How to be (really) free

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

I want to talk about freedom.

It’s a powerful word, isn’t it. Think of it….freedom.

What comes to mind when you hear it? …freedom?

Because it’s a word that’s everywhere - think of a thousand adverts that show someone driving a new car through beautiful landscapes, free from every care. Or the ones that tell us how that new laptop will enable us to work in freedom from a beach, rather than having to endure the drudgery of the office. Or the ones for a holiday cruise, or the new trainers, or even the bank that has the black horse galloping through the surf - all of them promising glorious freedom.

Or think of politics. The French and American revolutions had freedom and ‘liberty’ at their heart. The EU has four freedoms at its core - the freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital. And the Brexit vote was all about regaining our freedom as a nation. Whether it’s American Presidents giving the State of the Union or British Prime Ministers seeking re-election, you can bet the word ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ will be sprinkled through their speeches. They won’t agree on what exactly freedom means - it could be freedom from big government or from poverty,  from immigration or from racism, from war or from the threat of terrorism - but they will all offer freedom as the goal.

And Jesus does it too. ‘I have come’, he says in the gospel, ‘to let the oppressed go free.’

So what is freedom? What does the world say freedom is? What does Jesus say freedom is?

Let’s try first to get a feel for what the world tells us freedom means. I don’t mean the dictionary definition, I mean what we feel about the word; I mean what we pick up in the air we breathe.

Freedom means being liberated from the things that hold us down and hold us back. It means having choice. It means not being restricted or limited in our options. It means not having authorities telling us what to do or how to do it - whether that’s parents, bosses, politicians or ‘the system’. Freedom is the weekend not the working week; it’s the holidays not term time. It’s a sunny beach, it’s an open road, it’s being able to use your time as you want, spend our money how you choose; it’s being the person you want to be, it’s my right to be ‘me’. It’s independence, it’s the individual, it’s choice not rules. It’s being free.  And we all want to be free.

Freedom is the individual right to choose and to do as I want with what is mine - so long as I don’t impinge on the freedom of others. It’s how we’re meant to be, it’s our natural state, until other things get in the way - external things like governments, taxes, inequality, poverty, or internal things like anxiety, fear or depression.

And let’s be clear, we in the UK enjoy many freedoms, some of them hard won, that previous generations and others around the world are right to envy. And if those freedoms - to vote, to be free from indiscriminate arrest, not to be subjected to discrimination - are violated, there are laws we can turn to. These freedoms are a great gift, and it is right for us to be grateful for them

But, there are two problems with this view of freedom.

The first is that if I have a right to be free, and you have a right to be free, there’s likely to come a point when a conflict will emerge; when my freedom means you can’t have your freedom. When the question has to be asked, which one of us has the greater right to freedom? And that means we think we’re free to be what we want to be, but actually we’re constantly in competition with each other; competition over who has the greater right to be free, over whose freedom is more important. 

And we see that being played out a lot at the moment over the question of free speech. Does my freedom to say whatever I want, even if it is hurtful or hateful, trump your freedom not to hear things that are hurtful or hateful? Whose right to freedom is greater? 

And at one level that’s not a problem; the constant need to negotiate the boundaries of our freedom is what it means to be part of society. And the law is precisely there to help us negotiate those issues. The problem is when the promise of unlimited freedom is dangled before us as the cure to all our ills, only to be snatched away from us when we bump into someone else right to freedom. Because then we might start to think the person we are now in competition with is the problem, rather than the problem being the false promise of unlimited freedom, and we might end up living in a society which speaks of tolerance, but which looks remarkably intolerant much of the time.

And there’s a second problem - it’s just not true. Freedom, in the sense that the world offers it to us, isn’t actually available. 

Because the fact is, none of us are free, and none of us ever will be - not under the worlds definition of freedom. We are shaped by a thousand choices that others have made for us. We don’t choose our DNA, our family or the place we are born. We don’t choose who we go to school with, what we’re taught or the values we receive from home. We don’t choose the culture which surrounds us and which shapes the way we think and see the world. Most of us don’t choose all that much each day - we do what needs to be done for our work and our family. And despite the promise of individual freedom, for most of us, life is remarkably similar; we all drive cars, we all buy the same kind of plastic wrapped food, we all look at our phones or our tv screens. We dream of being free, but actually most of who we are and what we do is just how things are.

The promise of freedom as the great cure for all our ills just isn’t true. We aren’t ‘free’ and we never will be. And that’s ok.

So what does the bible say about freedom? 

It starts from a different position. Scripture doesn’t start with us as individuals, who need to strip away all the things that limit our ability to be free, it starts with us in relationship - with God, with people and with creation - that’s what the story of Genesis tells us. And then it gives us a purpose - two purposes in fact. Love God, love your neighbour. 

From the perspective of faith, we are most free when we most fully love God and love our neighbour; when we do what we were designed to do, and are what we were designed to be - those whose lives are tangled up with the lives of others and who seek God’s love in it all. Freedom, for Jesus, doesn’t lie in independence, in fewer rules, or in being whatever we want to be, it lies in giving ourselves over to who we really are; children of God, who are loved by him and who are made to love him and those around us in turn. 

It’s what the beautiful passage from 1 Corinthians that we read is all about - don’t pretend you will be happier if you separate yourself from all those other complicated people around you - you need them, you are only whole with them. We are a body, and we’re all in it together. And so, ‘if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’ We are not in competition with each other - we need each other. 

And writing to the Galatians, Paul says it even more directly -‘For freedom, Christ has set us free….For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

To be free, he says, you must be a slave to one another. We are free when we accept that freedom lies in service; service to God, and service to one another.

Now that’s a bit different to the promise of those car adverts.

So what do we do? How do we learn to live in Jesus’ freedom, not the world’s freedom? 

How do we learn that freedom lies in inter-dependence, not independence? 

Well, at one level that’s the journey of faith - it’s learnt in prayer, worship, Scripture and being part of a community like this.

But here are 3 specific things we can do:

First, notice what the world tells you - notice what people really mean when they use the word ‘freedom’. Is it freedom that separates you from others, or freedom that draws you closer. Pay attention to what the world says.

Secondly, the world says freedom is always about ‘freedom from’ - freedom from expectations, freedom from rules, freedom from the things that hold me back. Try reframing that and thinking of freedom as ‘freedom to’. Freedom to love God. Freedom to serve my neighbour. Freedom to make the world a better place.  

Thirdly, try it out - more even than you already do. This week, look at the world as an opportunity to serve and at other people as a gift God is asking you to love.

Jesus came to set us free - to set us free to love God and to love his people. May we each discover more of that freedom today. 


Hugh Nelson