The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed … (Luke 4)
If ever there was a person in prison it was Lorraine and the prison was of her own making. She was crack addict and prostitute. Her life revolved around her drug habit: she would sell anything, even herself, to feed it. In the pursuit of drug-induced pleasure, Lorraine lost everything that most people value: she had no real job, she had no possessions of value, she had no home. Strung out on drugs, she lay sprawled across a bench at a bus stop in Pompano beach during the late morning rush hour. Buses came and went, cars passed by, so did lots of people on foot, but no one, not a single person, stopped to see if Lorraine was alive or dead; no one called the emergency number to get her help, no one did anything for her, they just passed her by as if she were a heap of human rubbish.
No one cared.
The Lord came proclaiming liberty to captives! That was an essential aspect of Jesus’ mission, stated in his first sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth. Jesus came to set us free from all that enslaves us, and He continues to set people free through his disciples.
Setting the imprisoned free is our job too.
But what exactly IS liberty? And what can we do to set people free? And where can we even find captives to liberate?
What is Christian Freedom?
We have come to think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we want when we want to do it, Christian liberty is so much more than this, though. After all, Lorraine was free to do whatever she wanted, but her choices left her in a prison of drugs and dependency. To be truly free is to choose well: to choose to live into our best selves, the person we were created to be.
Augustine of Hippo writes: “it is the greatest liberty to be unable to sin.” True freedom is not the ability to choose without constraint, it is rather choosing to be what God meant us to be. God created us in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:27). That image, tarnished by sin, has been restored in Christ. We are free to the extent that we live in such a way as to reflect the nature and purposes of God. The closer we conform our lives to the Way of Jesus, the freer we will become. Freedom, then, is not unconstrained choice, it is making the right choice, choosing good over evil, kindness over selfishness, love over hate.
Once we in Christ, freedom is our true reality, regardless of our external circumstances. When Paul and Silas are imprisoned in Philippi (Acts 16:16-34) it is not they who lack freedom, despite their beatings and chains: they are free, free to sing hymns, to pray, to praise God and even to love their persecutors. Paul and Silas are free to be who they are, despite their prison’s walls. It is their jailer who is in bondage, waiting to be set free by his Christian captives.
When our brother and sister Christians are hauled off by their persecutors today throughout the Islamic world, they remain free because of the love of the Lord in their hearts. There was a story in the news recently about a family whose daughter was burned alive in a fire set in their home in Iraq by ISIS. Their daughter’s dying words were: “forgive them.” THIS is freedom – like the freedom Jesus shows us from the cross. Those who persecute, brutalize and kill are the ones imprisoned by hatred, fear, and evil. Love sets us free!
Love is, in fact, a sign of our freedom. In No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton writes: “There is something in the very nature of my freedom that inclines me to love, to do good, to dedicate myself to others.” When we are free to be who God made us to be, we find ourselves drawn to those around us; they are also creatures loved by the Father and offered salvation by the blood of Jesus’ cross. Because we are free we are drawn to those around us who most need the love of God in their lives. As we become free, we also become aware of the needs of our neighbors and of the world, and we feel the need to so something to bring “good news to the poor.”
What can WE do to liberate captives?
But what can we do to liberate captives? Most people feel very small relative to the vast problems of our world. What can we do about hunger, or addiction, or poverty, or homelessness?
Let me tell you about MO! She stood a little over five feet tall, at 37 she had weathered skin and dressed in worn old clothing; somewhere along the line, she had lost her top two front teeth. To make matters worse Mo was illiterate: she could neither read nor write. She had a spotty work history: she worked as a domestic at hotels, but after working a while and getting some money together she would disappear for months at a time, then come back, broke, and ask for her old job back. If you noticed Mo at all, you would likely write her off as someone who wouldn’t ever accomplish much in this life.
But you’d be wrong.
Mo had an abiding faith in God whom she believed to b the protector and guardian of the weak.
Born a slave in 1820, Mo cherished liberty so much that she decided to risk her life and escape to freedom. When her husband threatened to turn her in if she tried it, she left him in the dead of night and never saw him again, or even mentioned his name. Once free she felt compelled to help others: the liberated became the liberator.
