Free at Last!

Wednesday 12th May 2021
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Acts 12.5-19

Saint Peter could be in little doubt what was about to happen to him. He had seen the Chief Priests and the Romans cobble together a fatal charge against Jesus and now here he was, any hopes of continuing his Spirit-inspired mission totally dependent upon God. He was no longer the mercurial figure reported in the Gospels, he had been transformed at Pentecost and he was frightened of nothing. He had no doubt that if God wanted him to go on with his work then something would happen. Then the angel happened and he was soon back with his followers - yes, they were his followers now - to the consternation of the house maid! As soon as he had told his story, talk turned to what must be done next. There was no thought of hiding Peter, there was work to be done but it might be best for him if the work was continued away from Jerusalem for a while.

I would not want to stretch the comparison too far, but this is a good time to think of prison and freedom. Most of us, up until now, have only thought about prison in the context of the punishment for crime where many people want long sentences and tough prison regimes, not recognising that prison is unpleasant in itself. But we now know better. Some of us, with large gardens as well as televisions, radios, books, games consoles, computers, online shopping and a regular trip to the village shops or a supermarket, have found our imprisonment tedious; the luxuries have softened the experience but that has not stopped us feeling deprived and sometimes dejected. And, in this period of reflection, as we have heard of the importance of key workers, the heroism of NHS workers and the disproportionate suffering of the poor and BAME people, we have told ourselves that things must never be the same again.

So what are we, who are so proud of our village comradeship during the lockdown, going to do with our freedom? Are we going to be positive about justice for those we have so recently admired, or will we sink back into our old ways, leaving the poor and the disadvantaged to get on with it as best they might?

This is not a reflection about the public realm where there are countless options for promoting and preventing change but is rather meant to remind us that as Peter was freed to serve Christ, so are we. However we understand serving Christ the important point is that this is our duty and our privilege. We might simply try hard to retain the community feeling that has been built up during the past year, we might review our charitable giving, we might think of joining a campaign for a good cause, or we might want to study the world we live in with more care and attention as the precursor to choosing a new way of living our commitment to Christ. This reshaped and renewed world gives us an opportunity for a new start. For the sake of all we proclaim, let us not squander our new freedom.

Given the predominance of the narrative of captivity and liberation in the Bible, from the formative experience of the Exodus to the apocalyptic challenge to Roman Imperialism in Revelation, it is surprising how powerful the hierarchical control of Biblical understanding has been in suppressing the notion of liberation out of fear for various kinds of political radicalism. We have become accustomed, without really thinking about it, to the assumed paradigm of Roman Catholic social control through the extraordinary cultivation of personal guilt while celebrating a great release at the Reformation but we have to remember that one of the first public acts of Martin Luther was to side with the princes against a Peasants' Revolt in Germany in 1523, partly inspired by Luther's break for liberation; and not long afterwards John Calvin was burning heretics in Geneva; and today we should contrast the reluctant acceptance of liberation theology in Rome, together with the promotion of Catholic Social Teaching and Evangelical social conservatism. It is all very well for both conservative Catholics and Protestants to emphasise the spiritual liberation which Christ's death under-writes but this frequently falls into the heresy of dualism where the body does not matter and only the soul, whatever that might be, is freed.

The moral confusion arises because human conduct becomes separated from spiritual freedom if we take Romans 3.21-26 to mean that human conduct is totally separate from salvation even though this is vehemently contradicted by Paul in numerous places but especially in 1 Corinthians 13 where his idea of "love" is not some abstract, spiritual thing and where, incidentally, he ranks love above faith. It is, however, perfectly possible to accept that salvation is independent from human conduct while pressing for moral human conduct because to be good is the purpose of creation and not to be good goes against our nature. We are not natural sinners; we are unnatural sinners. Thus it is our obligation to free our fellow humans from every form of captivity, not just the supposed captivity in sin which, if it exists at all, is grossly exaggerated, and not just the lack of freedom to worship as a Christian which is a natural concern but also captivity in our midst, in bad housing, by moneylenders, in addiction, by abusers, in degradation, by a mean-spirited benefits system.

From Exodus to Revelation there is a vibrant and even colourful strand of prophesy about liberation, most of it necessarily about human conduct because the Old Testament Prophets before Daniel had no idea about life after death and simply complained of unjust impositions of the poor by the rich. Now some people will argue that such prophesy was of its time and not for now but that cannot be claimed by those who want us to take the Bible literally who are, incidentally, more likely than most to think that social justice is not fundamental to Christian belief. But we cannot keep on claiming that certain Books are somehow anomalous because there are so many of them that it is the books not concerned with justice and freedom that are anomalous.