23 Free at Last
Last week we enjoyed a fabulous hit list of quotes about freedom. In my opinion, no such survey would be complete without some comment on Martin Luther King Jr. I know his special day is in the winter, but I couldn't resist getting into him now, since the text from last week was:
“Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
The career of Martin Luther King brings into high relief a point reiterated over an over again last week:
"We have concluded that the DOING of the truth reveals the truth to us."In the words of St. Augustine:
"All men indeed perceive that “shall know” is the same thing as “shall understand:” but that the saying, “If any man be willing to do His will,” refers to believing, all do not perceive; to perceive this more accurately, we need the Lord Himself for expounder, to show us whether the doing of the Father's will does in reality refer to believing. . . . . ."
We have thus contemplated the moral imagination as the source of right action, and have concluded, from the above, that right action is the realization of, an outer articulation of, an inner image created in the heart by faith.
Doing the right thing automatically brings us into the realm of the mundane, since DOING implies physicality, the physicality of the mundane world; and it must be admitted that the mundane world was a primary focus of Dr. King's quest for freedom--political freedom. Below we will have cause to refer to this mundane focus as the ETHICS of freedom. However, it must also be admitted that political freedom was not the ONLY focus of Dr. King's quest; it is indeed, the blending of political freedom and spiritual freedom that is the subject of today's sermon.
All last week we discussed spiritual freedom. We discussed the truth that makes us free through:
1. right action,
4. giving our souls infinite space by freeing us from self-imposed bondage,
5. giving us enhanced access to the Son,
6. giving us enhanced access to Grace,
7. warning us away from the lies of the Tempter, and
8. reminding us to always look inside ourselves for the truth, and not to the opinions of anybody else.
Some major points from last week include this point:
"We must concern ourselves, as much as possible with our own personal truth, expressed in out own personal language, and avoid coming to any verbal conclusions about anybody else. We must look into the cloud of unknowing with minds uncluttered with verbalizations about the world, and allow the light of heaven to spill into our hearts. Only when the light in our hearts shines through our mouths will we speak the truth, and know the truth, and share that truth with others."
and this major point:
"The Son sees the future, and, by leading us in right action, He sets up a chain of causality that affirms spirit manifesting through faith. Thus truth is prophetic. Right action is like hope: it not only brings spirit into the present by enlightening the eternal now with heavenly energy, it affirms the promised future descent of spirit into mundane reality by virtue of the essential nature of karmic causality; I mean: right action is motivated by the moral imagination which is unbounded by time, but right action still generates repercussions which spread out like waves through time endowing past, present, AND future with the radiance of truth manifested in the step-by-step progression from one plane of spiritual hierarchy to the next; I mean: every right action leads to another right action, and another, and another blending all the dimensions of time into a single implicate (enfolded) order."
Notice how the idea of truth as prophecy is linked to truth as right action--right action in the mundane world. Today we must go further into the subject of how spiritual freedom relates to freedom in the world of men.
First let us review the famous lines at the end of Dr. King's speech:
"when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet,
from every state and every city,
we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children,
black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles,
Protestants and Catholics,
will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
The old Negro spiritual which is part of “American Negro Songs” that was written by J. W. Work:"
"Free at last, free at last , I thank God I’m free at last, Free at last, free at last, I thank God I’m free at last
Way down yonder in the graveyard walk, I thank God I’m free at last, Me and my Jesus going to meet and talk , I thank God I’m free at last
On my knees when the light pass’d by, I thank God I’m free at last, Tho’t my soul would rise and fly, I thank God I’m free at last
Some of these mornings, bright and fair, I thank God I’m free at last, Goin’ meet King Jesus in the air, I thank God I’m free at last."
The following online article Free at Last by Pamela Rose Williams provides these these introductory words:
"As we compare what Jesus was saying and what Dr. King preached, we see that indeed, they were both talking about the same freedom; freedom from sin. They were both talking about the same truth; the truth that is found only in Jesus the Christ.
This is the time of the year when we remember the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is best known for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement and his stirring speeches on racial equality. When I read today’s verse I am reminded of one of Dr. King’s great speeches when he lead the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. In that speech he quoted an old Negro spiritual when he said “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”"
Dr. King was a spiritual man, and in fact he was a Baptist minister. In his lifetime he fought for the freedom of the minority and his speeches and sermons were full of truth and passion. He gave his life to the fight for freedom!
