Limits of Freedom – Aug. 12, 2018

I had a good friend named Kevin growing up, who used to love to say, “There is nothing better in life than food.” He loved all you can eat buffets. To add insult to injury, Kevin was over 6 feet tall and thin as a rail.

I am sure he would love ‘the current market trend we are in’. Red Robin is offering bottomless or unlimited steak fries. I also heard McDonalds will soon be testing that market.

Steak-n-Shake offers a time of unlimited pancakes.

Some pizza restaurants and the Olive Garden offer unlimited salad and breadsticks. I know Pizza Hut in Ft. Wayne has an all you can eat pizza buffet on Wednesdays. I guess, Applebee’s also has a time of unlimited chicken, riblets and fries. Americans love food!

How many French Fries do you think the average American eats in a year? 29 pounds. The amount of freedom one has to eat, and eat, and eat is staggering. Once you pay the initial cost, you can eat as much as you want, as often as you want, in whatever order you want (get desert first!) It’s a glutton’s dream!

Doctors and nutritionists tell us that ‘this kind of freedom’ is making us sick and even killing us. Now, here in America, it is kind of risky to talk about ‘freedom’ because we are also obsessed with it. Like our food, freedom is our mantra. Don’t you dare try to limit’ anyone’s freedom.

We are, of course, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have free speech, free exercise of religion, freedom to assemble – and freedom of the press. And everyone knows we are endowed by our Creator with certain ‘unalienable Rights’; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

Every 4th of July and every Memorial Day we are reminded, that freedom isn’t free. Many have died so we could have our freedom. Other nations long to come to America, so they can be free. Ours is a land of opportunity, right? Freedom abounds, well….Absolute freedom ends in chaos and anarchy.

Imagine if everyone did what they wanted, with no rules. Imagine no laws to stop others from stealing, becoming violent – or from murder.

Biologist and writer Thomas Huxley once said, “A man’s worst difficulties begin – when he is able to do as he likes.”  Roman Statesman and lawyer Cicero back in 63 BC wrote, “We are in bondage to the law – ‘in order that we may be free’.”

The truth is, you can do pretty much what you want in this country, but there are consequences.      Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, “Certainly, we have free speech – but your freedom has limits, – you are not free to ‘falsely shout fire’ in a crowded cinema.” Falsely is the Key Word!

You are not free to spread hate speech, pass on bomb threats, assemble a large crowd without a permit – and just try ‘not paying your taxes sometime’. A civil society must have laws and rules.

Ironically, this was the discussion that Paul was having with the Corinthians in his first letter.

Some of the folks found freedom in Christ and they wanted absolute freedom. Others were rule followers and they advocated strict laws and guidelines.

The original discussion centered around; if believers should eat meat sacrificed to idols and other gods. Jews and Gentiles had very different approaches. The question they really wanted to know was — how much freedom does a believer really have?

If Jesus Christ set us free, aren’t we free indeed? Shouldn’t believers be free from all restrictions and all consequences. Didn’t Paul himself say ‘that he is no longer bound by the law?’ Some believers, then literally assumed that freedom meant ‘an absence of limitations’. They believed, since they were forgiven and the slate was wiped clean, they were free to do whatever they wanted – whenever they wanted.

If you pull out your dictionary, freedom is defined as having the power or right to act, speak, or think ‘as one wants’ without hindrance or restraint. This is exactly what they wanted. But, is this ‘really what we mean’ when we talk about a believer’s understanding of freedom?

In fact, this was not a new argument, Paul and the other disciples had been addressing it ‘in almost every church they had established’. The apostle Peter explicitly warns believer’s in

1 Peter 2:16, “Live as free men, – but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; – live as servants of God.” 

Peter goes on to explain in 2 Peter 2:19 that, “These false teachers promise freedom, while they themselves are slaves to depravity – for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.”

English Author and social critic Os Guinness said, “The rewards of freedom are always sweet, but its demands are stern, ‘for at its heart is the paradox’ that the greatest enemy of freedom – is freedom.” 

And it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

When folks talk about freedom today, they often talk about doing whatever they want, often at the expense of others. In other words, they are saying, “I’m not accountable to you or anyone.” They believe they are masters of their own destiny. And unbelievers often criticize people of faith for wanting to ‘limit them’.

