As we approach Independence Day, I hear more and more conversations talking about what freedom means. In 1941, FDR identified four essential freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of each individual to worship God in their own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Today some people suggest that flying a flag is a good symbol of American freedom. Perhaps you remember all the commercials after 9/11 encouraging us to buy consumer goods to show our freedom. In June of 2002, a mother wrote an article in Newsweek suggesting that her five-year old daughter playing ice hockey in the U.S. is a good example of American freedom (June 3, 2002). Others express their American freedom by voting or getting involved in the political arena. Freedom is understood in many ways by many different people.
In 1520, Martin Luther wrote an essay called "The Freedom of a Christian". In it, he explores whether a Christian is free or not. Basically his question of Christian freedom boils down to this: If Christ has set us free, does that mean we’re off the hook? Or as St. Paul puts it in Romans 6:15, "Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" Paul’s response? "By no means!" The question we keep coming back around to is: "If we are really forgiven does that mean we have free reign to do whatever we want, whenever we want it, and wherever we want to do it?" If Jesus freed us from the law, then it doesn’t matter whether we sin or not, right? After all, we are set free from bondage to sin through Jesus’ death, so why would we be enslaved to anything?
In his discussion of the freedom of a Christian, Luther says, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." In one sense, we are "perfectly free lord[s] of all". No one can tell us what to do or where to go. Because our highest allegiance is to God, we do not have to be subject to what people tell us to do. We make our own decisions and plans, without referring to other people or concerning ourselves with their needs. We are in charge of our own choices and have personal autonomy.
But in another sense, we are "perfectly dutiful servant[s] of all." Because our highest allegiance is to God, we have an obligation to respond to God’s call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and show compassion to the prisoner. So while no one can demand that we act out our faith, God’s call to us still stands. If we wish to be faithful to God’s call, we must be servants of all. In other words, if we are really free, we’ll be slaves to the right master. Luther wrote: "Although the Christian is thus free from all works, he ought in this liberty to empty himself…and to serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him. This he should do freely, having regard for nothing but divine approval." (303)
Luther goes on to explain that we receive a free gift of grace, and so we ought to freely respond from our heart of love. "As our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were Christs to the other that we may be Christs to one." (305) As Luther puts it, because we’ve been given the free gift of grace, we should freely respond to that gift by serving our neighbor. We are freed so that we can serve. We are released from bondage to sin in order to pledge our allegiance to a higher authority.
In today’s second lesson, St. Paul does an in-depth discussion of freedom and slavery. Paul addresses the Romans as those who were once "slaves of sin" (6:17), but now they have been "set free from sin", yet they are "slaves of righteousness". Paul insists that whether we like it or not, we are the slave of whatever force we choose to obey (6:16). We treat as our master whomever we place our highest allegiance in. That sounds pretty disturbing to me - released from one slavery to be placed into another. We’re still slaves either way! In one sense, we will always be enslaved to something. There is no such thing as living without having loyalty to anyone or anything.
Paul’s discussion of slavery and freedom uses the word "doulos", which means "slave". Although the word "servant" is probably more politically correct, Paul uses the word "slave", which [EXTENDED QUOTE:] "denote[s] a man who is not at his own disposal, but is his master’s purchased property. Bought to serve his master’s needs, to be at his beck and call every moment, the slave’s sole business is to do as he is told. Christian service therefore means, first and foremost, living out a slave relationship to one’s Savior (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
"What work does Christ set his servants to do? The way that they serve him, he tells them, is by becoming the slaves of their fellow-servants and being willing to do literally anything, however costly, irksome, or undignified, in order to help them. This is what love means, as he himself showed at the Last supper when he played the slave’s part and washed the disciples’ feet." -James Packer, Your Father Loves You, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986.
So we’re slaves either way…the only question that remains is: What or who is your master? Whom or what enslaves you? Perhaps the best way to approach this is to look at your priorities and values. Where are your priorities? What do you obey as if it were your master? How do you live as if you are a slave to something other than God? Are you enslaved by your family, with no identity of your own? Or are you enslaved by your job, or by the need for a job? Or by greed, gathering possessions at all costs? Or by loyalty to country, above all else? Even if you have no regard for anyone else, you might call yourself "free", but you’re still enslaved by your passions or addictions or even by physical realities. You are free to walk off the sixtieth floor of a building and yet, that freedom does not spare you from the consequences.
Then, once you’ve figured out where your allegiance currently lies, it’s time to claim the promise that God has given to you. It’s not a question of whether we’ll be slaves, but to whom do we pledge our allegiance? It’s really not a question of whether we can sin once we are freed from sin. The more important question would be: If we have already been forgiven, if we have already been given an unmerited gift of eternal life, why would we wish to continue in sin? Why would we keep turning back to sin, instead of moving forward in the salvation and promise that has already been granted? Sin has a strong grip, but God’s claim on us is stronger.
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893; Perennials) said: "No man in this world attains to freedom from any slavery except by entrance into some higher servitude. There is no such thing as an entirely free man conceivable." The question is not whether we will be enslaved, but what we will be slaves to. Be a slave to sin or be a slave to righteousness. You’re a slave either way! Bob Dylan sang a song with the title, "You Got To Serve Somebody", and he was right. According to Martin Luther, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." St. Paul argues that our slavery to sin got us nowhere. But we receive a benefit by being enslaved to God instead of enslaved to sin (6:22). Through our servitude to others, through our enslavement to God, we receive sanctification. Little by little, God keeps working on us, changing us, transforming us until we live totally named and claimed by God. May we each remain faithful to God while God works sanctification in us so that we can be totally and completely slaves to God. Amen.