Although very rarely rising to the surface, profound anguish and anger hid within me for a very long time. I was once angry at the ones who tormented me as a child, causing such painful wounds. I was angry at God for allowing it to happen and not intervening. And I was angry at myself. Could I have made different choices? Maybe if I tried harder to be part of the “in” crowd. Maybe if Little Nick had acted more aggressive, or had worked out and took karate. It would be fair to say I was angry at choices made all around, choices the bullies made, choices God made, and choices I made. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that perhaps no one in this story had any choice at all.
Choice, and the freedom to choose, is fundamental to how we see ourselves in the world. We feel powerful when we have choices, and powerless when we have none. There’s an inherent human desire to be powerful, to feel we’re agents of change making choices that impact our lives and the lives of others.
However, whatever we might think of the plethora of choices we make, for good or for ill, we tend to forget an underlying assumption, namely that we really do have the ability to consciously make a decision. We’re assuming we have free will or personal agency, the ability to make decisions on the behalf of what we perceive to be our selves. On closer examination, though, it isn’t at all clear that we do.
Numerous studies in the field of neuroscience, for example, have examined our decision-making process, with some surprising results. In a typical study, researchers measure activity in different areas of the brain while having subjects make various sorts of choices. They found that certain kinds of activity in the brain predicted the subject’s eventual decision, well before the subject was conscious of making a decision.
Perhaps, then, free will, in terms of a person consciously making a decision, is an illusion. Maybe what we call free will is simply the story we tell ourselves after the decision has been made. Some part of my brain begins the process of pushing a button, and then several seconds later my conscious self pushes it. In that scenario my conscious choice is only a story about my own sense of volition in the world, with the real choice happening below consciousness.
The life to which Jesus calls us is essentially simple. In what does that simple life consist? The simple life – the life of the kingdom – consists in the abundant awareness that everything we receive is a gift that we did not earn or purchase; in the recognition that life itself is the first of all gifts; in the trust that our basic needs will be met; in the generosity that allows us to be the means by which God meets the needs of others; and in the capacity to surrender our inevitable craving for what we do not need.
Worrying is one behavior that leads to increased complexity of life, the labyrinthine complexity of misdirected anxiety. But this particular admonition not to worry is made more specific by a very clear statement: You cannot serve God and wealth. The incapacity to surrender our craving for what we do not need results in service to the wrong Master. And the tiny links in the chain with which that Master binds his unsuspecting devotees are worries. Restless hope of acquisition on the one hand, and undue fear for the security of what we have acquired on the other, results in a zig-zag of interior energy moving in the wrong direction: away from God.
As men who live under vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, we have committed ourselves to “striving first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” in a radical way. On an external level, this particular version of the Christian vocation entails much letting go and doing without: of spouse, children, a household of our own, and a significant measure of individual autonomy, to name only the most significant sacrifices. But as we know very well, these things comprise only the outermost concentric circle in a life of progressive dispossession for the sake of the kingdom. We discover whole hordes of interior possessions, guarded tooth and nail by dragons who feed on our thoughts. In short, we are tempted to worry all over again – perhaps even to justify our worry spiritually.
When we’re watching a good movie, and find ourselves swept along by the story, it’s easy to see the movie as having a reality of its own. We forget that what we’re actually seeing is only light dancing on a screen, and we relate intimately with the people and situations of the story as if they were real. We can even become so absorbed in the story that on some level we think we’re in the movie, like when something scary happens and we jump as if we’re in any real danger.
We can describe this shift in perception between what seems real and is real as a loss of a certain kind of freedom living within us. We move from being freely aware of light projected onto a screen to being caught in a misperception, no longer noticing the light or the screen, but only seeing the story as it unfolds. This loss of interior freedom is usually experienced as a fun kind of escapism, and it’s often just what we’re looking for when we need to unwind a little. We might even get annoyed if something gets in the way of that experience, like when filmmakers try showing movies at high frame rates, and people complain that the movie looks “too real.”
