What does freedom look like? What are we saved from and what are we saved for? And what difference does that make to our lives and our attitudes?
I found Tom Wright’s thoughts in Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters a helpful starting point and Rachel Held Evans’ blog on Aristotle v Jesus very useful. The article The Constituion of the Soul (Classical Quarterly 62.2) by Karen Nielsen was also helpful in thinking a bit more about Aristotle’s understanding. I edited the quotes from Aristotle to make it easier to understand (a more accurate translation is on Held Evans’ blog) and from the Whatever lyrics to make it shorter.
Freedom; Reading: Colossians 3:12-4:5
I thought I’d start with two extra readings; one from the Highway Code and one from the band Oasis! Obviously.
You MUST NOT
- drive dangerously
- drive without due care and attention
- drive without reasonable consideration for other road users.
You MUST NOT drive on or over a pavement, footpath or bridleway except to gain lawful access to property, or in the case of an emergency.
Adapt your driving to the appropriate type and condition of road you are on. In particular
- do not treat speed limits as a target. It is often not appropriate or safe to drive at the maximum speed limit
And some lyrics from the Oasis hit Whatever, co-written by Noel Gallagher
I’m free to be whatever I choose
I’m free to say whatever I like
If it’s wrong or right it’s alright
Free to be whatever you say
You’re free to be wherever you please
Now, you might want to argue that Noel Gallagher has got a point. Paul writes in Galatians [5:1] “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”. And in Colossians chapter 2 he writes about the freedom we have in Christ not to be constrained by humans commands and teaching.
And then in the very next chapter Paul writes about the things that we shouldn’t do and the things that we should do. We’re not free to do or say or be whatever we want. There are things that we can’t do or say or be. And there are things that we could do, but that might very well have serious consequences.
And, obviously, Noel Gallagher doesn’t really believe this either – given that he’s sued the Sun for copyright infringement, got upset about things his brother has said, and so on. Or, perhaps he does. But, perhaps he doesn’t apply the same rules to other people. Perhaps he’s free to say whatever he likes, but no-one else is?
And that doesn’t just apply to Noel Gallagher, does it? Because, that’s how we act at least sometimes, isn’t it? We think that the Highway Code should always apply to other people, but we can think of times when, well, we really need to speed, park on the pavement, when it was perfectly justified that we were a bit distracted, or whatever it is.
Or, why perhaps we don’t absolutely always have to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, or patient. There was definitely a really good reason. Or, I just really struggle doing that, and people need to make allowances. Whether or not we’ll make allowances for anyone else, is of course a totally different matter.
Paul talks about the mystery of Christ that he wants to proclaim, and that he is asking for the prayers of the Colossian Christians to help him proclaim. The mystery that through Jesus, God’s love is open to us all, that his love makes a difference to how we live, that his love welcomes and transforms us.
We’re saved from evil and destruction. We can be forgiven for our wrongdoing. But we’re not just forgiven from all the ways we’ve messed up, but we’re also saved for living in and sharing God’s love, we’re saved for eternal life, and life that starts now. We’re given the Holy Spirit to help us and go on helping us.
So, isn’t Paul contradicting himself in the middle of the reading we heard from Colossians? Well, this next reading is from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle and his book Politics. Aristotle writes:
Of household management there are three parts – one is the rule of a master over slaves, another of a father and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, for the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.
The slave has no ability to make decisions at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has but it is immature. It is the same with the moral virtues as well. Everyone has some of them, but only the amount needed to fulfil their duty.
Aristotle thinks there the differences between male and female are part of who they are and make women inferior. Paul is having none of this. He writes in Galatians [3:27f]:
in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
We are all one in Christ Jesus. We are all equally children of God through our faith in Jesus. In Jesus the distinctions between us are removed, and there is no one who is inferior. Which rather makes a mess of Aristotle’s whole argument. And, as Roman society was based on Aristotle being right, made a mess of Roman society as well.
What did this look like? Well, Roman society believed that men should rule over women. That women were inferior. That women couldn’t, shouldn’t speak in public. That to do so was to steal something important from men, was basically to emasculate them.
And Paul did things about this. Women prayed and prophesyed in his churches. He recognised women as apostles, supported and worked with them as church leaders, as patrons, teachers and evangelists. So, what’s going on in this passage then? Because I suspect that we read it as going against this equality, as showing that there’s limits to this equality. Which isn’t how the first Christians would have heard it. Because they would have heard, for the first time, obligations for the husband, the father, the master. Love your wives, do not embitter your children, provide for your slaves. Treat these people, not as inferiors, as possessions, but as people, as humans equally made in the image of God, and see what that does to your relationships.
And, for wives, children, slaves, you are free, and freely loved by God. But don’t abuse your freedom, don’t take for granted your God-given, God-won freedom in ways that will damage the growth of the church, in ways that will lead to persecution and misunderstanding, not because of Christ, but because of how you’re acting. Which continues to be a challenge for us as well. How we act reflects on Christ. Which is hard, and probably unfair, but is also true. And I’m no better at living this out than anybody else either. But it’s what we’re called to do, and pray for the Holy Spirit to help us do.
So, Paul says, Roman wives, submit to your husbands, not because you are inferior, but because to do otherwise will cause even more scandal. Don’t abuse your freedom. So, Roman children obey your parents, for the same reason. Roman slaves, you are already free. Show your freedom by serving your master, Christ. And remember that you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord”. What difference would that make if we took that attitude into all of our lives? If we recognised all that we did as working for God. Not just the bits we feel good about, or the bits we do in church, but all of our lives as working for God? What bits would we want to do better?
What bits would we not bother doing as much of, because actually we’ve got other things to be getting on with? What bits would we not do at all? What things can you truly work at with all your heart? What things do you need to do to keep yourself as well as you can be, so you can work with all your heart?
We need the Highway Code to give all of us the freedom to use the road. We choose to limit our freedom to enrich our lives with relationships with other people, and particularly with God. We need ways of being with ourselves and each other that enable us to be free. And those ways involve showing our love for each other, reflecting God’s love for each other, by caring for ourselves and caring for those around us.
And then we need to use our freedom to pray and to continue to pray. We are asked to pray for those we know, for situations we’re concerned about, and for our brothers and sisters in Christ wherever they are. We are asked to pray that we have opportunities to show God’s love to people who don’t already know his love. And then we’re asked to pray that our words will reflect God’s grace as we explain why we’ve done what we’ve done. We need to act and speak. To work with God’s heart in life-enriching ways. To speak God’s words in life-enriching ways. To pray for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit so that we can act and speak with love and grace. And to enjoy our lives of freedom in God’s love as we do so.
Let’s pray: God of love and power,
Thank you for the freedom that you give us,
For the love that transforms us
The power that you give us
And the life that you call us to live.
Give us the work to do and the words to say
So that your kingdom may come. Amen.