches Israel touches the apple of my eye.” This is the God who led them out of Egyptian slavery – body and soul — with his own hand. This is the God who didn’t force them to worship Him, but gave them the freedom to choose – He said, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
There was no separation between bodily freedom and spiritual freedom, between individual freedom and national freedom. It was a harmony that was balanced by their Covenant with God – so long as they didn’t break the covenant.
The people of God are a free people – it’s always been this way. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, they were just as sure of this — so they fought for their freedom. They didn’t seek it in Gnosticism, in kabbalah, in Greco-Buddhism, in Hellenism – they fought for it.
But here’s the thing: they didn’t get it.
After the Maccabees win the revolt, what happens? Nothing. A painful nothing. The Prophets go silent. Things get worse. The oppression of Greece gives way to the oppression of Rome. St. Paul tells us about this time, that the whole creation was “groaning together in the paints of childbirth” — until his own time, the times that immediately followed Jesus’ day.
Why? Paul tells us: “The creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, [God], in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
Subjected to futility – in bondage to decay — that is how the Bible describes everything that came before Christ. Every manmade means of attaining freedom was futile. Even Israel, the firstborn of God, was also subjected, enslaved, to futility, because the time had not yet come. Paul tells us, “What Israel sought after, it didn’t obtain.”
But then Jesus finally came, and he brought true freedom with him. Just as those first Hebrews who put their faith in Moses and followed him out of the slavery of Egypt finally came to the Promised Land, so did those who put their faith in Jesus follow him out of the slavery of the Old Covenant, with its harsh curse on covenant-breakers, and into the freedom of the New, which promises forgiveness of sins and redemption. The first Christians were called the “firstfruits from the dead” — so brilliant was the “glory” and the “freedom” of the children of God compared to that which came before, it was compared as life to death.
Just as Israel was the inheritance of those who descended from the 12 tribes of Israel by blood, so is the Kingdom of God the inheritance of those who are descended from God the Father by faith in the Son. It might seem like foolishness to the world that people who simply believe in Jesus Christ inherit the Kingdom of God, and enjoy this “glorious freedom of the children of God” — but the Bible said, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?”
So to everyone listening: kids, adults, patriots, Buddhists, Hellenists, gnostics: there is only one true freedom. And it is this freedom described in the Bible, the glorious freedom of the Children of God. Freedom in Christ. Jesus tells us how to obtain freedom when he says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” What is truth? Jesus. “I am the way, the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me.”
So how do you know the truth? He says: “If you continue in my word, you are my disciples…and then you will know the truth.” That’s the secret to freedom: freedom is faith in Christ.
–and faith in Christ is fruitful, because Christ commands us to be fruitful in our faith.
What are the fruits of faith? Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.
And the greatest of all of these is Love.
That is freedom – fruitful freedom. Ask yourself, do you know this glorious freedom? In voicing his support for the right of abortion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is how the world defines freedom – making your own rules. But this is not liberty – it’s license. It’s at odds with the Biblical definition of freedom: freedom is obedience to God. Peter says in the same breath: “live in freedom…live as servants of God.”
Justice Kennedy should have said, “at the heart of liberty is the right to live by God’s concept of existence, of meaning, and of the mystery of human life – instead of someone else’s.”
Is your law the law of liberty, or the law of license?
Pope Benedict XVI predicted almost 20 years ago that the most dangerous threat to humanity of our times would be “the dictatorship of relativism.” As you can see almost 20 years later, he nailed it. And this “dictatorship of relativism” is perfectly demonstrated in Justice Kennedy’s assertion about the equivalence of relativism and license with liberty – while he unironically dictates this statement from the highest court in the land!
And there are plenty more examples of this type of thing, not just to pick on a fellow Irishman.
…So if we are to find freedom, we are to find it in obedience to Christ, to God. We won’t find it elsewhere – I think I’ve summarized clearly today that humanity had centuries’ worth of opportunities to find it elsewhere, and never did.
And here we are, gathered in the name of the one who sets us free. Who forgives our sins. And here’s the big Christian question: “if our sins are forgiven, what harm can be done by sinning here and there? Aren’t we free to do a little sinning, seeing as they’re forgiven anyway?
“What do we have to lose?”
The first Christians asked that question. But their wise shepherds, their prophets and teachers and bishops and presbyters, answered them: your freedom. That’s what you have to lose.
Freedom is obedience to Christ – but if you go on sinning, you’re more obedient to sin than Christ. No one can make you quit yer sinning. But the freedom to sin is not true freedom – that’s license. True freedom is in the Godly life, driven by your sincere love of God alone – no one can force that. Your obedience is your responsibility – that’s what Freedom in Christ is all about.
Paul says, “Shall we sin because we’re not under law, but under grace? Certainly not! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves to the one you obey, whether you are slaves to sin leading to death, or to obedience leading to righteousness?”
But he says of the faithful, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”
Generations have fought for freedom. But we know what true freedom is – it is our life of faith in Christ Jesus. And now that I have established the supremacy of Christ for setting us free, let me share a Buddhist prayer which I hope will have new meaning in the light of the Gospel:
“May all sentient beings attain liberation; and for the sake of all sentient beings, I will attain liberation.”
If I were going to make a Christian edit of those words, I’d put it this way: “May all people come to attain the glorious freedom of the children of God; and for their sake, I will attain that glorious freedom by serving Christ.”
“For you, brothers, were called to freedom; but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)