Freedom, Rights, and Service
Scriptures: I Corinthians 9:19-23; Galatians 5:13-15
On June 12 thousands of people in over 80 cities across Russia marched in protest of corruption by Russian officials, specifically the way certain Russian officials were getting rich by controlling government contracts and doling them out to a favored few in exchange for lucrative bribes. It is important to note that they were not calling for the overthrow of Vladimir Putin or the Russian government; they were only protesting the practice of corruption and favoritism by some officials. But immediately riot police went out and started beating up the protestors, arresting more than 1000 of them just in the city of Moscow.
When I read about this, I thought about the last time we had marchers in Seattle. I don’t remember what the issue was, but whether I agreed with it or not, and even if I was irritated because a street I wanted to use was closed off for a time, I give thanks that we have the freedom in this country to march—to engage in peaceful, non-destructive demonstrations to express a political opinion, because many people in the world do not have that right. Freedom of speech is not something to be taken for granted.
Nor is freedom of the press. According to Article 53 of the North Korean Constitution, citizens of North Korea have freedom of speech, press, association, and demonstration. But not really. The only demonstrations allowed are the ones actually organized by the government. Internet access is tightly controlled and most radios and televisions in North Korean homes are engineered only to receive government approved stations. In addition all journalists must be approved by the government and be members of the ruling party. So even if sometimes I shake my head at the rantings on cable news channels, I am grateful they exist. Because in some other countries they are not allowed.
And then there is religion. In North Korea, as in several other countries, Christian are allowed to worship in a limited number of preapproved churches, but they are strictly forbidden to invite non-Christians to come to their services. There are very few countries that forbid the existence of Christian churches, not even North Korea. But there are a numerous countries, including North Korea, with strict laws against proselytizing people, which means telling people about your faith and inviting them to come and experience it. So I am grateful for the freedom we have in this country, not just the freedom to worship but the freedom to invite our neighbors to come and worship. That is a simple freedom not to be taken for granted.
But nothing will endanger our freedom like its misuse as a vehicle for self-indulgence and greed. In our first scripture reading from Galatians 5, the apostle Paul says,
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. … If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
He goes on in Galatians to describe the fruits of self-indulgence, what he calls the works of the flesh, verses 19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
I did not really appreciate this list until I read Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of it in his massive paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. Listen to his paraphrase of Galatians 5:19-21:
It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
That’s what we get when our freedom is separated from our purpose. Our purpose is to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and if our freedom is not used for that purpose, it will eventually destroy us.
And that’s where we come to Paul’s discussion of his own freedom in I Corinthians, chapter 9. In verse 19 he says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” By the word “win” he means help people believe in and experience God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. If our freedom is not used for that purpose, Paul says, then it is wasted.
He goes on to give examples. As a Christian he is free from the Jewish laws of the Old Testament, but he is bound by a greater law—the law of love. And so when relating to Jewish people, he respects and observes their laws so that when he shares the gospel with them, he will have credibility. Likewise with those outside the law—meaning Gentiles—he shows respect for them and their traditions so that when he shares the gospel with them, there will be no unnecessary barriers to hearing it. When he says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some,” he does not mean sacrificing his own beliefs and values. He means respecting and loving people on their own terms, in order that they might hear and believe the good news of God’s transforming love.
This is part of a long discussion in I Corinthians 9 about the rights of an apostle. I was thinking about reading the whole chapter, because the first 14 verses are about clergy compensation, the right of an apostle to be paid. I thought that was something we should all read. Only if you read it you will discover that after spending 14 verses arguing that apostles have a right to be paid, Paul says he gladly gives up this right in order to help spread the gospel. So you have to be careful. The Bible does not always say what we want it to say. But the point Paul makes over and over in this chapter is that his rights as an apostle don’t mean anything unless he is using them to share with others the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. That’s the point of being an apostle.
That is also the point of having freedom. If we have freedom of speech, it is not so we can put each other down but so we can build each other up in the life God wants us to have in Jesus Christ. That certainly includes standing up for people whose rights have been trampled, but the point of standing up for human rights is not so that people can do whatever they want; it is so that people everywhere can become the beacons of light and hope that God meant them to be all along.
The only way we will preserve freedom of speech in this country is if we use it to build people up rather than to tear them down. The only way we will preserve freedom of the press in this country is if we use it to speak the truth in love. The only way we will preserve freedom of assembly in this country is if we use it to build bridges of community. And the only way we will preserve freedom of worship in this country is if we use it to worship Someone greater than ourselves.