Epiphany 5 | 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mk 1:29-39
George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, was out preaching one day, when some people decided to test him. In a set-up worthy of the Pharisees confronting Jesus, they handed him a tobacco pipe and dared him to smoke it.
“If, as you say, Christians are really free from man-made rules and societal expectations, then smoke this pipe.”
Now this put Fox in an almost impossible position. He did, indeed, preach the freedom of the Christian from all societal and religious rules, excepting only the laws of the state. He annually made a personal report to Cromwell himself, and famously refused to doff his cap in deference. Cromwell put up with it, probably figuring he’d catch more hell if he tried to punish Fox.
But now here Fox was with a choice. If he smoked the pipe, the people would call him a hedon and mock him as a fallen man of God. If he refused to smoke the pipe, they’d call his preaching fraudulent. Freedom, indeed!
But Fox was a clever man. In true Bill Clinton fashion, he put the pipe to his lips, but did not light it. He then handed it back to his tormentors and went about his way. And what could they say then?
For many of us, our experience of growing up in a Christian environment was that it was a very rule-oriented religion. “Do this, don’t do that” was pretty much the order of the day. And watch out if you broke the rules! Not only would your parents or the clergy or busybody church people come down on you, but God was just waiting for an excuse to throw you into Hell.
I was a Southern Baptist for 22 years before I ever heard of the concept of “soul freedom,” which is supposed to be the most fundamental of all Baptist doctrines, which says that each individual soul is free to determine for him or herself what scripture means, and how one should live.
It's a fabulous doctrine…in theory. It’s too bad the Baptists I grew up with didn’t actually live it, or preach it, or apparently, even whisper about it in the dark.
One of Martin Luther’s most famous and important works is titled, “The Freedom of a Christian,” and it begins with the statement of a paradox: “A Christian is an utterly free person, lord of all, and subject to none. A Christian is an utterly dutiful person, servant of all, subject to all.”
What Luther means by this, is that in being made one being with Jesus in baptism, God sets human beings free from all religious rules and strictures and expectations. Utterly and completely free. AND, at the same time, love binds us to served one another.
These are contradictory statements, and yet they are also both, somehow, true. Luther derives his thinking from our passage in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth, where he says, “Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all.”
Paul clarifies by saying that he is no longer under the Jewish Law, the Torah, but is instead under “the law of Christ.” But what law is that?
Our gospel reading shows us a triptych that gives us a clue. It is a very sparse passage, as are many of our selections from Mark. In truth, Mark often reads more like an outline of a gospel, than a fully-fleshed out work of scripture, and indeed, that is precisely the purpose it served for Matthew and Luke as they wrote out their longer, more elaborate portraits of Jesus.
But sparse as it is, Mark shows us Jesus performing three actions in his passage: 1) He heals the sick—Peter’s mother-in-law—and on the Sabbath, no less! How’s that for ignoring the rules? Then 2) he casts out demons, and finally 3) he preaches about the Kingdom.
If we translate all this into 21st-century language, Jesus does three things: 1) he does good, 2) he resists evil, and 3) he proclaims the good news of God’s love and transformation.
If you think about it, it’s a recipe for a well-balanced spiritual life—both personally, and as a community. Myself, I think I’m pretty good at doing good and proclaiming God’s love. I’m less good at resisting evil. So…that’s my growing edge, and we all have one.
As a community, too, we are better at some things than we are at others. To strive for balance is a noble goal, I think. Are we a community that does good? Do we resist evil? Do we proclaim Good News? What do we do well, and what can we do better? That’s a worthy discernment, if you ask me.
The point is that you can’t define how or what people should do by issuing a bunch of do’s and don’ts. What is good in a particular situation is particular—it’s contextual. What resistance to evil IS, in a particular instance, is contextual. What effective proclamation of Good News IS—or what might even be construed as GOOD—is contextual.
If you want to sum it up, we’re free to do anything, but we’re not free to be stupid. We need to think about things. Rules are easy, but they are also soul-killing and brain-killing things. Who needs to think if I can just follow the rules, right?
How many examples can you think of where following the rules ended up hurting instead of helping? Where following the rules ended up advancing evil instead of defeating it? Where following the rules ended up making the good news sound like bad news instead?
We are free—free to love a man or woman. It doesn’t matter which—we’re free. We are free to marry or not to marry, even to choose one partner or many. We’re free. We are free to smoke tobacco, and even to inhale. We’re free to drink beer or smoke a joint. We’re free.
But the one commandment Jesus DIDN’T release us from was the one he himself added: Love one another.
How we live out that commandment isn’t something you can do by following a list of do’s or don’t’s. It requires thoughtful discernment in every moment of every day. Often, we screw up. But we learn, we are given grace, and we try again.
And that, my friends, is the Christian life in a nutshell: We screw up, we are given grace, and we try again. (Lather, rinse, repeat.)
You are free to do anything but to stop loving. Loving well is different in every situation. Let us pray…
God, in giving Jesus, you gave us the ultimate gift of love—you gave us yourself in a form we could see, touch, and cozy up to. Jesus gave the ultimate gift as well, for no one has greater love than the one who lays down their own life for their friends. And now that we are joined to Jesus, now that we ARE the presence of Jesus in the world—we must give this gift as well. Help us to enjoy our freedom, and not to impose the bondage of rules on one another—never again. AND, help us to discern well what love looks and acts like in every situation we encounter, with all their variables and nuances. For we ask this in the name of love, who became flesh and lived among us, even Jesus. Amen.