Psalm 119.41–48; Galatians 5.13–18
sermon at morning worship, Central Presbyterian Church, Park Avenue, New York
Professor N. T. Wright, St Andrews
Thank you for your invitation and welcome. It’s very good to be here again and to share in your worship. I confess that after I had chosen the topic for this morning’s sermon, and hence for the service too, I had some misgivings – fancy coming to the city which sports the Statue of Liberty and presuming to preach about freedom! If you don’t know what ‘freedom’ is, then who would? One might as well visit Nashville and speak about music . . . which, come to think of it, is what I rather foolishly did a couple of years ago. Or indeed, visit St Andrews and tell them how to play golf . . .
And yet freedom remains puzzling. Bob Dylan famously declared that he seldom heard the word without wondering what it meant. And when it comes to statues of Liberty, that’s an old idea: when Cicero’s enemies pulled his house down, his friends put up a statue of Liberty on the spot. And when the Roman Republic, which was what he meant by ‘freedom’, turned into a dictatorship, the new regime simply picked up the word and carried on. This is now what ‘freedom’ looks like! That’s what empires always claim. That points, at the political level, to the puzzle which afflicts freedom at every level. What does it mean? My first point, then, is the puzzle of freedom.
Take it down to the mundane level. Are you free to drive northwards up Fifth Avenue or southwards down Madison Avenue? Well, in a sense you are, but if you try it you will mess up with several other people’s freedoms, and quite soon your own as well. That is the street-level equivalent of the well-known saying that the freedom of your fist stops where the freedom of my nose begins. Or take another tack. Are you free to choose which job you do? Well, in one sense you are, but even in this land of opportunity there are many who would love the freedom to do any job at all. For many, the near-slavery of a mindless and exhausting job gives them much more freedom than they would have if they had no job and so were, in that sense, free all day.
Take it up a notch. We all believe that freedom is a Christian value. But what does it mean? Am I free in Christ to do whatever comes into my head? Surely not. And if I embrace the vision of holiness as I ought, am I really free to be holy? What happens when I find the powerful lure of sin creeping up on me once more? Am I free to resist? If I am, is it because the Holy Spirit is enabling me to do the right thing – in which case, is it really me being free, or am I simply a glove puppet being operated by the Spirit?
Many people with no training in philosophy ask similar questions. Do I really have free will at all? Supposing all my thoughts and actions are programmed by a deep and complex network of genetic information plus upbringing and education? Even when I think I choose freely, supposing my choice was in fact utterly conditioned? Is free will just an illusion? And, if so, what happens to the idea of responsibility? Do we then really know what it means to be free, as Christians or simply as humans?
And what does ‘freedom’ mean on the worldwide stage? A couple of years ago we were all excited about the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. We watched countries in North Africa get rid of heavy-handed dictators and work towards a more open future. Many people in the west assumed, as we have done elsewhere, that all you have to do is to get rid of tyrants and then freedom will break out. That is the narrative we know. It is, especially, the narrative upon which this great nation was born; but is it a one-size-fits-all? We thought Syria would be next, but now it emerges that some of the rebels are in fact part of Al-Qaeda; and among our closest allies in the region are some of the most oppressive tyrannies. We cheered when the Berlin Wall came down quarter of a century ago, but the ‘freedom’ which has followed it has (to put it mildly) not been straightforward. So too with post-colonial Africa. As people sometimes say, you can’t eat freedom. What should we think when we help people gain the freedom to vote and then the great majority vote for something that looks to us like a new form of tyranny or even slavery? What should a Christian think about that? Freedom is much more complex than it looks.
So my second point: what does the Bible say about freedom? The obvious place to begin is the Exodus. Many of you will have Jewish friends and neighbours who were celebrating Passover a few weeks ago. Passover is the freedom-festival par excellence. It recalls the time God went down to Egypt and rescued his people from slavery. Many times since then the Israelite people have been outwardly enslaved, but the annual Passover declares their belief that they are God’s free people, and one day will be truly free again. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the freedom-loving God, the God who rescues slaves and makes them his children and his heirs. It is no accident that when Jesus of Nazareth drew his kingdom-work to its shocking climax, he chose Passover-time, freedom-week, the moment when all Israel was celebrating what God had done and praying for what God would do. And the message of Easter is, not least, the message that he has done it at last. For freedom the Messiah has set us free, declared St Paul.
