A Homily for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Text: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sets us free. Amen
Over the past several weeks, as we’ve read from Gospel According to Saint Mark about the early days of Christ’s ministry, the lectionary has also been working its way through key passages of Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Church in Corinth. Throughout, Paul has addressed a key message of the Christian faith: that through Christ, we are set free.
In chapter six, we read Saint Paul’s claim that “all things are lawful for me.” In chapter seven, he urges the Church to be free from earthly dealings that we may “be free from anxieties” “for the present form of this world is passing away.” In chapter eight, he makes the bold claim that Christians are free eat to food sacrificed to idols. At the beginning of chapter nine, just a few verses before our reading today, he asks, “Am I not free?”
Sisters and brothers, we are free indeed! We are free in the knowledge that we are justified by Christ rather than any work we could ever perform. By his life-giving passion and death and the glory of his resurrection, Christ has set us free from sin and death. Let us rejoice and be glad!
But what is freedom?
We tend to define freedom as an absence. Freedom is so often thought of as the lack of limit or restraint. Take, for example, one of our basic civil rights: freedom of speech is understood as the ability to speak one’s mind without constraints or punishment from the government. In the world’s reckoning, then, freedom is the complete absence of all limitations or obligation; the Law, with its duties and responsibilities, its must-dos and thou-shalt-nots, becomes an impediment to freedom.
According to this understanding, freedom is the absence of Law, and many theologians have taken this lens to Saint Paul, highlighting particular verses about liberty, reducing Paul’s writings to a polemic against the Law God presented to Moses. They go through with a fine-tooth comb, searching for any passage in which Paul writes against the Torah.
Even in Lutheran theology, we talk about the use of the Law: first, it shows us how to rightly order society and second, it convicts us of our sin. No wonder that even during Luther’s own life, so many of his colleagues wrote about Christian freedom as the absence of Law! Christians are pardoned from the Law’s conviction. The Law, they said, is the Old Testament. We are no longer under it. It is the way of death Rather, the Law is what has corrupted the Roman Church, with its obligations and penances.
Scripture and the Church’s Tradition, though, view freedom differently. Freedom rightly understood in the Christian faith is not the absence of Law but the presence of Grace. Our freedom poses a question. Saint Paul himself is quick to remind us that our freedom in the Gospel is not so simple. We are free indeed, but how do we live faithful lives in this new freedom?
“All things are lawful for me,” Paul says, “BUT! Not all things are beneficial. BUT! I will not be dominated by anything.”
“Be free from anxieties” and “dealings with this world” – BUT! that you might be deal more with the Kingdom of God.
Christians may eat food sacrificed to idols, sure, BUT! “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
And today, we hear the full weight of this tension:
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.”
What strange paradox is this, that we are free from the Law but also subject to Christ’s Law at the same time?
This question gets to a central part of Christian theology: the distinction between Law and Gospel. Luther and his fellow Reformers wrote of the third use of the Law. Yes, it orders civil society and shows us our sin, but the Law also shows us how to live as a holy people made new in Christ.
Let me be clear: we are not justified by our works of the Law but rather saved for the work of God’s Kingdom. The Law does not save us; instead, it reveals how we are to live as members in the Body of Christ. In living holy lives, God’s grace works through us, sanctifying us, freeing us to continue the work of redemption in the world.
Set free from sin by grace, how do we live in to this new-found freedom? Are all things now permissible? May I, in Christian liberty, go on sinning? May I covet my neighbor’s spouse? Might I, free as I am, turn a blind eye to the suffering of others? Can I ignore the least of these when they go hungry or without adequate shelter? May I ignore racist language tossed about so casually?
BY NO MEANS!
This is the tension of the Christian faith: we are free from sin and death. This is most certainly true. But we are set free for the love of God. Free as we are, that freedom sends us out in loving service to the rest of the world.
Our freedom is not defined by the absence of God’s Law. Rather, it is marked by the presence of Christ’s Law:
Love the Lord your God.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love your enemy.
Love one another.
Through the Law of Christ’s love, we are set free for the joyful duty of pouring ourselves out for the world.
And love is this: not merely some feeling of warm affection or romantic inclination, but rather a sacrificial love. The type of love that sent Christ to the cross and so powerful that it conquered the grave. It is a love that drives us to serve the Lord and our neighbors, even those who are different from us or those we might view as enemies. It’s the type of love that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to give his life serving the Kingdom of God and the type of love that sent John Lewis time and time again out to make “good trouble.”
We are set free that we might give ourselves to others out of great love, showing through our actions that great love which Christ first showed us.
Consider Paul’s writings over the past several weeks. His message in the letter to the Corinthians is summed up in today’s reading: “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.”
This is Saint Paul’s call to us: to love our neighbors as Christ loves them, serving them that they might see the love of God at work in us. Writing some 1,500 years later, Luther paraphrased Paul, writing, “A Christian is the perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is the perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.”
Our freedom as Christians is rooted in Christ’s divine commandment of love. In the glory of Christ’s resurrection, we are set free from death, and we are set free for love. Set free to love. And in great love, to serve Christ in one another.
God has set us free to be the servants of all.
May Christ strengthen us by his gracious love to do so.