February 16, 2020

2020 Feb16

Epiphany 6 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


Free Will. Both Jesus ben Sira and Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel are testing our Free Will…if, indeed, you believe that humans have Free Will. It’s pretty simple, right? We are endowed by our Creator to make our own choices, and God then rewards or punishes us in this life or the next. It’s in the Bible, and so let’s just get on with living.


Free Will is not that straightforward, and it’s not in the Bible. There are parts of the Bible which assume that humans have Free Will, such as today’s OT reading from Sirach and the entirety of the Book of Proverbs. But liberum arbitrium is not biblical. It comes out of Greek Stoicism, and didn’t find its way into western Christianity until the 2C by Tertullian.


Let me offer you a definition of Free Will from “A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics”. Free Will is the notion that:


…at least some human actions (and all on which moral judgment may be passed) are the result of free rational choice on the part of agents. They are not compelled to act by forces outside of their moral consciousness.


In other words, we are not God’s puppets.

Historically, Anglicans don’t really believe in Free Will. It’s pretty clear in the 39 Articles of Religion. As the Reformation raged on, the English Church came down on the side of Calvin, that we are predestined, by God’s will, for salvation or damnation. What we do on earth has little effect on the outcome, except for our sinful nature, which causes us to act against God’s will, like an infection or a disease. This is abundantly clear in the Collect:


“…in our weakness we can do nothing good without You, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping Your commandments we may please You both in will and deed…”


However, our polity and preaching are fairly clear that The Episcopal Church and other Anglican Provinces believe that humans have Free Will. You can look at the titles of Resolutions from the Lambeth Conferences of Anglican Bishops, from the Resolutions of The Episcopal Church, and even how the Anglican Communion, The Episcopal Church and individual Dioceses are structured. The ecclesiology and structure provide a wide berth for self-determination in church affairs and how the Body of Christ is lived in a particular place. While that isn’t proof of a doctrine of Free Will, it sort of points to a degree of freedom of expression in one’s relationship with God and with one’s environment.


My guess is that we’re likely to be somewhere between Pelagius, Augustine of Hippo, and Calvin. Pelagius asserted that humans have complete Free Will, unmarred by any external force, Divine or created; we have our own moral compass to do good or evil in the world. Augustine believed that Free Will is weakened by human sin, and though we possess it, we need God’s intervention to help us do good; our evil acts are a result of our being born into Original Sin, which is Adam’s fault. Calvin believed that everything good we do is pre-ordained by God, and the bad we do is because of sin and resistance to God’s will. Of course, to reduce each of these positions to one sentence is dangerous, but it is my will to keep this brief.

As Americans, Free Will and
Self-Determination are part of
our foundation:


"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all persons are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


For those signatories of the Declaration of Independence who were Christians, they were making a doctrinal statement, one which suggests that human beings have an innate ability to affect their own lives, liberty and pursuits of happiness. In the same ethics book, which is British, the freedom Americans possess as part of our cultural DNA was referenced twice, with a slight tone of contempt. The ethical implications of the American understanding of “freedom”, which is closely related to Free Will in this particular context, was presented like this:


In the USA the extent of intervention by government in limiting free enterprise is more resisted than in other industrialized democracies because of a deeper strain of individualism in American culture, but even in the USA there is acceptance of limited intervention by the state when public health is threatened by dangerous drugs or noxious waste and also to provide "welfare" and medical care for those recognized officially to be in need, but there are continuous political debates about the range of such need.


So, it is widely recognized that we Americans probably have a strong sense of some sort of Doctrine of Free Will and of Freedom of Determination.


This brief exposition on Free Will and Freedom is the backdrop for how Jesus ben Sirach and Jesus in Matthew speak to us today, in this place at this particular time.


Sirach unambiguously denotes Free Will, as does the alternative OT reading for today: Deuteronomy 30:15-20. In fact, Sirach 15:17 alludes directly to Deuteronomy 30:15.


“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”


God is dangling these options in front of us for us to choose. The opening prayer to this sermon is the line directly following that:


By loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways,and observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous,and the Lord your God will bless you.