The trouble with the Exodus, of course, is that you can take Israel out of Egypt but it’s much harder to take Egypt out of Israel. As soon as they are across the Red Sea, the people grumble because they haven’t enough to eat and drink. That sets the pattern for the next forty years: it’s only a short step from gratitude to grumbling, and people will gladly swap freedom for food, and all sorts of other things as well. And Paul, in both Romans and Galatians, has exactly the same thing in mind. In Romans 6, 7 and 8 he tells the story of being in Christ as the story of the new Exodus. And, at the critical point, in chapter 8 verses 12–16, he says, in effect, that the point of freedom is not to go back to Egypt again. ‘You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery,’ he says, ‘ to slide back into fear; you’ve received the spirit of sonship.’ It’s one thing to stop being a slave. It’s quite another to learn how to be a son, a mature child of God. That’s why, when he helps the Corinthians to think through the same point, he agrees with their radical freedom-slogan: ‘All things are lawful for me!’ Yes, maybe, says Paul, but not all things are helpful. All things may be lawful in one sense, but not all things build you up, make you a strong and mature human being in the Messiah’s life and service. This is a point today’s church has all but forgotten, as our western modernist notion of ‘freedom’, owing more to the Enlightenment than to scripture, slides across into would-be Christian imagination.
As Paul puts it in today’s reading from Galatians 5: you were called to freedom, but don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, be slaves to one another in love. Here is the Pauline paradox: to be free, learn to be a slave! Remember that most of the things Paul calls ‘the works of the flesh’, things like bitterness and sorcery and hatred, could just as easily be practiced by a disembodied spirit. Paul is not against things because they are to do with the body. So what does he mean when he says we are to be slaves to one another in love? Here is the puzzle, the paradox. All freedoms generate new forms of slavery. If you use your freedom to dive headlong into the destructive life of anger and envy and malice and sexual immorality, those things will enslave you: they will create habits of mind and imagination, far more powerful than habits of the body. The alternative is to learn the central Christian virtue, which is love: and love means enslaving yourself to other people in a whole new way, making their needs your priorities and their sorrows your concern. Another Dylan quote: You’ve got to serve somebody . . . it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.
Now at this point Paul adds fuel to the paradoxical fire. At the very moment he urges us to freedom, he declares that we are to fulfil the Law! The whole Law, as Jesus had said, is summed up in one command: Love your neighbour as yourself. Now Paul has spent the previous three chapters of Galatians saying that as a Christian you are not subject to the Law of Moses. He is urging his ex-pagan converts that they do not have to become physically Jewish, do not have to submit to circumcision, to belong to the Messiah’s people. No, he says: the Law of Moses was given for a specific purpose and a specific time, and now that the Messiah has come the original promise to Abraham has been fulfilled, with people from every family on earth welcome to belong to God’s people on the basis of faith alone. In fact, he sees the Law of Moses as itself an enslaving power, because it shut the Gentiles out of God’s people and it shut the Jews up in the prison-house of their own sin. The Law was incapable of fulfilling God’s promises of freedom and life. This is what has made generations of Christians imagine that Christian freedom is somehow the polar opposite of law. And that has colluded with post-Enlightenment philosophy, to generate today’s confusions.
But in fact the Mosaic Law was God’s holy and just and good law, and its central command to love your neighbour as yourself is precisely where you land up as a result of the gospel. Paul says it earlier in the letter: the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me. When, because of the gospel, people learn that rule of love, the Law looks on and is delighted. This is what it had in mind all along. This is the point where Paul resonates exactly with that remarkable promise in Psalm 119, which we prayed earlier: I shall walk at liberty, because I have sought your precepts.
There is the paradox of Christian freedom. We think of ‘freedom’ as ‘not having to do what anybody tells me.’ I can do what I want. Many people have declared, over the last two hundred years in our culture, that to cling on to ‘rules’ of any sort is unPauline, unChristian, and in any case immature and dehumanising. We ought to be able to live spontaneously, to be authentic, to be true to ourselves, not to conform to what anybody else, even God, might want to say that would cramp our style and squash us into a narrow conformity. That rhetoric of ‘freedom’ is all around us, not least in Hollywood; it soaks into current debates on key moral issues, and also into political rhetoric, making us imagine that as long as people are ‘free’ – by which we mean that they can vote in elections from time to time and do whatever they want in their private lives – then everything should sort itself out. A random glance at history would soon correct that, but it’s still what many people think.
And the Christian answer is also the common-sense answer. To revert to the flow of traffic for a moment: if you want to be ‘free’ to drive from here to Soho or the Battery, you will do well to obey the local regulation that says one street heads uptown and the next one downtown. Or if you’re on a country road, the way to be free to drive safely and easily to your destination is to stick to the proper side of the road. If there were no rules, no laws about all this, nobody would have freedom; we’d all have to drive at three miles an hour and wiggle our way through the chaos as best we could. Good law sets you free; and true freedom is the fulfilment of God’s law. That’s what Paul says about the law of love.
