Today is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, a day when freedom is celebrated from sea to shining sea. It’s a different kind of freedom than the Apostle Paul talks about. Paul’s wasn’t talking about the freedom to own guns, or marry someone of the same sex, or get an abortion, or vote, or drive without a seat belt… it was about the freedom of our hearts and souls.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
My guess is that this understanding of freedom was as foreign to people in Paul’s time as it is to people today.
You see, Paul found a surprising thing happened to him after his mystical encounter with Jesus. All the laws he had upheld all those years as a devout Jew didn’t mean much of anything to him anymore. In Jesus, Paul found a unique expression of the Divine, and through that encounter with light and love he experienced healing, wholeness, and a transcendence of the loneliness, separation and emptiness our souls feel when we are disconnected from our Source. Paul had no idea life in the Spirit of God could be like this. He felt free.
Paul completely changed his tune. Now instead of enforcing the 613 laws of Judaism, he taught that life in the law leads to death. Not physical death, but the death of our souls and separation from God. When we focus too much then on trying to do all the right things and believe all the right things that we actually lose sight of God.
Richard Rohr calls this the “performance principle” and says, “Almost all of us start with a performance principle of some kind: “I’m good because I obey this commandment, because I do this kind of work, or because I belong to this group.” That’s the calculus the ego understands… but that game has to fall apart. It has to, or it will kill you.”
Sadly Paul’s assertion that the law leads to death has had little, if any, impact on Christianity. Most Christians today are enslaved by the laws created over the centuries by the churches… not by Jesus! We have lost the message of freedom in God that Jesus preached.
Some Christians will agreed that “good works” won’t get you into heaven. But then they’ll tell you that what gets you in is “faith.” Um, hello, that’s just another condition. I suppose it is easy to see how Paul could have led them to that conclusion. Paul emphasized over and over again that people just needed to have faith in Jesus to experience freedom. But for Paul that faith was an abolition of requirements because it involved a radically new way of seeing and being. It involved seeing all things as one with God, and being an expression of God’s love for all.
For Paul, freedom in Christ meant that people were free from having to measure up, freedom from trying to earn God’s love. And in turn we are free to love others without conditions, with judgments, without unhealthy attachments. And they were free from beating themselves up with guilt and shame. We seem to have forgotten this… or maybe never got it in the first place.
There is a Hasidic story, told by Megan McKenna in her book Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, of Rabbi Naftali…
It was the rabbi’s custom every evening after the sun went down to go walking through the town and then into the outskirts. It provided him with time to reflect and kept him up on anything that was happening, the comings and goings of his own neighbors. It was also the custom of the wealthy landowners to hire watchmen to watch the perimeters of their property at night, whether they were home or not, as a security measure. One evening after dark, the rabbi met one of these watchers and asked him whom he worked for and was given an answer… And the watcher assumed that the rabbi too was working for someone and asked him who his employer was.
The rabbi stopped in his tracks, for the question hit him squarely in his heart. Whom did he work for? Was it obvious that he served the Master of the Universe? He wasn’t sure, and so he didn’t answer right away. Instead he walked along with the man as he watched and walked the grounds of the rich man’s estate. Then the rabbi spoke: “I’m not sure that I really work for anyone, I’m sorry to say. I am a rabbi in this town.” After a long, silent walk, the rabbi asked the watcher, “Will you come and work for me?”
“Of course, I’d be delighted to, Rabbi,” the man responded. “What would my duties entail?”
“Oh, there would just be one thing you would always do,” the rabbi answered. “Remind me whom I work for, whose employ I’m in, and why I’m here – that’s all. Remind me!”
Perhaps that is why we form spiritual communities, to remind each other who God is in our lives and what freedom that gives us. Freedom to love and work for justice. Freedom to share peace and hope and joy. A freedom that is life-giving, because it is dependent upon no one else, nor on what people might do and say in our lives.
Happy Independence Day!