Sunday, October 02, 2016

Rest & Recreation

Genesis 1.27-31, Luke 10.38-42
I heard a programme about rest and relaxation on the radio recently and it set me thinking because, down the centuries, the Church has been a champion of rest, constantly reminding people that Sunday is the Day of Rest - modelled on the first Sabbath, when God rested after all the hard work of creating the universe. I even heard of one church council which recently tried to ban Brownies from having a fun day on a Sunday because it’s the Day of Rest, and that despite the fact that the Brownies were planning to start the day by having fun in all age worship!
We might think that’s going a bit too far, but - be that as it may - the Church  has talked endlessly about quiet times, prayerfulness, meditation and retreating from the stresses and strains of the world.  We’ve set up - I use the word ‘we’ somewhat loosely here - contemplative orders of monks and nuns. And whether we’re contemplatives or not, we’ve focused in on the still, small voice that cannot be heard in the whirlwind and the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Of course, rest is not the same thing as relaxation. We’ve not been quite so keen on  that. When Christians have rested it has generally been for a purpose, for re-creation, to recharge our spiritual batteries, to listen to God, to gain new strength for the fight. We haven’t talked so much about resting just for fun, like the Brownies, or even about recreating and recharging our physical selves. But we have emphasised the need for people to find health and wholeness. We’ve advocated a daily rhythm of work, rest, mealtimes and prayer.
Alongside the emphasis on rest, there’s another contrary impulse within Christianity - the restless impulse to be up and doing. Perhaps it’s particularly prevalent in Protestantism, although that perception has been exaggerated sometimes. As the story of the Brownies illustrates, Protestants have believed in contemplation, prayer and stillness, particularly on Sundays, just as fervently as anyone. But Christians have also talked a lot about vocation, about doing God’s will, about being productive and useful members of society. Idleness has been elevated to a sin.
In a 24/7 society it can be more easy than ever for Christians to overlook the need for rest, to have the aspiration - as one minister put it to me - to wear out rather than to rust out. Alongside the contemplative orders of monks and nuns there are the active orders of people eager to go out into the world after they have prayed, to teach, to preach, to care for the sick and to engage in all kinds of mission.
In the Gospels, Jesus sometimes seems hectically busy, but that’s not always his own fault. People come after him. They intrude on his rest and he is too compassionate to turn them away. Yet he’s also driven to seek rest and time for contemplation and prayer, and he makes a point - in his stories and in his own actions - of talking about - and making time for - relaxation over meals, for what is sometimes called ‘table fellowship’. And if he doesn’t go jogging or play squash for recreation, he does do an awful lot of walking and fishing.
Mention of fishing raises one of the dilemmas about rest and relaxation. One person’s work can be another person’s way of chilling out. When I was a hospital porter one of the most miserable assignments was to work in an evening on A&E. It wasn’t especially miserable because of the accidents and emergencies. What really made the job frustrating and tedious were the volunteers, who came in on a regular basis to get practical experience of dealing with trauma victims. They insisted on doing all of the work because for them it was a form of leisure activity. They were enjoying themselves and finding fulfilment. I had to be there in case they didn’t turn up, but if they did, my shift would pass very slowly. It was a case of enforced rest, which is never quite so much fun.
Sometimes when the first disciples went fishing they were doing it - as they did after the first Easter - to give themselves a break from the stresses and strain, the uncertainty and fear, of their day-to-day existence. But more often they went fishing as a job of work.
And this plays into a wider questions which has troubled Christian thinkers. Is rest ever a waste of time or does it always have a recreative purpose? If we use it to build up our physical strength, or to increase our grasp of knowledge, or to broaden our skills and experience, or to deepen our insights into life, or to pray and reflect on what is going on around us, then - as we have seen - rest itself can become a form of work. Even the most unrepentant workaholic can then embrace it and celebrate it, like the minster I once worked for who claimed that he worked a 90 hour week.