The ancient desert monastics had a lot to say on the subject of interior freedom, and the consequences of losing that freedom. They called this interior freedom apatheia, and it meant for them no less than abiding in the Kingdom of God, being free to love God with all one’s heart, and being free from the kind of suffering born from being a slave to sin. They described how this interior freedom allows us to see God’s Light and Truth in the world, as when Maximus the Confessor wrote: “Wisdom consists in seeing every object in accordance with its true nature, with perfect interior freedom.” Evagrius Ponticus turns our gaze inward to discover our true nature, writing: “If you wish to see the transparency of your own spirit you must rid yourself of all thoughts, and then you will see yourself looking like sapphire or the color of heaven. But to do that without interior freedom is not possible.”
John the Baptist saw Jesus this way, recognizing him as the one who would free us from the slavery of sin. And since Passover celebrated the delivery of the Jewish people out of slavery he thought of Jesus as the Passover Lamb, exclaiming here is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
When we consider sin, what typically comes to mind are the actions we take, or even the thoughts we have, that are judged as immoral or unethical, or that violate some aspect of religious law. Sin can also refer to a state of being. When John says Jesus takes away the sin of the world, he intentionally uses the singular form of the word “sin,” referring to the condition of being a slave to sin, blinded by our own willfulness instead of willingly letting our eyes be opened to God’s Kingdom. In other words, this condition of sin is what the ancient monks would have described as the lack of interior freedom, and Jesus was offering a way back to this freedom.
John’s two disciples don’t seem to have recognized Jesus the way John did, but they did trust John, and so they followed Jesus. Gazing upon them from that place of interior freedom, Jesus felt moved to ask the two what they were seeking. They answered by asking where Jesus was staying, although a better translation of the original text would give the sense of abiding, as in “Teacher, where are you abiding?” Of course, Jesus was abiding in God’s Kingdom, and in what’s probably a reference to Jesus giving sight to the blind, he responds “come and see.”
Then we’re given what might seem like an odd detail. The disciples abided with Jesus at around four o’clock in the afternoon. In the Greek text, that line reads as “The hour was about the tenth,” with the dramatic emphasis landing on that final word. Many bible translators must have assumed we’d want to know what time of day that meant by our clocks, but keeping with the original text opens a richer layer of meaning.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann, for example, suggested the tenth hour was symbolic of a coming to wholeness or fulfillment. St. Augustine saw the number ten in a similar way, while also recognizing it as a symbol of ancient Jewish Law. He understood the tenth-hour reference to mean that by abiding with Jesus, the Law had been fulfilled.
The Law had covered the moral and religious transgressions referred to as sins in the plural, while Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law amounted to addressing the underlying condition of sin. As the Passover Lamb of God he offered his disciples the way out of bondage, freeing them from that condition of sin. Interior slavery becomes interior freedom, and this fulfills the Law, because while abiding with Jesus in God’s Kingdom that long list of sins just doesn’t seem like much of a problem.
In chapter 8 of John’s gospel Jesus tells some of his Jewish followers that the truth would make them free. They respond indignantly saying they’ve never been slaves to anyone. And this was one of Jesus’ toughest jobs, convincing people who think they’re free that in truth they’re still enslaved.
Jesus responds to them saying “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
By “free indeed” Jesus means abiding with him in God’s Kingdom, that place of interior freedom from which we see God’s Truth clearly. We’re “free indeed” when we’re no longer enslaved to the sin mentioned in John the Baptist’s original proclamation. Jesus takes away sin, and it is the sin of the world. The world, or more specifically being attached or overly identified with the world, is the sin we’re freed from when we abide with God in Christ.
It may help in describing this interior freedom and the sin of the world to revisit the movie metaphor. Imagine you’re watching a movie and you become so completely caught up in it that you forget, on some level, that it’s only a movie. Your awareness shifts from watching light move across a screen to seeing only the story as it unfolds, a story that seems very real. The movie represents the world, and the enlightened screen represents the Truth of God’s Kingdom.
