Free, Free, Free

Third in “New Life – Full and Free” Series on Colossians,
Delivered October 3, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

Theme: Because of Jesus Christ, we are free from concerns about human rules and religious regulations as being some kind of path to please God. We don’t have to have anxiety about being acceptable to God because Jesus Christ has made us acceptable.

Sermon Text:
Colossians 2:16-3:4

Now today we are going to be talking about freedom. Americans love freedom. We like freedom of religion, freedom of the press, in our poetry and music let freedom ring. Martin Luther King, in one of his more famous speeches,there is a phrase there that people know all over the world, “Free at last, Free at last, thank God Almighty Free at last.” Freedom is huge in our lives. We take all kinds of risks for freedom. It’s not just America. Not matter how free or oppressed the society is, inside of the heart of the people in those societies there is a desire for freedom, a desire to live a free life. Free to move about the way you would like. Free to love and be loved. Free to think you own thoughts. Free to earn a decent living. Freedom is important.

In a moment, we are going to see a clip from the movie “Hurricane.” This is a movie based on a true story in which someone had their freedom taken away unjustly and he served decades in prison. Finally, while he was still in prison, some friends gathered around him and started to work on surfacing the injustice and took risks of their own. It comes to a point where this man, Reuben, has to make a decision whether he’s going to take an extreme risk in order to get his freedom or whether he is willing to live more years in bondage. Let’s see the clip.

“We have to take our new evidence to the original trial judge and if he turns us down we go to the State Appeals Court –
No, no, no, listen to me! These people aren’t just gonna let that happen. They have made their careers on my case.
What are you talking about?
I’m talking about lawyers, prosecutors, judges who have moved up the ladder on my black back. We don’t even know what enemies we have out there. We gotta take it outa New Jersey and we gotta take it to the Federal Court.
Reuben, if you go into Federal Court with new evidence that hasn’t been heard in the State Court, the judge is gonna throw it out, OK? That is the law!
Then we transcend the law. We, we get back to humanity. You said it yourself. You said if we take the new evidence to the Federal judge, he’s gotta look at it before he throws it out, right? I believe that once he looks at it, he will have seen the truth. Having seen the truth, he can’t turn his back on me!
And what if you’re wrong and he does turn away? Then what? Then you throw out all this evidence that everyone’s fought so hard to get – and you know what, Reuben? You will never be able to mention it in a court of law again. It is finished! It’s erased! It’s as if it never happened! This evidence is the key to getting you out of here. You’ll be throwing it away, Reuben, when, in a few more years –
I don’t have a few more years, Myron!
I agree with Reuben, it’s time to move on.
Move on, who can move on? Move on where?
Myron, we’re never gonna get anything there. We’ll have to go Federal.
You can’t take the risk going Federal with this –
Listen to me! Long pause I’m 50 years old. I’ve been locked up and for 30 years I’ve put a lot of good people’s lives at risk. Now I’m gonna get outa here!”
It’s a deep and human thing to love freedom, and here we see a person who is willing to take a risk to get his freedom and other people that are risking themselves to free this man. Freedom is an incredibly important part of life. So it’s amazing to think that when we come to the area of religion we are so quick to give up our freedoms and get buried under all kinds of rules and regulations and rituals. Why do we do that? This tendency to rules and regulations and rituals permeates all religions and so I intend no disrespect in what I say in the next few minutes. I am going to try to give a bad look at everybody.

If it’s a Zen Buddhist, if you can imagine some hypothetical conversation between a certain sect of Zen Buddhism; and one of the things they could promise this new person is “we have people that are going to beat you on the back with sticks so that you will sit up straight and meditate properly, and, by the way, you will never eat meat again”

Or perhaps it’s a Hindu who can promise us that we can learn how to cover ourselves in ashes, to fast entirely from all food and drink and to sit entirely still for days.

Or perhaps some Moslem sect that could offer us, “we will teach you how to slash your head open with a knife and how to beat yourself in our rituals.”

Christians have their own tendency to ritual. For example, among some Christians, what they have to offer is, “join us and we will teach you how to avoid meats on certain days. We will teach you the proper use of Holy Water and when to kneel when you are crossing the sanctuary and, by the way, if you want to be a really big shot in our church, don’t get married.”

Protestant Christians do it, too. “Join us. We never use musical instruments in worship. Join us, we will dress you in fashions that have been out of style for at least 200 years. Join us, we don’t smoke, drink or chew or go out with girls that do.”

