Freedom’s Proper Expression
So for the past six weeks we have been looking at the idea of freedom together. More specifically, we have been wrestling with how we can leave the chains keeping us from being truly free behind once and for all. As a part of this process we have taken a look at how our culture generally thinks about freedom. Culturally speaking, being free is thought of as having the ability to do other than what we did. Freedom is primarily about having choices. It’s about having options. We like to have options. The more the better. Lisa and I went to the Auto Show a few weeks ago. When you looked at the various stickers in the windows many of the vehicles on display came with a few things standard and a list of options almost as long as my arm. When it comes to cell phones, the more things it can do beyond, you know, making phone calls the better. And what is the end of all these options? Convenience. Specifically, our convenience. Freedom in our culture, then, is really about getting what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want. Because of this, in the public mind the freest people are the ones with the most stuff. The more stuff we have the more options we have. This, in the minds of many folks in this culture, is freedom. The opposite of this, of course, is not having options. Not having much stuff. Being poor. Those folks are not free. They are confined by the requirements of a job or of some creditor or another.
If we go with such a definition of freedom, though, you know who wasn’t free? Jesus. As far as material stuff goes, Jesus was poor. He was homeless. He wandered around and stayed with whoever would loan Him some space on their couch. He had to eat every day just like you and I do, but He didn’t have money. His options, in this sense alone, were really limited. But, saying that Jesus wasn’t free just doesn’t feel right. I mean, He was…Jesus. He was the eternal God, the creator of all we see and don’t see come to earth and fully clothed in a human body. He technically had all the powers of deity at His disposal. He indicated on more than one occasion that He could have called down legions of angels to rescue him from one peril or another had He so desired. He looked in the face of the man who represented the full power of Rome and calmly asserted that Pilate didn’t have any power except what God had given him. Surely if there was ever someone who was totally free it was Jesus. But, He didn’t have any stuff. What was it, then that made Him so free and how do we know it? What was it about Jesus that gives us the notion that He was free, unencumbered by any bonds?
I think the answer is found in looking at His interactions with the various people He encountered in His life. When you read through the Gospels and examine all the people with whom Jesus interacts one of the things you notice pretty quickly is that no matter who Jesus was with, He was always the most powerful person in the room. He was always the smartest guy in the room. He was the player with all four aces every single time. And yet, you never see Jesus leveraging this power for His own benefit. Ever. He consistently uses His power, His freedom as we might define it, for the benefit of everyone else in the room even when it’s obvious that they are not interested in receiving it or supporting Him. In other words, He consistently uses His freedom to serve other people. This, I would argue, is part of what made Him so free. If we are going to understand rightly how to leave our chains behind and live as free people in our culture, we could definitely do worse than taking a page out of Jesus’ freedom playbook.
Taking this page is where we are too. So far in our journey to leave our chains behind we have defined freedom so that we can understand not only what we are aiming for but just how sweet it is. Freedom is living in a manner that most accords with reality and in this light Jesus’ offer of freedom to us comes without a single string attached. This is an offer that’s too good pass up as well because the alternative stinks. If we are not living in the sinless freedom of Christ then we are committing sin which makes us slaves. We can choose whichever of these states of affairs we’d like, but our choice has consequences. If we choose to remain a slave, sowing the seeds of sin, we will eventually harvest the fruits of the flesh which are a decidedly bitter fare. If we choose, however, to accept Christ’s offer of freedom, we will sow seeds of righteousness and have the privilege of enjoying a sweet harvest of the fruit of the Spirit. Finally, last week we started to look outward to see how this whole freedom thing looks when practically applied out in the world. We saw then what the expression of our freedom looks like on a large, culture-wide scale. Namely, freedom applied calls for holy lives. This week we are going to look at the expression of our freedom on a person-to-person scale. In the nitty-gritty, daily grind of life, what does living as free people look like? In seeking an answer to this question, taking a page out of Jesus’ playbook is exactly what we are going to do. We’ll be led in this effort by some words Paul wrote to help believers deal with an issue that, initially, is going to seem totally irrelevant to us. Yet if we are going to leave our chains behind, where Paul ultimately takes things is just where we are going to want to be.
