Well, that ought to get your attention!
The truth is it isn’t love if it isn’t free. In fact, love presupposes freedom. Without freedom, there is no possibility of true love.
As an example, we have jus started our new class for those wanting to know more about the Orthodox Faith. Every year after our annual church festival and after we have done so many church tours, we invite those who have expressed interest in the faith to attend several weeks of classes to be introduced to the history and theology of Orthodoxy. And each series of classes they hear the same comment from me: you aren’t free to say “yes” if you aren’t also completely free to say “no.”
The mystery of the gift of free will given to us by our Creator is an expression of His true nature. You see, we are free because our Creator is free. God is completely free. In fact, He is free in a way beyond our comprehension because we are created and He is not. But in His loving creation of us all, He put the stamp of His character on each of us and part of that stamp is our free will. He doesn’t compel us to love Him. He doesn’t force us to serve Him. He invites. He woos. He calls. And He offers. But He has made us free to enter into relationship with Him or to reject Him or anything in between, all within our freedom to choose.
At the heart of all this is the central revelation of God Himself. He is free and He knows Himself as free Persons in loving communion. In His creation of us He offers us to experience and live in that same kind of communion with Him and each other. It’s what we Orthodox call “salvation.”
This brings us to today’s Epistle Lesson. St. Paul is writing to a very wealthy Christian named Philemon. You see, St. Paul is sending someone back to Philemon. It is a runaway slave named Onesimus. Yes, THAT Onesimus, the one who eventually became a bishop in the early Church. Onesimus has come to Christ through Paul’s ministry and he had confessed to Paul that he was a runaway slave from a man named Philemon. St. Paul then was amazed that Onesimus ‘ master was also a convert to Christ through Paul’s ministry.
So St. Paul writes an epistle (a letter) to his spiritual son Philemon that makes its way into our New Testament because of the love and witness to a transformed life in Christ for both of these men, slave and master. They are now spiritual brothers because of the grace of God.
Look at what Paul writes: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child, Onesimos, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. ” (see the entire reading at Philemon 1:1-25)
St. Paul tells Philemon he could command him to take Onesimus back but Paul understands the power of love and gratitude freely given! So, he appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus back as his brother and Paul’s spiritual son, just like Philemon is now.
St. Paul knows what the penalty is in Roman law for a runaway slave. St. Paul also knows St. Philemon knows that too. So, St. Paul intercedes for St. Onesimus to st. Philemon and he does this by appealing to Philemon’s free love for Paul and for all the saints.
You see, dear one, love and gratitude can never be demanded, they must always be freely given if they are to truly be what they are. In our own spiritual development, the growth of our freedom always is in direct relation to our willingness to “give” love and gratitude. Little love and gratitude= little freedom. Abundant love and gratitude= abundant freedom. The truth is one feeds the other.
Today, are you free? It would be just as appropriate to ask “do you love” and “are you grateful?” To the extent that you have the capacity to love and the capacity to be grateful, you are a truly free person. Do you feel like a slave to life today? Then examine your spiritual life to discover where you are deficient in love and gratitude. Find those places and you’ll discover where the lock is to the “cell” of your own making. It is for freedom’s sake Christ has made you free and it is in your ability to love and be grateful that you find your freedom in Christ.
Today, are you free or a slave?