In today’s passage we read about what Jesus was telling the people. Specifically, he was speaking to the Jews who did not understand that He was the Messiah; The Lamb of God sent to make them free. When you continue on and read a little more of the passage, you can see that these Jews truly did not understand what Jesus was saying at all. They understood freedom and bondage only as to be a slave or a free man. They believed because they were of the seed of Abraham that they were free already. Here is how Jesus explains:
"They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?
 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.
 And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever.
 If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
 I know that ye are Abraham’s seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you.
 I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father."
Notice that when the truth "hath no place in you" you perform wrong actions. The opposite conclusion is irresistible: if the truth has a place in you, you will perform right actions. It is also an irresistible implication to suggest that heavenly truth motivates action worthy of heaven, whereas infernal lies motivate worldly crimes. How many infernal crimes have been committed in the name of some false truth or other? How many of us have put our thinking ahead of our hearts in matters of philosophy or morality?
The experience of the world as a mythological reality necessarily brings heaven down into the mundane dimension, while the experience of the world as a cold reality reduces all action to not only heartless but mindless madness; the heart informs the mind, not the other way round; as St. Augustine said:
“If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak from myself.”
What is the meaning of this,
“If any man be willing to do His will”?
But I had said, if any man believe; and I gave this counsel: If you have not understood, said I, believe. For understanding is the reward of faith.
Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand; since,
“except ye believe, you shall not understand.” Isaiah 7:9"
The mind can suck the truth, the joy, the absolute reality out of anything it pollutes with its self-limited definitions and borrowed literal-minded opinions. We have agreed that language creates consciousness--the same consciousness that cost Adam and Eve their home in paradise. God, please let us resist the temptation to go down that road, and think ourselves into Hell!
The following an excerpt from a sermon preached by Pastor Gregg Bitter on November 4, 2007. It purports to be a comparison between the freedom to truth equations of Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King Jr. As you will see, this Lutheran minister does not think much of the political freedom sought by Martin Luther King Jr., and the piece dwells mainly on Martin Luther. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. is only mentioned once in the whole thing. Nevertheless, it is a good sermon, and will lead us around to some more salient comparisons between political truth and spiritual truth:
"This is the Word of our Lord.
Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints of God:
My two younger children tend to get these two men mixed up:
Of course, it's not the pictures that confuse them, but the names. Martin Luther King Jr. and simply Martin Luther. It's especially confusing in January when the hear a lot of talk about Martin Luther King Jr. at school. They associate with that name, since we go to St. John's Lutheran Church.
Now we could call both men freedom fighters. But they fought for very different kinds of freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the kind of freedom we call civil rights. In the 1950's and 60's, he wanted to make sure that African-Americans had the same rights in public that white Americans had. He wanted to free them from segregation and second-class citizenship.
Martin Luther, on the other hand, was concerned about slavery -- not physical slavery to human masters, like Israel in Egypt or the slaves in the South before the Civil War. He was concerned about a far worse slavery. For you see, physical slavery, even the worst kind filled with abuse and beatings, physical slavery ends at death, but not the slavery that troubled Martin Luther. Rather than freeing a person from this slavery, death brought a whole new level of pain and torture, namely hell.
A. Free from slavery to sin
1) Who has been chained by slavery to sin?
What was this slavery that troubled Martin Luther? It was the same slavery that Jesus talks about in the text. Slavery to sin. And this slavery isn't confined to Martin Luther or to a certain race of people. This slavery chained us all. I tell you the truth, Jesus said, everyone who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34 NIV). And who sins? Remember what the Second Lesson said,
"Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin . . . There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
Every one of us sins. This slavery chained us all.
2. What cannot free us from this slavery?
Now one of our greatest sins is to think that our sin isn't all that bad, at least not now anymore. That's why some in the crowd so strongly objected to Jesus saying that he would set them free.
"We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?"
They knew that Jesus was talking about spiritual freedom. Abraham's descendants had often lost political freedom. They had been slaves in Egypt. At various times while they lived in Canaan one nation or another oppressed them. They had been carried into exile by the Babylonians. And even then in Jesus' day, they were under the domination of the Roman Empire. But as descendants of Abraham, they claimed spiritual freedom as their own.
Didn't they have the commandments from God himself given through Moses at Mt. Sinai? Didn't they have the temple as the one place of worship for the Lord God? Didn't they have the priesthood and the sacrifices as God had prescribed them? And hadn't they meticulously kept the traditions handed down to them? So they were spiritually free, so they thought. How could Jesus claim to set them free?"
[Sidebar: I can't help noticing the glare of pride embedded in the attitude of the pharisees on this point. They claim the rights of royalty attributed to the descendants of Abraham, and insist that this pedigree gives them freedom from subjection--all this while they are taxed, manipulated, and herded like cattle by the Romans. They are clearly fuzzy-minded when the subject of freedom is introduced: they think they are free because, in their tiny parochial society, they have power over their lessers, and yet, in the wide world, the Romans push them around like serfs at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They can't be talking about spiritual freedom, because spiritual freedom has nothing to do with being descended from Abraham! They seem to think that spiritual freedom is something you inherit, like property! And yet they are slaves not only to their dictatorial masters, they are slaves to pompous, arrogant, psychological postures whose only support is the hot air of their own babble. In fact, they are so dominated by the madness of their inherited attitudes that they spin round the yard like chickens in a pen, and lash out at anyone who stands in their path. People like Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. have a habit of getting in the way of hysterically gyrating madmen; there are hardly ever enough of the good guys to divert the current. Not at first, anyway. This is why we have sacrifice--this is why we NEED sacrifice.
Back to Greg Bitter:]
"That's when Jesus points out the truth:
"Everyone who sins is a slave to sin."
And as we said before, that means you and me. Don't rely on your Lutheran heritage, like some high-school trophy sitting on shelf gathering dust. That doesn't make you free. Don't rely on the fact that you got confirmed or have a Bible at home. That doesn't make you free. Don't figure that since your a member in this church you have your own ticket to freedom. And don't think that since you're not as bad as some of the people out there that you're free from sin. For if you think you have set yourself free, then you cannot, you cannot have the freedom Jesus brings.
3. What must we confess about our own power and ability?
Rather like Martin Luther stand convicted that you cannot free yourself. Martin Luther tried what a thousand years of church tradition had evolved as a way to free yourself. He became a monk and then a priest. He prayed hard, studied hard, worked hard, even afflicting his own body. Yet the harder he worked, the more he hated God for demanding so much. The harder he worked, the more the thought of death and standing before an angry judge terrified him. The harder he worked, the more he felt the chains of sin biting into his soul, holding him fast in slavery, just like a choke chain bites deeper the harder a dog pulls against it.
"Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly o'er me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
Yet deep and deeper still I fell;
Life had become a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me."
That, too, is your confession and mine. Examine your heart against God's Ten Commandments. Have you always loved him more that you've loved your friends, your children, and your pleasures? Have you always placed his Word and command first? Have you always trusted in him, refusing to worry or complain? Has love for others filled you so much that there is no trace of selfishness, conceit, lust, bitterness, or envy in you? No, you and I are sinners who cannot free ourselves. The record of our own thoughts, feelings, words, and actions testify against us. Why add to that record by robbing God and claiming some credit for freeing ourselves?
But if freedom could not come to Martin Luther from his own works or from following church rules, how could he be freed? How could you or I be freed? Jesus gives the answer,
John 8:31, 32, 36:
"If you abide in My Word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free . . . If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."
Martin Luther knew how important God's Word of truth is. That's why he translated the Bible into the language of the people. That's why he himself kept studying that word no matter how learned others thought he was. That's why he preached and taught throughout his life. That's why he wrote the Catechism as a summary of the truths that God's Word teaches, so that every family could learn it in their own homes."
[Sidebar: (Wikipedia) Luther's Small Catechism (Der Kleine Katechismus) was written by Martin Luther and published in 1529 for the training of children. Luther's Small Catechism reviews the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys and Confession and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It is included in the Book of Concord as an authoritative statement of what Lutherans believe. The Small Catechism is widely used today in Lutheran churches as part of youth education and Confirmation.]
"Stay in the Word as a true disciple so that you do not lose your freedom.
So we've seen what sets us free from slavery to sin. The truth. We've seen where to find the truth. God's Word, the Bible. We've seen what to do with the truth of God's Word. Stay and remain in it. But what is this truth that sets us free, this truth that God's Word reveals, this truth that we want to remain in? What is it?
3) What is the truth that God's Word reveals to set you free?
Consider Jesus last words in the text,
"If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
The truth that sets you free is the truth that points you to the Son, Jesus Christ, our God and Savior.