These words are found in Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth. First Corinthians is one of those places in the Bible that helps justify us in believing that it is still relevant to our lives in spite of being nearly 2,000 years old. The Corinthian believers were a wild group dealing with a whole bunch of issues that seem remarkably relevant to things we face on a daily basis. In the middle of all these obviously relevant issues, though, Paul starts in talking about whether or not it’s okay for believers to eat meat that had been previously offered as a gift to one pagan god or another. I know, right. I was just wondering that last week when I was deciding which package of chicken to pick up at Sam’s. And yet even though at first glance it doesn’t really seem like it connects to anything we’re dealing with today, Paul eventually takes us to a place incredibly relevant not only to issues we are facing on a daily basis, but in fact the very issue with which we’ve been wrestling for the past six weeks. So then, if you have a Bible with you in some form, find your way to 1 Corinthians 8 and we’ll take a look at what Paul does here.
Now, again, the issue on which Paul was offering some wisdom was whether or not believers should eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. You see, in the first century, meat was actually a fairly scarce commodity and generally reserved for the wealthy. The average person may have owned a goat, but this was for milk, not meat. The way folks like you and me got meat then was when some wealthy person would bring a lavish offering to one of the temples in order to honor the gods and show everybody else how cool he was for being so rich. These offerings might consist of a number of goats or sheep or bulls or something else along these lines. Once the animals were slaughtered and a token amount set before the statue of the god or goddess, the rest of the meat was butchered up used variously. Some was sold in the local market. Some was held back for a private party in the temple. Some was taken to the home of the wealthy person for a dinner party there. But here’s the important thing: Folks who ate this meat understood that they were eating something which had been sacrificed in honor of the local god or goddess and further that by eating it they were taking part in the worship. A Christian might be invited to one of these parties and offered the “idol meat” as the main course. What the Corinthian church was struggling with was whether or not this was okay.
In any event, look how Paul frames this issue at the beginning of chapter 8: “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’” He makes his point a bit clearer starting at v. 4: “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” In other words, what Paul is getting at is the fact since idols merely represent made up gods who don’t exist they are nothing—literally, “not-things.” Eating food that has been sacrificed to “not-things” isn’t any different from eating food that’s been sacrificed to nothing. Thus moral of the story seems to be: if you understand this, if you have this knowledge, eat the meat; it’s no different from any other.
Except, that’s not really the moral of the story. There’s a problem which Paul points out in v. 7: “Not all possess this knowledge.” You see, there were some folks who thought that the idols and the gods they represented were real. In fact, worshipers of, say, Zeus would refer not to the statue of Zeus in the temple, but rather to Zeus literally being in the temple. If one of these people became a believer, before developing a mature enough faith to completely throw off their old ways of thinking, eating that meat could be devastating for their conscience because they would have felt like they had just worshiped a false god. Even seeing a fellow believer eating it could cause them substantial trouble. Thus, while believers certainly had a “right” to eat the meat given their freedom in Christ and the knowledge it bequeathed, exercising this right, this freedom, may not always have been wise. Or, to put things as we did just a minute ago, enjoying this “convenience” as an expression of freedom would not be the best expression of freedom.
This is why Paul actually frames the issue a bit more fully than I read for you just a second ago. Go back to the top of the chapter: “This ‘knowledge’ [that idols are nothing and our freedom allows us to engage with nothing without personal consequence] puffs up [in other words, knowing that can make us prideful], but love [a fruit of the Spirit in which we intentionally work to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be] builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something [look how smart I am], he does not yet know as he ought to know.”
