April 6, 2014

Living Free in the World

Well, this week finds us in the fifth week of our series, Leave Your Chains Behind.  As a refresher, the whole idea for this series has been that while we talk a lot about freedom, we don’t live it very well.  As a result, in spite of our talk, many of us remain bound in chains of one kind or another wanting to leave them behind but not knowing how.  We want freedom from the fruits of gossip, but we can’t seem to keep our mouths shut.  We want freedom from the demands of our various appetites, but we can’t seem to ignore them.  We want freedom from the baggage of our broken relationships, but we can’t seem to make reconciliation happen.  We want to leave our chains behind, but we always seem to find a new one for every link we lose.

The goal of this series has been to give us the tools necessary to leave our chains behind entirely.  We started things out by defining freedom and talking about the fact that the freedom Christ offers us to live in a right relationship with God really does come with no strings attached.  The alternative to this, as we looked at in the second week, is to remain a slave of some kind.  The reason for this is that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The choice is ours to make.  From there we spent the last couple of weeks looking at the lifestyles associated with our choice.  If we choose to remain a slave to sin because the immediate payoffs seem just too sweet to ignore, eventually we will harvest the fruits of the flesh.  And, as we talked about, the fruits of the flesh are a bitter fare.  Thankfully, we have another choice.  This other choice is to accept the freedom Christ offers and begin to harvest the sweet fruit of the Spirit.  Accordingly, last week we analyzed and defined Paul’s famous list of the fruit of the Spirit.  It is living on the harvest of this fruit that will not only lead to more freedom for us, but also demonstrate to the world that we are in fact free from the bitter fare of this life.

This morning we are going to keep moving forward by looking in a bit more detail at how we can actually live out this lifestyle of freedom when we leave this room.  When all the theologizing and theorizing stops and we go out on the street…or perhaps simply back in the vestibule…how is it that we actually do all of this?  What does it look like?  I want to start broadly with you this morning by looking at how we do this out in the world, then next week we’ll get more specific by taking a look at how we do this on more of a person-to-person basis as part of our efforts to convince people that the life of freedom is worth it.  So then, if you have a Bible with you in some form, open it up to the letter that the apostle Peter wrote to believers living in roughly the same region as the recipients of Paul’s letter to the Galatian believers.  Find your way to 1 Peter 2 and we’ll see how we do this whole freedom thing out in the world.  I should also add that I’ll be using the Message translation this morning a copy of which you can find in your bulletins.

Look at this with me starting at v. 11: “Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it.”  Don’t we often forget that?  Lisa and I have traveled a fair bit in our nearly nine years together.  As we have gone various places and stayed in various hotels, on occasion we’ve stayed in one or another with a really nice bed.  That’s always an exciting discovery isn’t it?  I mean, hotel beds can be a bit of a game of chance.  Maybe you get a good one, but maybe somebody from housekeeping slipped a rock in your room in place of a mattress (or, if a harder mattress is more to your liking, they slipped in a bowl of feathers).  Sometimes, though, you get a room with a bed that feels almost as good as home.  I say “almost as good” there because you and I both know that no mattress sleeps quite as well as your mattress.  Dorothy said it best when she was clicking her heels: There’s no place like home.  No matter where you stay, no matter how settled you let yourself try and be, being somewhere other than home always feels just a bit uncomfortable.  Well, if we are followers of Jesus, if we have embraced the freedom Christ offers, this world, characterized as it is by slavery to sin, is no longer our home.  We can try and live like it, but that’s not going to go well because getting cozy means taking on some of the character of the place we are staying.  Well, the character of this place is slavery.  Free people should never be totally comfortable around slaves because slavery and freedom are moral opposites and cannot rationally coexist.

Look a bit further in the text with me.  Peter says the same thing but in a little different way: “Don’t indulge your ego [that would be, your appetites] at the expense of your soul.”  The translation I normally use puts that in terms that may ring with a bit more familiarity: “…abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”  Or perhaps to put that as Jesus did, “What good is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”  If we forget whose we are and where we live our soul is exactly the thing at stake.

Given, then, that this world is not our home and that as long as we are here we are free people living in a world of slavery, people are generally not going to be very receptive to us.  Don’t get me wrong, we can come to an uneasy peace with our adopted neighbors, but let us never start thinking that they are like us or that we are like them.  Our very presence in this world serves as an announcement of judgment against their lifestyle and everything they would accept as normative.  If we draw much in the way of attention to this, there is likely to be some trouble.  They’ll agree with us that there’s a problem, but they’ll be looking at us, not themselves.  This becomes all the more pronounced when we live in a manner inconsistent with our confession—when we try and get too cozy.  That’s when the charges of hypocrisy rightly start to fly.  Thus, the next advice Peter offers is a way to avoid this: “Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices.  Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.”

