Free but not loose

Saint James Fordham • Proper 9a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.
What is freedom? Surely this is a significant question to ask as we look towards tomorrow’s Fourth of July fireworks, as the flags proudly wave and our hearts are lifted at the patriotic songs of this season. What does it really mean to be free?

We can begin by trying to understand the ideals of freedom upon which this nation was founded. The American colonies were struggling with what they rightly regarded as injustices. While there was limited freedom of religion in most of the colonies — indeed that was the reason many of the colonists came to these shores in the first place — there was no true freedom of speech or the press; voting rights were strictly limited, and representative elected government was permitted only at the most local level, and with limited authority — all the most important matters had to be referred back to the English Crown through the colonial governors. There was no true representation of the people’s will in their own governance — they were to obey, be content, and pay the taxes the Crown thought it right to levy. And although the English Crown itself had long since ceased to claim the powers of absolute monarchy, the parliament that truly governed England and its colonies was very far from democratic, constituted as it was of lords and landlords.

And so, two hundred and twenty-nine years ago tomorrow, the American colonies threw off the yoke of royal government. But when they did so, they did not do away with government entirely. The American states did not devolve into a free-for-all in which anyone could do whatever he or she pleased. Nor did America become an absolute democracy in which all decisions would be reached by town-hall style meetings. Instead, the United States adopted anew yoke, a yoke of government as clearly organized as any they had known, but with important safeguards for fundamental liberty and freedom. America became free — but its freedom was not the freedom simply to do anything. The freedom of the American citizen was the freedom to live in peace and harmony, in the dynamic tension between the rights of the individual and the good of society as a whole, the balance of duty and liberty. As the words of our opening hymn put it, we address our native land, asking that God might “shed his grace on thee,” and to “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

For what would society be like if we were libertines instead of liberated, if it were truly without law of any kind? What would our world be like if everyone were truly free simply to do as he or she wanted to do, without any limitation, without regard for anyone else? This would not be freedom, but anarchy — not liberty, but chaos. Given human nature — the tendency we have to seek to fulfill our own wills at the expense of others — the powerful would ride on the backs of the weak, the strong and proud would lord it over the poor and humble, and the tyranny of brute force would prevail. In the end, without a form of law to restrain the worst impulses of human nature, only some would be free, while others would suffer bondage to the will of the powerful, whether few or many.

In 1776, Americans became free from the old tyrannies of the English Crown, from taxation without representation, from the lack of a free press and free speech; but Americans did not become, and are not now, free to do simply anything we please. We still pay taxes, but our taxation is based on the decisions of a body of people whom we elect, and we are not free to pay only the taxes we personally approve of. We have freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but we are not free to write or say absolutely anything we like — there is no right to libel or slander, deceit or mischief! As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr once said, in a famous decision, “Freedom of speech does not give one the right to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”

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What is true of the government is also true in the Christian faith. We are free in Christ from the law of the flesh — the old law carved in stone and delivered to Moses, and the statutes that Moses established as rules of sin and punishment. From these laws Christ has set us free. But we are not free from the law of the Spirit — the new law implanted in our hearts by Christ, the new law of love and forgiveness. We are still not free to murder, steal and lie — but as Christians the reason we do not do these things is not simply because they are illegal under the old law, but because they violate the new law: the love of God and neighbor.

It is in obedience to this new law, it is in taking up this easy yoke and light burden that we find our true freedom. It is not a freedom to do anything we feel like doing. It is a freedom to do what is most authentic and best for ourselves and others, the freedom to become truly ourselves — not conformed to the easy temptations of daily life which lie close at hand, which we sometimes find ourselves doing even when we don’t really want to do them, and consequently discover ourselves deformed by them even as we take them up. Rather we are called in this new freedom to be transformed into the likeness of the one who called and redeemed us for himself, who took us by the hand and led us forth from bondage.

We no longer set our minds on the law of sin and death, the heavy yoke that burdens the heart while providing no comfort and forgiveness, nor deliverance from bondage and condemnation. But neither do we set our minds simply on the freedom of the flesh, to do what the flesh wants — for this leads only to slavery to the flesh, following its desires down the path to destruction, captivity and wretchedness. Instead we who follow Christ set our minds on him, following where he leads in the path of love and freedom — the true freedom to become what we are meant to be: children of God and sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ.In Christ we are freed from our weary and heavy burden of trying to be something we never can be on our own. Joined to him in the yoke of love and service, the light burden that gives us balance and direction, we become all we are meant to be — truly free in the Spirit of life and peace.

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Our freedom is not absolute. Our liberty in the here and now requires a point of contact with what endures forever or it will never come to anything, never come to be all that it can be. In short, we are free, but not free to come loose! The East Indian poet and Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore put it this way:

Lying on my table is a violin string. It is free. I pull one end of it and it responds. It is free. But it is not free to do what a violin string is supposed to do: to produce music. So I take it, fix it in my violin, and tighten it until it is taut. Only then is it free to be a violin string. Only then can it sing.
Christ offers us his easy yoke and light burden, the yoke and burden of the love of God and neighbor. Through this light yoke and easy burden we become what we are meant to be, for “he would have us bear it, so he can make us free.” We are freed from the waterless prison of the old law of sin and death, called forth as prisoners of hope to take up a new and lighter burden, a burden that does not exhaust us but refreshes us, that does not impede our progress, but helps us on our way, free but not loose, free to move but directed in our motion, guided and not lost.

The Spirit does what the law could never do, fixing our heartstrings in God so that they may be pulled taut, and our hearts made free to play the song of God.

A flag is not free proudly to wave unless one edge of it is fastened to the flagpole. The team is not free to pull the wagon unless they bear the yoke that holds them together and unites their effort towards their goal. A drawing compass is not free to draw a circle unless one end of it is firmly planted at the center. And we are not free to live as children of God unless our hearts are firmly fixed in Christ: who sets us free but neither loose nor lost.

To him who places his easy yoke upon our shoulders, to him who is our standard and our center, to him be honor andglory, and all our hearts’ best songs, henceforth and for ever more.+