We fall in to that. Ritual. Regulations. Rules. When it comes to religion, why do we people, who have so much of a love for freedom, accept these bondages? I think what’s behind it is fear. Because, deep down inside, no matter what religion you believe at any given time, there is always that sense that you don’t live up to it. You don’t live up to what life is really supposed to be. If you believe in God, there is a sense that you know that you have missed the mark. And so, out of us grows this intense desire, by some heroic measure, to prove that we are not just average, that we are doing our best. And so we take upon ourselves all kinds of additional responsibilities, and rituals and rules in our lives.

The church in Colossae had this sort of thinking. These were a group of people who heard the gospel, who heard the good news about Jesus Christ and they accepted it gladly. They had been living their lives selfishly. They had pushed God to the fringe and viewed themselves as the center of things and this sort of lifestyle was destructive to themselves. It hurt their friends and other people, and then they heard the news that God knew they were living this kind of life and yet still had a way of forgiving them. That’s incredible news. And so they accepted this gladly, and became followers of Jesus Christ.

But after time that anxiety starts to surface again, because, as you live and follow Jesus Christ, you start to realize, you know, “I’m still not perfect. Will God still accept me? How can this thing work that will draw me closer to God?”

So somebody in the community had this idea, well, you know, the problem is that God is so other, God is so separate from us. That’s what the word “holy” means. So when we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we are saying “God, You are totally Other, You are totally separate and above us.” So somebody in that community said God is so far above us that the way to deal with this is to recognize that there are all kinds of angels between us and God. “Let’s worship these angels and kind of climb the ladder step by step closer to God.”

Somebody else had the idea that if we do the right things on Sunday, and then we add the right sort of feast days and holidays, that doing this is going to be what really starts to draw us closer to God and this is going to show God that we are really serious. Somebody else in the community says, “No, that’s good, but you’ve got to watch what you eat. Some food is unclean. Other food is going to help you spiritually, So eat the right food and that is going to get you on track with God.”

So Paul knows about this teaching. Paul knows about all the things that are going on in this community, and then Paul writes the letter that we have been looking at for the last three weeks. So today I want to read to you Paul’s discussion with them; what he teaches them as he faces these sorts of issues. It comes in Colossians 2 and I am going to being at verse 16. I think it is page 834 or so of your Bibles and I will go to chapter three, verse 4. This is Paul’s reply:

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come. The reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes in to great detail about what he is seeing and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the head from whom the whole body supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews grows as God causes it to grow.

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why as though you still belong to it do you submit to its rules? Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch. These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and human teachings. Such regulations indeed have the appearance of wisdom, but they are self-imposed worship, they are false humility and they are harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Since then you have been raised with Christ,set your heart on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set you minds on things above, not earthly things. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.”

Let’s pray. God, this is Your truth. We believe it and help us now to understand it and help us then to respond to it in faith. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

There are all kinds of rules and regulations that come up in life that are out there that make us seem religious. But what Paul is saying here is that all of these rules and regulations are shadows. They are a blurred image of a reality of an inward need that only Christ can fill. So we are surrounded by these things, but they are only imperfect shadows.

Now remember last week, those of you who were here, one of the things that we talked about last week was that Paul talks about us dying and being raised with Christ. It comes up again this week as he talks about our liberty and our freedom. He talks about us dying and rising. Next week when we talk about morality,again this issue of dying and rising lies behind what he says.

This is a crucial thing we need to understand, is that Christians are people who, when they believe, they die with Jesus Christ. They die to certain things about this world, to certain ways that this world habitually tries to relate to God. We died to that and we come to a new life where everything has changed because of Jesus Christ.

Paul here says we died to every kind of dependence on religious ritual. Now it doesn’t mean that traditions aren’t good. For example, the tradition of having a cross. That’s fine. To use a candle in worship, that’s okay. To use organs in worship or to use guitars or piano or drums, that’s fine. To have certain days of the year where we have a special day like Christmas or Christmas Eve, that’s okay. All these kinds of traditions are fine, but what Paul is saying here is that we can never believe that how we do our rituals or what particular rituals we do make us closer to God. They don’t do that. The day we chose to worship together, special religious holidays, all these are fine. We have freedom there, but it should never become an issue of guilt for us if we don’t and it should never be a point where we judge others, because they don’t. We’ve died to the shadowy principles of the world. The reality has come. Jesus Christ has made us right with God. Fully. Finally. Forever.