Mo would work at menial jobs to get some money together, and when she had enough she would risk her life and return to the south to help other slaves escape to freedom. With great courage and faith, Mo became the most successful “conductor” on what would come to be called the “Underground Railroad.” She led hundreds to freedom, never losing a soul. She led so many to freedom that they nicknamed her “Moses!” There was a $40,000 reward for her capture in the South, and her life was in constant danger during her trips of liberation, but that didn’t stop Mo from making thirteen journeys to set the captives free.
Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her people, became something of a legend among abolitionists: a sought after speaker and confidant of the politically powerful. Thomas Garrison, a contemporary abolitionist, wrote that he didn’t believe he had ever met a person of greater faith than Harriet Tubman. She was careful to give credit where credit was really due, though: “T’wasn’t me, twas the Lord. I always told him, ‘I trust you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me.’ And he always did.”
Harriet Tubman, a poor, illiterate former slave who worked at menial jobs all her life, made a difference. So can we. Like her, we need to have faith in the One who is the protector and guardian of the weak. And like her we need to cherish our own freedom and live into it.
We Are All Slaves Set Free by Christ
Harriet Tubman later wrote, “I freed a thousand slaves, and I could have freed another thousand if they knew they were slaves.” The first aspect of claiming our freedom is “knowing that [we] are slaves.’
Most of us are slaves to something: we are slaves to our addictions, compulsions, and bad habits. How many have tried to give up smoking only to find that the cigarettes now own them! How many have tried to lose weight only to realize that their eating habits, as unhealthy as they are, rule them? People are addicted to alcohol, to drugs, to pornography, to anger and bitterness. We are, Paul put it, “slaves to sin,” and unable to save ourselves from the vices that hold us in their thrall.
We are the poorest of the poor, left to our own devices we are helpless, but we are set free by the love of Jesus: by his cross. What we could never do ourselves we are empowered to do through Christ in the Spirit. As Paul writes: “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, 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 all be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). Our freedom is found in Christ. In him alone can we be free of whatever holds us in bondage.
The Lord gives us the freedom, but we still need to claim it: to make the choice to live differently, to live as His brothers and sisters, to live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. The Lord will free me from my addictions, but I still have to make the hard choice to live into His vision for my life. By making choices consistent with the Lord’s will, be build and strengthen our freedom.
The Liberated becomes the Liberator
Free people become liberators of others. And we do that by being connected in love to the world around us; by seeing with “a gracious eye” the needs of our brothers and sisters, and then by taking action. Merton writes: “I have an instinct that tells me that I am less free when I am living for myself alone.” When we are free in Christ we begin to live for Him and to serve him in the least of our brothers and sisters. In this way, we become His liberating instruments.
This brings me back to Lorraine on that bench, strung out and unconscious. No one cared: well almost no one. Someone, a recovered alcoholic himself, stopped his car when he saw her and watched for a while as cars, and busses and pedestrians went past Lorraine not seeming to care whether she was alive or dead or in need of help. He had been there himself and had been freed from his own prison of addiction. He felt compassion for this woman who, in his eyes, desperately needed someone who cared: and that he did.
So he approached her, and got her help for the immediate emergency, but he also stayed in contact with her, not trying to change her, just showing he cared. And slowly she began to trust a friend who had no agenda and no judgment in his heart. In time, she wanted to know what made this angel of hers so alive, so vibrant and so caring. She wanted to be like him, she wanted what he had: freedom.
Lorraine isn’t a prostitute any longer, and she hasn’t touched drugs in years. She has a small apartment and, although she doesn’t have much, she is happy. She once thought she was rubbish, just like the heap of humanity the world walked past at that Pompano Beach bus stop bench 8 years ago. Now she knows so much more than that: she is a beloved child of God. She has potential, and now she’s living up to it. Lorraine has been transformed from slavery to freedom because a brother in Christ, a disciple of Jesus, bothered to care, really care, about a drug-addicted prostitute that the rest of the world was passing by.
Disciples do that kind of thing.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2 Corinthians 3:17)