When you unpacked this preposterous claim it turned out that he was including reading the newspaper and novels and poetry, and watching “News Night”, in his working week. That’s fair enough, so long as we’re upfront about what we’re claiming. But we’re back to fishing - one person’s recreation on a beautiful summer’s day is another person’s back breaking toil on the high seas. Reading - for instance - can be both rest and work, depending on whether we’re a professional academic, or a book editor, or a clergyperson or an ordinary member of the public.
Was God really resting when he stopped work after creation, or was he absorbing and reflecting upon all that he had made? Was Jesus resting when he went away to a quiet place to pray, or was he wrestling with his own doubts and fears and strengthening his relationship with God? Was this, in fact, a vital part of his work? Are the members of contemplative religious orders retreating from the world or bringing all of its problems and dilemmas to God in prayer?
Modern medical practice has turned its back on the idea of rest cures and bed rest and is now encouraging patients to be more active, to get out of bed as soon as they can and to come to terms with any pain or discomfort they might feel. There are even Active Patient programmes, where patients take charge of their own therapy and condition management. Recreation has been medicalised. It has been turned from a form of joyous escapism, down-time if you like, into something we must engage in if we want to stay healthy, live longer and ward off a whole range of hideous diseases.
And the Church, as we have seen, has always found itself balanced uncomfortably on the horns of this dilemma, urging us both to take rest and to work if we want find life in all its fullness. So where should we go from here?
My grandmother had a catchphrase, ‘Be still, bairn.’ It was an admonition against all forms of fidgeting and unnecessary noise. It was, however, bairns who had a peculiar duty to be still. I never heard her encourage adults to embrace stillness. We live in a society that needs to be still, but instead, the pace of life is incessantly speeding up. It’s not easy to resist. Church leaders encourage us to switch off our mobile phones sometimes, to refuse to be distracted, even while bemoaning that we haven’t yet picked up and read their latest email urging us to do this or that before the sun goes down.
The definition of a good church member or a good minister is often assumed to be the same as a tireless worker. We ask older people to do more and more as retirement becomes a distant dream for younger people, and we invent a ceaselessly round of extracurricular activities for those who are still working. When I stopped working fulltime for the Church I realised how burdensome this must seem. We need to foster a better balance between work and rest, to promote activity only when it is essential, to encourage rest wherever possible, and to cut down on old activities if we really must make room for new ones.
We need to campaign for the end of a culture which, by keeping wages low, forces people to work long hours in order to make a living, prevents them from volunteering, or studying, or caring for their family and neighbours in whatever spare time they have left, and prevents them from reflecting on their lives and discovering new challenges and opportunities.
We need to remember, above all, that rest is not the absence of work. It is the opportunity to find fellowship with one another, or to be still and know.
As I may have said before, I’m often reminded of the story of the man who hit a low point in his life. Somewhat at a loss, he made an appointment to see the local vicar whom he found sitting in his garden on a deckchair, with a pile of books beside him and listening to the cricket on the radio. His immediate reaction was that he was clearly wasting his time coming to see such an idle person. But then, to his immense surprise, the vicar turned out to be a fount of thoughtful, sensible advice, and he went away reflecting that perhaps sitting in the garden, reading books and listening to the cricket is not such a bad idea after all.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Prodigal Father