And so to my third point: that the puzzle of freedom is resolved in the logic of love and the challenge of creativity. Life is not a zero-sum game in which either you do something or I do it. That’s not how love works. One of the delights of my life these last seven years has been having grandchildren. Take my older granddaughter. We have a great relationship, and it gives a new dimension to love, and a new reflection of freedom. When you love someone, it sets them free to be themselves in a new way, while at the same time imposing very considerable constraints upon them. Likewise, being loved by a sweet if mischievous seven-year-old makes me a different person, sets me free to be that different person, while at the same time imposing constraints and setting limits. If I lived in a house all by myself and nobody ever came to stay I would in one sense be totally free; but I happily choose the different freedom which comes through relationships, through love, which set me free in quite a different way. The supreme example of this is of course marriage itself, which is one of many reasons why it’s so important and often so difficult. Marriage simultaneously gives us the glorious freedom to be ourselves in a whole new way, and imposes enormous constraints. If what we meant by ‘freedom’ was simply the random freedom of a sub-atomic particle, to zoom around doing our own thing in all directions, any real and life-giving human relationship will soon disabuse us of that notion. And what we discover at the heart of Christian freedom is that the love of God himself, poured out in the death of Jesus the Messiah, simultaneously sets us totally free, gives us the glorious sense of new life opening up before us, and imposes enormous constraints. In the gospel God goes on smiling at us until, despite our fear and grumpiness, we find ourselves smiling back. And once we learn to smile back at God we are free – yes, free! – to love one another, and in so doing to find that the paradox continues: we become more truly human, more genuinely free, when we are giving ourselves away.
That, I think, is the clue to a whole new way of looking at the world, and perhaps at freedom itself. There’s an old saying that ‘freedom is feeling easy in your harness’, which always sounds a bit cynical, as though, well, we all have our harnesses, and the best we can do is to learn to like them. No doubt there is a gritty wisdom there too. But that’s not meant to be the end of it. Humans are made for a purpose. Only when we find and follow that purpose will we be ‘free’. And it won’t be the random freedom of dashing about aimlessly doing miscellaneous but meaningless things. That’s the principle underlying much western society. People are ‘free’ to waste time and money and life itself on things that are neither useful nor beautiful nor joyful. Christian freedom is radically different. The gospel sets us free to love, to live to God’s glory, to be wise stewards of his creation and wise agents of his new creation. And at this point human freedom and divine enabling mysteriously come together. C. S. Lewis, describing his conversion, said that in one sense he had no choice. God closed in on him and all he could do was surrender. Yet in another sense, he said, it was the most free thing he had ever done. I suspect that principle works all the way through. It is part of the logic of love, which is to say it is part of the way the Holy Spirit operates.
If you are led by the Spirit, Paul declares in Galatians 5, you are not under the law. He doesn’t mean that you become lawless, as he explains more fully elsewhere. He means that you are not under the law of Moses, which necessarily trapped its adherents in the downward spiral of their own unredeemed sin. And with the freedom from sin, law and death which the gospel brings there comes a different sort of freedom: freedom for. This is a massively important point, and I fear that many Christians miss out on it altogether.
‘Freedom’ is one of those big words, like ‘justice’ or ‘beauty’, which everyone affirms but nobody really understands. We all say Yes to it in principle, but find it difficult or impossible in practice – personally, societally, politically, theologically. I suggest that this is because we are all hard-wired to look ahead to God’s new creation, the world yet to be, the world for which we were made. Only in that world – which was already launched when Jesus rose from the dead – is true freedom to be found. Only there are the paradoxes resolved. Jean-Jacques Rousseau got it exactly wrong when he said that man was born free and yet was everywhere in chains. We are not born free. We are born into the multiple slaveries of sin and death, subject to the rule of the various powers or ‘forces’ that lord it over God’s world. But we are born for freedom. We grasp at it, knowing it to be our destiny, and yet it eludes our grasp because we want the wrong sort of freedom for the wrong sort of purpose. We are, to that extent, like Moses killing the Egyptian; we want the quick and easy solution. He had to learn patience, and so do we. One day, in God’s good time, the new creation will be established and we shall be raised from the dead to share gloriously, and completely freely, in the work of making that new creation happen and flourish. And Easter has already begun that project.
But at this point the great question comes in. Someone might say: So, in the end, we will all just be robots? If God will be acting in and through us, will we just be automations? No. When God offers us freedom, he really means it. We are set free – already, through the gospel and Spirit, and finally in the resurrection – to be truly ourselves. That is the truth which is parodied by today’s self-centred mantra, ‘discovering who I really am’. No: if we are in the Messiah, indwelt by the Spirit, there is indeed a real ‘self’, a real ‘you’, and in the resurrection you will at last be that real ‘you’, unique, significantly different from all others yet linked to all others through the glorious slavery of mutual love. That will be real freedom. Then, and only then, we will be able properly to think what to do with it.