What Peter does in these two verses is to set a kind of foundation point for the rest of what he has to say.  If we are going to live out our freedom in our adopted culture we can neither get too cozy with the culture nor can we get by with not living up to our standards.  In other words, we should look different (because we are) and we should look morally better (because we have access to the power that enables it).  Incidentally, there’s a word that encompasses both of these criteria: holiness.  If we are going to live out our freedom in the context of our culture, this demands living a lifestyle of holiness.  Now, a lot of people misunderstand the idea of holiness so let me explain what I mean.  When most people think of holiness, they get in a mind a person who is what they would call “super religious.”  He does churchy things all the time; she talks kind of weird; he’s mostly nice but sometimes it seems like more of a covering than a real kindness; and generally she just looks different.  Folks who fit this particular definition of holy stand out, but more like sore thumbs, than, say, a Ferrari.  No, holy people according to the kind of holiness we see in the Bible are entirely “down-to-earth” (an ironic description given that they are most focused on heaven) and easy to be around.  They are so easy to be around because they are different in a good way from everybody else.  There’s a moral goodness to these folks that acts like honey for flies.  They are inviting and humble and totally dependable.  One look tells you that they are different because they are morally better.  This is the kind of holiness Peter has in mind here.  This is the kind of holiness necessary to live out the lifestyle of freedom in public and remain free while doing it.  Freedom applied like this calls for holy lives.  Freedom applied calls for holy lives.

The natural follow-up demand here, though, is this: Get more specific.  What does this actually look like?  Thankfully, Peter doesn’t leave us hanging.  Keep reading in the text with me at v. 13: “Make the Master proud of you by being good citizens.”  This world is not our home, but it is where we live until we get to go home.  We can’t get too cozy here, but if we treat it with contempt, we’re going to leave people wishing we’d go on home a little faster.  Just as God had Jeremiah call the captive Israelites in Babylon to seek the peace of their adopted home for the time they were living in exile there, we should be fans of our adopted home for the time we’re living here.  In other words, as free people we should be the best citizens regardless of the nation in which we happen to live.  But, just so we’re clear, being a great citizen of a nation does not mean being a blindly loyal patriot.  That often does not lead to good ends.  It often leads to the conclusion that being a Jesus follower demands loyalty to one political party or another or to one nationalist ideal or another.  As foreigners striving to live as good citizens given that we are really free people of another kingdom we should celebrate all that is good about our nation while challenging all the bad.  No nation is perfect and ours is no exception.

Peter goes on to give a little more clarity as to what this looks like: “Respect the authorities, whatever their level; they are God’s emissaries for keeping order.  It is God’s will that by doing good, you might cure the ignorance of the fools who think you’re a danger to society.”  Let me just pause to offer quick comment on this.  Respecting authority isn’t all that popular or easy these days because we are trained to be suspicious and even contemptuous of authority from day one.  And indeed, at least at a national level, there are many authorities who aren’t particularly worthy of our respect.  But, at least our authorities aren’t actively trying to kill us for our beliefs as Nero was when Peter was writing this.  Peter wrote this while he was waiting for a sure-coming death sentence from the very authorities he just told people to respect.  He knew just how hard it is to respect authorities, particularly those authorities who seem bent on harassing you.  The thing is, the respect we have for authorities doesn’t have all that much to do with them.  It has everything to do with the God who gifted them their authority…even if they are misusing it.  We do this because there are some folks out there who really do believe that Jesus followers are a danger to society.  These people are fools, particularly today, who know little of history generally, let alone the role of Christians in it, but still they think this and if our behavior conforms to their cynical expectations at all we’ll only give them confirmation.  When we live lives of holiness, though, we offer a compelling rebuttal to their suspicions.  Freedom applied calls for holy lives.

Coming right down to it, in the next line here we are given nice summary statement of this: “Exercise your freedom by serving God, not by breaking the rules.”  Breaking the rules on occasion has become a defining part of our culture.  Rules are made to be broken.  The reason for this stems from our growing unwillingness to acknowledge any authorities over our lives except ourselves.  We break rules as a demonstration that we are not submitted.  Indeed, we have been fed a steady gruel over the years of action movies and TV shows in which the lone hero breaks the rules in order to save the very people who made them.  The other night I was watching an episode of Food Network’s Mystery Diners (all fake, I’m sure), where the errant employee’s excuse for stealing from the restaurant owners was that sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do in order to get by, he needed the extra money, and so he made a way to take it.   Yet when we put ourselves in this kind of a position, we are simply meeting our appetites.  We are establishing ourselves as the only authorities we recognize.  And, as we have talked about at length, this only serves to perpetuate our slavery.  Real freedom, on the other hand, takes being different.  Freedom applied calls for holy lives.