It’s as if we are being taunted into making the right choice, or making the wrong choice and living with the consequences.


In the Gospel, Jesus suggests that a person has a choice, a multi-layered choice: first, whether or not to follow the Laws of Moses, the Torah, and second, whether or not to go beyond Mosaic Law and be a true Disciple of Jesus. He refers to murder, anger, insulting speech, adultery, theft and divorce. The punishments for these sins are severe.


But Jesus is rarely so superficial. Look as this more deeply. Jesus is actually more concerned with the motivation, the internal struggle, the lack of inner awareness or what we nowadays might term as emotional intelligence. Jesus shows that we have the Free Will or the personal choice to commit these acts. But, the journey ahead for the Disciples and any true followers of Jesus cannot be weighed down by the emotional insecurities that lie behind these acts; one must be free of that. Our Free Will must lead us to Freedom, and that Freedom has always come from a life in God, and now, a life in Jesus.


What does that mean?


A Christian understanding of Freedom is not philosophical, ethical, psychological, political, or economic: it’s not a “freedom to…” or even “freedom from…”. The moral reality of choice that we all possess means nothing without Jesus. Freedom in a life in God through Jesus is a freedom through faith and love, a state of being unconstrained by earthly things, like the Mosaic Law, or by the sin which is presupposed by Mosaic Law, or by corrupt people and organizational structures, or by money or the lack of it. To get to that sort of Freedom, suggests Jesus and Sirach, is not only to not commit certain actions; it’s to dig deep inside oneself and be freed of the internal struggles that lead to those actions.


Physical or environmental Freedom is easy for some, and Jesus Himself was exceptionally free. “The Companion to Christian Thought” points out that Jesus was:


a religious teacher without being either a scribe or an ascetic, who has abandoned any home, pays no attention to his family, but gladly sits down to a meal in many houses, who has many women friends, chats with a Samaritan woman at a well, and insists that children should not be prevented from coming to him, who often appears extreme in the remarks he throws out while being a wonderful storyteller, who enacts mysterious symbolic actions, and insists on returning to Jerusalem despite the manifest danger. Jesus was an intensely free person. He communicated a sense of freedom but did not define what it was to be free. When in John’s gospel he is reported as saying, ‘You will learn the truth and the truth will make you free’ (8:32), we are disposed to believe him because he exemplifies it himself. But the freedom he possesses comes from being God’s son and that is what he passes on – ‘if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’.


So, Jesus’ life of Freedom as portrayed in the Gospels is probably projected onto us as His followers: We follow Jesus, and He gives us this sort of Freedom that we interpret and live out as Free Will. But that isn’t what makes us “free”. True Freedom comes from being released from our inner struggle to act against God’s will for us. Because, if we were created with the Free Will to do moral good, then that same Free Will enables us to do moral evil. Along with that, Sirach points out that God


“has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and has not given anyone permission to sin.”


We have Free Will, but not the permission to sin. True Freedom, though, is less about our daily choices and whether or not we are happy living with the consequences. True Freedom is the freedom to be bound to God’s will revealed in Jesus and to join Him on this journey to share the Kingdom of God throughout the world.


This is the meaning of the passage from Sirach when read it through the lens of the Gospel. The Psalm also speaks of the happiness that comes with the Freedom in living God’s will. This is seriously heady, intellectual stuff. But when it is put alongside that other stuff we explored in Advent for our Spiritual Preparedness Kits – patience and perseverance, humility, perceptiveness, obedience – then obtaining Freedom in Jesus Christ makes sense. Freedom is a spiritual state of being that sheds an insistence on our own Free Will in deference to a simpler life devoted to following Jesus, devoted to listening for the Voice of God, and opening oneself up to God’s Will being done on earth…through us!

What that means when you leave
here is genuinely up to you and
your Free Will. But, in giving His
Body to you, which we receive in
the Sacrament, in the Bread and
Wine, Jesus simply asks that as
you say ‘Amen’ and consent to
following Him that your
“Yes” be true.

© 2021 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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