Saturday, January 31, 2009

Liberty in Love

I Corinthians 8:1-13

"Give me liberty or give me death." While this statement may sound extreme, this declaration by Patrick Henry has inspired generations of Americans to believe that death is preferable to living under tyranny. Patrick Henry had political freedom in mind, but is this the only kind of freedom there is in the world? When Paul says "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor. 3:17), he’s speaking to people living under Roman rule, and Rome was not a democracy. So freedom must be more than a political state of affairs.

In a classic Peanuts comic strip Linus is holding a snowball and looking sheepishly into the sky, as Lucy walks by. She sees the snowball in his hand and says to him:
"Life is full of choices! You may choose, if you wish, to throw that snowball at me. . . . You may also choose, if you so wish not to throw that snowball at me . . . Now, if you choose to throw that snowball at me, I will pound you right into the ground!"

But, "If you choose not to throw that snowball at me, Your head will be spared." A dejected Linus tosses the snowball away and says: "Life is full of choices, but you never get any."

1. THE LIBERTY OF THE GOSPEL

We think of freedom in terms of individual choice, but often our choices in life are limited. Complete freedom, without any constraints, is called anarchy, and so while we may value our liberty, few of us want to be anarchists. We may push the envelope and bend the rules on occasion, but ultimately we take comfort in structure and boundaries.

While liberty is good, liberty without understanding can be dangerous – as Linus discovered! The Corinthians put great value on freedom. When they heard that Jesus had liberated them from superstition, they ran with the message. They cast off all restraints and indulged themselves. If these idols aren’t really gods, then why not start dining at the local temples – after all that’s where the best meat could be found. Now, Paul didn’t disagree with their sentiment about idols, but he did have concerns about their response to this news. He told them, that maybe not all of their brothers and sisters understood this idea, and so by exercising their freedom, they confused their fellow believers and caused some of them to lose faith. While he affirmed their freedom, he also asked them to consider whether their brother’s or sister’s relationship with God was worth more than a good steak dinner?

2. LOVE'S CORRECTIVE

I don’t think we have to worry about where our meat comes from – at least not on a religious level, but as Linus discovered, not every choice is a good one. Or, as George Bernard Shaw put it: "Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it."

While freedom is good, unfettered freedom can have dangerous consequences. Paul says elsewhere in this letter that all things may be lawful, but not all things are profitable or beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12). With that in the back of his mind, Paul tells them that "while knowledge puffs up, love builds up" (vs. 1). That is, the key to true freedom isn’t knowledge, but love. Knowledge and understanding have their place, but as Paul says the greatest of all virtues is love (1 Cor. 13:13).

When love is the guiding principle of our lives, it puts self-imposed limits on our expressions of freedom. Love tempers our freedom by reminding us of our neighbor’s presence.

3. MAKING DECISIONS IN LOVE

Our Disciples tradition doesn’t have a lot of rules and regulations, which gives us a lot of freedom. And I like that a lot! It’s part of the reason why I’m a Disciple. But, while we value our freedom very highly, we’re not without out rules or boundaries. One of those rules is quite pertinent to the way we express our freedom. It says: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This rule reminds us that no matter how free we are, we need to keep in mind how our decisions and actions impact the physical, spiritual, and emotional well being of our neighbors.

I’ll give you just one example today of how this might work. I think it might be more pertinent to our lives today than discussing where we get our meat, especially since this is Super Bowl Sunday! What is this issue? Why, it’s the question of drinking alcoholic beverages

Although in the very recent past Disciples were likely to be nondrinkers -- In fact, many Disciples were active in the Temperance movement, with Carrie Nation and her famous hatchet being our chief representative – I would venture to say that it’s not a major issue for most Disciples. But, it might be a big deal for some of our brothers and sisters. So, even if it’s not a theological issue, it may be a personal one, which makes it a spiritual concern.

When it comes to drinking alcohol, there are no scriptural prohibitions, beyond warnings against drunkenness. Indeed, Jesus is said to have made wine from water at a wedding, and from what John says, it was really good stuff! Then there’s Timothy, who’s told to take a little wine for medicinal purposes. We can add to that testimony, the findings of modern medicine, which suggests that drinking a little red wine could have important health benefits. I think most of us today, would consider moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages to be a matter of opinion and not one of faith, which means that if you decide to have a beer while you watch the Super Bowl – that’s probably okay. But just watch it! Don’t go overboard. Still, having said that, what if exercising my freedom damages the faith of my brother or sister? What would Paul suggest that I do?

Paul’s answer is quite clear: While you may be free in Christ, be sure to consider the spiritual well-being of your brother or sister in the faith. And so, whether it’s my choice of movies, reading materials, and even food, Paul says – let of love of neighbor be your guide. Yes, idols may be nothing, but consider the weaker brother or sister, before you indulge your freedoms. It’s a simple rule, but it has tremendous long term benefits!


Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
February 1, 2009
4th Sunday after Epiphany

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