If we’re in the world, but not of the world, then we participate in the world, experiencing all its ups and downs, while also having the interior freedom to see the world as an expression of God, seeing God’s Truth in all things, including ourselves.
On the other hand, if we’re in the world and of the world, then we’ve become enslaved to the world, forgetting that the world in all its many forms is an expression of God’s Goodness. If we’re of the world, we might even believe that our identity in the world is who we really are, forgetting our Truest selves as children of Light.
The good news is that Jesus offers us a path back to interior freedom. This path, though, is counterintuitive in its simplicity, especially in our culture of extreme busyness, productivity, and the need to always be doing something. The way of Jesus, it turns out, is mostly about doing nothing. That’s one reason Meister Eckhart called the way of Jesus the Wayless Way, because it’s not about getting somewhere or doing something, but about coming to rest where we already are.
It might not seem obvious, but if you’re completely absorbed in a movie, forgetting it’s just light on a screen, your mind is expending energy and effort to sustain that illusion. Or look at it this way, if you’re watching a movie, caught up in the story, how much effort does it take to notice the movie as just light on a screen? It takes no effort at all, just a shift in awareness which happens quite naturally when we’re at rest.
Abiding in Christ, in God’s Kingdom, is the fulfillment of God’s greatest wish for us. God wants us to reclaim our interior freedom and be free from the sin of the world. God wants us to escape the slavery of sin and abide in the eternal Peace and Joy of Christ beyond understanding.
We fulfill God’s wish for us, receiving this amazing grace when we follow where Jesus leads, abiding with him and finding deep rest for our souls. When we let ourselves rest in God’s presence, we let go of all the ways the world has us in its grip, so we’re free to be in the world, but not of the world. From this place of rest, we allow God to heal us and make us whole, dying with Christ, and rising as new creations in Christ.
Abiding in Christ is the fulfilment of God’s desire for us, and the fulfillment Jesus brings us as his disciples. Our hope is that we follow Jesus’ Wayless Way back to our true home, God’s Eternal Kingdom, where we bear witness to God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in all things.
Something unusual happens to me every time I read this story from Acts chapter 16. In some ways it’s an odd story, featuring a slave woman who is possessed by a spirit that enables her to predict the future. Two thousand years removed from the story and its setting, we wonder what this description could mean. It’s hard to know for sure what troubled her. It poses an interesting question, but that isn’t the part of the story that grabs my attention.
The slave woman follows Paul and Silas around town, calling out to anyone who will listen that “these people are servants of the Most High God” and that “they are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.” She is speaking the truth, though Paul is unwilling to acknowledge it as truth because it is prompted by an evil spirit. She harasses them for several days until Paul has finally had enough. He stops, turns to her, and rebukes the demon that possesses her. She is instantly healed. The miracle demonstrates the power of God at work in these early apostles, the same power that was at work in their Lord. It poses the question of how that same power might be available to us, but even this isn’t the part of the story that grabs me by surprise and causes me to wonder.
The healing annoys the woman’s owners, who have lost a convenient source of income, and they turn against Paul and Silas. They seize them and drag them before the local authorities with the accusation that they are “causing an uproar” in the city. The crowd joins in on the attack against Paul and Silas, which compels the authorities to order that they be stripped of their clothing and beaten. Accused and found guilty without a trial, they are “severely beaten,” thrown into prison, with their legs secured in chains.
And then there is this line: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” And that is what grabs me in this story. Every time. I’m always surprised by that line. I find myself thinking, “How can that be?” Unjustly accused by greedy men, seized upon by a crowd, hauled before the authorities, severely beaten, thrown into a first-century prison, bloodied and in pain, publically humiliated and soundly defeated, their legs locked in irons… and then: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” How is that possible? Who would be singing hymns to God in those circumstances? I try to imagine myself in their place. I wonder if this would have been my response.
What is Paul’s secret? What enables him to praise and thank God in the most difficult of circumstances? From what deep place in his heart is he drawing this strength? What enables him to sing and to worship in such trying conditions?