In other words, as long as we think our freedom is primarily for our own benefit, we’re not yet really as free as we can be; we’re not yet enjoying our freedom as fully as it was designed to be enjoyed. As long as we think in terms of our freedom being mostly a tool for our personal convenience then what we have isn’t really freedom yet. It’s still a form of slavery. It’s not only slavery, but it is a slavery that can be contagious. Look what else Paul writes here starting at v. 9: “But take care that this right of your does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother [or sister] for whom Christ died. Thus, sunning against your brothers [and sisters] and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”
Yikes! That’s pretty tough. Yet Paul’s right. If you are doing something that causes a fellow believer to stumble into sin, even if your freedom in Christ allows it, is not okay. Doing it would not be an expression of freedom at that point, but of slavery. Instead, we should be driven by the spirit of Paul’s self-admonishment: “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Do you see what he’s getting at here? If I have some power thanks to my freedom in Christ that can be wielded for my convenience, my first thought is not going to be how I can leverage this power for my own benefit, but rather for yours. The eating itself is a neutral affair. In fact, just fill in the blank there with something you feel like your freedom in Christ allows but which might cause other observing believers to stumble into sin. Drinking alcohol, hanging out in bars, smoking, watching certain movies or TV shows, reading certain books, being in a certain place on Sundays, not being in a certain place on Sundays, engaging in some hobby, spending money on certain things, and the list goes on and on. All of these things are morally neutral in and of themselves; they are just things. The spirit behind their pursuit is where the problem lies. If they are pursued purely and solely as matters of convenience or personal preference, they are not expressions of freedom. In any event, regardless of what the specific issue is, our freedom is best used as a tool to advance the place of others in Christ, not our own convenience. Put a bit more simply, freedom is best used in service of others.
And in spite of all his talk about the appropriateness or not of meat sacrificed to idols, it is this last point Paul has in view here and throughout the next couple of chapters. Freedom is best used in service of others. This larger point of Paul’s brings us back around to the page we are stealing out of Jesus’ freedom playbook. Serving others was how Jesus expressed His freedom. Freedom is best used in service of others…even when in an immediate sense this is not our personal preference. We see this when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane praying that God would take “this cup”…that is, the crucifixion …away from Him. As a point of fact: Jesus didn’t want to be crucified. That happened against His preference; against His convenience. Did this make Him less free? No. In going to the cross anyway, and because it was the Father’s will, Jesus’ freedom wasn’t diminished, it was expanded. The reason for this is wrapped up in the fact that Jesus was free in the sense we have been talking about for the last six weeks. That is, while He certainly had the choice to not go to the cross available to Him, in another sense He did not have this option available if He wanted to remain on track with the plans of the Father for our redemption. Instead, He made the choice that was consonant with reality. In doing so, He was leveraging His freedom for our benefit. Indeed, freedom is best used in service of others. In fact, I would even take this a step further. The freest people always and only use their freedom in service of others. This is because, again, freedom is found in living most fully within the bounds of reality which is defined by God and His character. Well, two of God’s most fundamental characteristics are that He is loving and He is just, both of which are others-focused traits. God is all about working for the good of others, serving others. Thus God is the most free being in the universe. If we are going to partake in His freedom then we must pursue its expression in the same manner He does. Freedom is best used in service of others.
Paul introduces this idea in chapter 8 by focusing on the in-house issue of whether or not Christians can morally consume meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. Paul concludes in favor of freedom that we can but goes on to draw out the larger point that expressions of our freedom which hurt others are not real expressions of freedom at all. If we are going to enjoy our freedom in Christ alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ then we must use it for their benefit. Yet in saying all of this, we are focused inwardly. What happens if we take the same principle and walk it out onto the street? What happens if we apply this principle to our relationships with other people in our lives? Is service still the best expression of our freedom when we are dealing with, say, unbelievers?
