There’s a great scene in a classic episode of The Simpsons in which Homer, having been chosen to go into space as an ‘every-man’, breaks an ant farm, sending the ants everywhere in the zero-gravity environment. One of the ants, panicking, screams, “Freedom! Horrible horrible freedom!” It’s a line that comes to my mind often, especially to tease myself when I’m struggling to make a decision. Indeed, I find ‘Freedom! Horrible horrible freedom!’ to be a great companion to ‘first world problems.’
As much as I may make light of this, the scene does speak to a fundamental truth about human nature. As much as we want freedom, it’s often difficult to know what to do with it. Being free means not only that we are able to choose, but also that we have the responsibility to choose. And this kind of freedom is not as straightforward as we’d like to it to be. Two weeks ago, we saw one example of how this was playing out in the church in Paul’s day. In response to some Christians in Corinth who interpreted their freedom in Christ in an extreme ‘anything goes’ way, Paul had to step in and remind them that freedom comes with responsibility. To quote (yet again) the great line from former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, we have to ask ourselves not only what we want to be free from but also what we are free for.
In Chapter 6 of his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul offered them two principles to help guide their discernment: if we are truly exercising our freedom in Christ, our choices will be edifying — that is, beneficial, building-up, and growth-oriented — and they will not put us into further bondage, whether to substances, our passing whims and urges, or our psychological baggage. In today’s Epistle reading, from the eighth chapter of the same letter, Paul further explores some of the tensions in understanding Christian freedom. In this situation, there is a disagreement within the Corinthian church about whether Christians ought to eat food that had been sacrificed as part of Greek religious observances. The Jewish community had explicit injunctions against eating such meat; but for Christians, who no longer observed written and oral Jewish law, it was an open question. Some, believing that these gods are nothing and that therefore there is no power in the sacrifice, had no problem eating this meat. But others, even if they accepted that theological argument, just didn’t feel comfortable with it. What were the Christians to do? Was it right to eat this meat? Or was it wrong?
Just as we saw the other week, Paul rejects the dichotomy of right and wrong, permitted and illicit. Instead he offers a third principle to guide the use of spiritual freedom: Our choices are to be grounded in love for one another. Again, this is no new teaching by Paul, but is based on Jesus’ interpretation of the Law, that we should “love our neighbours as ourselves.” We could also think of this as not a third principle, but an application of the first two principles to life in community. For a choice to be edifying, it cannot cause a brother to stumble. For a choice to be truly an expression of freedom, it cannot tempt a sister to fall into the things that keep her bound. We are free to choose, but our choices have consequences — not only for ourselves but also for those around us. To be in community — and to be a Christian is to live in a community-oriented way — means that we will be mindful of those consequences, and refrain from actions which might prove harmful or unnecessarily hurtful to others.
There are a lot of ways this principle can be applied in our lives. Freedom is a truly wonderful gift, and those of us who live in countries where our freedoms are protected and enshrined in law should be grateful for this every day, just as those of us who have found spiritual freedom are also rightfully grateful to God. But freedom is not to be made an idol. Freedom isn’t about a sort of performance of doing whatever we can get away with, just because we can. No, to be truly free means to support the freedom, the growth, and the life of our neighbours. To put it another way, the exercise of freedom is not really about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, but about why we are doing what we’re doing, and what we hope to accomplish by our choices.
To return to Archbishop Ramsey’s question, what are we free for? For the Christian, the answer is simple: We are free for love; we are free to love.