The word ‘prodigal’ means ‘wastefully extravagant’. By this definition, who is the most prodigal person in the story? The younger son runs through all his assets and does so not in reckless business ventures, which would be bad enough, but in dissolute living. However, the most profligate member of the family is the father. He's prodigal not only with his wealth, but also with his good name and his love, which he showers on both of his undeserving sons despite their ingratitude and their readiness to publicly humiliate him.
Let's start with the younger son. We all know people who dream about what they'd do if somebody died and left them an inheritance. Perhaps we sometimes have that dream ourselves. To cater for that appetite lurking in us, there are even programmes on TV about detective agencies which spend all their time tracking down the distant relatives of wealthy people and giving them the good news that they've inherited a substantial amount of cash.
It even happened to my mother, who got an unsolicited phone call out of the blue call from one of these agencies to tell her that various scattered members of his family had inherited a tidy sum from a distant cousin of my mother's aunt, who had herself died without ever suspecting he existed. One portion of the money was supposed to pass to my great-aunt but it now passed instead to the beneficiaries of her own estate. Of course, what had started as a substantial sum of money was not exactly a life changing amount by the time it was divided up between a great many distant relations, but it was certainly better than a slap in the face from misfortune!
And a slap in the face is precisely what the younger son gives his father when he announces that he isn’t prepared to wait for him to die; he wants his share of the inheritance now! Of course, the ungrateful son dares not spell this out explicitly to his father’s face. He talks about the share of the property that will belong to him, but what he means is the share of the property that will belong to him when his father dies. He simply can’t wait. He wants it all, and he wants it now! That is truly shameful behaviour.
The writer Tom Wright comments that it’s the equivalent of saying, ‘I wish you were dead!’ The obvious response called for in this situation is for the father to browbeat the son into submission or disown him, but instead he indulges the request even though this is bound to bring dishonour to the whole family. After all, what sort of relationship must you have with your father first to wish he were dead and then to go far away and pretend that he really has died and no longer matters to you?
And when the son returns in absolute disgrace, having squandered his inheritance, he only brings further shame on the family. First, he shames himself because he ought to have recognised that he was no longer deserving of his father’s sympathy. As he himself admits, he has broken every moral code. What he doesn’t seem to recognise is that he has no right even to be taken on by his father as a hired hand. But in returning anyway, he also shames his father, who will now have a worthless good-for-nothing living under his roof as a permanent reminder to everyone of how his family relationships have broken down.
Yet how does the father respond? With an amazing and prodigal generosity that further undermines his own dignity and social standing! Forgetting all decorum, he runs to greet the worthless son, and then throws a party for him with enough food not just for a whole family but for a whole village.
You’ve heard of a hog roast, which is enough to feed at least a hundred people. Well this is an ox roast! According to the Whole Roast Ox catering company, even a fatted calf would produce enough meat for at least five hundred servings. This is more like an extravagant wedding celebration than a home-coming.
But the father’s prodigality doesn’t end there, because - of course - the stay-at-home son still has to be placated. Again, the socially acceptable way to behave would be for the elder son to seek a private interview with his father to set the record straight Instead, he sulks outside, forcing the father to leave the party and go outside to persuade him to come home. Once again the dysfunctionality of the family is laid bare. In front of the whole village the father is once more put to shame. Yet how does the father respond? He doesn’t chide his son. Instead he seeks to win him round. In fact, Jesus says that he pleads.
The elder son’s response is to inflate the crimes of his younger brother, who he now accuses of squandering the inheritance on prostitutes, and to complain that he has never been invited to throw a big party. But as the father reminds him, he is now the sole beneficiary of the father’s will. Even though the younger son has been welcomed home, everything that the father still owns will one day belong to him.
The story cries out for a proper ending - a tearful reconciliation between the two brothers and their father. That is what the audience would have been expecting. But instead it is open-ended. How will the older brother respond?
The parable has overtones of three other Biblical stories. First, there’s the obvious connection with the stories of Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers. There a younger brother subverts the role which the eldest brother might have expected to play. But there’s also a connection with the story of Nehemiah.
When Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem his project met with fierce opposition from the people who had not been sent into exile but had tried instead to guard the faith as best they could at home among the ruins. They had established a different shrine to God, at a holy place called Mount Jerzim, or Gerizim, to replace the ruined and discredited shrine on Mount Zion.
There were once 3 million Samaritans. Now there are just 750 left in Palestine, but they were a force to be reckoned with in the time of Jesus and there was bitter hostility between Samaritans and Jews as to who were the true guardians of the faith. Had the Jewish exiles made too many compromises with their overlords? And why had they been banished into exile in the first place? Wasn’t it because the Jewish faith had become hopelessly compromised and corrupt? Didn’t the new shrine at Mount Jerzim represent a fresh start, a new beginning?
The situation was further complicated because many Jewish people at the time of Jesus felt that the Exile was not yet at an end. Nehemiah’s restoration of Israel had been partial and incomplete. The restored temple worship in Jerusalem was still imperfect. The kings imposed by the Romans were not God’s anointed messiah. The real end to the Exile was still eagerly awaited.
In this context the story packs an explosive punch. Tom Wright suggest that the younger son represents the Jewish nation, exiled because of its disobedience to God but now finally welcomed home  at the coming of the new Messiah. The older brother is not just the Samaritan community but the guardians of the restored temple started by King Herod and still under construction. The story is a  challenge to all of these separate factions to reunite under a generous God who is willing to forgive all their various faults and  failings. The story is open-ended because the ending is still being worked out in the mission of Jesus.
If Tom Wright is correct, the welcome home of the younger son is not the high point of the story. If it were, then the last half, about the older brother, would be a rather tedious addition, perhaps bolted on by the Christian community, long after the story was told, to underline how the Jewish community was rejecting God’s love by refusing to accept the new Israel made up of outcasts and sinners who had responded to Jesus’ call. But instead, according to Tom Wright, the emphasis in the story is on God’s unfailingly prodigal love.
The two halves of the story both end, and are linked together, by the idea of resurrection. When the younger son is welcomed home, the father justifies his expensive celebrations by announcing, ‘This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ When the older brother is begged to join in the celebration the father repeats to him, ‘We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’

