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A Reading from Scripture
John: 14: 15-21 — 15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
During the first two years of ordained ministry, Ann and I lived in the Adams Morgan area of Washington DC. We lived at a medical facility called Christ House. Christ House reached out to the homeless men population throughout the region. Ann and I had prayed and searched for a very meaningful ministry for over seven years and in our early 50s we were invited to join the staff of Christ House. The years in that ministry were our “mountain top” experience.
Our primary responsibility was to live in an apartment building that had thirty-four efficiency apartments for the men in recovery. We had a 750 square foot two-bedroom apartment, and we shared our life with the men. Life was a challenge and we learned so much from the men, many who had just been released from prison and found themselves caught up in drug and alcohol addictions and hence homeless. Christ House is a recovery facility and many of the men found a new life in Christ through recovery.
One of my most memorable times was my 4:30 AM sitting on the front steps with Henry. The coffee was hot and strong. Henry repeated the tales of his experience in prison and one of his tasks was to make coffee. Henry was now free from prison and his life was on the rebound as a man recovering from addictions and living at Christ House. True freedom was a valuable and unexpected gift that emerged from Christ House. They had paid a tremendous price for their newly found freedom.
We read about freedom, dream about freedom, rejoice in the notion of freedom, teach, advocate, and hope for freedom, but what do we mean by freedom? Freedom means many things to many people. We can view freedom politically, as having the opportunity to vote for ideas, people, or parties which best represent our views. Closely tied to this is the notion of freedom of speech, where one has the liberty to voice their opinion or perspective. Others understand freedom in a financial context, where people seek to free themselves of financial debt, outstanding credit, and burdensome loans.
What does true freedom look like? Does it look like a voter’s ballot or someone walking out of prison? Is it seen in being able to buy anything we want or in the fact that we do not owe a thing to anyone? Of course, it is crucial to define what we mean by freedom so that we know what we are looking for, what we’re hoping to attain.
Not surprisingly, the Bible says quite a bit about true freedom, despite any impressions we might have about it being merely a book of restrictive rules. In reality, if we are willing to consider it, the Bible can help us distinguish between what it means for us to be free from something and to be free to do or be something. Freedom from and freedom to are two sides of the freedom coin. It is interesting that many of the freedoms we seek today are seen as ends in themselves, as a final goal to be attained. It is as though we think that once our freedom is achieved, all our problems will be solved. Why? Because we will have freedom! But freedom from what? And freedom to do or be what?
For example, let us say that we are in deep financial debt. We realize our desperate state and begin to strategically work our way out of financial bondage. It may take months, years, or even decades, but eventually we hope to balance our budget and move from being in the red to black. But, even if we accomplish our goal and attain financial freedom, particularly freedom from debt, have we really attained true freedom? In other words, does having no financial debt necessarily mean that we have attained financial freedom?
Not really! See, our hearts, which drove us into debt in the first place, remain unchanged.
It may be the case, and unfortunately it often is, that as soon as we get out of debt, we plunge right back into it. Why? Because our hearts see and desire something it cannot live without. So, we buy it, and we’re in debt again. So, if our hearts are not changed, neither will our behavior change.
That is why the Bible says that true freedom begins in the heart. We act on our thoughts and behave according to our desires. The God known to Jesus Christ is a God who loves us enough to set us free. Unfortunately, because of this freedom, terrible things happen. We live always in the deep puzzle of love, freedom, and pain. God loves us! We are free!
Pain is all around! God did not make us puppets, and our freedom is often misused.
This Memorial Day reminds us of the appalling cost we pay for our freedom. Wars and rumors of wars are the long human story. That story can be one of self-sacrifice and heroism, but it is also a story of the death of the young and the maiming of the innocent.
For countless centuries, human beings have tried to settle their differences through violence. That is a choice our freedom offers us. God could have created us in ways that prevented us from choosing violence. But to do this, God would have had to make us puppets rather than free. This Memorial Day holiday reminds us of the cost that comes with humanities freedom to choose violence to settle human wants.
One of the reasons God gives us the gift of freedom is because the God who loves us will not coerce our love in return, but wants it given back freely. The God who loves us invites, but does not force, our love in return. Yet this is a costly freedom that leaves us at liberty to make war, deal drugs, drive our cars drunk, and countless other horrors. In a world so full of hurts like these, one of the things that we must always learn when we come to worship God is that God is not the author and the source of the violence and the pain of life. God is the one who loves us into freedom—even at great cost.
Our Gospel lesson today from John, offers us another truth about God’s love. We reciprocate God’s love by keeping Christ’s commandments. The God who loves us wants us to love back by keeping Christ’s commandments. This is a choice our freedom offers. It is important to understand this clearly. God is not interested in a mushy, syrupy, hand waving love. Rather, God wants our love shown in the actions of our lives, in the ways we love God, self, and others through following Christ’s commandments. To love God is to use our freedom wisely. To love God is to choose the Christ-like way. To love God is to imitate the deeds of Jesus. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
How easy and cheap it is to claim to love God without accepting the hard tasks of keeping Christ’s commandments. Our world and our churches are full of people who want an easy love, love that makes no demands, love of feeling rather than action. Many times, people go to the large churches because it is easy to escape and hide from the demands of the Gospel.
Our Gospel lesson makes it clear that a meaningful love of God is shown through a life lived in harmony with the way of Christ. This understanding of our use of freedom is vastly more robust than simple affection for God. It is infinitely more demanding. It recognizes we have the freedom to reject Christ’s commandments. If we are honest, we know that our freedom has largely been misused and abused. Much of the terrible pain of the world is the result of our choice to follow our own way rather than the commandments of Christ.
Finally, our Gospel lesson promises that those who love God by obeying the commandments of Christ will have help. Jesus speaks of sending the “Advocate” (14:16), which is generally understood as being the gift of the Holy Spirit. An advocate supports and defends us. In our culture, advocate is another term for an attorney who stands at our side and offers counsel and support. But Jesus’ words suggest another understanding of the work of the advocating Holy Spirit: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (14:15-16). The Advocate is sticking up not so much for us, but for Christ’s commandments, advocating for our faithfulness to the way of Christ.
When we make beginning efforts to keep Christ’s commandments, we are rewarded by further encouragement to grow in the keeping of those commandments. The Advocate advocates not for us, but for Jesus. The Holy Spirit reinforces our desire to follow Christ.
Our free choices to love God by obeying Christ are encouraged and empowered by the Spirit’s presence, urging the choices for good.
On this weekend when the nation honors those who have paid an ultimate price for humanity’s choice to follow its own way rather than the way of Christ, we are reminded of the gift of God’s love. We are reminded of God’s gift of freedom. We are reminded of the invitation to love God by obeying Christ’s commandments. We are promised that each right choice will be empowered and reinforced by the Holy Spirit advocate. Let us love God by choosing the way of Christ.
This is true freedom and true freedom only exists in Jesus Christ. How does it happen?
God changes our heart by His Holy Spirit. God makes us spiritually alive by giving us a new heart. This heart desires to love God. It sees Jesus Christ as beautiful and desires to love Him as the Lord and Savior of our life. By faith, we give our life to Jesus and receive His forgiveness and freedom from sin. Not only this, but we are now free to do the very thing we were created to do – to honor and enjoy God forever. And this joy in God is from our heart – our new heart given to us by God.