Freedom in Christ

Reading: Romans 14.1-15.6
After the prisoner had been released, he was filled with relief and excitement. Was it really true? Was it safe out there without the security of the jail? Was it possible to trust anyone? Might others be as he had been? At last, walking along his home street, it grabbed him. He began calling out, "I'm free! I'm free! I'm free!" "That's nothing!" said the little boy, "I'm four!"

"Freedom" has been one of the catchcries of our age. There have been freedom and liberation movements in a number of countries. One of the most amazing has been the collapse of Communism in countries where it was so strongly entrenched.

But what will happen with that freedom? Communism severely limited religious freedom. It also cracked down on prostitution and drug abuse. The State authorities, even under an atheistic regime, fulfilled a God-given role in dealing with evil. Once oppression is lifted, there may well be an increase in crime. It is one thing to be free, but what do you do with freedom?

Christ is Lord!

Paul concluded chapter 13, "Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (Rom. 13.14).

He goes on to emphasise that "none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord" (14.7-9).

Can you see what Paul is saying? Jesus Christ is Lord. Being a Christian isn't just saying, "Yes, I accept Jesus as my Saviour. I accept God's forgiveness for the wrong that I have done. Now I'm free! I'm free! I'm free!" Yes, that is true. We are free. But free for what? Free just to do our own thing? Being a Christian involves us in recognising Jesus Christ as Lord, Lord of every part of our lives - Lord of our present, Lord of our future. This is why he came - to be the Lord of our life!

It is because Jesus Christ is Lord that Paul makes the startling statement at the end of chapter 14, "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (v. 23b).

We think of sin as breaking a set of rules - the ten commandments, for instance. Paul is saying here that, as Christians, we belong to the Lord. Christ is to be the Lord of every part of our life. We are not to say, "I am a Christian on Sunday. I am a Christian when I engage in 'spiritual' activities. I am a Christian when I am singing hymns or praying. Christ is Lord of the spiritual part of my life." Remember, Paul said we are to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. We are to seek the will of God in every part of our lives. Every part of our lives, therefore, is to express our dependence on him, our faith in him. Those points in our lives where we cease to express our faith in Christ are sin, are a barrier in our relationship with our heavenly Father.

Think of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. We are to pray, "Give us today our daily bread" (Mt. 6.11), but we mustn't be worried and obsessed with our need for food and clothing. Our heavenly Father knows our needs before we ask him. We are to "seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (v. 33).

Respect your Brother

Paul relates this to the very practical situation in the early Church. There were people from very different backgrounds - Jews as well as Gentiles. The Jews had, not only the moral Law of the Old Testament, but all the other regulations and traditions that had been built up across the centuries. So within the early Church there were tensions as people endeavoured to understand how they should live as Christians.

Paul makes it clear that we must have mutual respect for one another's faith, and recognise that each of us is responsible individually to the Lord for our own convictions and actions.

He gives two issues from the life of the early Church - the questions of food and of holy days. He doesn't take sides. While it is inferred that the vegetarian is weak in faith, the vegetarian himself might well think the meat-eater is weak in faith. Both sides can judge one another and despise one another. Some keep all sorts of holy days, while others say that every day is the Lord's day.

Paul is saying that each of us must live to the Lord. The person who fasts, abstaining from food on certain days of the week (some Christians fasted on Tuesdays and Fridays, to distinguish themselves from the Pharisees who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays) - the person who fasts must do so as an expression of his faith. Jesus was making the same point in the Sermon on the Mount. The person who doesn't fast must make his eating an expression of his faith.

With Church Union congregations had to decide how Communion should be served - in the pews or at the rail? Either way may be an expression of faith and we have to do it some way! The traditions from which we came had developed supportive reasons why we expressed our faith one way or another. One tradition desired to recreate the upper room situation. In fact, in many congregations strips of linen cloth were tied to the backs of the pews to indicate that they were an extension of the table at which the elders sat. In another tradition, people came forward and knelt to receive the elements. It was a deliberate act of faith and submission. The ultimate question isn't whether we stay in our pews or go to the rail, but whether we are responding in faith to what God has done for us and whether we are acknowledging the Lordship of Christ. Let us appreciate one another's faith. Let us grow in faith from the very diversity of these traditions.

Don't Make Your Brother Fall

In some situations we have little trouble "agreeing to be different." But in other issues we may "cause our brother or sister to fall."

Paul develops this further in his letter to the Corinthians where the issue was food offered to idols. In Corinth, some of the meat in the meat market was taken into the pagan temples and presented as a sacrifice before being offered for sale. But, even beyond that, the butcher, whenever he killed a beast, would burn a little bit of the hair as an offering to the gods. Paul was quite convinced that idol-worship was nothing. But if someone tells you that his meat has been offered to idols, then for the sake of their conscience and to make it clear that you dissociate yourself from idol-worship, don't eat that meat. We must have the freedom to forego our liberty for the sake of someone else. Don't cause your brother to fall (1 Cor. 8).

In 1991 the sixth Uniting Church Assembly met in Brisbane The United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress voiced strongly to Assembly the plight of the aboriginal people because of the devastation of alcohol and drug abuse. The debate was strong and a number of speakers insisted that alcohol is a good gift of God. The two-part resolution was passed. It invites Uniting Church leaders and members "to enter into dialogue with local Aboriginal people to discover the issues that frustrate and lead to despair, and commit themselves to struggle hand-in-hand to find solutions" and "to adopt a personal and communal lifestyle which reflects solidarity with those who struggle against alcohol and other drugs, and declares to all that alcohol and other drugs are not essential elements for fulfilment or satisfying living."

This is a different issue from the one Paul describes. It's not a matter of one group refraining because of another's sensitive conscience. Anyone who has presented to young people the dangers and folly of drug abuse is painfully aware that alcohol is Australia's No.1 drug of addiction, that it is a prime factor in violent crime, domestic violence and road trauma. That something is a gift from God says nothing about the use to which it is put. Uranium is also a gift from God. It is rather hazardous to handle and we aren't too sure what to do with the waste. But it has great potential for good - and for evil!

The question put before us by the sixth Assembly was whether my freedom to drink also implies a freedom to adopt an alcohol-free lifestyle for the sake of my Aboriginal brothers and sisters who "stumble and fall into sin" because of alcohol. And that is not just the aboriginal community. At present some ten percent of the total population are alcoholics and problem-drinkers. For each such person, we are told, there are four other close relatives whose lives are deeply affected by the problem.

"If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men" (Rom. 14.15-17).

So then, let us live our lives for the Lord. The Lord expects us to adopt a lifestyle whose freedom is expressed in care for all others for whom Christ died. The Lord looks for faith in every part of our lives. We are free so that he can be Lord of our lives in every part.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Ayr Uniting Church, 1 September 2002
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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