Whose resurrection is this? It’s the resurrection of the true nation of Israel, now opening outwards to include everyone who is willing to start a new life living in obedience to God. But, of course, read by the new Christian community after the first Easter, the story resonates with their own radical understanding that Jesus has taken upon himself all the sins and disobedience of the human race when he died upon the Cross and has made a new beginning possible through his glorious vindication and resurrection on Easter Day.

So the parable becomes about Jesus’ resurrection too, if indeed that wasn’t already part of the meaning when it was first told. After all, Jesus’ new community of Israel gathers together when its members celebrate the feast of his death and resurrection in holy communion, and in the story the resurrection of Israel is celebrated by a big feast that is supposed to unite everyone too.
Clearly, that’s part of the story’s meaning for us. But it’s also about being open to new possibilities. To be true to its founder, the Church has to be constantly renewing and reinventing itself. It has to seek new ways of reaching out and appealing to those who have gone far away from its traditions and find themselves cut off from God in a distant country.

But it also has to be the guardian not of a closed understanding of what God’s love means in practice but of an open-ended understanding. It has to challenge complacency. It has to be willing to adapt in order to make the resurrection story come alive for each new generation.

A woman in Amble in Northumberland decided to boycott her local church because, in 2012, they had taken ten pews to create a space for meetings and a crèche. She had gone there for 65 years but couldn’t abide the thought of the worship area being used for anything except religious services. ‘I think it’s an act of vandalism to remove something that is beautiful’ just to create an ‘ugly space,’ she told a Church of England Consistory Court that was convened to hear her complaint.

It’s tempting to see her as a modern day version of the elder brother, refusing to come home despite pleas to accept changes that were only ever designed to make her church more welcoming and fit for purpose. But the elder brother lurks inside each one of us. There is always a line in the sand which we wouldn’t wish to cross even if that were the necessary price for welcoming back our brother or sister.  And the younger brother - recklessly disobedient and willing to sacrifice everything he should hold dear for the sake of his own fulfilment - lurks within us too.

