How far will you go? How far are you prepared to go for the sake of the Gospel?
Freedom: it’s what the Gospel is all about: the glorious liberty of the children of God. But freedom is a rather strange concept, and perhaps an even stranger experience. Freedom can seem attractive: freedom from everything which restricts and hampers us that sounds like a wonderful promise. But freedom can also disappoint: when my new car - or my latest piece of tat - does not bring me the freedom it promised, the idea of freedom leaves me feeling cheated and frustrated.
And freedom can be alarming: true or radical freedom can leave me feeling unsure, exposed: if I am truly free, by what guidance am I to decide to exercise my freedoms?
All this belongs very much to our contemporary vocabulary. Indeed, one standpoint would suggest that the freedom of choice is what governs us in the West. It is the ideal to which we cling; it is the freedom for which we feel we have fought.
This is the freedom to self-determination: to dress as “I” please, to spend “my” money as “I” want, to follow a career of “my” choosing, to pursue “my” own sense of vocation, even.
And this freedom can be useful in telling the sorry tale of human politics and the need to negotiate about conflicting freedoms: the freedom to explore the world and enjoy nature, conflicting with the freedom to ignore and abuse it; the freedom to make noise and music, conflicting with the freedom to enjoy peace and quiet; the freedom to accept things as they are, conflicting with the freedom to argue and complain.
The negotiations can become petty, small minded, or they can escalate to full blown conflict and violence. But for all we may be passionate about them or indifferent to them, these freedoms, this contemporary currency of “freedom”, are only distant relatives of the freedom promised by the Gospel.
Firstly, the glorious liberty of the children of God is a freedom which is promised to us as a group: as children, as a family, with a shared identity and shared interests, and not primarily to each one of us as separate, competitive individuals.
Secondly, however, (but by no means secondarily) the glorious liberty of the children of God is not a freedom to be what we wish to be, but rather the freedom to become what God has made us to be. That means that it is the freedom to make choices; but it is the freedom to make the choices that will enable us to become who we truly are. The freedom promised by the Gospel is freedom from a certain set of negatives: it is freedom from death, from sin, from guilt, at least.
But it is not an open-ended freedom shaped only by what it escapes; it is a particular freedom for and to a certain set of positives: it is the freedom to be who we truly are (and not just who we want to be); it is the freedom to share today in the Kingdom of God (and not just to live wanton, lawless lives); it is the freedom to follow Christ, and that means sharing in his suffering as well as sharing in his resurrection life; and ultimately, of course, it is freedom to praise God for ever (which will, ultimately, be all that pleases us).
We shall have to work hard to describe this as freedom to a society dedicated to self-determination. But, as Paul understood, and as Fr Edward reminded us last week, one of the ways in which we can demonstrate the value of a freedom is by the price we are prepared to pay for it.
It is easy to see the freedoms we take for granted, or regard as useless: we make little effort to secure or exercise them.
It costs us little in
And so I ask again: How far will you go? How far are you prepared to go for the sake of the Gospel?
To put this another way: What prices can others see us paying to gain the glorious liberty of the children of God? How do our lives bear witness to its inestimable value?
On the face of it, the question seems all the wrong way round, no doubt. Surely the gift of the Gospel is free – freely given, freely won?
Well, yes, it is that.
And yet, there is more to be told here, as Paul’s circling rhetoric in his first letter to the Corinthians shows.
The freedom of the Gospel is freely won and freely given, but it arrives with a definite mandate: to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Paul struggles with this, surrendering what he sees as the rights and rewards of the Gospel, for the sake of the Gospel: precisely in order to preach the Gospel, which he understands he is obliged to do, and to make it freely available to others.
Although he is free with respect to all, he has made himself a slave to all, becoming all things to all people, to win more of them for Christ.
The question for the Church today is what rights, rewards and benefits are we prepared to surrender, for the sake of the Kingdom and the Gospel? What must we do to win the freedom of others?
In an age when everything costs money and even the church seems to be asking for more and more of it, what must we, the church, surrender in order for people to see and understand that God’s gifts are free?
In an age when religious difference has become the excuse for a range of crimes from personal abuse to state violence, what must we, the church, surrender in order for people to see and understand that God’s gifts are free?
The freedom of the Gospel is freely won and freely given, yet it arrives with a definite mandate: to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It comes with no price-tag except that it asks that we join Christ in paying the ultimate price for sin.
What prices are we prepared to pay to make the Gospel freely available to all? What prices must we, the church, pay, in order for people to see and understand that God’s freedom renders us neither lawless nor finally bound to human laws?
What prices must we, the church, pay, in order for people to see and understand that God’s freedom obliges us to live and breathe our lives in continual prayer and praise, but that slavish religious ritual, howsoever wonderfully crafted, can never win anything for us in and of itself?
The freedom of the Gospel is freely won and freely given, indeed, and yet it arrives with a definite mandate: to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. More than this, God’s gift of grace is freely given, and can be freely accepted; yet once accepted, it demands that we give, we surrender, everything to God.
Your presence here shows that you have already given much, but we can never rest on our laurels in this; God always asks for more, because God always asks for everything.
And this commits us, like Paul, to transgressing a whole range of social signs. How far will you go? How far are you prepared to go for the sake of the Gospel? What accommodations and compromises does Christ ask of you - and which are temptations from the devil?
Will you live a life that is not for yourself, but wholly for others? Will you write a letter to set a prisoner free? Will you forego a luxury in order to help feed the hungry? Will you look for reconciliation in place of insisting on offence? Will you stop and pray five times a day, to show others that your life is lived Godward? Will you go green to show God’s love for creation? Will you let go of cherished vocabulary to witness to Church unity and win others for Christ? Will you live a life ordered to the sacraments in order to be part of making Christ present in the world?
My framing of the questions may well be all wrong for you – but at least I can ask you this: what is the question, the demand, which the Spirit is laying upon you today, that will enable you at once to be more truly you and to convince others of the truth of the Gospel, thereby increasing both the number who share in its blessings and your own enjoyment of them?