Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9. 18-23
We Christians talk an awful lot about freedom. Take last week’s prayer for the week or “the collect” as it’s known in “church-speak”:
“Almighty God, you have broken the tyranny of sin
And have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts whereby we call you Father:
Give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God; through JC our Lord.”
This morning’s reading from Romans was also all about freedom. There, we find Paul talking about how Jesus has set him free from the law of sin and death. To many outside the church though, this talk of freedom will sound like so much nonsense and hypocrisy. It’s a popular view – and not, sadly, without some foundation – that the church is all about law and Christian teaching full of dos and don’ts, mainly don’ts.
In modern western countries like ours freedom and choice are often regarded as the ultimate values. In the field of persona ethics, for instance, the right of a woman to have an abortion is regarded as an inalienable right by many. We see the same right to assisted dying now increasingly asserted for those facing terminal illness and, indeed, only this morning both former Archbishops Carey and Tutu have announced their support for this view.
As in personal ethics, so in economics, modern capitalist economies are still dominated by the kind of free market thinking espoused in Milton Friedman’s seminal book “Free to Choose”.
Such is the dominance of this notion of freedom that, increasingly, anything that constrains the freedom of individuals to exercise their right to choice is seen as anathema.
So, what do we make of this apparent contradiction, that of Paul glorying in the freedom he enjoyed in Christ on the one hand and the common perception of the church as enemy of freedom on the other?
We can make a start by clearing up a misunderstanding about what Paul was really talking about when he wrote in his letter to the Romans:
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
To be clear: what Paul is NOT saying here is that the freedom he enjoys in Christ is that of a disembodied spirit, that of someone who lives heedless of bodily needs and desires. No, when he talks about “flesh” as opposed to “the Spirit” he is talking about two contrasting dispositions towards life. The way of the flesh is the way of the world – self-serving, self-regarding, and heedless of others. By contrast, the way of the Spirit is serving of others, mindful of them and essentially other-regarding. Jesus has shown us this way not just in words but crucially, in practice too.
Paul’s point about freedom is brilliantly illustrated by that great quote of St. Augustine of Hippo who is probably second only to Paul in his influence on the Christian church:
“Love God and do as you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved”.
There is a certain irony in Augustine saying this for as a young man he was a notorious libertine, doing just as he pleased with a number of young women and much to the despair of his devout mother. But then, to everyone’s surprise, he came to faith and renounced his former life – but only because he’d acted out of selfish desires. And in his conversion he came to realise and enjoy the freedom of which Paul spoke, grasping the point that if love guides our actions then we cannot err. To that extent, we are free to do just as we choose so long as our actions are guided by love. His hadn’t been, which is why he had to renounce his former life.
I should add here – although I would hope that this is unnecessary – that I am not talking here about love in the soppy, sentimental sense but in the proper, gutsy, Christian sense which is wholly other-regarding.
This, of course, is neither more nor less than what Jesus taught. When tested by lawyers and religious leaders as to which is the greatest commandment, Jesus said this:
‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”
Love then, is the overarching principle by which we should judge all actions. As such it sets – or should set – the frame for any law, be it religious or secular. But whereas laws are always general in their application and must necessarily be so, otherwise they have no meaning; love only has meaning and application in particular situations. It’s meaningless, for instance, to say “I love humanity”, whereas it is entirely meaningful to say “I love this or that person” or, “I am guided by love to act in such and such a way in this particular situation”.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsay put it wonderfully when he wrote:
““…the glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter…..Amidst a vast world with its vast empires and vast events and tragedies our Lord devoted himself to a small country, to small things, to individual men and women, often giving hours of time to the very few or to the one man or woman…..the infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many.”
It follows that, for Christians, the dictates of love in any particular situation trump the claims of the law be it religious, moral or that of the state. And this is where our faith starts to take us into some rather disturbing territory.
To give an example. For moral and theological reasons I am deeply unhappy at the prospect of assisted dying being made legal, although in saying that I realise that many of you will disagree and that there is a real and important debate to be had on this issue. Some years ago I worked at the BBC on a film about euthanasia. I met and interviewed Dame Cicely Saunders who began the hospice movement in this country. She was also a Christian. I remember playing devil’s advocate with her, telling her of a story that I had researched about a man who had helped his wife to die. She had been suffering terribly with a terminal illness and although he’d acted out of desperation, what he did was – as it still would be – an illegal act, as well as an immoral one in the eyes of some. Surely, I put it to her, the man had done nothing other than follow the dictates of love? I was surprised at how readily she agreed to what this, this great woman who’d devoted her life to putting in place a care regime that would mean no-one would ever have to do what that man did. Despite her opposition to legalising assisted dying, she could see that in this particular circumstance, the man had acted justly. I will never forget that interview and it has left me dreading the day that someone asks me to help them in their hour of need, perhaps by accompanying them to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. I know that in such circumstances my head would say one thing, while my heart would most likely say something quite other.
Think of almost any moral and ethical issue and you realise that the idea that there is one law that fits all circumstances is inherently unsatisfactory – necessary maybe, but unsatisfactory nonetheless. Assisted dying, abortion – you will all have your own personal dilemmas or be able to anticipate them.
The difficult and challenging truth is that if we are to follow Jesus then the question “what would love have us do?” should always be uppermost in our minds. And on occasion that will lead us into conflict with the law of the land, conventional attitudes, even our own, avowed, religious and ethical beliefs. When it does so there will always be difficulty and uncertainty with the only comfort afforded us that of knowing that, in Augustine’s words, “the soul trained to love of God will do nothing to offend the one who is Beloved”
This is the true freedom of the Spirit and it’s a pretty daunting kind of freedom, for it means throwing away the crutch of certainty that unquestioningly abiding by rules and laws allows us. But it is no less than what is required of us if we are to have “the mind of Christ” and so fully reflect the image of God that is within each one of us.