Absolutely! In fact, it becomes all the more important there. You see, beginning in chapter 9 Paul takes his point that freedom is best used in service of others and turns it outward. He starts talking about the ways he refuses to leverage his freedom to his own benefit in his own ministry all with the goal in mind of making sure that he doesn’t get in the way of the Gospel. This is the more important end of freedom in this life—the advance of the Gospel. Indeed, as the Gospel advances more and more people begin living within the spacious bounds of reality, freedom expands. Remember when Paul wrote that against the fruit of the Spirit there is no law? As a result, freedom is best used in service of others, particularly serving others in such a way that they are drawn to the kingdom of God. And in this venture no kind of service is off the table.
Jump down to the end of chapter 9 with me and see just how far Paul takes this radical concept of freedom. From 9:19: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.” In other words, the impression we get here is that Paul was determined to use his freedom in whatever manner was going to be the most likely to draw the particular group of people with whom he was interacting to embrace the Gospel of Christ and the freedom it brings. In all of this, by the way, his own freedom remained unaffected. Freedom is best used in service of others. Indeed, this was exactly his approach: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
Think about this for just a minute. Here what we see is the principle which allows us to make all of this very specific in our attempts to live out our freedom in the nitty-gritty daily grind of life. Freedom is best used in service of others. Anything we do which intentionally allows for someone else to move in the direction of the Gospel is a freely performed act. It is an act which comes from a place of freedom and which leads down the path to more freedom. Let’s get even more specific here. If we want to fully leave our chains behind, a big part of the way we can do this is to live in such a way that the people with whom we interact on a daily basis are drawn to the Gospel because of our lifestyle. One of the best ways to do this is to be intentional in our efforts to love and serve the people around us. How can we do this? Well, I can’t help you too much with that. You need to think through your regular life cycles. Who do you encounter on a regular basis that could benefit from being served in Jesus’ name? It could be something simple: bringing a cup of coffee, stopping to have a conversation that goes beyond hi-how are you-fine, taking a shift at work to enable another parent to be at a kid’s event, offer free babysitting to a single mom or to new parents, getting a grocery list and hitting the store for someone who has trouble getting out, playing designated driver for some friends who like to have a little too good a time on the weekends, and so on and so forth. Be creative in this. The sky’s the limit. The leeway your freedom in Christ allows on this is vast. Paul makes this pretty clear when at the end of chapter 10, when offering a concluding thought on all of this writes: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” If you are serving someone with the purpose of advancing their position in Christ as an expression of your freedom in Him you are bringing glory to God. Freedom is best used in service to others.
Let me offer one more challenge on this point from more of an in-house perspective and then we’ll get out of here. As a church, we have incredible freedom in the manner in which we seek to draw people to the Gospel. Our particular body has been designed by God to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engaged their world for Christ. The ways we have available to go about this are manifold. We need not be limited to how we have done things in the past. In fact, there’s a very good chance that way things were done even ten years ago won’t work anymore because of how much our culture has changed in that time. Now, as a part of our purpose as a body, we want Central to be a place where we can worship with a sense of comfort and familiarity. But, this cannot be our chief goal. If we ever get to the place where the comfort or taste or preference or what have you of “our folks” becomes the chief determining factor in whether or how something should be done we have a very serious problem. We have traded freedom for convenience. We have exchanged a Christ-like freedom for a very much worldlier one. We have forgotten that freedom is best used in service to others. Let us not forget that we as a body exist, not for the folks inside these walls, but for the ones who aren’t. That’s sort of what it means to be a church as defined by guys like Jesus and Paul. Everything we do should be done first and foremost with that fact in mind. Our freedom in Christ may allow us to construct this place to suit our needs and desires to a T, but that would be a poor expression of it. In fact, it would be an expression of “freedom” very much more in line how the world understands freedom and, as we know, that’s not freedom at all but another form of slavery. Freedom is best used in service to others. There is irony here, but there is also very deep truth. If we want to leave our chains behind, including those of our own making, we must learn to live our lives entirely for the benefit of others, first the God who made and sustains us, and then for all the other people He made. As we journey to this place we will find ourselves freer than we have ever been. Freedom is best used in service to others. Let’s get started on living free.