The Fallacy of Freedom

Come, Holy Spirit, Come!

Come as the Fire and burn

Come as the Light and reveal

Come as the Wind and cleanse

Convict us, Convert us,Consecrate us, until we are wholly thine. Amen.

Often, when I notice a hole in my schedule, I rejoice. Of course, they’re much rarer these days with Charles in-arms, but once in awhile, there’s a night with no dinner to prepare, no meetings to lead or to attend, and I relish the freedom I have to plan my own evening.

I settle myself on the couch, remote nearby, staring at the screen for the next several hours, bowl of ice cream or glass of wine in hand, telling myself it will soothe me, I’ll feel more energized after I relax this way.

Inevitably, I grant myself that extra scoop of ice cream or one more glass of wine, and I stay up too late, eyes glued to the TV, and then I sleep fitfully, frustrated with myself for the late hour, stomach churning from too much indulgence, mind ablaze from the scenes I’ve imbibed. And so my freedom feels like a prison in retrospect; my liberty becomes a chain. I allow myself to be pulled into what I think is a treat for myself, but in actuality makes me more captive to waste and excess than I was before.

Not all tv-watching and ice cream is evil. It’s the way that I get pulled into thinking that my freedom of choice and my choosing immediate pleasures are the things that will make me happy. I’m struck with a special thrill in my stomach when I am not tied to someone else’s schedule, when the fetters of my calendar unexpectedly fall off, even for a few hours. I feel like the universe has given me a gift, some extra time, that proverbial 25th hour in a day. And what do I do with that hour-from-above? Often, I squander it, seeking something to renew me, some of that “self-care;” but most often I find that the thing that’s good for me, what makes me feel best and more renewed, what helps me sleep at night, both literally and figuratively, are actually the things that keep me from being “free.”

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” What a wonderful bit of news, here in the second chapter of Acts, our reading this morning, but who is this “they” we’re talking about? What is the apostles’ teaching? What’s involved in “the breaking of bread,” which ones are “the” prayers?

At the outset of chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit comes like a great wind and like fire, alighting on the faithful gathered. Strange and wonderful things begin to happen, the obstacle of language is overcome as all people hear the Gospel preached in their own tongue, the mood was so jovial and other-worldly that people suspected more literal spirits — alcohol — were to account for the behavior beyond the norm. In this moment, Peter stands up and delivers a great sermon, perhaps the first altar call. He tells the story of God’s love and devotion to the Hebrew people from the beginning of time, using Scripture that Jews would recognize and understand, as well as stories from history, about King David, that everybody would know. He explains how Jesus fulfills all that God has promised to humanity, how Jesus Christ is not accepted by many people he meets, how he is killed, but that death does not defeat him, and nor must death defeat those who would submit themselves to him as Lord and Savior.

Those listening are moved to ask what they can do, how they can respond to such a show of love through sacrifice. Peter tells them to admit their sin and their need and to be baptized. Scripture says that thousands were converted that very day, and then, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Peter witnessed to the Gospel, the Good News of salvation for all people, and all these scores of people dropped what they were doing and committed themselves to this new way of life, to spending time together, to the Eucharist, to praying together.

What was it that inspired their devotion so heartily, so fully, so quickly and completely? How was it that they dropped their nets, they left their habits, they committed themselves to a new Lord in a moment?

Have you ever been so captured by a story, so changed by a testimony? It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of a moment, but these habits people devoted themselves to aren’t the sorts of things you might do on an emotional high, frankly, they’re pretty un-sexy — hanging out with other devoted people, going to church all the time, carrying out the commanded breaking of bread together, continuing together in prayers.

The formula is here, in black and white, on the pages of our Bibles. It is so simple, and yet it is so hard, so rare. I’m not saying that good Christians must all be part of small groups or that anyone who really loves Jesus will give up Netflix, but I am saying that more often than not, I’m too much of a coward to really consciously devote myself to anything in particular, and so I end up tossed about by habits that slip in through the cracks from the culture, from sloth and laziness, sometimes from downright evil. I keep company with a screen, or ice cream, or “two buck chuck” from Trader Joe’s. The truth is that we’re all devoted to something, and being free isn’t having no devotion at all, it’s being able to choose to not be addicted to ice cream or road rage, to being right or fame.

So these first Christians laid down their devotions to their possessions, to their precious personal time and their hobbies, taking up spending time at the temple, eating together, and talking about and praying for the good things God was doing in their lives and in their community. They gave up the commitments and devotions they’d held before they heard about God’s love which had visited them in the person of Jesus Christ, and they took up the devotions that would bring them closer to God and through him, bring them closer to each other, too.

When we think about the scope of our lives, the few decades — if we’re lucky — that we’re given to live on this earth, what do we want to be devoted to? In the end, there will be something, whether it’s something we choose consciously or something that we sort of just fall into, and I have to say, if we don’t choose and work out our devotions, our allegiances, then what we end up giving our time and our lives to isn’t going to be worthwhile. If we don’t take time to commit to something, we’ll fall into the rhythms of the world around us, and with corruption from political life, being passive about the disease and dictators throughout the world, and woes on our own doorsteps, there isn’t much hope when we see our surroundings.

Our hope is in the God who came in flesh as Jesus Christ, who taught the apostles himself, fulfilling the law given to Moses, illustrating devotion to loving both enemies and friends, living within the law of love so fully that the evil rhythm of the world inevitably collided with and killed him. He fellowshiped with these apostles, spending hours walks down dusty roads, sitting on grassy hillsides, gathering around bonfires. We know well that he broke bread with them, both in an ordinary sense and in the extraordinary sense of the Eucharist, imbuing the common gifts of bread and wine with his eternal, nourishing spirit. He even shared prayers with them, teaching them to pray in the words we repeat each week, inviting his closest companions to join him in prayer the night he was betrayed, and often recorded as going to lonely places to pray.

This call to devotion is not without risk, even mortal danger. If we are not stretched, not noticing resistance, not driven to an edge in ourselves or outside ourselves, then we’re not doing it right. All the things in life that are worth being devoted to impinge on our personal freedom rather violently. Devoting yourself to another person in marriage gives up at least half your bed and your closet, let alone your privacy, your career options, your autonomy for choosing which movie to watch on Friday night and where to go for the holidays. Those changes don’t even touch the difficult work of how you’re invited to change yourself, to grow out of selfishness, to notice and care for another person above and beyond yourself.

And in marriage, you devote yourself to a person who, generally, can more or less care for themselves. This is compacted, of course, if another person, like a baby, but maybe a parent or sibling, should come along and need care under your roof. These people to whom you’re devoted by blood or love will require even more demanding care and devotion, even more attention, even more of yourself, more of who you knew yourself to be. And perhaps you wake up one day and you hardly recognize yourself, you wonder who this person is in the mirror with spit-up perpetually on their shirt, or with alarms programmed on your phone for all mom’s medications, or with endless grocery lists for the little brother with nowhere else to go.

Our devotions transform us. Whether we’re devoted to wine, to looking good and being noticed, to family, to Jesus, we begin to and grow ever more to resemble whatever we choose. Our choices take effort and dedication — whether to ill or to good.

Wouldn’t it be something if the Holy Spirit blew in and messed up our hair this morning, making it windswept, and maybe even singeing it with fire? Though we may not experience the same dramatic and immediate alighting recounted, we are offered the same call to devotion, devotion to God in Jesus Christ, devotion to Jesus’ body in his holy church made up of all of us, nourished as we are by his body and blood, made new through baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit, empowered to choose devotion to him, to be transformed by the devotion, to be made new and redeemed even this very day.

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

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