27 January – Captive to freedom

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Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Psalm 19
Luke 4:14-21

In a previous life, I spent a couple of months in Freiburg in Germany, where I was learning some German as part of my postgraduate studies. There’s a large university there, and on the walls of one of its largest buildings are the words (in German!), ‘The truth will set you free,’ the motto of the university.[1] These words are a quote from Jesus (John 8.32), but I suspect that they were borrowed, or at least are typically read, through the filter of the modern mind as it imagines itself maturing, growing into truth – and out of untruths – and so becoming more liberated.

To be free has been a central concern of western society since the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century. And this aspiration would seem to many today to have been largely realised: we are, largely, free in comparison to our forebears. Most of us are free to pursue education in a field that interests us, free to marry someone who appeals to us (or to divorce them), free to have children or not, free to wear what we like, watch what we like, and so on.

The theme of freedom is at the heart of our reading from Luke this morning – Jesus comes to bring release to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. Yet Jesus assumes that there is captivity to be overcome and so it is far from clear what he has to do with those who imagine themselves already to be well on the way to freedom.

But then, perhaps we are less free than we imagine. One of my favourite illustrations of this comes from the movie ‘The Devil wears Prada’ of a decade or so ago. The story takes place at the cut-throat edge of the fashion industry. In one particularly memorable scene the head of a fashion house takes on her new assistant’s impression that she, the assistant, had freely chosen to wear what she was wearing to work that day:

‘I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic ‘casual corner’ where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room…’ [2]

Perhaps that seems trivial but it could be extended much further. Have we been ‘selected’ to drive the car we drive, live in the locality we do, have the apps on our phones we have, vote the way we do, go or not go to church as we do?

For our free decisions are less free than we might imagine. Someone has chosen for us the language we will speak, the school we will go to, the people we will associate with, the aspirations we will have – all of this before we had the slightest inkling that we might want to have a say about such things. We are not free because of the parents we have and how they themselves have been formed, regardless of how much they might do to allow us a free and open upbringing. We are not free because even our modern talk about freedom has been delivered to us through a tainted political and social process which has privileged – or made ‘free‑er’ – some, while disadvantaging others.

And this brings us to the effect of being deluded about our freedoms: blindness to the violence which lurks in the world we think supports our freedom. Violence springs from the desire that others conform to my understanding of what it means for me to be free. If my freedom means the ‘right to bear arms’, then my community is free to die from the use of those arms at extraordinary rates. If my freedom is to consume at a rate which pretty much everyone agrees is totally unsustainable, then the fact that such consumption may cause enormous damage to the environment or require almost slave labour conditions in some far-away corner of the world is the price someone is just going to have to pay. This is the violence of men who presume that freedom is taking from women what they consider their right to demand, the violence of states which build walls to keep others out, the violence – even if it seems rather a strong word here – of those whose little screens are more important than the people standing next to them.

Freedom misconceived brings violence – gross or subtle – by requiring that my sense for freedom be the right one, and be defended.

Yet if delusion and violence spring from mistakes about what freedom is, then we might think backwards to an important question: if we live in a world where there is no shortage of delusion and violence – and surely we do – could this not have something to do with our being fundamentally mistaken about what it means to be free, or what freedom looks like?

In John’s gospel there’s a little exchange about freedom and truth between Jesus and some Jews who had come to believe in him. It’s here that we hear those words on the university building in Freiburg. Jesus says to some disciples: ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ But then they come back at him with, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?’

This is the response which many would want to make today, if perhaps not with the reference to Abraham: are we not already free? Jesus’ disciples find it offensive that they might need to be freed from something, as perhaps do many of us. Yet the unfolding of Jesus’ story is such that the clash of the freedom he announces and the freedoms which the social establishment values lead to violence – Jesus’ death on the cross.

Jesus’ work is God’s response to the captivities in which we find ourselves, even in our very aspirations to be free on our own terms. Defining our own freedoms is dangerous because we finally end up like little gods – or big gods if we’re powerful enough – with the violence to ourselves and others which such delusions bring. It’s we who make others captive, or oppress others, or keep others poor. And others do the same to us. In coming among us as one who attacks oppressive economic and social and political systems, and the blindness and lameness and imprisonment they bring, Jesus comes to set us free from ourselves.

The life of Christian discipleship is a life of growing into this freedom. It will take the shape of a life reflecting that of Jesus himself which, paradoxically, often looks like it gives up freedom. Jesus willingly becomes poor, and captive, and oppressed when that is what is required to be true, and not violent.

That Jesus is free is shown in the absence of violence in him, which can only be the reality of someone who has nothing to fear. This might be another definition of what it means to be human, if truth and freedom are also such definitions: fearlessness. Not even the fear of a godless death on a cross is enough to stop Jesus from being true to himself and the loving humanity which was his calling.

The truth which will set us free is not that we can become like gods, free of anything that bugs us, but that, in looking to Jesus for his truth in freedom from fear, we might actually begin to become human. The way to this truth is ‘continuing in Jesus’ word’ – growing into the free humanity which was his as we become more faithful reflectors of his light. The truth which will give us the freedom to discover this is to be found in what Jesus teaches and does for us: inviting us out of ourselves, into a new vision of God, the world, and each other.

Seek this freedom, then. Look to him, listen to him, and listen to him, and discover the liberating grace of God…

[1]‘Die Wahrheit wird euch frei machen’ – see: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Universit%C3%A4t_Freiburg_Epitaph.jpg

[2] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja2fgquYTCg