In the midst of this discussion Paul writes these amazing words, “Everything is permissible” – but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible” – but not everything is constructive.”  (1 Corinthians 10:23)   

Scholars are torn on how to interpret this passage and so they do it in ‘one of two ways’. Some explain, “You say, everything is permissible…but in reality, it is not.” Others say that Paul is agreeing with them, “You are right, everything is permissible, but…” I tend to lean towards the later.

It is true that ‘we can do anything’, but not everything is good for us. While we can do anything, there are often consequences that we may not like.

Then Paul finishes with these words, “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” (1 Corinthians 10:24)  It sounds a-little-like what Jesus said in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We call that the Golden Rule.

A Biblical understanding of freedom is centered in the work and passion of Jesus. We were, essentially, set ‘free from sin’, so that we are then ‘free to love others’. In other words, Freedom is balanced with restraint, responsibility, love and mutual respect. Or as my grandmother used to say, “Your freedom ends – where mine begins.” Love requires this.

The Corinthian Christians were focused on their “own rights” and “goals.” They did not consider how their actions might cause harm to others. Just because something is permitted doesn’t mean it is beneficial or constructive. Before we choose to do what we want, we might stop and ask ourselves; is it moral, is it legal and is it ethical. And finally, is what I am doing bringing glory to God.

In 1774, US Congressman Nathaniel Niles wrote, “By neglecting to embrace the gospel, we convert civil liberty, which is in itself, a delicious kind of food, into a slow poison…”

And as the Chaplin to the US Senate Peter Marshall explained, “May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please – but as the opportunity to do what is right.”

Everyone raised in Sunday school knows “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) and “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1); we conveniently forget that freedom does not guarantee an easy life, – that freedom often demands change – and that ‘the price of freedom’ came at a very high cost for Jesus.

And even though Christ was free, Philippians 2:6-8 tells us, “Christ Jesus, who, ‘being in very nature God’, did not consider ‘equality with God something to be grasped’, but made himself nothing, – taking the very nature of a servant, – being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

Paul reminds us then, in 1Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” – and I might add, also with your life. Paul asks us if we are using our freedom to build up others instead of tearing them down.

Those who wanted complete freedom should not be using it ‘in a way to hurt others’. Likewise, those who were so ‘bound by the law’; could also made life miserable for others. Paul was saying, ‘find a more loving answer’. That is where grace comes in. The limit to liberty is love. We should stand by ‘what is essential’ – but not fight over the non-essentials in life. And our rights should never trample another’s rights.

Sadly, many outside the church and some inside don’t get it. They say, ‘we are not really free unless we can do whatever we want’, take whatever we want, or say whatever we want.

Let me just remind us all, Jesus did not come to take away the law – but to fulfill it. (Matthew 5:17)

Jesus and Paul indicated that ‘the law was fulfilled by love’. “Loving God and loving your neighbor is the fulfillment of the law” Romans 13:10.

Finally, Paul was reminding them and us that personal freedom is not the greatest concern of the Christian life – instead, doing everything for the Glory of God – and seeking the good of others (so that they might be saved) is.     If this is our goal, then sometimes we must sacrifice some of our freedoms for the good of others.

In 1948, the United States joined 48 other nations in signing ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ in Paris. According to the Human Freedom Index, which presents the state of human freedom in the world based on ‘a broad measure that encompasses personal, civil, and economic freedom’, America is currently the 23rd freest country in the world.

While we pride ourselves in upholding freedom, the United States has lost ground ‘when it comes to protecting the rights of children, the elderly, the disabled and the poorest of the poor’. Many believe this is true because we have shifted toward being ‘a more secular nation’.

Others believe it is true because the church has become silent and too inner focused. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 8:9, “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block for others.” Then at the end of the chapter he writes these words,

“So, ‘if what I eat causes another believer to fall into sin’, I will ‘never eat meat again as long as I live’, for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble.”  (1 Corinthians 8:13)

Those are amazing words of love. You see, Paul understood that ‘no one is truly free while others are still in bondage’. I pray we can all live life with the same conviction that Paul had.

Your assignment is…Spend some time this week thinking about ‘what you might sacrifice’, so others may ‘simply live’. Then, live as Christ would live, as a servant, willing to make those sacrifices.

Amen.