Jun 9, 2015

Posted by in Featured | 1 Comment

Freedom in the Spirit

Freedom in the Spirit

Delivered by Denise Ackerman at the Groote Kerk, Cape Town, after having received the Andrew Murray/ Desmond Tutu Prize for ‘Surprised by the man on the borrowed donkey’.

Readings: Romans 8:1-; John 8:31-39

Two seemingly unrelated events frame the theme I want to reflect on Trinity Sunday, namely freedom in the Spirit. The first is an account from my own life. Fifty-eight years ago I stood in front of this pulpit and made my confession of faith led by Ds. Gustav Bam. I moved to Pretoria, got married there in the Dutch Reformed Church, and for a couple of years was a member of the Andrew Murray English-speaking Dutch Reformed community. When I found that I could no longer live with this church’s separation of our races and that this hindered my participation in Holy Communion, I left and returned to the Anglican Church in which I had been baptised.

The second event occurred recently when we celebrated Pentecost. Originally this day was a Jewish festival called Shavot that celebrated the giving of the law on Sinai. For Christians it marks seven weeks after Easter and Pentecost is often referred to as the “birthday of the church” of “the New Advent”. Whatever we call Pentecost, it signifies the new beginning when the Spirit of God was poured out on all human beings. Pentecost radically transformed the lives of Christ’s followers. When we celebrated Pentecost last week, we reminded ourselves of what it means to live filled by the Holy Spirit whom Jesus refers to as the Spirit of Truth. Furthermore he says that if we are his disciples we will know the truth and the truth will set us free (Jh.8:31-32). My journey of faith and the event of Pentecost are inseparable, as are all our journeys of faith. We have all been given the Spirit of Truth to live in freedom. To believe and to live fruitfully with the challenges of a life freed by the Spirit, we need to accept and understand what it means to say that the Spirit lives in us.

A helpful place to start is with a brief excursion into the history if Israel. The first temple, dating from about 950 b.c. and known as Solomon’s temple, on the day of its dedication experienced the shekinah – the glory of God – descending on the temple and filling it (I Kings 8:11b-13), just as it had filled the Temple of Meeting in Moses day (Ex.40:34). This gave the people of Israel the assurance that the Divine presence abided in the Temple making it the centre of the Jewish world. When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 b.c. and the Jewish people went into exile, they experienced oppression and alienation and a crisis of faith. No wonder the prophets Ezra, Nehemiah and Jeremiah, set about persuading the people of Israel to rebuild the temple on their return to Jerusalem so that God could once again be with them. However, as New Testament scholar Tom Wright points out, there is no account of the Shekinah – the glory of God – filling this second Temple. Instead, observance of the law as taught by the Pharisees, became the way of attaining the glory of God.

We know that at Pentecost the Spirit of God descended on all people, not just on the Jews, but on all present. Confronted with this event Paul seeks to understand what it means for the followers of Christ. He arrives at a new insight and is able to write to the Corinthians: “For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor,:6:16 ), (see also 1 Cor.: 3:16-17). The new temple of God is now the human person. We are all temples in which the Holy Spirit dwells. This means that we are all recipients of the Spirit of Truth who according to Jesus will guide into all truth and this truth will set us free (Jh.8:31-32). Our reading from John’s Gospel affirming this truth bears repeating for it is a truth by which we are called to live.

“Toe sê Jesus vir die Jode wat in hom glo: ‘As julle aan my woorde getrou bly, is julle my dissipels; en julle sal die waarheid ken, en die waarheid sal julle vry maak’” (Jh. 8:31).Hoewel die Jode terugkabbel en verwys na hulle voorvader Abraham, sê Jesus weereens vir hulle: “Elkeen wat sonde doen is ‘n slaaf van die sonde… Eers as die Seun julle vry maak sal julle werklik vry wees” (Jh. 8:34-36).

Ons is dus nou almal tempels waar die Helsige Gees tuis is, die Gees wat Jesus ons gestuur het. Ons is vry! Dit is die taak van die Gees wat in ons woon. Maar wat beteken dit egter om met die Gees van Waarheid te lewe wat ons volkome vryheid in God aanbied? Glo ons dit? En as ons dit glo, hoe sal ons lewens lyk?

