The Struggle for Freedom 1-29-12

The Struggle for Freedom 1-29-12

There is a scene in Tom Hanks’ movie, Forrest Gump, that came to mind. As a young boy, Forrest has to wear these clumsy, heavy leg braces. For the most part, he doesn’t care. In fact, the braces become so much a part of his life that he doesn’t even realize much how they have trapped and confined him.

And then one day, some bullies chase Forrest and he has to run away but the braces slow him down. As the bullies get closer and closer and Forrest struggles to run faster, the braces finally break, fall off his legs, and suddenly he is set free to run fast.

The point is this, Forrest never knew what it felt to be free or how fast he could run until he took that step or, in a better sense, was forced to break out of braces, and live differently, to live beyond himself. He never went back to the braces.

On the surface, Paul wrote about practical issues. Can we eat meat sacrificed to idols? This is where the freedom of the gospel hit the harsh reality of living in a pagan culture. With his answer, Paul challenged his readers to live a life that is not shaped by the limits of legalism but in the freedom that breaks the shackles of those braces and allows us to live Spirit-filled.

Paul took three missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor. Typically, he would go into a town, plant a church, train leaders, stay for a significant period of time, and then move on to another town and repeat the process elsewhere. However, there was a problem. Only fifteen years after the death of Jesus, there was already a split in Christianity. There were Jewish Christians who thought that Jesus came only for the Jews. As Paul encountered Gentiles, these Jewish/Christians felt that the Gentiles had to first obey all 613 Jewish Laws before becoming true Christians. However, the Gentiles whom Paul reached knew nothing of Judaism. All they knew was the gospel preached by Paul. See the conflict? It comes down to two questions. How am I saved and how must I live? The answer to those two questions depended on whom you asked.

The Jewish/Christian who would come into town after Paul would say, “Yes, you are saved by your faith in Jesus Christ but Paul neglected to tell you the rest of the requirements for becoming one of us.” And there were three specific things these Jewish Christians demanded the Gentiles must follow: circumcision, dietary laws, and the observance of holy days.

The book of Galatians is written specifically to this conflict. In Galatians, the issue was circumcision. There were Jewish/Christians who nearly overturned all of Paul’s hard work by legalistically demanding circumcision.

In 1 Corinthians, the issue was dietary laws. When Paul was asked in Corinth about eating meat sacrificed to idols he said, “This is not a problem. We know that those idols are made of stone or wood. There is no god there. The sacrifice meant nothing. Pass the steak sauce and eat.” There is complete freedom in the gospel to eat meat sacrificed to idols because we are not saved by what we eat or don’t eat.

But in that freedom, there are limits. Paul says, “But if eating meat sacrificed to idols causes a weaker or younger person to stumble, question his faith, doubt his integrity, and undermine the unity of the gospel, then he shouldn’t eat it.”

Is that hypocrisy? No, that’s common sense. You don’t pass out a bottle of booze at an A.A. Meeting.  There are some activities that are inappropriate. That’s limiting your freedom for the sake of the other person, particularly the “weaker brethren” as Paul called them.

This is a big deal for Paul. We are saved by faith and not by what we eat or don’t eat. In Galatians, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set you free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Then he adds, “Only do not let your freedom be an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:1, 13). In other words, there are limits to our freedom. What are those limits?

In his short book, Freedom of a Christian, Luther explained this freedom by saying that a Christian is “a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none … [and] a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Luther used the very teaching of Paul to say that while we are set free from the law through the gospel, the limit to this freedom is summarized in the words of Jesus, Paul and Luther, “The love of the neighbor.” That will be what defines us and not the law.

Forrest could have kept those leg braces on his whole life and he wouldn’t have known it. All he would know is what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t run, can’t swim, couldn’t dance, couldn’t play ball, couldn’t cross his legs, couldn’t put his foot behind his head, or couldn’t do yoga. He would spend his life defining himself by what he couldn’t do.

There are Christians like that. They define themselves by what they can’t do. Can’t drink, can’t smoke, can’t dance, can’t play cards, can’t watch movies. Oh, we are long past talking about circumcision and dietary laws but the same issue is at stake. Freedom. What am I allowed to do? If I am saved by grace, then am I free to do as I please?

There is an old, subtitled movie called Babette’s Feast. It is the story of a woman, Babette, who has escaped the French Revolution with nothing but the clothes on her back. She ends up in a very small, parochial Danish village where she is employed by two spinster sisters whose minister father founded the village. The town has no joy. Religious rules are overbearing. Pleasure, music, laughter, and frivolity are vices to be scorned. There is a deep, heavy shroud of weariness blanketing all the people.

Babette is an accomplished chef but is told to prepare each day a thin broth with bread. When she suggests some variation in the meal, she is quickly told that such pleasures are not of God. This is a place defined by what they cannot do.

One day, Babette receives news that she has won the French lottery. The amount of money that she now has will enable her to move from that dreary village and reestablish her life wherever she wants. Faced with all of this freedom, she makes her choice. Babette takes all of her winnings and purchases the most extravagant food from live quails and turtles to unusual spices and seasonings. For the next week, she prepares the most exquisite feast that this village has ever had. And they come. They come hesitantly at first but then through this feast, open up with conversation, laughter, and joy that they have never before experienced.

The only problem is that Babette is once again penniless. She has used her freedom as a servant to her neighbors. But in doing so, she not only set herself free but allowed this small village to taste the true freedom of life in the Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul teaches us that our freedom is a gift given at an incredible price paid by Jesus who gave up his freedom for our sake. Therefore, don’t let the guiding force behind your actions be your desires and urges, your boldness and arrogance, or your indulgences and addictions. Let that guiding force be the same as Jesus’ – the love of the neighbor. Until you understand your freedom as being a servant to the other person, you will continue to be in bondage.

People sometimes accuse Christians of cheap grace. We have been set free from the law. We fling grace around easily but don’t hold people accountable to a high, moral standard. This is a misunderstanding of Paul. In setting us free, the gospel shatters those braces and enables you to live at an even higher level. We live no longer to ourselves but in a life that is pleasing to God through serving the needs of others, particularly the weaker brethren.

Christianity is indeed free but it isn’t cheap. It comes with a high price. For how do you make grace expensive? By taking attendance at church? By dictating what you can eat or drink? By handing in your W2s to the church office?  No. To make grace expensive, you count how many lashes tore his back, you count how many nails pierced his skin, you count how many thorns were in his crown. To make grace expensive, you don’t count how much it cost you but how much it cost God to put on this feast for you. That is what makes you free. That’s what breaks those braces so that you are free to love your neighbor. Amen.

The Struggle for Freedom by Scott Suskovic

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jon renner June 18, 2012 at 6:27 pm

great article! amen brother. So good to see the truth of grace and freedom begin taught here balanced with the truth of love as well, all given to us by God through Christ Jesus and his Holy Spirit speaking through those early apostles. Bless you and Amen!

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