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Scripture Reflection, July 8: Christian Understanding of Freedom

Scripture Reflection, July 8: Christian Understanding of Freedom

Scripture Readings:
Isaiah 66: 10-14
Psalm 66
Galatians 6: 14-18
Luke 10: 1-12; 17-20

We have heard a lot about freedom this past week in this country. Our celebration of Independence Day is a rich national tradition that reminds us to be grateful for the freedoms with which we are blessed in the United States. I can write this Scripture reflection on a website with national (even international) scope and not worry that I will be persecuted for expressing my Christian convictions, even if when I am critical of certain aspects of our society. Many people in our world do not enjoy this luxury. We should indeed be grateful for living in a “land of the free.”

Saint Paul offers us some insight into the Christian understanding of freedom in his letter to the community at Galatia. Disappointed in this community because some have returned to a Law-centered rather than a Christ-centered understanding of salvation, Paul exhorts them to preserve the freedom that Christ offers us. Through faith in the redemptive life, death and resurrection of Jesus, believers have discovered freedom in the grace and mercy of God. As Paul reminds them in this Sunday’s section from his letter, they have become a “new creation.” They can relate to God and to one another with confidence and openness.

Freedom for Paul, however, does not mean license. It is not an individualistic freedom in which people are entitled to seek merely their own best interests. Last Sunday, we heard Paul say to the Galatians: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather serve one another through love.” In the section of his letter that we hear this coming Sunday, Paul speaks in a personal way of the freedom that has marked his own life. It is a freedom that has impelled him to a life of service in the name of Christ. Through his apostolic labors, Paul has followed in the footsteps of the Crucified One. As he puts it, “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.”

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus commissions the seventy-two disciples, sending them forth to proclaim the reign of God and to heal the sick. As grandiose as this may sound, he makes it clear that this will not be an easy task. It is a mission that calls for a life of simplicity: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals.” Some people will reject the message and the messengers. There is even a dimension of cosmic struggle in all of this: the name of Jesus is proclaimed in opposition to the powers of evil, to all that takes people away from the life that God wants for us. These disciples, who have found new freedom in Christ, are called to a life of service on behalf of the reign of God. It is a life marked by significant challenge but also deep joy.

Freedom is not simply freedom from; it is also freedom for. Christ offers us freedom from many things: freedom from servile fear of God; from unhealthy guilt and worry; from addictions and other forms of compulsion; from self-hatred and endless competition with others, from the necessity to prove ourselves to others, to name just a few. Christ also calls us to freedom for: freedom for service of him and others; for a life of mercy and forgiveness of others; for simplicity of life; for loving others, even when that love is not always reciprocated.

In recent years, sociologists and political scientists have conducted a series of studies examining the attitudes and values of people in the United States. Many people are familiar with the book authored by Robert Bellah and his team entitled Habits of the Heart. Similar studies have followed this important book. One of the concerns expressed by these researchers has been the strong tendency toward individualism that is prevalent among U.S. Americans. We cherish our freedom from constraints on our personal liberties. But internalizing a sense of community, a duty to serve the common good, is more of a challenge for us. Concern for the common good, a habit of the heart that is central to Catholic social teaching, seems to have diminished in our country. We have a strong sense of independence, but we do not always recognize our interdependence. In other words, we prize our freedoms from, but we are less inclined to heed the call of our freedom for.

In the passage from Luke for this Sunday, Jesus exclaims: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” Jesus called his disciples, and he calls you and me, to live the freedom he has given us through a life of service to others. We are invited to proclaim the reign of a loving, merciful God in word and action. Christ empowers us to be free for one another.

In my work for Catholics on Call, it has become clear to me that there are many young adult Catholics who have a deep desire to live in service of God and others. At our summer young adult conferences, I have been blessed to meet and dialogue with many college and post-college men and women who have internalized a profound understanding of the freedom for to which the Gospel calls us. They are discerning their own call to be laborers for the reign of God, whether that call entails religious life, priesthood, or lay ministry. I have been deeply inspired by their commitment to service of the people of God and by their desire for simplicity of life. They have taught me a great deal about the freedom that Jesus offers us.

When we experience the faithful love of others, we are liberated to become our best selves. The ultimate source of Christian freedom is just that – the experience of God’s boundless, faithful love poured out in Jesus Christ. Every time we come to the table of the Lord we are gathered into the loving arms of God. May Christ’s gift of himself to us in the Eucharist lead us to a deeper sense of freedom: freedom from the powers that enslave us and freedom for lives of loving service to others.

Fr. Robin Ryan, cp

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