Land of the Free?

Romans 7:18b-8:6
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

The joy of going away to college was the freedom to do whatever I wanted. My mom could not tell me when to go to sleep or what to eat, so I stayed up all night talking to friends and ordering pizzas. Yes, those were the early days of Dominoes delivery when you got a free pizza if the driver was late. We college students took advantage of that. We knew that finding a particular dorm room on a college campus could be challenging. So we ordered pizza at midnight, hoping the poor delivery guy would get lost. Days and nights of freedom, but was I really free? I thought I was free. I was free to stay up late and free to sleep through early morning classes. Then I discovered the bondage of not knowing Calculus at exam time. I was free to eat four meals a day and then discovered the bondage of tight clothing, after gaining the freshman fifteen my first semester.

Paul is talking to the Roman Christians about their freedom in Christ with regard to the law. He wants them to understand the power of sin and of grace. Paul speaks of bondage to sin and of freedom in Christ.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to her church:

Romans 7:18b-8:6 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus .2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind onthe flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

How free are you when the refrigerator knows you by name and you answer the call, even when you said you would not? Don’t we all know the power of potato chips or chocolate calling us, when we know we’ve already eaten enough? When we know we are being sucked into a vortex of overeating?

How free are you when you allow yourself to involved emotionally or sexually with someone, in mind, heart or body, and it is not the right person, or the right time or the right context for such an intimate relationship?

How free are you when you decide that you absolutely will not let your tongue run away with you? When you know those nasty, sarcastic, hurtful comments are swirling in your head and you know you should find a more constructive way to speak to your family members or friends, but then oops, you let those vitriolic words fly again. Paul says, “Wretched man that I am!” Ever felt that way?

How free are you when you find yourself going back again and again to alcohol, or to drugs, or to porn sites or to some obsessive thought or bitterness toward self or others, back to some habit which you know is doing damage?

Early colonists came to this country for a variety of reasons, but the one most cited is religious freedom. I suppose they came for economic opportunity and out of a sense of adventure too. But freedom became the key word in our country’s heritage. “Let freedom ring.” But are we really free? And where do we learn most about freedom – in history class at school or in church? And another question: Have our country’s theme words, “freedom” and “independence” done as much to imprison us, as to free us?

Over the generations, our lives have gotten distorted by thinking we are free to live as we please, but living as we want can easily lead to enslaving ourselves to selfish habits. Real freedom is living as God desires. It’s not a declaration of independence that we need today, but a declaration of interdependence. Interdependence. We need each other.

We do not need to be freed from caring for each other, but freed for loving our neighbors sacrificially. We are coming to a new appreciation in this generation that we live in a global society, and until we learn to interdepend with great respect and care for the whole planet, we will not be truly free.

Tricia sent me a beautiful Youtube video of the freeing of a baby humpback whale who had gotten so entangled in fishing net, that she was close to death. The divers in a very small boat with one small knife, risked their own lives to approach the imprisoned whale, who was frightened, weakened, but still able to kill them easily with a single swipe of a fin. They carefully cut net for hours, rejoicing with each fin they released. At the end, they watched as the marvelous creature whom they named Valentina gave them the water show to beat all water shows, in thanksgiving for her newfound freedom. Christ has cut our chains and invites us to put on the beautiful life, like that whale did, in great thanksgiving to live as we were made to live.

Sin enslaves us like the net enslaved the humpback whale. You’ve seen it happen at the human personal level and so have I. One lie or bad choice leads to the next and the next, til you are entangled in a huge mess. And it is even more complicated when we talk about communal or corporate sin – how we as a people collaborate in sin, trapping not only ourselves but also many others in complex systems which deny the dignity of God’s creatures. This kind of sin is easy to ignore.

Remember when we confess sin in our weekly worship, we are not just confessing our individual sin but the way in which our mutual decisions evil begets evil, and we find ourselves trapping others by our the choices which seemed like personal freedoms. But thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ, grace is so profound that there is no sin beyond the bounds of God’s grace, grace will always be greater than sin.

But, as Paul says in chapter 6 of Romans, shall we go on sinning, that grace may abound? Absolutely not. The letter to the Romans teaches us that we are freed by grace to stop condemning ourselves and others, and to begin little by little to free ourselves from our bondage to sin by living according to the Spirit, not the flesh, the bodily impulses.

We are to fill our lives with goodness, in response to God’s goodness, so that goodness has a multiplying effect. We are saved, not by obedience to law, but by the gift of grace. We are freed from earning our salvation by good works. We are free to live into the amazing good news of our salvation by being gracious and loving toward others, to forgive them as God has forgiven us – to set them free. We are free because we are not condemned, because we know in Christ that God loves us with an undying love. But we are not freed, so that we can continue to enslave ourselves with destructive behavior.
6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

In the Bible, we have all these wonderful parables about the boundless love of God – the prodigal son, whose father rushed out to welcome him home after he abused his freedom, taking his dad’s money and running. The shepherd being more concerned to find one lost sheep than the ninety-nine safe in the flock. The banquet to which Jesus would invite all the outcasts, all the sinners, not the goody-goody self-righteous people. These wonderful stories teach us that in God’s love, we always have the freedom to return to our true home, to turn away by God’s strength from lives that are harmful to ourselves or others.

For Freedom, Christ Has Set Us Free!
ELLACOMBE 76.76 D (I Sing the Mighty Power of God – PH288) by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette

One: "For freedom, Christ has set us free!" What joy is ours to claim!
No more enslaved, humanity Finds life in Jesus' name.
We try, Lord, to be justified Through all the works we do.
Yet you adopt us, saying, "Child, It's Christ who makes you new."

All: Now, Spirit-filled, may we be led From ways that would destroy.
May we your people turn instead To lives of love and joy.
May we find peace that makes us whole And patience everywhere.
God, give us kindness, self-control, And hearts and hands that share.

Our call to discipleship puts it this way and I think we need to hear this twice today: Galatians 5:1a, 13-14 For freedom Christ has set us free… Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

So sing My Country Tis of Thee today, because it is a heart-felt song, but sing it as a citizen of another realm, the land of Jesus Christ, more than as a citizen of the USA. In every verse, when you sing words like liberty and freedom, remember how much we need to (and have sometimes failed to) demonstrate for our fellow US citizens and our neighbors around the world what those words really mean. Freedom for others, not from others. May we, along with all the faithful of all religions, make this land a sweet land of liberty. We are free, not to be self-indulgent as individuals or as a nation, but free so that we might love and increase the true freedom of all.