I’ve thought about this and here’s what I’ve come up with: I think what we’re seeing here reveals Paul’s true identity. Our identity, what we truly believe about ourselves, expresses itself in our words and actions. And it seems clear to me that Paul’s sense of himself has nothing to do with accomplishments or achievements or success; it does not depend on any external factor. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges that there was a time when he was enamored by the marks of success. He writes that at one time he had it all: he was from a reputable family, he had received a top-notch education from one of the leading educators of his time, he was passionate about his faith and lived it with a zeal that impressed both his peers and his elders, he was popular and acclaimed by all. In short, he had it all. (Phil. 3:4-6)
Until he met Jesus. And his life was changed completely. From that moment on, all of the marks of status, all of his achievements, all the respect and admiration he had won, became as nothing to him. “I wrote them all off as a loss for the sake of Christ,” he tells the Philippians. “I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:7-9a) From that moment on, Paul’s identity was hidden in Christ. He recognized that he was no longer his own; that he had been bought with a price.
The great French monastic and martyr, Charles de Foucauld, once said, “As soon as I believed there was a God, I realized that I could do nothing else but live for him alone.”[i] The same was true of Paul.
But can you see the freedom that this new identity gives him? He no longer has to curry favor from the rich and powerful; he no longer has to please or impress; he no longer has to strive to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of others. All this, he says, he counts as “refuse” – as “sewer trash” (as one translation puts it). Now he is a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away; all things have been made new.
Have you known this kind of freedom? Freedom from the tyranny of having to achieve what the world measures as success? The freedom of not having to be better or stronger or more attractive or more talented or wealthier or more popular in order to be counted as worthy? This is the ‘glorious freedom’ of the children of God and it comes from knowing that we are unconditionally loved by God. Always. Paul knows this freedom. He has cast aside the marks of worldly success and embraced the truth that he is a new creation in Christ. All things have been make new.
Paul has one purpose for being in the world and that is to proclaim Christ. He lives for this. He writes to the Philippians from jail, and tells them that he is pleased to be in prison because the word is spreading, people are hearing about Jesus. He has suffered countless hardships, but they have been nothing to him in comparison to the joy he has found in Jesus.
“Who will separate us from Christ’s love?” he asks the Roman Christians, “Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” No, he says, “I am convinced that nothingcan separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord; not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Rom 8:35-39)
As a beloved child of God, Paul knows the perfect freedom of belonging to God: “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear,” he reminds the Christians at Rome, “you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children… if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Rom. 8:15-17)
It is this knowledge – that he belongs to Christ and is unconditionally and forever loved by God – that gives him the boldness and courage to take the risks that he does. He is like a tree with deep roots, roots that give him a stability and steadfastness that enable him to withstand all kinds of challenges, setbacks and disappointments without giving up or becoming discouraged. He has an unshakeable faith that he is God’s, and this faith holds firm even in the storms and tempests of his life.
Perhaps this is why he can encourage the Christians at Philippi to “rejoice always,” as we see him and his companion rejoicing here in a first-century prison cell after having been beaten and abused. “Rejoice always” – because you belong to God, because you are deeply and irrevocably loved by God, because there is nothing in all the world that can ever separate you from God, because you are God’s beloved child, a fellow heir with Christ of all that God is and possesses.
When you are facing life’s trials, when life seems to be an uphill battle, when you fear being overwhelmed by fear or worry or grief, recall this image of Paul and Silas, beaten and bloodied, locked in chains, singing and praising God! This joy can be yours as well. This freedom belongs to you as a child of God. Nothing can destroy it or take it away from you. You are, and always will be, the beloved of God.
Send down your roots into this deep soil, so that when trouble comes, you can remain steadfast and unmovable, knowing that God always has the final word. And rejoice. Always and everywhere. No matter what circumstance you find yourself in. Trust God’s power and love. Easter is Love’s Victory over evil and death; all fear is washed away. You! – yes, you! – are a beloved child of God.