Thankfully the prodigal father is always waiting, filled with compassion, to throw his arms around us and welcome us back. And Jesus longs to join us in our exile, to share our disgrace by taking it upon himself, to help us then reevaluate our situation and to accompany us back home to God. So this becomes a story not just about a prodigal father, always ready to forgive and forget, but about a prodigal son but about a prodigal son - not the son in the story but God’s Son, Jesus - who constantly offers to seek out and to save the lost. He died with the lost, identified as one of them, so that we might find new life through him on our joyful return.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


1 Samuel 8.1-18, Romans 13.1-7, John 18.33-37
A politician arrived with ten minutes to go before a big public meeting in a local church. Unfortunately the car park was full and there was nowhere obvious to park within walking distance of the venue. (I‘ve been there!) He looked up at the sky in despair and said, ‘Look, God, I know we’re not exactly well acquainted, but if you can find me a parking space I promise to lead a totally blameless life, committed to doing good, for as long as I remain in office.’ He looked down again and there, right in front of his  car, was a parking space. He parked up triumphantly and jumped out. ‘Thanks, God, but the deal’s off,’ he said. ‘I managed to find a space myself.’

I tell the joke because it’s about sovereignty, who controls what happens, and because the question of sovereignty is one of the big issues of our time. The debate before and after the European Referendum has been partly about sovereignty, taking back control from Europe and not giving it away again to multinational corporations. But, as our Bible readings show, sovereignty is a very complicated idea.

The dominant model of sovereignty throughout human history has been an individual person, a king or a queen, a military ruler, a high priest or a popular dictator, who is the sovereign, the person who gets to decide everything. But individual sovereigns can be killed in battle. Or they grow too old, or become too ill, or sometimes are too young, to make decisions. To get around this problem, people often said that God is the real sovereign and rulers only borrow their authority from him.

This is what was happening, of course, in the time of Samuel. In theory God was the sovereign and that was all right when he was telling Samuel what to do. But when Samuel grew old and appointed his sons to be his deputies, they didn’t listen to God’s guidance. ‘They turned aside after gain.’

In this Samuel was strikingly similar to his predecessor, Eli, who also let his scoundrelly sons rule the roost, at least until they were killed in battle by the Philistines. No wonder then that the people had had enough of God’s rule through prophets like Samuel and demanded to be governed by a king instead. God told Samuel to let them have their wish, but to warn them that being ruled by a human sovereign would mean losing their freedom.

The Old Testament says that the nation of Israel rejected God’s sovereignty when they chose a king, but that’s not how St Paul sees it. For him kings and emperors, no less than prophets and Old Testament judges, are instituted by God. And many centuries later, a French lawyer called Jean Bodin also came up with a similarly unbiased interpretation of what had happened in ancient Israel. He said that God lends his sovereignty to all of us We all get a little share of our own. That’s why an English person’s home is his or her castle. We control what happens there and no one can take that sovereignty away from us.

One of our prime ministers, William Pitt the Elder, once explained this idea in a very colourful way. He said, ‘The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it. The rain may enter. The storms may enter. But the king of England may not enter.’ This gave rise to the joke that ‘an Englishman’s house is indeed his castle, but only until the queen arrives!’

However, what Bodin recognised was that, for this kind of sovereignty to work - for everyone to be the king or queen of their own little castle under God - we need to put someone in overall charge. That someone could be an individual person like King Saul, but it could be a parliament where the representatives of the people come together to keep law and order and make the great decisions of state. For St Paul this is the natural way things should be. ‘Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.’

No doubt Paul would have agreed with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said that without a sovereign, whether it be a person or a parliament, most people’s lives would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. So, in other words, unless we happen to have lots of strong muscles or be very good at martial arts, we very much need someone to be in control.

And that someone, whether it’s a king or a parliament, can’t behave in an arbitrary way like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, otherwise there’s no point in putting them in charge. The reason why we surrender some of our sovereignty, the right to do whatever we think God would let us do, is for the sake of peace and continuity, so that when we go to bed at night we can be pretty sure things will be much the same in the morning.

