A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (17/01/21): Christian Freedom, Christian Ethics

Christian Freedom, Christian Ethics
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Paul says:
“All things are lawful to me.”
Paul summarises the effect of his theology of grace in a single phrase. This is the outcome of God’s grace. What God has done in Jesus Christ has fundamentally changed the way things are. By sending Jesus God has transformed the relationship between the human race and God. In the death of Jesus God has demonstrated his love towards all people. Access to this love, to this relationship, to this new reality is gained simply by placing your trust in what God has already done. This is what theologically we call “salvation by grace through faith.” It is Paul’s great insight into what has happened in Jesus. But the effect of this is as Paul has put it here:
“All things are lawful to me.”
Or to put it another way: The law is abolished. Or rather, the law has been completely fulfilled in Jesus and therefore rendered redundant. For Paul God in Jesus deals with the human condition. On the one hand the cross answers the human capacity for and tendency towards destructive and self-destructive behaviour. God sets us free from our captivity to the negative ways which we can live and relate to one another. On the other hand, Paul goes further he sees that the cross also sets us free from captivity to other human attempts to deal with that problem, even the one which his people have regarded as divinely sanctioned, that is the law. Paul has grasped that the law does not answer the problem of the human condition. It does not and cannot set human beings free from themselves, or free for God. But God has answered this in Jesus. God set us free, so that Paul or anyone else who puts their trust in Jesus can say: “All things are lawful to me.”

This is Paul’s astonishing claim. This is what Paul says is the Gospel. But almost equally astonishingly to suggest that this is what the Gospel is causes a good deal of offence and creates a great deal of opposition.  Hearing Paul’s announcement of the good news: “All things are lawful to me and to anyone else who puts their trust in Jesus” creates a negative reaction. What about. . . ? What about morality? If everything is lawful, what is to stop anyone from doing anything? Surely that is the road to chaos? Doesn’t that lead to the collapse of civilisation? This reaction is echoed in the contemporary anxiety about a slide into moral relativism as the power of traditional social morals over society has declined. If there is noting to restrain individuals what will happen to society. To claim that all things are lawful is to prompt moral panic. The law which Paul is talking about was of course just one of the greatest codes of traditional values that ever existed. And Paul has declared that abolished. The slide into moral relativism, “anything goes,” it seems begins with Paul.
This theology of grace does appear to create a problem around morality and ethics. The negative reaction in part by a minority response to Paul’s theology both among the first Christians and ever since. There have always been some who have heard Paul’s words and taken them as an excuse to do exactly as they have pleased. It has happened rarely, but often enough for the Church to recognise it and it as a heresy and give it a name: antinomianism. That is literally, the ideology of being against the law. From time to time a very small number of Christians have decided that if the law is abolished the best way for them to demonstrate their trust in the God, is to show they are not trying to earn God’s favour. And the best way to do this is by actually disobeying the requirements of the law. You see the twisted logic that is at work there. But this has never by the biggest reason for the reaction against Paul’s theology of grace. More generally this interpretation of the gospel has been rejected because people can’t see how things hold together without something or someone in control. Freedom proves to be a terrifying prospect, for individuals and for those concerned for society as a whole. Without rules how does religion or society even hold together. Without the controlling influence of traditional values doesn’t everything just disintegrate. The Church itself has in effect often said: “Paul we hear what you are saying, but we find the law, traditional values, moralism so much more reliable.” The church itself has often feared the consequences of this theology of grace. For time to time parts of the church has had to rediscover this theology of grace, with Martin Luther or with John Wesley. And they were opposed for it in the their own day just as Paul had been. But just as often the church has fallen quickly back into moralism. Methodism begins with the recovery and reassertion of this message of God’s gracious act and its transforming power. But it didn’t take very long for Methodism to fall back into a rather narrow and censorious form of moralism. It has always been this way with the Good News that God sets us free.

