The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
My sermons this month are following the theme of 'Signs of the Kingdom of God'. So far I have spoken about Love, Compassion and Justice. Today I shall be talking about Freedom and next Sunday I will conclude with the topic of Creation.
Freedom as a sign of the Kingdom of God: In Nelson Mandela's famous autobiography Long Walk to Freedom we see there an extraordinary commitment to freedom, a dedicated discipline to cause, and a very generous spirit that refused to be broken under the most trying circumstances. A freedom of spirit in which we can all find something to admire. Much of this book was written secretly while he was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island. In it he records the very words he spoke when released from prison: "I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands."
Freedom today has many facets: freedom from imprisonment, freedom of speech, freedom to vote, freedom of religion, in fact freedom to do almost anything we want.
In modern society, not least in South Africa, these freedoms have evolved through conflicts and wars, which have in turn lead to the establishment of democracies. We all value freedom as one of the greatest intrinsic values of our society. This freedom to do what we want now lies at the very core of our modern Western identity.
However, there is something strangely odd about this kind of freedom. There are tell-tale signs that this may not be true freedom; for example if your freedom only exists because it imposes on someone else and impinges upon their freedom. In contrast the Christian church has long understood that true freedom is found in a rather different way; that paradoxically true freedom can only come through being shaped and disciplined in Christ.
While imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a short poem to a friend, entitled "Stations on the Road to Freedom." He describes the essence of Christian freedom with great power and potency. Given its context, it becomes all the more compelling for us, and becomes a sort of distillation of his theology, and has intensely strong implications for the way we should order and live our lives. The weight he places on obedience, discipline, and submission to God are things that many today would find contradictory to freedom, but in a strange way it compliments and dovetails with Lord Acton's famous notion of defining liberty: not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.
Concerning discipline, Bonhoeffer says that if we set out to seek freedom, then we must learn (above all things) to govern our souls and senses, for its only through discipline that we may learn to be free. Concerning action he speaks of daring to do what is right, not what we want to, for freedom comes only through deeds, not through wandering thoughts. Concerning suffering he speaks of change: how action so often ends in helplessness; how suffering can give us glimpses of freedom; but these only come to perfection in total unity with God. And finally concerning death he talks of this as a great feast on the journey to freedom. How in death we behold God revealed through the Lord. Bonhoeffer stands within a noble tradition of Christian spirituality that teaches if we are to be truly free, we must first grow in holiness.
When we look at folk like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela we see in these disciplined people, despite their hardships, a certain spontaneity and even joy.
We see that by investing their freedom in discipline they secure a deeper freedom unavailable elsewhere. St Benedict counselled the need for 'a little strictness in order to amend faults and safeguard love' and perhaps that formula provides the key for us to discovering true freedom for discipline nurtures in us a spiritual staying power, the kind of love a couple enjoys on their golden anniversary, not on their wedding day.
As I mentioned within my first sermon in this series, spiritual freedom is concentrated within divine love and the Spirit; when through God's grace, we love others as we love ourselves. And so we begin to understand that true freedom in the Kingdom of God is the gift of the Spirit, and the result of grace. We remember too how Nelson Mandela gave his life for the people of South Africa at the cost of his freedom and his family. His life challenges us to make a greater commitment to confront the evils we face today: poverty, racism, war, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction; all the systemic violence that oppresses humanity.
Those who write about the Christian life often report that it gets harder, not easier to do all this as the years go by. At such times the spiritual disciplines of the church, that seem to be a little bit out of vogue at the moment, have much to offer in both discovery and re-discovery of the fact that true freedom in the Kingdom of God is not a human initiative or a psychological trick but a theological grace. It comes to us as a gift from God.