Today we celebrate the feast of independence day on our civil calendar. However in the life of the Church we are consistently asked to think differently about the meaning of things, especially things that we might otherwise take for granted. The world gives us one definition, but the Church which reflects the vision of the Lord Jesus Christ, gives us another meaning entirely. Today that term that requires us to think differently according to the wisdom of God is this word “independence”.
We know why we celebrate independence day as Americans. But what is true independence according to Christ and His Church? Independence according to the world is to be “free”, to exercise our free will in fulfillment of our own desires. We celebrate our independence and our ability to pursue our happiness. We celebrate the ability to follow our desires and inclinations and do whatever we think will give us pleasure. Independence is our ability to govern our own lives and choose how we will live. Every teenager knows this desire. They look forward to the days when they no longer need to live under their parents’ roof and when they can do “whatever they want.”
In fact the Christian understanding of independence has nothing to do with chasing our desires or governing our own lives. Because our true freedom isn’t understood as freedom to do certain things. Our true freedom is the freedom to become someone. Not just anyone. Not who your parents want you to be. Not who your friends want you to be. Not who Hollywood wants you to be. Not even who you want to be. No. True freedom in Christ is freedom to become the man or woman that Christ desires you to be.
We see an image of this choice in today’s gospel reading (Matthew 4:18-23). It is a very well known passage as we see the Lord walking near the Sea of Galilee and He sees two brothers, Peter and Andrew, who were busy fishing. He cries out to them “follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” And we see that the brothers are given a choice. The Lord does not force them to go. He invites them. They ultimately choose what to do with their lives. They could have said, “you know what Jesus, I’ve got plans today, maybe I will follow you tomorrow.” They didn’t stop to think about all of the things that they would lose or sacrifice by following Christ. They did not think about how this would fall in line with their 5 and 10 year plans. We are told that they IMMEDIATELY left the nets and followed Him. We can even see in this a foreshadowing. They leave their fishing nets but in their obedience to Christ’s call, they also begin to lay aside the nets of the sins and passions that have ensnared them all their lives.
If we cling to our own wants and our own vision of what we could be, we will miss out on who God wants to make you. God in His extreme love for us has died and risen again to offer us a chance to become transformed into something, someone much more substantial than we could ever imagine. A chance to become a son of God by grace. Not simply to be called a son of God, but to be transformed through the work of the Holy Spirit and truly become holy vessels.
Yet there is another aspect to God’s extreme love for us. He loves us so much that He gives us freedom to choose our path in life. He asks us to choose our way. Will we choose the way of obedience or follow our own will? Will we follow the path to life or the path to death? Will we choose the way of personal freedom, which leads to slavery in our sins, or will we choose the path of slavery to Christ, knowing that this is in fact the path to true freedom? This is the language of St. Paul, who calls himself “slave of God.” We choose one of these two ways each and every day of our lives. There is not a third way. Listen to the words of St. Philaret of Moscow:
“Some people by the word freedom understand the ability to do whatever one wants … People who have the more allowed themselves to come into slavery to sins, passions, and defilements more often than others appear as zealots of external freedom, wanting to broaden the laws as much as possible. But such a man uses external freedom only to more severely burden himself with inner slavery. True freedom is the active ability of a man who is not enslaved to sin, who is not pricked by a condemning conscience, to choose the better in the light of God’s truth, and to bring it into actuality with the help of the gracious power of God.”
What a great idea St. Philaret puts forward here: We bring what is good and holy into actuality, into existence with the help of God’s gracious power. It can’t be any other way, because God doesn’t want to give us what is second best or the leftovers of His grace. He desires to generously give us what is best. Do you want to be a slave or a free human being? You cannot be both. Once we have tasted of freedom, we never ever desire to go back to bondage and slavery. So we yoke ourselves to Christ and become His servants, His slaves by cutting off our will and living to serve and to please the One who gave His life to purchase us and redeem our lives.
How do we grow in true freedom? We learn to struggle against our sins. We take up the battle daily and humbly say “Lord help me to be victorious, work within me because without you I am powerless over my sins and bad habits.” So to use a modern phrase: “we work smart, not hard.” We can’t be victorious through our own power, but through Christ, we can be victorious over anything and everything, because Christ Himself defeated Satan and death itself. So we reach out to Christ and He reaches into our hearts and minds to make things right. We don’t become free by trying to find more freedom. We become free by further allowing ourselves to be in service and submission to Christ. By the way this is seen even in our holy tradition of having a spiritual father and being under obedience to that spiritual father who is charged with looking after you with the love of Jesus Christ. Through our submission out of love, we are granted great spiritual freedom as a gift.
How else can we grow in true freedom? Listen to these words from St. Theophan the Recluse:
“In order that you may move your will more easily to this one desire, in everything—to please God and to work for His glory alone—remind yourself often, that He has granted you many favors in the past and has shown you His love. He has created you out of nothing in His own likeness and image, and has made all other creatures your servants; He has delivered you from your slavery to the devil, sending down not one of the angels but His Only-begotten Son to redeem you, not at the price of corruptible gold and silver, but by His priceless blood and His most painful and degrading death. Having done all this He protects you, every hour and every moment, from your enemies; He fights your battles by His divine grace; in His immaculate Mysteries He prepares the Body and Blood of His beloved Son for your food and protection. All this is a sign of God’s great favor and love for you; a favor so great that it is inconceivable how the great Lord of hosts could grant such favors to our nothingness and worthlessness.”
As we remember this day of independence let us also recall all of the amazing works that God has done on our behalf to grant us true independence and let us rededicate ourselves to love and serve the One who transformed us from lowly slaves to royalty and made us heirs of His kingdom by His abundant love, to Christ alone be glory honor and worship together with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.