The truth is that disregarding the system is never the way to save it.  When William Wilberforce led the charge in Britain’s Parliament to end the slave trade in the British Empire he worked entirely within the system.  The Civil Rights reformers of the 1950s and 60s all worked within the system.  Now, they did break some laws, but these were unjust laws contributing to an unjust cultural state of affairs.  And, when they broke the laws, they willingly and peacefully submitted to the requisite consequences all the while trusting that justice would prevail.  In all of this, though, they were the ones who were the most free.  They were the most free because they were pursuing a path of holiness.  They were pursuing a path of holiness that while resisted by many in authority at that time set them on a higher moral plateau that took the wind out of the sails of those who saw them as a danger to society.  Incidentally, they were pursuing a path that had been trod before.  In the Fourth Century Roman Empire, after Constantine had legalized and institutionalized the church, his nephew Julian came to power.  Julian was a committed pagan and he worked hard to resurrect the worship of the gods and goddesses of old.  At some point during his reign, he wrote a letter to a pagan priest named Arsacious about why things were not going as fast as he would have liked.  The reason?  The holy lifestyles of the Christians.  Listen to some of his complaint: “The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it…Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause? . . . For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.”  Do you see what’s going on here?  Those meddlesome Christians!  They do so much good that we can’t get our pagan religion to catch on again because we stink at doing good.  They’re just so hard to hate!  Freedom applied calls for holy lives.  It is because of the commitment of believers in the Fourth Century Roman Empire, 18th century British Empire, and 20th century America to living out the freedom they had in Christ by way of holiness that the world has changed over and over and over again.  Freedom applied calls for holy lives.

Now, I should note here that the response of the world to all this obvious improvement isn’t always positive.  In fact, Peter is rather explicit that when Jesus followers live the holy lives that freedom calls for in their cultures the results can sometimes be pretty messy.  The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but the tallest nail gets pounded.  When we stand out by our lifestyles we are going to attract attention and it won’t always be good.  In all of this, though, we can have confidence that we are not walking out on a branch too thin to hold our weight.  We are following in the example of the one who first set the standard of freedom and the holiness it demands for us.  Even if the response of the world to our efforts to make it more like our real home is not good, we are still only doing as has already been done.  Peter makes this abundantly clear for us.  Come back to the text with me one more time at v. 21 and we’ll get out of here.  “This is the kind of life you’ve been invited into [this holy lifestyle of applied freedom], the kind of life Christ lived.  He suffered everything that came his way so you would know that it could be done, and also know how to do it, step-by-step…They called him every name in the book and he said nothing back.  He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right.”  Freedom applied calls for holy lives and Jesus Himself is the one who set the standard here.

You see, even if it goes poorly for us in the short term, we have three truths onto which we can hold and which will give us hope.  The first is that nothing in this world can touch the freedom we have in Christ.  It exists entirely independent of our circumstances.  That’s why Peter could call servants (slaves) to be faithful and good to their masters.  This wasn’t because he endorsed slavery, but rather because our physical circumstances present no barrier to the exercise and enjoyment of our freedom.  Second, when we suffer for freedom’s sake, God is going to set all that right in time.  Freedom applied calls for holy lives and when we live with the holiness of God, He will make certain that we receive our just end even if all we face in this life is injustice.  Third and most important, we don’t walk the path of freedom alone, nor are we the first to have walked it.  We are following in the footsteps of our Lord and if we receive abuse for it we can rejoice in that we are receiving nothing more or less than He Himself did.  Freedom applied calls for holy lives.

 

In the end, when we pursue freedom with holiness of Christ as our guide, we are going to find that even if we happen to get pounded as the tallest nail, we will still serve as a rallying point for all those around us who are tired of their chains and who are ready to seek out a life of real freedom.  Another early church father named Tertullian once wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  This doesn’t mean we all need to plan on dying for our faith.  Far from it.  It does mean, though, that our faithful application and demonstration of our freedom in the face of opposition from this world offers a power call to the Gospel.  When we demonstrate that we have a freedom nothing in this world can touch, people are going to want to know how they can have it too.  But, we have to make certain that we are in fact living as free people in order to do it.  Freedom applied calls for holy lives.  Holiness is the public expression of freedom and holiness stands out.  If we are going to leave our chains behind, we are going to look different.  We should look different.  And as we do, we’ll demonstrate why freedom is so much better than the alternative.  If you come back next week, I’ll tell you more about how that can work.