Now remember, I mentioned a little earlier that what’s behind our inner push towards ritual and extra regulations is this fear that we carry around because we know we fall short. So if we have died to this way that the world usually tries to deal with its brokenness, what does God put in its place? What are we supposed to do as Christians to press on with God?

In Chapter 3, Paul says this:

“You have been raised with Christ. And since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts and set your minds up there where he is.”

It’s not just on a place, it’s on a person. Set your mind on him, where he is now, who he is. So what takes the place of all the rules and regulations? A relationship. We are in Christ. We are related to him. We belong to him. He belongs to us and we need to focus our affections, our desires and even the things we think about on the new relationship with him that will last forever.

Now it’s easy for our life to get cluttered up with all kinds of rules, and some of these rules are fine rules and they are rules that I had in my own life and have had in our family’s life. Let me talk about some of the rules that come in to our life: The rule that you won’t listen to a certain kind of music. Some people have that rule. Others, that they won’t watch any television, won’t watch R-rated movies. Now some of these might be good choices for you, but then there is clearly times that people have made choices that I don’t understand. For example, when I was a young Christian I was at a church that had communion every Sunday. One day they brought an older man to the front of the congregation to celebrate the fact that for 50 years he had never missed a single Sunday’s communion. Now, that really impressed me — about his health. But, it tells us very little about his spiritual health. It can happen when we start talking about how regularly we have a quiet time or how long it is or, you know, “I do 365 out of 365” and never examine what happens in it. Do we touch God? Does God get into our life? It’s not a matter of the number of things. It’s not a matter of the rituals. It’s a matter of relationship. So, we can have some good choices, the desire to have a quiet time, a devotion, time in scripture, time in prayer every day — is a great thing. So is the decision to avoid certain things that tempt us, but if we are not cultivating a relationship to God, all of these rules and rituals and regulations will do nothing, nothing to bring us closer to God. What’s essential is Jesus.

We have children. The same is true for them. We can fill their lives with rules that intend to shape them and help them become godly people. But, if we don’t teach them how to cultivate a relationship with God, if we don’t teach them what it means to look in to the scriptures themselves and to pray, then we have failed, because at heart, our growth and our depth is a matter of relationship. We see this in a story that is in today’s New and Views, actually. I am going to read to you a section from today’s Mission News.

There is a guy named Paul who is a Burmese student and a Buddhist monk, and he was very hostile to Christ. His devotion to Buddha had led him to the point where he had tattooed most of his body with symbols to give him power over evil spirits. He tried intense meditation and even drunkenness to dampen the things in his life and bringing him some inner peace. And then one day, his mother becomes a Christian and he gets so angry at her that he doesn’t talk to her for two years. Then he begins to read the Bible himself just to prove that it’s wrong. But, as he read about Jesus Christ, he saw here a person of integrity and he came to realize that Jesus was the true God, that everything He promised came true. So Paul turns his life over to Jesus Christ. When his wife hears about it, (she had watched him go through all of these religious changes), she said, “this is the final straw; I am leaving.” And so he prays all night that she would stay, and she makes the decision that she is going to stick with him. Later she says after one month, “I decided to believe in a God who was so powerful that he could change my husband this much.” He had become kind and patient and had given up drinking and unhealthy relationships. Today Paul is an evangelist. He goes door to door in his Buddhist neighborhood offering to do Bible studies. In the first 18 months he has been a believer, 130 people have come to Christ through him, and he and his wife are discipling them.

So what changed Paul? Was it all the rituals, the religious rituals? Was it the rules and regulations? No. It was a person, Jesus Christ, that changed his life. And that dynamic is the same one that will be true in us. What changed Paul was Jesus Christ. What will keep Paul growing and changing is a relationship to Jesus Christ and that’s true for us too. What changes us is that we come to Christ. What keeps us changing is that we stay close to him. It’s a matter of relationship. That’s where the power is. That’s where the action is. As long as we try to do it ourselves, through extra rules and regulations, as long as we try to do it through self-help, we will never be free. Because no matter how much discipline we have, no matter how rigorously we approach these things, no matter how much of that old self we strip away, there will always be another layer of selfish, weak me. It will always be there. And so for a real change we have to have that radial sort of work in us that only Jesus Christ can do. Done by the power of the Spirit. It’s not rules. It’s not rituals. It’s not religion. It’s relationship. It’s God at work in us.

So let’s draw close to Christ. Let’s set our hearts and minds on things above where Christ is, because everything we need is in Christ and in him we, together, can enjoy our freedom.