Weereens help Paulus ons. Ons is vrygestel van veroordeling, ons is nie meer slawe van die sonde nie, die Gees bring vir ons lewe en vrede. So bewerkstellig die Gees vryheid in ons. Hoewel Paulus se woorde bekend is, blyk hulle ietwat verwyder van die alledaagse, en dit is soms moeilik om te glo of te verstaan wat dit beteken om vry te wees van ons sonde. “Vryheid” kan ook ‘n omstrede woord wees wat verder begrip verg.

What does it therefore mean to be free? William Cavanaugh describes freedom as follows: “Freedom is fully a function of God’s grace within us. Freedom is being wrapped up in the will of God, who is the condition of human freedom”. In other words, there is no true freedom without God. God’s grace gives us the means to be fully free human beings – what we have to do is to grasp this truth and to live by it. The promise of the Spirit of freedom holds the possibility of the renewal of every aspect of life – the personal, the spiritual, the societal and political, and supremely important, the environment in which we live. The struggle to hold on to the gift of freedom in faith, to live by it and to pass it on, is at the centre of living, moving and having our being in God. But this is not always simple, for freedom is like a double-edged sword. Grasping and living our freedom involves choices.

We make choices every day as to how we will use the gift of freedom. For instance: we can choose to deal with those who are different to us with acceptance, according them their dignity, or not. We can refuse to appropriate what is not ours or envy what others have, or not. We can choose to use our tongues in a kindly and compassionate manner, or not. We can even choose not to flout the traffic laws, or not!

There are also restrictions on our freedom that are not clear-cut matters of choice. At my age, there are physical barriers to my freedom. My body can no longer freely do what it wants to do. There are psychological barriers to our freedom – experiences of anger, oppression, fear and rejection that often drive out freedom and cause despair and loneliness. The societies we live in also restrict our freedoms when cultural norms do not grant us freedom. I think here of women and gay people in patriarchal and homophobic institutions and family relationships. Sadly this is something the church is also not free of. The unjust exercise of power can restrict our freedom, both personal and political. This our history has shown us. And amazingly, we are also given the freedom to refuse faith in God and to embrace atheism or agnosticism.

Yet, despite these more obvious restrictions on human freedom, countless human beings manage to rise above them, to find inner freedom even in situations of oppression and injustice. Many have freed themselves with courage and perseverance from past pain and live with a inner freedom of spirit despite psychological wounds and physical limitations. They find freedom in the Spirit of Christ so generously given to us.

The most difficult freedom to achieve is freedom from self. This is freedom from “me, me, me and mine”, my desires, my intentions, my needs, my ambitions, my pride, my inflated idea of myself, my possessions. This is the task of a life-time. Being freed from self is the greatest of all freedoms. It signifies trusting God in all things, and living moment by moment with an awareness of God’s grace in us and at work in our world. If we have the heartfelt desire to live according to the will of God we will know freedom. Of course we will often fail, but we can join Augustine and pray: “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will”.

John Calvin wrote in a moving and quite revolutionary way about freedom that is helpful for us. He saw that we need freedom from the trappings of life, and from righteousness that is restricted by the law alone. For Calvin, freedom is a matter of prime necessity as it lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. He believed that to be free from the outward trappings of life, our God-directed consciences should be obeyed. A free human being lives according to her or his God-given conscience. This is the Holy Spirit at work in us. Calvin’s views were quite radical in his time and certainly underpinned some of the subsequent movements for freedom in Europe.

Embracing the freedom given to us in the Spirit is a double-edged sword in a further sense. We first learn what it is we want to be free from. Then we find that freedom from translates through the Spirit into freedom for. First and foremost we are free for God – to do God’s will. We choose to place ourselves totally in God’s hands becoming so to speak those godly hands in this world. Spirit-led freedom quickly turns into freedom for others. Because we are being freed from “me-me”, our time and our resources are no longer ours. All that we have, the hours of every day, our possessions and resources are entrusted to us by God – they are not ours to cling to. We then find ways in which we can share and live in community with others to the mutual enrichment of all. Our freedom is not to be kept tight against our chests as “mine”. It is God-given so that we may be free for others.