And what do you see as the truth opens your eyes and the light of Jesus shines in? We see that Jesus is God the Son who came from the Father to rescue us, to deliver us, to set us free from slavery to sin. Jesus had been telling the crowd this. That's why some believed in him. He had told them,
John 8:23-24 :
"You are from below; I am from above.
You are of this world; I am not of this world.
I told you that you would die in your sins;
if you do not believe that I am he,
you will indeed die in your sins."
He came from above, from the Father, for he is God the Son who the Father sent to set us free from death and slavery to sin.
Jesus pointed the crowd to his coming death on the cross as he told them,
"When you have lifted up the Son of Man,
then you will know that I am He."
Jesus is that sacrifice of atonement as the Apostle Paul teaches.
Only his holy blood, the blood of God, could redeem and ransom us. Only his bloody sacrifice and death could turn God's anger away from us and make us at one with God by the forgiveness purchased with Jesus' precious blood. That's the truth the sets you free.
For just as surely as the crucified Jesus came back to life, so surely has our God freely justified you. For Jesus' resurrection declares that God has counted Jesus' righteousness, his perfectly right life, on your record. Therefore, God the just judge gives the verdict that you have been acquitted based on the record of Jesus' righteousness. This is the righteousness that comes from God. This is the righteousness that is apart from the law and all that we do. This is the righteousness of Jesus Christ that the truth reveals through God's Word to set you free.
Jesus has broken your chains. Jesus has set you free. Sin can no longer condemn you who believe. This is the truth the Holy Spirit led Martin Luther to see in Scripture and to believe and teach it. Listen again to what the Apostle Paul wrote,
"21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;"
That's the truth that set Martin Luther free -- set him from slavery to sin, free from the terror of death. That's the truth that sets you free. Cherish it. Remain in it. Shout out: Free at last! Free at last! Thank Jesus Christ, I'm free at last!"
Now this sermon, for all its virtues, begins with a somewhat narrow-minded generalization--the sweeping blanket statement:
"Now we could call both men freedom fighters. But they fought for very different kinds of freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the kind of freedom we call civil rights.
Martin Luther, on the other hand . . . was concerned about a far worse slavery. For you see, physical slavery, even the worst kind filled with abuse and beatings, physical slavery ends at death, but not the slavery that troubled Martin Luther. Rather than freeing a person from this slavery, death brought a whole new level of pain and torture, namely hell."
It is an obvious point: Martin Luther spoke and wrote about spiritual freedom, Dr. King spoke and wrote about political freedom. But I think, in Pastor Bitter's breezy analysis, he is forgetting a couple of things:
1. on the one hand, Martin Luther King Jr., as a devout Christian, never lost sight of the spiritual motivation behind the simple RIGHTNESS of racial equality--he was always conscious that it was the inherited prejudices of the White South in 1965, just like the inherited prejudices of the Jews in AD 33, that were the cause of so much perverted, wrong action; thus, his political campaign was directed at obtaining freedom for his people by ending the wrong actions of the white aggressors;
2. on the other hand, Pastor Bitter seems also to have forgotten the 95 Theses Luther nailed to the door of the church in 1517, that brought about one of the most profound social changes in the history of Europe, if not the world; the Reformation had deep, deep social repercussions, it cost many, many lives, (at least as many as the war for civil rights), and brought about far-reaching consequences that had a direct impact on, for instance, the history of the United States. I'm going out on a limb here, but you might even say that the social revolution brought about by Martin Luther had a direct bearing on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.!
So, to say that Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. fought for different kinds of freedom, is an oversimplification at best, and a lying, prejudicial distortion of the truth at worst. Freedom from the slavery of sin MUST encompass both inner and outer manifestations of spiritual bondage. Perhaps the distinction can be made that spiritual freedom is a personal freedom that just touches the subjective reality of the individual; but remember what we said last week:
Dedication to the truth sets you apart, and often sets you in opposition to flagrant violations of right action. Consider all the martyrs who died for a truth that was invisible or perniciously threatening to some parochial group of self-deceivers. As I said above:
"Truth separates you from the crowd; giving up your preconceptions leaves you without props. Truth is not silent, nor is it passive; even if we try to keep truth a secret, it shows on our faces, and betrays us to men. This is why Jesus could not have escaped the cross even if He had wanted to: the truth excites the vengeance of people who are committed to their own private or group lies, and they WILL revenge themselves on those who threaten the comfort of those lies. Jesus threatened the Pharisees' complacent self-righteousness--it was a fated conflict written in the stars; and the outcome was pre-ordained."
