Freed to serve with joy

Freed to serve with joy

Freedom is valuable

Freedom is one of humankind’s highest ideals and most valuable possessions. Down through the ages nations fight for independence; people lay down their lives for liberation. Just think of the struggle for the emancipation of slaves, or for freedom of religion. Probably the most important symbol for America is the giant Statue of Liberty in the harbour of New York. This statue of the Roman goddess of freedom was a gift from the freedom-loving French people in 1886. But freedom can also be a risk; it can be misapprehended. My or our freedom could deprive others of their freedom. What we strive for as liberty can easily degenerate into a new slavery. When are we truly free?

The Reformation and freedom

Freedom was one of the core issues in the Reformation, 500 years ago. Thence the overall theme of this series of pamphlets: Freed. Luther and Calvin thought and wrote a good deal about it. One of Luther’s first treatises, Concerning Christian Liberty, left an important impression on the Reformation as a movement. Therein he made the “revolutionary” statement: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Herein he associated himself with Paul: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone …” (1 Cor 9:19), and “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another …” (Rom 13:8).

To be a Christian means to be free, freed, liberated. This freedom is valuable, we must cherish it, stand firm therein: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). This verse – actually the whole letter of Galatians about the Christian’s freedom – lies at the heart of our Christian belief and is the profound meaning of the Reformation.

What is threatening this freedom?

Freedom – also freedom of Christians – is being threatened from two sides.

Firstly our freedom is threatened from outside ourselves. There is evil in our world, powers and fearsome forces outside ourselves that come to rob us of our freedom and paralyse our lives. It could be other people, despotic, megalomaniac people; it could be a dictator who suppresses people; or it could be my husband or wife, a parent or a child, my boss, or a bully who keeps me physically or emotionally a prisoner. But it could also be unjust political or economic systems, an ethos, certain cultural customs or role expectations that could rob me of my freedom. Yes, it could even be religion, when religion loads a yoke on us, adds an extra obligation, demands earnings, makes me the slave of a religious leader or a doctrine. Paul protested against this particularly in Galatians 5 where he warns against the Jewish tradition to burden people with all kinds of directives like a heavy yoke, thereby making them unfree.

Secondly our freedom is threatened from within ourselves. This happens if we live so self-obsessed, selfish and self-directed, so bent into ourselves (people refer to self-absorbed pursuits as navel-gazing), similar to Narcissus in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection in the water (his selfie) that he was unable to leave the river and eventually died there. It is then when our own skin becomes like the walls of a prison cell. It is then when we become slaves of our own desires and avarice, our ambition and vindictiveness, our lust that must be satisfied. We then become promiscuous because the only bond that binds us is the self, the old nature, the self-god who has the final say. We ourselves create gods by which we enslave ourselves – there are many such modern gods on which people place their trust and which they serve like slaves. In our rebellion against God, we create the I-god – Paul calls it our sinful nature in Galatians – who not only steals our freedom, but also that of everything and everyone around us. Eventually our total living space is consumed by it.

Christ has set us free … to serve

Christ has come to set us free from everything that enslaves us. That’s the good news! That’s the real freedom, says John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” When Christ was crucified, our old, sinful nature was nailed to the cross with him. And when he rose from the grave, he gave us a new life, a life of freedom. We are no longer slaves, not of others or of ourselves. Professor Dirkie Smit writes that we confess it with rich consolation in the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 1: “That we are not our own, that is the comfort and that is the vocation. We do not belong to ourselves. That is our deepest solace in life and death, thus we profess. We do not belong to ourselves, do not care for ourselves. We are freed, fearless, saved. We belong to our only Saviour, Jesus Christ. But this is also the heart of our vocation. We ought to live like people who do not belong to themselves, but to Christ and therefore to each other, to our neighbours. Freed, to love and to serve, willingly and wholeheartedly.” These freedoms are only honest and lasting if it forces us out of our self-concern and directs us to our vocation to serve others, carry each other’s burdens, voluntarily and with joy. “You … were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love” (Gal 5:13).

How should we serve one another?

  • As Christ did, that is how we should serve one another. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). As Christ emptied himself by assuming the form of a slave, that is how we should do it. Luther said we should all become “Christs” to one another, priests… .
  • This means that we should learn to notice one another and others, should learn to listen to others, should stand in one another’s shoes, should try to understand what the real need is for now and how to encourage and practically help one another. It can even also ask that we will fight together against injustice, against whatever threatens our freedom, that we will go to stand where God stands, with the aggrieved (Confession of Belhar).
  • We should be able to distinguish those things that really matter, what love asks of us. This is precisely why the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit and gave the Word to guide us, to hold us in this freedom, in this relationship of love with God and our neighbour.
  • Thus we do this service to God and our neighbour not to earn something with it, but because we are reprieved, freed; we do it with grateful joy. There is no greater joy of living than to serve God and our neighbour with love, as redeemed people.

 Gideon van der Watt

Share this post