But Paul himself defends his theology from those who take him to mean “anything goes.” He does so both against those who take this as good thing, and use it as an excuse for doing whatever they like. But also he does it to those who hear it negatively, and who condemn him for rejecting morality. Paul has to do this again and again. To the Church in Rome he writes:
“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?
He immediately goes on to answer his own rhetorical question:
“By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it.” (Romans 6:1-2)
To his friends in Galatia he writes:
“For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence.” (Galatians 5:13)
And to his his favourite, but also his most troubled Church, he writes:
“All things are lawful to me”
Which is his one phrase summary and assertion of his theology of grace and of Christian liberty, but he continues:
“But not all things are beneficial.”
Paul does not abandon morality or ethics. Anyone who has read very much of what Paul has written knows that he is deeply concerned with how Christians should live, how they should behave. He is committed to a disciplined moral life. But he gives a new theological basis for a moral life.

Paul continues:
“All things are lawful to me, but I will not be dominated by anything.”
Paul is clear, God has set us free. But he is also clear that most of all we are in danger from ourselves and from the weakness of the flesh as he would have put it. Having been set free from the constraints of the law and from traditional social values, the real risk is that we become captive once more. And the greatest risk of that comes from our own desires. Being embodied as humans gives us natural desires. The ones which catch Paul’s attention here are the desires for food and for sex. But equally being human leaves us wanting security, and comfort or pleasure, it often leaves wanting prestige and wealth and power too. These things make us a danger to ourselves and to one another. It is easy for our desires to take control of us and drive us to pattern of behaviour that are not as, he says, “beneficial.” This is exactly what the law and traditional social values seek to protect us from. But Paul grasps how and why this has failed. And how and why God’s action in Jesus and a theology grace are necessary. For one thing the law simply doesn’t work, it simply doesn’t provide the means for humans to escape themselves to be reunited with God. But more to the point it leaves human beings captive to another human appetite, the desire for control. This is what grace and Christian freedom replace.
Paul often makes a contrast. He contrasts life in the flesh with life in the Spirit. He doesn’t make that contrast directly here, but it is implicit in what he is saying. The basis of Christian freedom, and the basis of Christian behaviour, Christian ethics, is the presence of the Spirit. As he does say here:
“Anyone united with the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”
For Paul the basis of all Christian life, the fundamental motivation behind how Christians behave is the living presence of God within them. Christians live and act in the knowledge that having placed their trust in Jesus, God is really present in their lives. A Christians becomes so filled with the love and grace of God, that whilst they are completely free, that freedom becomes an opportunity only to reflect God’s goodness. Life lived in the Spirit is one which is free to be beneficial to itself and everything that surrounds it.

My Grandmother, late in her life, and she was almost 91 when she died, late in her life she reflected on her life in the Church. She said that she had been listening to sermons for more than 80 years, and that she could remember almost none of them in particular. Except for one. As a young woman my Gran had smoked quite heavily, as fashionable young women in the late 1920s often did. She said she heard a sermon on this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. As his text the preacher took the line:
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.”
That is the line in which Paul points to the basis of Christian moral behaviour. There is no law in Christian teaching against smoking, indeed the Bible knows nothing at all about smoking. But there is no law in Christian teaching against anything else either. Only the recognition of what God has done in Jesus, of God’s real presence dwelling in our lives, and of the power of that to transform us. Hearing that line from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians my Grandmother quit smoking on the spot!

We often misread Paul. He does giving a lot of instructions about what he thinks Christian living should look like. We read him as if he is laying down a new law that Christians should be subject to. If that were the case his greatest theological insight would be contradicted and meaningless. God in Jesus Christ set us free! But not free to fall into some other form of captivity. And he means either captivity to our own desires and wilfulness, or captivity to the ways in which humans have sought to restrain and regulate ourselves, by the law or by traditional values. What Paul is fact does is merely offer a series of exemplifications of how his theology might play out life in differing circumstances. For Paul God sets us free to allow God to live with and within us, and to allow grace to transform us. That is what he means when he says:
“All things are lawful to me, but not all things are beneficial.”
Amen.

Christian Freedom, Christian Ethics by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 


 

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