Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Looking for a chance to name an element of the Christian faith that a) addresses issues that have occupied the headlines our people have been reading, b) offers a clear alternative to one of the more destructive elements of our popular culture, and c) makes a real difference in everyday life? Then look no further.

Among the many issues that the Apostle Paul tackles in his letter to the church at Rome is the nature of freedom. And here’s the thing: where Paul sees freedom as obedience to the will of God, contemporary Americans — and perhaps this is true of most of humanity — tend to think of freedom precisely as freedom to do whatever you want, freedom, that is, from being obedient to anything or anyone, a view of freedom has disastrous consequences.

Witness, by example, the recent exploits and downfall of Representative Anthony Weiner after he sent lewd photographs of himself to various women. Or of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or John Edwards. Or Dominique Strauss-Kahn. These are the recent ones, but don’t forget Elliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, or Bill Clinton (no, he wasn’t toppled from office, just publicly disgraced and, among other things, tied up in impeachment hearings instead of tending the needs of the country). The pattern here is men who believe that their power and prestige enable them to do anything — the American ideal of freedom — and yet who ultimately reap the ruin of their misconceptions.

In light of this, hear again Paul’s admonition, “do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (6:12). And, later, his assertions that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but grace” (14) and  “you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (18) and “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (23). What Paul is talking about is freedom, Christian freedom in particular, but it doesn’t always sound that way to us because it stems from a very different notion of not just freedom but human life in general.

According to Paul, you see, humans are never not under obligation to something. Therefore he writes, “you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (17). The question is therefore not whether you will be follow something (or someone), but what (or who) you will follow. Will you follow your passions or self control? Will you follow ambition or honor? Will you follow the promises you made or believe yourself exempt from those requirements? It’s not a question of whether, but of what, and Paul urges Christians to be slaves not of unrighteousness — doing whatever you want regardless of the consequences to others — but to righteousness, a life in service to others and to God.

Freedom, from this point of view, comes from self-mastery. Only by saying “no” to one thing can you truly say “yes” to another. While this runs starkly against the contemporary belief that freedom implies no obligations and no commitments — the freedom to do whatever you please apart from any laws or restrictions — it reflects a worldview common not only to Paul but to much of western history (on this point, see Sara Lipton’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times). Further, most of us live this truth daily: where is the freedom to drive in safety apart from manifold traffic laws, the freedom to express oneself clearly apart from the restrictions of grammar and syntax, the freedom to be committed to one person apart from denying the invitations of all others?

The contemporary understanding of freedom misleads us into believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, you can live absent any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. Paul therefore invites the Christians in Rome — and by extension all of us — to consider that the choice before us is not whether to be obedient or free, but rather to what we will be freely obedient. Further, Paul knows both that a) human nature tends to slide toward whatever seems easiest in the short run and b) that sacrificing short term gratification for long term happiness is difficult. He therefore promises that God has granted to us the freedom in Christ to strive for things that bring long term happiness and eternal blessings. Paul believes, that is, that God has granted us the power to aspire to and achieve more than our surroundings or culture offers.

Where does that power come from? Paul suggests three places. 1), Baptism, the place where God names us as God’s own children (see the verses just preceding today’s reading, Rom. 6:1-11) and not because of what we have attained, accomplished, bought, or achieved, but simply because God has chosen to love us and adopt us as God’s own. 2) Christian community, the company of believers were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection (6:3-5) and that gathers to remember and rehearse the promises of God and encourage each other in lives of righteousness. 3) Prayer in the Holy Spirit, which draws us more closely into relationship with God and neighbor and serves to remind us that we are, indeed, God’s own children (see 8:14-17).

So what would you say, Working Preacher, about drawing our attention to the power God bequeaths to us through these three things this very week? Perhaps after delving into Paul’s notions about freedom in Christ we might invite people to write down on a piece of paper one act of obedience (to friend, partner, children, parents, work, congregation, country, honor, commitment to the poor, whatever) that they have freely chosen and would like the support of God and the congregation to live into. No names, just requests. Then, in the prayers, we could read some or all of those petitions and as a community invite the presence of the Holy Spirit into our individual and corporate lives as we strive for and taste again the freedom and joy that comes from embracing obedience not to our fleeting desire but instead to our holy commitments.

This may, I realize, be a different venture for many of us, especially those who, like I, were trained to avoid too much talk of what we should do lest we fall into “works righteousness” or what we should obey less we be labeled “moralists.” But I think we need — at least I know I need — to move beyond only talk about freedom and obedience and all the rest into some kind of practice and experience of such freedom, and this exercise would help me — and perhaps others, too — move in that direction. Thanks for considering this, Working Preacher, and for all that you do for the people of God.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Next week I’ll continue exploring Paul’s notions of freedom and how they may influence our daily lives…just in time for the 4th of July!