Responsibility in Freedom

Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, RCL 1 Samuel 3:1-20, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

William Blake (1757-1827) Jacob's Dream, 1805, pen, ink, and watercolor. Public domain

The priest arrives at church on Sunday morning to hear his congregants speaking about the faith. This poor congregation doesn’t seem to know what exactly Christ has done for them. They know that somehow their earthly body is meaningless and that the old laws don’t apply to them. These people feel that they can do anything they want; prostitution, incest, possibly even adultery along with a laundry list of other desires. Their lifestyle didn’t matter too much; after all, they were doing these things with a body that is going to perish. The people of this congregation have all kinds of problems; after all, they are human just like us.

Now it appears that their pastor, Paul, may not have been the best preacher. His parishioners listen to what he says but they don’t always pick up on the subtleties. He mentioned once that all things are lawful. Now, the people heard this message not only from Paul but from other philosophers of their time. Now the congregants knew that this freedom wasn’t from Roman law, it was about religious law. But they did have trouble reconciling this message with the part about Jesus fulfilling the law and not abolishing it.

As I mentioned we find that this idea of being a free person, a person who is able to do what he wants, is a philosophical ideal. Paul says “All things are lawful for me.” He says this twice with clarification. After he says it the first time, Paul says “but not all things are beneficial” and after the second time, he says “but I will not be dominated by anything.” Paul is still speaking in philosophical terms. He is trying to say that freedom doesn’t come without restraint. If you allow yourself to be completely free you will become dominated by, or a slave to, your desires. Paul says we have to maintain our freedom to do those things that are beneficial; beneficial to ourselves, to our relationship with God, and to each other. But at the same time, we need to restrain ourselves so that we do not fall into sin.

Look at our bodies, he says. Food will not defile them even though the law prohibits eating certain foods. Even though we have freedom, we still need constraint, such as from fornication. What we do with our bodies DOES matter. Our bodies are the temple of God. And as such we have to treat our bodies as well as other people with the proper respect. For Paul, our bodies are the temple in which Christ resides and we understand the boundaries between freedom and restraint by following Christ. The boundaries between right and wrong are an ocean of gray and we also need Christ to help us navigate what lies between. But knowing God or Christ is not always easy.

“Where did you get to know me,” Nathanael asks. I saw you before, even before your friend came to find you. The Lord called Samuel; Samuel, Samuel! But, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” At age eleven he didn’t know the Lord but the Lord was calling him anyway. Even the psalmist says, “Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb.” In almost every biblical story God knows us before we know him. We like to think of ourselves as being found by Christ, like a lost lamb, but it is us who recognize the Christ who already knows us. Each of us may have discovered God in different ways. The child Samuel hears him calling like a familiar voice in the night.

In the Gospel, Nathanael meets Christ face to face through a friend. Philip finds Nathanael and says, ‘I have found the Messiah, you know the one Moses and the prophets wrote about. He is Jesus from Nazareth.’ But Nathanael isn’t impressed. ‘When has anything good come from Nazareth,’ he says. But Nathanael quickly changes his mind when Jesus speaks to him. Much like Samuel, Nathanael only recognizes God when he replies to that familiar presence. When we answer a voice or act on a vision that comes from Christ then we are recognizing his presence within our lives. We have found Christ.

When we return to the story of Jesus and Nathanael we find that Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit or guile!” Having guile is to be a trickster or a schemer. To understand this interaction a bit better, we have to go back to Jacob in the Old Testament. Until Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, Jacob is also known as the trickster. Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of red lentils. On his father’s death-bed, Jacob steals his brother's blessing by pretending to have hairy hands. Jacob is one who gets what he wants, not necessarily illegally but often through deception. Jacob is full of guile and Nathanael is the opposite.

There is more than this single remark that links Jesus’s words to Jacob. “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This imagery is a clear reference to Jacob’s dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth on a ladder. We may not understand all the symbolism within this dream but when Jacob awakes he knows that this place, with a ladder to heaven, is special. Jacob proclaims that this place “is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” So he builds an altar to mark this gate of heaven.

In Christ’s conversation, the angles are not ascending and descending a ladder between heaven and earth. Jesus says the angels ascend and descended between heaven and himself. Christ is saying that the disciples have found the gate of heaven through him. In these stories, we find that Christ is the Gate of heaven, and when we recognize Christ in our lives we have freedom from the law. But with freedom comes responsibility. Beyond the obligation of discerning right from wrong and using our bodies appropriately, there is another responsibility that our lessons point out; speaking truth.

After Samuel recognizes God and God speaks to him, Samuel has a hard task ahead. This young boy has to expose the corruption of his mentor’s family. Speaking this truth had to be very difficult. Eli is one of the most respected people in his community. But by Samuel telling the truth, Eli is actually set free to do the right thing. Instead of passing down his position to one of his corrupt sons, Eli passes it to Samuel in which justice and truth will be maintained.

When Jesus sees Nathanael coming toward him he announces that Nathanael is without deceit. Jesus probably made this determination well before we enter our story but we do see that Nathanael speaks very openly about Nazareth. What good has ever come out of this tiny backwater town? This is an honest answer whether said half-jokingly or with intention. But it is also true that Nathanael is willing to see that something good could come from Nazareth. He wasn’t closed-off. He was willing to recognize a truth that was different than the truth he already knew. There is both truth spoken and truth received.

Just recognizing Christ in our lives is not enough. For Nathanael was asked to look beyond mere recognition and see that Christ is the gate of heaven. Paul’s congregation recognized Christ but that is not enough. They must recognize that they are set apart for God’s purpose. They are the temple in which Christ dwells; which offers them responsibility within their freedom. And when Samuel recognized God, God put a difficult task on his heart.

In similar ways, we are all called by Christ. And with our recognition and understanding of Christ, we are also given the gift of freedom. But this gift comes with the same responsibility to listen and speak in love; to reveal justice and truth; and to continually deepen our relationship with God who resides within us.

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