“See what love the Father has given us,” exclaims the author of First John, “that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are!” (NRSV) Alleluia!
Note: Except where otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible, ©2010.
[i]Quoted by Jean-Francois Six in his book Witness in the Desert: The Life of Charles de Foucauld, MacMillan Press, 1965, p. 28.
I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked: and I hid myself.
It strikes me that as a people we are beginning to ask ourselves (deeply) what kind of freedom our common life enshrines. One of the many assumptions our culture relies upon is the idea that freedom is chiefly about “choice.” This assumption stands out to me as I pray with these readings from Genesis and Mark, and the Spirit asks us to consider the freedom we rightly celebrate as Christians, compared with the world’s many pseudo-freedoms. The freedom to choose God’s will in love, or the second-hand freedoms that will always leave us feeling, nevertheless, afraid.
It is telling to me that prior to our temptation we were perfectly free to choose from every tree of the garden—every blessing and delight of created existence, every pursuit of knowledge and relationship with our partner and our God—except, of course, one.
This tree, our desire to eat of it, and the choice to pursue or abstain from that desire tips the narrative of creation. Twice.
Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of whom were chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles. But here I must make a disclaimer. We know almost nothing about them. This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.[i] Nor is this the James, the brother of Jesus, the brother traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and the sometime-Bishop of Jerusalem.[ii] This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.[iii] This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.
As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles – the brothers Andrew and Peter – and that was Bethsaida, alongside the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.[iv] Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus. In the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach. Jesus then asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip. Philip essentially fails the test. He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.[v] On another occasion Philip fails the test again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers Philip in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”[vi]
Romans 6: 1 – 13
Mark 16: 1 – 8
Every once in a while I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly, in the middle of Morning or Evening Prayer, something is read and my attention is instantly arrested. A word, or a phrase, or an image from Scripture leaps out of the appointed reading at me, and for the next hour, or day, or week, it returns to me over and again. That happened a week ago, on Palm Sunday, at Morning Prayer, and suddenly what we say in our Rule of Life became immediately true. We read there that in our worship the Spirit sometimes touches us immediately through a word, an image or a story; there and then we experience the Lord speaking to us.
Keith had been reading from Zechariah, where the Prophet proclaims that the coming ruler of God’s people will arrive humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. It’s an all-too-familiar passage that I have read, or heard, dozens of times, and because of its association with Palm Sunday, we heard it again last Sunday at Morning Prayer. In spite of having heard that passage countless time before, I have actually never heard it. Or, at least I have been so caught up with the image of the king coming, humble, and riding on a donkey, that I have never heard the rest of the lesson. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
It was the phrase prisoners of hope that arrested me. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about kings and donkeys, palms and processions, but prisoners, freedom, and hope. I was thinking what it might mean to be a prisoner of hope. In a sense, while everyone else was celebrating Palm Sunday, and beginning to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God] has given us life and immortality, I was already at Easter, thinking about the gift of freedom and hope that comes to us through the Resurrection of Jesus. And that is where I have spent this week, living the events of Holy Week through the lens of being a prisoner of hope.
Jesus uses the image of masters and slaves, as much as any other, to characterize our relationship to God, and to the world. For us, we may not be so quick to identify with the image of masters and slaves as Jesus’ first hearers were. Yet, many of us, I suspect, know something about being a slave; that is, we know something about being owned, being bound, being controlled by something other than God. Perhaps it’s wealth that we are owned by, as Jesus suggests. Perhaps we are slaves to obsessions and compulsions; addictions, in a word, that dictate what we do, where we go, and who we associate with. It may be that pride is calling the shots, or maybe lust is your master; it might be greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, but we don’t have to specialize.
“For freedom Christ has set us free.” St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Words like freedom and liberty will be in the air this week as we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July. Freedom, whatever that means, is the essence of what it means to be American and it was very much on the minds of the founders. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 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.” Familiar words from the Declaration of Independence. Our foundational documents and the principles they articulate with such extraordinary sonority have resonated far beyond our borders, and continue to do so.