People like Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. have a habit of getting in the way of hysterically gyrating madmen; there are hardly ever enough of the good guys to divert the current. Not at first, anyway. This is why we have sacrifice--this is why we NEED sacrifice.
The following is a excerpt from sermon by Pope John Paul II on the ethics of freedom:
Life in the Spirit Based on True Freedom
Continuing his weekly catechesis, the Holy Father addressed the following message to the numerous pilgrims gathered in the Paul VI Hall.
1. St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians:
"For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"
We have already dwelled on this enunciation. However, we are taking it up again today, in connection with the main argument of our reflections.
Although the passage quoted refers above all to the subject of justification, here, however, the Apostle aims explicitly at driving home the ethical dimension of the "body-Spirit" opposition, that is, the opposition between life according to the flesh and life according to the Spirit. Here he touches the essential point, revealing the anthropological roots of the Gospel ethos. If the whole law (the moral law of the Old Testament) is fulfilled in the commandment of charity, the dimension of the new Gospel ethos is nothing but an appeal to human freedom. It is an appeal to its fuller implementation and, in a way, to fuller "utilization" of the potential of the human spirit.
Freedom linked with command to love
2. It might seem that Paul was only contrasting freedom with the law and the law with freedom. However, a deeper analysis of the text shows that in Galatians St. Paul emphasizes above all the ethical subordination of freedom to that element in which the whole law is fulfilled, that is, to love, which is the content of the greatest commandment of the Gospel. "Christ set us free in order that we might remain free," precisely in the sense that he manifested to us the ethical (and theological) subordination of freedom to charity, and that he linked freedom with the commandment of love. To understand the vocation to freedom in this way ("You were called to freedom, brethren": Gal 5:13), means giving a form to the ethos in which life "according to the Spirit" is realized. The danger of wrongly understanding freedom also exists. Paul clearly points this out, writing in the same context: "Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another" (ibid.).
Bad use of freedom
3. In other words: Paul warns us of the possibility of making a bad use of freedom. Such a use is in opposition to the liberation of the human spirit carried out by Christ and contradicts that freedom with which "Christ set us free." Christ realized and manifested the freedom that finds its fullness in charity, the freedom thanks to which we are servants of one another.
In other words, that freedom becomes a source of new works and life according to the Spirit. The antithesis and, in a way, the negation of this use of freedom takes place when it becomes a pretext to live according to the flesh. Freedom then becomes a source of works and of life according to the flesh. It stops being the true freedom for which "Christ set us free," and becomes "an opportunity for the flesh," a source (or instrument) of a specific yoke on the part of pride of life, the lust of the eyes, and the lust of the flesh. Anyone who lives in this way according to the flesh, that is, submits—although in a way that is not quite conscious, but nevertheless actual—to the three forms of lust, especially to the lust of the flesh, ceases to be capable of that freedom for which "Christ set us free." He also ceases to be suitable for the real gift of himself, which is the fruit and expression of this freedom."
I find this whole piece to be very, very deep, especially the part about:
"Christ set us free in order that we might remain free," precisely in the sense that he manifested to us the ethical (and theological) subordination of freedom to charity, and that he linked freedom with the commandment of love."
As we have seen repeatedly, our practical theology manifests in relative levels of hierarchy, just like everything else in the implicate order of the universe; thus, it is no surprise to see the words: "subordination of freedom to charity". The sense, here, is not that charity is more important than freedom, but merely that CHARITY MUST COME FIRST, just as faith precedes belief, and belief precedes understanding. Just as the Father precedes the Son. But let us remember that all these spiritual precedents lead to a final thing: right action; let us, in imitation of the Christ, perform what is right, as dictated by the communications of Jesus from the heart of God to our own hearts. Let us see, once again, that our whole argument revolves around the pivotal point of Jesus, who sets us free through His mediation between our puny human minds and the mighty Word of the Father. Let us find our true freedom in that.
Let us pray: Jesus let Your Word be our sword and shield. Let us be slow to attack what we don't understand, and let us be quick to uphold the truth that flows from Your mouth to ours. Though we be punished by the wicked and accused by Satan's lies, let us exult in the truth, and cherish the freedom of right action, in an ecstatic eternal moment, even though the blows of evil men may strike us down in the next. Amen