How can we assess the measure in which we are experiencing freedom in the Spirit? Is there a check-list we can consult to help us? I do not pretend to have one but I have learnt that certain questions can be useful. In what respects do I feel freer from constraints that hamper inner freedom? Am I able to discover an inner sense of wholeness? Am I less fearful, less critical of others? Am I more able to place my entire life in God’s hands instead of being a self-involved stage manager? Am I more trusting and less concerned about impressions I make? And am I, as Ignatius of Loyola taught, more deeply aware of God in all things? Am I less bound up with what I have, my possessions, my reputation, and my desires? Am I learning to be more discerning about what is pleasing to God, and what is not? Am I able to distinguish between the good and the better? And most vital of all, am I devoting more time to prayer and being quiet with God? Is my greatest joy a quiet and sustaining seeking of God’s presence in my life and the world around me? Is there time in my life for retreats and days entirely devoted to God?

These questions are not intended to promote guilt – a human emotion in which many of us like to wallow. It is actually simpler as the Rule of St Benedict counsels us – learn to “listen with the ear of your heart” and then you will know. Then we can wonder at the abundance in creation, find joy in the goodness of others, or in the smile of a child or a stranger. Such moments are evidence of greater freedom in the Spirit for we become more aware of God’s grace surrounding us. The world is suddenly more beautiful, and we are able to wonder in new ways at God’s grace so freely given to us.

It becomes easier to live with hope. We know how messy our world is today, and how easy it is for cynicism or despair to overwhelm us. Spirit-led freedom gives us greater patience to wait with eager expectation for signs of God at work in the world. We know in whom we trust and this enables us to move beyond all that seeks to rob us of hope. Probably the most important clue to awareness of the freedom given to us by Christ’s Spirit is that we find it easier to love – both ourselves and our neighbours – and yes, even those we found unlovable in the past. Judgment, criticism, the inability to tolerate difference shackle us, but freedom in the Spirit enables us to embrace the assurance that we are all loved by God, human beings valued and accorded our worth and dignity. This is fundamental to creating relationships and communities of care where hope and love can be nurtured and shared.

In conclusion, Jesus, my man on the borrowed donkey, lived as one who was free for others. He is the example to whom we look. His freedom was to do the will of God, willingly and lovingly. Jesus was truly a free human being. This guaranteed his faithful obedience to God and his service of others. He did not bow to the social constraints of his day. He did not fear the powers of Rome or the leaders of his own people He did not fear being polluted by what he ate and he touched the lepers and the outcasts and healed them. He washed the feet of his disciples shifting the consciousness of his followers from one of domination to one of service. Grace is the ground of God’s relationship with us. God restores our freedom – a gracious gift enabling us to be free for God and others. The miracle of God’s grace is truly beyond our understanding.

My very presence here with you tod ay is evidence of the truth that God’s ways are far beyond our understanding as grace works in mysterious ways in our world. It is Paul tell us in the verses we read from Romans (8:3, 9a): “For God has done what the law weakened by the flesh could not do”. He assures us that we are in the Spirit “…since the Spirit of God dwells in you”. God in Christ has not only initiated our freedom in the Spirit but facilitates our efforts to live with this freedom fruitfully. Truly an incomparable gift!

Lord Jesus Christ,
On your last days on earth,
You promised to leave us your Holy Spirit
To comfort us, to intercede for us,
To declare your will to us
To lead us into all Truth
And to make us free.
Let your Spirit become like blood in our veins,
So that we will be driven entirely by your will
and become your holy people.
Let your Spirit blow over Africa
Over the poor and the suffering, the refugees
And those who despair
So that we may all know true freedom
and live according to your will. Amen

  1. Revd Pam Berning says:

    Thank you to Denise Ackermann for a well balanced and insightful sermon on the freedom of the Spirit. How I wish we would all work for this freedom, to free our churches, communities and nation of the things that enslave us, and above be like Jesus who demonstrated this freedom in his love.
    Thank you,
    Revd Pam Berning

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *