Is Christianity About What You Can’t Do?

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Seventh Sunday after Pentecost / Seventh Sunday of Matthew, August 7, 2016
Romans 15:1-7; Matthew 9:27-35
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

There are many things which make Christian life unattractive, both to people who have never been church-goers and to lapsed or ex-Christians. There are the more unserious reasons, such as preferring to sleep in on Sunday morning or scheduling lesser activities for Sunday. Then there are others which are a bit more serious, such as having come to the philosophical conclusion that there is no God.

But the one I would like to talk about today is a little more subtle: In Christian life, you have to do certain things, or you are not allowed to do others. The objection is that Christianity means a loss of freedom.

It is true that certain kinds of churches do preach a loss of freedom. Calvinists preach that you are either damned or saved from even before your conception in your mother’s womb, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Lutherans teach that there is a certain “bondage of the will” that incapacitates man. Certain churches are so widely renowned for their emphasis on guilt that it’s something of a stereotype. And many pastors prefer to spend much of their preaching moralizing, commenting on the moral evils around them, condemning those who engage in immorality.

All of this has created a general impression in our society, a “cultural theology” which teaches that being a Christian means that you must be a certain way or that you must not do certain things. There is emphasis on the rules, whether they are the rules of morality or a divine law mandating who gets saved and who doesn’t. The popularity of this theology among so many Christians has led to a feeling that Christian life is about “dos and don’ts,” that God is a perfect Judge Who sits in Heaven, waiting for an opportunity to damn you, or perhaps that He already has damned you and there’s nothing you can do about it. (This, by the way, is usually the “God” the atheists don’t believe in.)

In the time of today’s Gospel reading, there was a similar cultural feeling about theology. Jewish theological discussion was dominated by the Pharisees, who were obsessed with “dos and don’ts.” In the Gospel reading today, after Jesus heals two blind men and a demon-possessed man, the Pharisees, who had painted Jesus as a law-breaker, actually accused Him of casting out demons in the name of “the prince of demons.” Being called a law-breaker, that is, a sinner, was one of the worst things that could be said about you publicly. There were rules!

And if you’ve ever taken a look at the precepts of the Mosaic Law, many of which are contained in the Book of Leviticus, then you know that it was pretty confining. Eat this. Don’t eat that. Prepare food just so. Get ritually cleansed after handling Scripture. And so on.

Many in our own time feel the same way about Christianity, that it’s about confinement. They may hate church, be deeply annoyed by it, or at least not want too much of it. For a lot of people, this is the reason why they no longer go, why they’ve never gone, or why they don’t go too often. It may be what’s in a young person’s mind as his parents make him go. But he won’t go any more once he gets out of the house.

So how can this be? How is it that what is supposed to be the Good News has turned into something so hateful, so annoying, so unmotivating? Why is it that when people encounter the name of Jesus, the meaning it communicates to them is a condemning, confining God?

One thing we should remember is that Orthodox Christianity is truly different from all other Christian groups. The difference is not just in worship “style.” And you can’t become Orthodox by being a Baptist and adding a few icons, nor can you be Orthodox by being Roman Catholic and disavowing the Pope. Orthodoxy is not a “version” of Christianity. It is Christianity. We believe it is the Christianity. Orthodoxy is the very definition of what it has meant to be Christian since Christ rose from the dead. This is the original, and the others, while similar in many ways, are different in certain critical ones. So what we’re talking about today is one of those critical differences.

For most Christians living here in the West, the Christian life really is about satisfying legal categories, about things you must of necessity do, or things you must not do. All of this religious stuff is therefore supposed to appease a “God” who is angry because his honor has been offended by our sin. But that is not what the Orthodox Christian faith teaches. The Orthodox Church teaches, as it has always taught, that mankind is free.

You are free. From the point of view of the Church, you really can do whatever you want. You are free. You do not have to come to church. You do not have to live a moral life. You do not have to accept certain beliefs as true. You are not confined. You are free.

God loves you, so He has set you free. He could have forced you to obey Him, but He didn’t. He could have damned you or saved you whether you wanted it or not, but He didn’t. He could have created us to be like robots who automatically do what is right. But He didn’t. He could have forced us to come to church. But He didn’t. He set us free.

Now, you may be thinking, “All right! I’m staying home next Sunday!” Or you may be thinking, “But, Father, what about all those exhortations to live a certain way, to participate in the sacraments, and so on?”

In Galatians 3, Paul writes that the time of the Mosaic Law had passed, that the Law was simply a “custodian” until faith in Jesus Christ came, that we are now no longer under the custodian. Now, he says, we are “sons of God.”

As sons and daughters of the Almighty God, we are given the freedom to leave the house at any time. We do not have to be here. We do not have to obey Him. He won’t make us. Instead, our heavenly Father is offering us something. He is offering us a place for our souls to live. He is offering us a share in His life, the divine life of the Holy Trinity, that perfect love. Through spiritual adoption, Christ becomes our brother. But the doors are not locked. We can leave at any time.

Love always sets you free. Someone who loves you does not force himself on you. Someone who loves you does not make you do anything. Someone who loves you invites and inspires you, hoping that you will respond to the invitation.

Obedience that is compelled is not true obedience but rather slavery. Our Father would never do that, and anyone claiming to speak for God who compels obedience is really speaking only for himself. This is why there should never be “piety police” in church, people who shame you when you don’t engage in the piety they would prefer. There has always been diversity in piety within the Church. This is normal, and this is good.

Second, and more importantly, those who take it upon themselves to “police” others’ piety are violating our basic theology—they are trying to take away the freedom of those around them. The same is true for those who take God’s role upon themselves and set themselves up as judges of other people’s morality. Piety and morality need to be taught, of course, but only by those whose job it is—teachers to students, parents to children, and pastors to their flock.

Now, if your family is anything like mine, at some point when you defied your parents, your father said to you, “As long as live under my roof, you’re going to obey my rules.” The same is true with God our Father. He has set the tone for our house. Here in the Church, God is the Father, not any one of us. We are free to do what we want if we want to leave the Church. But if we want to be in the house of God, the Kingdom of God, then we freely choose to obey Him.

Yes, we freely choose to be here. We have no obligation to be here. You did not have to be a Christian. I did not have to be a priest. You did not have to come to church this morning. But here we are, because we want something. We are here because we are seeking God. We are here because there is an emptiness, a longing in our hearts that can be satisfied only through divine communion.

Here, we learn to be moral, not because it’s a set of rules someone is making us follow, but because this is what is in the divine manual on how to become more like Jesus Christ. It’s a method, and it works. If you want the results, you follow the method.

If you want to be like Jesus Christ and want to live with Him forever, then you love Him with all your heart and rearrange your whole life around Him, bit by bit. If you want to be transformed into a saint, you come to church as often as you can, because here the divine energy of God works on us in a way we just can’t get elsewhere. If you want to know true peace and true joy and true healing, then you enter into the house of God and engage yourself in the power of what is happening.

And in doing all this, we discover true freedom. This is not the “freedom” of getting something for free, like the free gift you get when you open a new credit card. This is not the freedom of being given a license to do anything you want. Rather, this is the freedom of being filled with divine energy and power from on high: being made capable of perfect love, powerful enough to know perfect peace, and strong enough to know unending joy.

This is freedom for virtue, for holiness and for eternal life. Just as those two blind men were made capable of seeing, and that dumb demoniac was made capable of speaking, so we are made capable when our freedom meets the freedom of God Himself.

To the God Who loves us in His own freedom, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you Father. I find this very intriguing and definitely compelling. A friend of mine tagged me…which is how I came to read this. It really left me feeling a little uncertain, but more importantly I find myself smiling. Thank you Father. God Bless❤️, Shari

  2. Father, you had me until: “Obedience that is compelled is not true obedience but rather slavery”. The argument of the New Testament is that we are both slaves and free no matter what. We are either slaves to sin and free from God or slaves to God and free from sin, and we have to choose. Now I understand your point, that only in the eternal covenant do we have such a freedom to choose. But the freedom to choose still is clearly in Scripture that to be a slave to Christ and freedom from sin or slavery to sin and freedom from God. But then the Prodigal son parable kicks in–those who voluntarily make themselves slaves are made sons. I just think that this is an important step that was missed in this article.

    1. This is of course all true, though it wasn’t quite the point I was making.

      And I think that the understanding of “slavery” as used in the NT you refer to is not the sense I had in mind in the phrase you quoted. The slavery we practice for the Lord (and even our slavery to sin) is not compelled but chosen.

  3. Freedom to choose, a divine concept, given to us by God, and being forced to choose, slavery imposed to us by Satan. This is my favorite of all your sermons Father Damick, thank you, so perfectly explained.

  4. Thanks the Lord for your sermon. I want to share this with anybod
    One archpriest, Arkadii Shapov wrote (my translation).

    ” The God isn’t a philosophical category, it’s a Person, which is much more real then we ourselves. And this Person loves each of us to the point that if only one person were dying (from sin), as Holy Fathers stated, He would come to earth and died on the cross. God doesn’t save anybody by force. Each person can choose for himself, if he is with the God or not. But, when rejecting the God, one shouldn’t lie to oneself: without God, you won’t find true happiness neither here, nor in the eternity.” (azbyka.ru, Азбука Веры, Alphabet of Faith) (http://azbyka.ru/1/o_boge)

  5. Here is a follow-up question:

    Can one live Orthodox Christianity and not hold Orthodox Christian beliefs? For example, can I be a healthy Orthodox Christian and choose not to fast? Can I be healthy orthodox christian and choose not to live in agreement with the Church’s teaching on restricting sexual activity only to sacramental marriage?

    I believe without reservation that God’s mercy leads to the Truth of Jesus Christ but I also believe that love that sets us free knows that we often needs God’s NO to understand his more beautiful YES.

    And those NOs are invitations to joy

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