(edited from chapel sermon of 2/2/08 )
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide [remain, stay, live, dwell, persist] in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
– John 8:31-36, ESV
Every time I hear the word “freedom” I think of the end of the movie Braveheart, when Mel Gibson cries out “Freedom!” as he dies. It’s an incredibly moving, passionate moment. With his death he is saying he believes there is a freedom that is worth more than life: freedom from tyranny, freedom to live and die as he chooses, freedom to act on his own beliefs.
In the reading from John this morning, the people listening to Jesus would have valued the same kind of freedom, living as they were under Roman rule. They could have related to it. And it resonates strongly with us in our own day as well.
But is this the kind of freedom Jesus is talking about?
In the reading Jesus says if we abide in His word — live in it, make our home in it — we will be His disciples. He promises if we take Him up on this invitation, we will know the truth and the truth will set us free. And the Pharisees respond by saying “how can this be? We are children of Abraham, we are already free.”
I imagine if Jesus were addressing a crowd of Americans he might get a similar answer. “We’re Americans! This is the land of the free. We’ve never been conquered, we’ve never served a foreign power… heck we don’t even believe in royalty. We have freedom of speech and freedom of the press and freedom to do whatever we want. What do you mean you’re going to set us free?” (So often I think the American mindset is one of Jesus-and-freedom, not Jesus-is-freedom, but I digress…)
But Jesus knew that human freedom, the freedom of imperfect people to do as they wish, carries within itself the seeds of tyranny… just as sin carries within itself the seeds of death. It’s inescapable.
So what then does Jesus mean when He talks about freedom?
For starters, the freedom Jesus talks about is intimately tied to truth. “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” He says. Which then leads us to ask the question Pilate once asked: “what is truth”? In Jewish religious thought, which Jesus and his listeners would have understood, truth is absolute, ultimate, reality. It’s not an opinion, it’s not what I think is true. It is firm, it is sure, it is complete. It is one of the defining characteristics of God. God is truth.
Put the True God up against the human concept of freedom, the freedom to do as we choose, and you can see humanity is on a collision course with God. And that’s exactly what Jesus saw coming. He knew we needed God, the True God, in order to be free. So freedom is intimately tied to truth.
Secondly, freedom is freedom from sin and therefore death. As anyone has found out who has ever tried to stop sinning, Jesus is right. We are powerless to free ourselves from sin and we are powerless to stop the approach of death. BUT, Jesus says, even though you may be slaves to sin, I am the Son of the owner of this house, and if I set you free, you will be free indeed. So freedom is freedom from sin and death.
Third, freedom is the freedom to be His, to belong to Jesus. “If you abide in my word, you will be my disciples…” Jesus says. But we’re not even able to do that much in our own power! So He calls us by His word, and His word in us is living and active to bring about God’s will in our lives. It is His word that sets us free and brings us life.
Jesus gives us the freedom to give up the illusion that we can free ourselves. And therefore, knowing that there is no hope in ourselves, we have the freedom to lay down all that we have and all that we are for His sake, into His hands. And as we live into that freedom, we begin to realize that the freedom to do God’s will is the freedom to be who God designed us to be in the first place – to be, in the truest sense possible, truly ourselves. In losing ourselves for His sake, we find ourselves.
I had dinner with some friends a couple weeks ago, and one of the dinner guests was a man who has been a pastor for over twenty years. During the course of the evening I asked him, “what do you find to be the biggest challenge as a pastor these days?” I expected him to say something about church politics or today’s society or any of a number of issues people talk about.
But his answer was far more thoughtful, and very much to the point. He said: “the most difficult thing is to trust the process, and to keep on trusting the process.” He went on to explain what he meant was, to keep on abiding in Jesus, to keep on laying our lives down for Him – even when difficult things happen, when key parishioners move away for example, or fall ill and die, or when you wonder if you’re making any difference at all. To remember that we have given up our lives into His hands – and to stay there, and to keep on abiding in His word, keep on being His disciple. Because to do His will is perfect freedom.
His freedom is forever, for all of life and for all of eternity. May God bless us all with the joy of giving up our lives in His service and living free in Him.