People have often assumed that Paul meant his readers to submit to the Roman Emperor and to see the Emperor as appointed by God. They object that this may have been fine when the emperor was a good person, or someone who at least encouraged good government. But what, they ask, about bad emperors, people like Nero who supposedly fiddled while Rome burned? If we read Paul a little more attentively, we’ll find that he’s careful to talk about the whole government - all the experts, and appointees and civil servants - not about the emperor ruling alone. He calls on the Roman Christians to obey the governing authority, or the authorities, or the rulers.

Perhaps he might have sympathised more than we imagine then, with two other writers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, who both argued that it isn’t sensible to lend our share of sovereignty to an individual person, to a king or queen.  Instead, it only makes sense to lend our sovereignty to elected representatives, to a parliament in other words.
Unfortunately, the last two centuries have shown us that the problem with electing representatives to govern us in a parliament is that first we have to hold a contest for power before we can supposedly come together again to be governed by the winners. It’s very difficult then to agree with Paul that we should be ‘subject to the authority because of conscience’ when a few days previously we might have voted, according to our conscience, for a totally different vision of how our country should be run.

That’s the problem which the followers of Bernie Sanders have have in reconciling themselves to Hillary Clinton in the race to become US President. It’s the problem which followers of Jeremy Corbyn have in imagining someone else leading the Labour Party, and - although it wasn’t a Parliamentary vote - it’s the problem which Remainers have after the Referendum. Even Paul says that, while we have to pay our taxes, we need only honour and respect those to whom honour and respect are due.

The Twentieth Century has also shown us once and for all that countries or governments can never be absolutely sovereign. Of course, Bodin never said that they could be. He argued that God was the absolute sovereign and everyone has to answer to him. But he also said that the Law is sovereign - that there are some laws which are so fundamental that no sovereign power can ever be allowed to overturn them.

Hermann Goering’s defence, at his trial in Nuremburg after World War II, was that the government in Germany had been elected and could therefore do as it liked. No one bought the argument. He was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.

This is the ground where Jesus confronts Pilate, who wants to know whether Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews. Jesus’ reply is that he is sovereign, but he’s sovereign of more than just one nation or even of all people, alive and dead. He’s the sovereign of something far more absolute, far more fundamental. He’s the final arbiter of truth, the one who decides whether any of us - be we high and mighty or humble and lowly - have done the right thing. Everyone who belongs to the truth  must listen to him. They owe their ultimate allegiance to him as their sovereign and lord. Amen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Life Stripped Bare

(Luke 10.1-11)
Did anyone watch the programme on Channel 4 where people agreed to have literally all their possessions taken away? Life Stripped Bare started out as an excuse to see young people running about naked, because even their clothes were taken away. But each day during the making of the film they could take back one of their possessions and one person said that, although at first it was really exciting every time she got something back, the excitement grew less every day until she found she didn’t really need anything else. At the end of the programme some of the people gave away half their possessions to charity. They also found they had a lot more time to concentrate on what really mattered most in their lives.
Who has taken the sort of holiday where the only thing you know is where you’re going, but not where you’re going to stay? Or who has been on the sort of holiday or business trip where you arrived but your luggage got lost? How did you cope?
I’m usually the sort of person who has to have everything organised before I go on holiday. But this year we hired a beat-up old camper van, lived on tinned tuna and pasta and went touring. And we had a great time. I’m not suggesting that our road trip was anything like the mission of Jesus’ 70 followers. We weren’t trying to make a difference to the places we visited, only to have a good time. But it proved to me that you can travel light and leave a ot of things to chance.
What's it like to face a new challenge? Who has moved to a new town or city at least once in their life? Has anyone moved to a new school and had to leave all your old friends behind?
When that happened to me, my father said, ‘You may be lonely at first, but this is you opportunity to reinvent yourself and be someone different. He was right on both counts!
If that’s not been one of your experiences, just ask yourself, ‘How many Friends do I have on Facebook?’
Recently my brother invited me to be his friend on Facebook and to my surprise I found that he had only 15 other friends. At first I thought he was a bit sad, but then I noticed one of the people who took part in Life Stripped Bare went from looking at her phone every few minutes to deleting her Facebook app. She said that she didn’t need it. She could always ring the people who were her real friends!
George Washington would have understood where she was coming from. He once said, ‘A true friendship is a plant which grows slowly. Before you can call it a real friendship it must stand the test of adversity. Try to get on with everyone,’ he advised, ‘But only be close friends with some people and put them through their paces before you give them your trust.’
When he sent them out, I think Jesus was reminding his followers that living simply, living on the edge in fact, accepting new challenges, making new friends and going to new places, is a way to reassess our lives, to focus on what really matters and to concentrate on making a real difference. His followers went out on their journey stripped bare of most of the things they usually took for granted, and they came back excited and full of enthusiasm.
We don’t have to leave behind all our possessions, or go trekking or seek out new friends and new places in order to refocus our lives, but it certainly helps. If you prefer to stay at home, though, you can still join in the adventure. We can all look out, every day, for new ways of living life to the full, new opportunities for making life better and having new and richer experiences, and for new ways of helping other people and serving God.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The EU Referendum

