Freed for the freedom to do that which is loving
Meditation during the Season of Creation 2020
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
– Romans 14:1-12
Liberty is a cornerstone of the Lutheran tradition. In 1520, Martin Luther wrote an essay called “On the Freedom of a Christian”. As Lutherans, we celebrate the good news that we are liberated by God’s grace. It is always tempting to use our freedom to do whatever we desire. But Luther’s essay reminded us that while we are “perfectly free, subject to none”, love compels us always to remain “perfectly bound, servant to all”. We are bound to love our neighbor, not out of compulsion, but as a result of our perfect freedom.
This paradox is recorded in Paul’s letter to the Galatians when he writes, “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and never again put on the yolk of slavery.” In other words, we are freed for the freedom to do that which is loving.
In the above passage from Romans, Paul works out what that looks like in some very practical situations. Paul acknowledges that the gospel frees us from all the constraints of the law, including social and religious restrictions such as dietary laws, liturgical or religious requirements for purity, or social and gender-related exclusions.
However, Paul is clear that our liberty to disregard those restrictions should not offend others, because in doing so, we can exclude others from the inclusive, life-giving community that the gospel of liberty aims to establish.
For instance, we are free from needing to cover our heads or remove our shoes in worship. However, if we visit a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist home or house of worship, which has this practice, we are certainly free to observe unharmful restrictions to demonstrate our love for them.
In the same way, while some of us may be free to gather in small assemblies for worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, we refrain from doing so as a way to protect the most vulnerable in our community (particularly the aged or those with co-morbidities). A Christian gladly limits their liberties for the wellbeing and just sustainability of the life of our neighbors. (In the Bible, this is called kenosis.) That is the law of love in action.
The Season of Creation provides us with another context to apply this paradox of Christian liberty. Many people interpret the Genesis account of creation as a license for human beings to exploit the earth and its creatures for human consumption and enjoyment. Theologically, we need to critique this idea on the three accounts.
(1) This is not the nature of Divine dominion, in the Hebrew sense of the word from Genesis 1:26.
(2) Genesis 2:15 is clear that the human vocation is to till and to keep God’s garden by safeguarding conditions that sustain life.
(3) The notion of dominion is distorted as domination by the philosophical idea of the Great Chain of Being, where humans can use everything deemed below them and worship God, who is the only being above them on the chain. This idea is contrary to the Biblical wisdom that portrays a web of life sustained by just, righteous relationships with one another and all creatures.
But there is one more reason that Christians must not exploit creation that is found in the reading – Christian liberty. The Earth is a commons. The air, the rivers and oceans, the plants and minerals are held in common with every animal and people in all lands, and by every generation throughout time.
The concepts of the Sabbath and the Jubilee remind us that we do not have the right to consume or use more than our fair share of this commons – for our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the Earth and the next generations. By limiting our consumption, we allow the Earth time to rest and heal, and each generation safeguards a just sustainability for generations of life to come. Paul reminds us, “none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” We are part of a holy ecological whole.
As Luther says, we are perfectly free, but in our freedom, we are perfectly bound to live in a way that safeguards the life of our neighbor, be they human, non-human, or yet to be born. Creation is a gift, not a given. May our freedom in Christ be shown by the way we freely care for the Earth, so that our living “will give an account of ourselves to God.”
Many churches in the ecumenical family observe the “Season of Creation” (also known as Creation Time) between 1 September and 4 October, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, as observed by some Western traditions. For the Lutheran communion, this liturgical season of prayer and action is an opportunity to affirm LWF’s commitment to address a central crisis of our time – climate change. “Jubilee for the Earth” is the 2020 theme for the “Season of Creation”.