Imprisoned by Faith
2-4-18 Scripture: I Corinthians 9:16-23
Theme: Freedom is a most-discussed and promising of states – which is cherished and worshiped at the profound peril of the subject. To be free has come to mean following the individual will exclusively, which leads to the reduction of life to self-serving enterprises. But true freedom cannot exist apart from reference to the reality one desires to be free in; and the reality we are a part of was not created by ourselves, but God. To be a person of faith means that we choose to be confined by God, to be imprisoned by Jesus, to be used for the purposes of the Divine – which are the only purposes that make life real.
There once was a woman who lost her life’s savings in a business scheme that had been elaborately explained by a swindler. When her investment disappeared and her dream was shattered, she went to the Better Business Bureau.
“Why on earth didn’t you come to us first?” the official asked. “Didn’t you know about the Better Business Bureau?”
“Oh yes,” said the lady sadly. “I’ve always known about you. But I didn’t come to you because I was afraid you’d tell me not to do it.”
I love that story, for it illustrates a truth given to us in scripture today – and it has to do with the issue between freedom and constraint. Paul is very direct here, making a point of willingly becoming a slave for the reason of his faith. He says: “Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all….to the Jews I became as a Jew, to those under the law I became as one under the law….to those outside of the law, I became as one outside of the law….to the weak, I became weak….so as to win them all.” “THOUGH I AM FREE, I HAVE MADE MYSELF A SLAVE TO ALL, FOR THE SAKE AND CAUSE OF JESUS.”
This kind of message may cause most of us to shudder a little bit, because we don’t like the idea of slavery. We like the idea of freedom much better. Our society tells the story well – we talk about how anyone can be anything or do anything they set their minds to be or do. We hear the ideal of freedom proclaimed high and low in certain repeated phrases and slogans – “the sky is the limit,” “free to be you and me,” “you can do anything,” “anything’s possible,” “be all you can be,” “no limits,” and one of my favorites, a slogan I saw once on a McDonald’s cup – “Yes, you can.”
In today’s scripture message, as well as many, many other places in the Bible, we hear the opposite slogan – we hear “No, you can’t.”
n No, you can’t just live for yourself.
n No, you can’t just do your own thing.
n No, you can’t set your own course.
n No, you can’t aim for the sky.
n No, you can’t live without limits.
n No, you can’t do just anything.
n No, you can’t do these things, NOT IF YOU WANT TO FOLLOW JESUS.
I think that we humans have created something we should not have created, and I think Paul is drawing this to our attention. We have created an understanding of freedom as doing whatever we want on this earth and in our lives. We have too often tried to make self-interest the foundation of virtue, to convince ourselves that life finds its meaning and substance as we choose what we determine is right for life. But everything depends upon who that word “we” refers to, and how that “we” defines what is right; often, the freedom defined by that “we” means loss of freedom for “they.”
Paul describes a different understanding of freedom – the freedom that results from being confined. Confined by God’s will. Confined by faith. Confined by what God expects of those who love him. Confined by Jesus and his model for life. Confined and aligned and shaped by the love that Jesus embodies.
Now this may seem to go against common sense, but I believe the opposite is true. Freedom has no positive bearing upon life in and of itself as an ultimate value; it is only when appropriately constrained that freedom enriches life.
Water that is unconfined goes where it will – but you need a glass to drink it.
Air that is unconstrained has no shape or form – but will not translate oxygen to blood unless inhaled by the lungs.
A sound made freely by the mouth can sound melodious, smooth, or sharp – but will only convey meaning when shaped by language.
A freely initiated flexation of muscle may cause an arm to bend or a leg to extend – but will only assist life as the arm is directed toward meaningful action, or the leg extended to walk toward a significant destination.
One of my favorite analogies along these lines has to do with skydiving. Suppose a skydiver at 10,000 feet announces to the rest of the group, “I’m not using a parachute this time. I want freedom!” The fact is that a skydiver is constrained by a greater law – the law of gravity. To forego a parachute when jumping from 10,000 feet may seem like freedom, but it fails to recognize the greater law – and of course such freedom results in destruction. But when the skydiver chooses the constraint of a parachute, she is free to experience the exhilaration of the jump without being destroyed.
This is like the constraints we accept when we choose to be faithful. Just as a skydiver needs the constraint of a parachute to live in the higher law of gravity, so does the Christian need the constraints of faith to live in the higher law of God. As Paul says, for the sake of the Gospel, we give up our rights to be wholly about ourselves, our likes and dislikes, even our needs, in order to become what others need us to become in order that they may experience this higher law for themselves – and discover that this higher law frees us to higher life. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”
So, what does this mean, to become what others need us to be – does this mean to lose ourselves, to give up who we are, to lose our identity for the sake of the Gospel? I think it is rather the opposite – to discover who we are as God’s creation, as God’s children, rather than simply a product of our world, some sort of randomized biological coincidence that resulted in our physical existence. We are so much more than what meets the eye or the mind! And we need each other to make this discovery – we need to become what others need in order for them to see beyond themselves, and understand more fully who they really are, and who they are invited to become.
So, what does this look like? How do we become what others need in order for them to receive fuller life? In looking at my life, several examples come to mind:
When my daughter needs help figuring out her taxes, I become a consultant.
When my son needs help working on his car, I become an auto-mechanic.
When my child catches the flu, I become a caregiving attendant.
When my wife, who is a teacher, needs some clothes for a student at school who had an accident, I become an errand boy.
When my child is acting in the play “Sense and Sensibility” in Helena (as she is right now!), I become her number one fan.
When someone comes to talk with me in my office, I become a pastor, a counselor, a listener.
When someone wants to speak to me about God, I become a theologian.
When my neighbor’s car gets stuck in the snow, I become a physical laborer.
When I meet with someone unresponsive in the hospital ICU, I become a silent hand-holder who prays.
When I meet with someone who is angry with me for a mistake I made, I become a repentant soul seeking ways to improve.
When I meet with someone who practices a different faith from my own, I become a respectful listener and a searcher for common ground.
When I meet with someone who’s lonely, I become a companion.
When I meet with someone who’s suffering, I become actively compassionate.
In general, I think of it this way: When I meet with someone who has a need, whether it be for resources or material or guidance or presence or understanding, I become what most speaks Jesus to them. And, there are many, many people around me who become what I need in order to see Christ more clearly.
At least, for people of faith, we are invited to try to become what others need in order to see Jesus, to experience God’s love, to recognize the hope that is offered to each one of us. I try to conform myself to the role that will speak loudest of a living God who helps me live a life worth living, and whom I fully believe can help others live such a life as well.
Oswald Chambers once said, “Whenever God touches self, it is independence that is touched, and that awakens resentment in the human heart. Independence must be blasted clean out, there must be no such thing left, only freedom, which is very different. Freedom is the ability not to insist on my rights, but to see that God gets his.”
What a powerful way to understand our faith – to see that God gets his rights, as the one who wishes all to experience his love firsthand. And we each have a part to play, as the ones God has invited to become what others need in order to see Jesus.