JOHN 8.31-36, ROMANS 6.16-19
Jesus said, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
What does it mean to be free? I guess there are two ways of responding to that question. The first answer is that it’s obvious what freedom means; it’s the opposite of being shut up in a cage; it’s about being ‘as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows.’ The second answer, however, is that it all depends what we mean by freedom. And once we start thinking along those lines it becomes more of an academic question, something that philosophy dons or political theorists might want to debate.
Assumptions about freedom and being free are all around us. They shape a great deal of what goes on in our society. Just think for a moment about the fracking debate. Should frackers be free to drill deep into the ground under our feet, or should Yorkshiremen and women be free to say, ‘Not in our backyard!’
Different ideas about freedom underlie a great deal of the controversy between Brexit campaigners, who want us to leave the EU, and Remainers who want us to stay. Hardly a day goes by when freedom doesn’t bubble to the surface in their bad tempered exchanges.
Some people believe that freedom is about living in a well ordered society where everyone has the chance to flourish. So for Brexit campaigners that meant voting for the freedom to cut ourselves loose from all the red tape supposedly designed by EU mandarins to tie us up in knots, whereas for Remainers it meant the freedom to enjoy clean air, clean beaches, reasonable working hours and all the other things which the EU tries to regulate.
Some people believe that freedom means being able to say publicly what we really think. For Brexit campaigners that meant being free to say awkward or politically incorrect things, like their claim that Hitler and Napoleon both wanted a united Europe, or that we don’t want people coming into the UK from countries like Romania or Turkey. For Remainers it  meant celebrating a Europe where everyone is free to speak their mind, unlike the old Iron Curtain countries where there was no freedom of speech, or Turkey today where freedom is still being threatened. Brexiteers think the EU stifles the freedom to challenge what we don’t like, whereas for Remainers it creates a peaceful space where freedom of expression can flourish.
For Brexiteers leaving the EU is about the freedom to do what we like as a nation instead of having to compromise and accept fudged solutions to all our problems. For Remainers it’s about the freedom to go and live or work anywhere in Europe, wherever we choose, without anyone being able to stop us.
I could go on. Freedom sounds like a simple idea but in practice it can get very complicated because there’s a difference between being free to do something and being free from something. That means we have to make a distinction between freedom from bad things and freedom to do good things. Some people have even argued that freedom is such a complicated idea we need lessons at school if we’re to learn to cope with it when we grow up.
Nevertheless, Christians love to talk about freedom; freedom to worship and obey Jesus, and freedom from poverty or oppression, or from countless other sins. But is it ever possible for everyone to be free from bad things all the time? Isn’t that an illusion or a mirage? Even if we raise the poverty line to make more people free from hardship and want, there will always be someone who falls below it and is comparatively poor. And even if we teach everyone to become more tolerant there will always be someone who gets bullied in the playground.
St John in his account of Jesus’ teaching, and after him St Paul, argued that no one can be really free. We’re all prisoners of our human nature, which traps us into selfish and self-regarding patterns of behaviour. The only thing which can rescue us from this state of ondage is God’s grace, but in order to be set free by God we first have to submit to him. We have to identify with Jesus - to be baptised into his death for us upon the cross - before we can be remade in his image. There’s a paradox at work here. We can never be truly free unless we surrender our imagined freedom of action and become servants of Jesus.
