The Collect for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In coming days, Monday Matters will offer reflections on the prayers we say in church on Sunday, the collect of the day. We do this based on the conviction that praying shapes our believing, that what we pray forms us. We do this hoping that the prayers we say on Sunday will carry us through the week.
Freedom is the theme explored in the collect heard yesterday in church (see above). From earliest days, we each may have encountered that theme as we have employed the childhood refrain: You’re not the boss of me. (Some adults apparently find it is still useful.)
We’re conditioned to imagine we are free agents, independent players, blessed with free will. It surfaces in our individual life choices. The topic of freedom also pervades political discourse (e.g., Don’t tread on me.) Freedom appears to be one of our highest values, equated with independence and autonomy.
The biblical narrative suggests that we may not be as free as we imagine. We see it in the confession of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, as he shares his own internal struggles. He writes:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me…For the desire to do the good lies close at hand, but not the ability. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that, when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15-24)
Have you ever felt stuck in that kind of psychic and spiritual loop? I’m wondering where you feel restriction or restraint in your life. It may be contention with addiction. It may be an inability to move beyond resentment. Upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela said that if he couldn’t forgive his captors, they would still have him in prison. It may be habitual dynamics in families, when we just can’t help saying that thing that we know is going to trigger discord and dispute at the holiday dinner table. We come to the meal swearing we’re not going to get into it. We’re not going to play the old tapes. And then we simply can’t zip the lip. Lack of freedom may result from brokenness of body, mind or spirit. It may be a matter of being bound in an unhealthy relationship. It may be captivity in the systemic flaws of our society like racism or materialism or classism. There’s no shortage of limits on our freedom. We may join with St. Paul and wonder who is going to rescue us.
Which brings us to Jesus. He spoke often about freedom. Here’s a bit of a conversation from the Gospel of John, chapter 8 (vv. 31-36): To those who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
So what is the freedom that Jesus offers? Again, St. Paul picked up the theme in the letter to the Galatians (5:13,14) when he said: “For freedom Christ has set us free… For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become enslaved to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’m taken with the phrase offered by St. Augustine who suggested that in service is found perfect freedom. That’s the holy paradox that represents the path to freedom: It’s about service. It’s about love. Try it this week in some new way. And be free.