The real ‘you’, you see, is designed to be creative. The Christian mind is not simply a computer designed to process the truths of the gospel, turn them into moral imperatives, and instruct the will to act them out. The Christian is to reflect God’s image, says Paul in Colossians 3; and the image is precisely the image of the creator. We are to be pro-creators. We use that word for being parents; and parenting, and indeed grandparenting, is a metaphor for what we are all called to be and do: to bring forth new things, new life, different ways of looking at the world. Or, in that splendid phrase in Ephesians 2.10, we are God’s artwork. The word in Greek is poiēma, the word from which we get ‘poem’. We are God’s poetry, and, says Paul, we are created in the Messiah Jesus for the good works which God prepared beforehand. Not just moral good works. That’s just the start. That’s just learning the grammar of love. Christian holiness is not an end in itself, though sadly many never even get that far. Just as the rule that you drive on the right is the gateway to being able to drive where you want to go, so Christian holiness is the gateway to a life of free and glad service characterized all through not just by freedom from sin and death but by freedom for the new things which we alone, with our particular genes and upbringing, can bring forth into God’s world. That is why sin is enslaving: it doesn’t just mess you up where you are, it stops you even getting to first base with the new and creative things God wants to do through you. God is, after all, the free and exuberant creator. He made giraffes and chickens, oak trees and butterflies, sunrise and moonrise, the music of a waterfall and the smile that lights up a baby’s face. We are to reflect the image of this God. We are given our freedom as Christians so that we can help to fill God’s world with new artworks, whether it be what we call ‘art’, music or painting or dance or whatever, or the larger artistry which through love and service brings colour and life and hope to God’s world, brings signs of new creation, rooted in the resurrection of Jesus and energised by his Spirit, into the world that still groans in travail.
Now: precisely because this is part of the freedom to be genuinely human, it doesn’t just happen. We have to think it through, to figure out, as Paul says again and again, what our particular gifts and calling may be, always remembering that all Christian calling is characterized by self-giving love. I long for the day when the multiple vocations within the body of the Messiah are celebrated more fully, when all are encouraged to stir up the particular gifts they have been given and to use them gladly and, yes, freely. What seems like a paradox when you set it up the way our culture does actually turns out to be one facet of the glorious truth of the gospel itself: that in the power of the Spirit we are utterly dependent on God and yet utterly free to be ourselves. If God wants us to be creative, we are never more at the centre of his will, never more reflecting his image, than when we surprise him with new plans and projects. The Spirit sets us free, and part of that Spirit-given freedom is to think up new and beautiful things to make and to do out of love for God and for all his children.
If we could only begin to glimpse all this, I suspect we would have something important to say and think, too, about the way we toss around the word ‘freedom’ in our political discourse. The Enlightenment, with Rousseau himself, and Voltaire and Jefferson, leading the way, gave us a parody of the Exodus story: we have been enslaved, and now we shall be free! But, as the Israelites discovered, freedom isn’t that easy. It brings new challenges, and the western world has again and again failed to reach the promised land, the secular modernist Utopia. Perhaps it’s time for Christians in the western world to articulate a different form of ‘freedom’. It isn’t simply a matter of overthrowing tyrants and giving everybody the vote. There are other issues as well to be addressed, economic, ecological, social and indeed religious and theological. Screen them out and you’re asking for trouble, and trouble is what we’ve had. And part of the way these issues will be addressed is precisely through Christian artists and musicians, actors and dancers, novelists and playwrights, glimpsing the vision of God’s new world and creatively communicating the tension between that world and the one we presently live in.
The exercise of Christian freedom might thus lead to the articulation of a new ideal of freedom which could go out into the wider world and give us the two things we badly need. The culture of secular modernism has ground to a halt in the face of the postmodern critique, which takes the intellectual form of deconstruction and the practical form of terrorism. We don’t know what to do with either of them. We need humility and we need hope. Humility to realise that our much-vaunted western ideals of ‘freedom’ have in fact enslaved millions of others, just as the freedom-loving Romans did two thousand years ago. Hope to realise there are other ways forward: we don’t have to go on with more of the same, imagining that a few more well-placed bombs will bring global freedom at last. Humility that refuses to grasp at ‘my freedom’ as though it were not bound up with everyone else’s. Hope that uses Christian freedom in the present to point forward, beautifully, artistically, creatively, practically, to the new world that is to be, when God will be all in all, and in him all shall be free. Hope, finally, that rediscovers the freedom of God himself, and the freedom that, rooted in his love, is free to love in return. The great theme of Christian freedom, launched in the gospel itself and first articulated by St Paul, is out there, waiting for us to grasp it, to live it, to bring it to birth in the world that needs it so badly.