Actually, the term ‘servants’ softens the original meaning because both Jesus and Paul use the word ‘slaves’ when they’re talking about freedom. There’s no one more unfree than a slave, and we think slavery is terrible, there was even a garden dedicated to ending modern slavery at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, but John’s Gospel and Paul both say we can only find true freedom by becoming slaves of Jesus.
St Augustine, followed later by the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, took up this idea and ran with it. They argued that we’re not even free to decide whether to remain as prisoners of our human nature or to become servants of Jesus because God decides everything that happens to us. Some people are destined to remain trapped in their old ways, some are destined to be rescued by Jesus’ death on the cross.
But if we were to go along with Augustine, Luther and Calvin, we would have to accept that Jesus no longer died for everyone, only for the people whom God chooses to save. St Thomas Aquinas, followed by John and Charles Wesley, couldn’t believe that this was true. As Charles Wesley puts it in one of his hymns, ‘For all, for all, my saviour died.” They were convinced that we do have the freedom at least to choose to receive God’s grace. God then rescues us from our old servitude to human nature and grants us the power to begin to be obedient to Jesus instead. And that continues to be the Methodist Church’s position today. We do have real choices.
More than 500 years ago the radical priest John Ball stirred up the Peasants’ Revolt by arguing that everyone had the right to “be made free” from hardship and poverty, but he was still talking about freedom from. His revolution failed because he had no clear idea what he wanted people to have the freedom to do. It was another 300 years, during the English civil war, before ordinary people started demanding the freedom to help make decisions about things, and almost another 300 years more before all men and women got the right to vote.
That’s what the EU referendum offered us. The right to exercise our freedom, to choose between two alternatives, to help decide things. Normally, unless we live in a marginal constituency, our votes don’t count for much because our individual freedom is swallowed up in the will of the majority; whereas in a referendum each vote matters, we’re set free to help make a real difference.
The poet John Milton pointed out, however, that freedom isn’t worth much if we choose to do something unwise with it. We’re only truly free if we’re able to make worthwhile choices. Satan, he said, was free to rebel against God, but that was hardly the sort of freedom which is worth having. So having the freedom to make choices is a big responsibility and that shouldn’t surprise us because freedom comes hand in hand with responsibility.
The freedom to make moral and political choices is unique to human beings. Lions may be the rulers of the jungle but they’re not really as free as the wind blows, or as free as the grass grows, because they’re not free to do anything else. We won’t ever meet a vegetarian lion, and while they may be rulers of all that they survey out on the savannah they’re not free to rule the rest of the world in the way that human beings are. And that unique freedom to make our own choices about how to live gives us the privilege and the responsibility to use our freedom wisely and responsibly as partners and collaborators with God, not as a licence to do whatever we like.
The recognition that it’s our responsibility to see freedom as a precious gift leads on to three discoveries about freedom which people have made gradually over the centuries. First, we can't have real freedom until we’ve learned to be tolerant enough to celebrate diversity. We have to accept and value the freedom of others to hold different attitudes to life and faith, and different points of view. But second, there are limits to freedom, because freedom also depends on security. We need a police force, and laws to protect our freedom. Some attitudes and behaviours are just so extreme that they can never be tolerated and have to be outlawed.
The final discovery is that the tyranny of public opinion can be just as big a threat to freedom as the worst kind of dictatorship. Milton recognised this when he said that we are never truly free when we use our freedom to make the wrong choices. In that situation the lone voice standing up for truth is the only way that genuine freedom can survive. Let’s pray therefore that in all the choices we are called upon to make we may know the truth for then the truth shall make us free.