God’s Free People: What Does It Mean?

May 14, 2000


“God’s Free People” — What Does It Mean?

Churches like to identify themselves by slogans, and the most popular one among Congregational churches like this one is that they are “God’s Free People” — with an emphasis on the word “free.” They do not believe for a moment that they are God’s only people, but that they are distinctive in the degree of freedom they feel to interpret the Bible without coercion from any other person or institution, to inform and follow their own consciences rather than submitting blindly to creedal statements formulated by other human beings in the past.
They justify this freedom of conscience by pointing to the life of Jesus himself, who by comparison with the religious authorities of his time was truly a “free spirit.” The strict and legalistic Pharisees would keep their fellow Jews in subjection by wrapping them in hundreds of detailed laws; Jesus made wise and unselfish love the ultimate test of all restrictions imposed in the name of religion. It was a risky decision and he paid for it, finally, with his life. Refusing to be as judgmental as the Pharisees, he associated with people they had branded as sinners, and they criticized him bitterly for exercising that freedom.
If some good thing took precedence over the rules about fasting, he ignored them. When the authorities noticed that he did not always pay attention to the religious rituals of handwashing, he reminded them that it’s a clean heart that matters to God. When he violated rules of the Sabbath by healing the sick on that day, and when his hungry disciples broke the laws about working on the Sabbath by harvesting heads of grain as they walked through a field, he exalted compassion over finicky rules by saying that the Sabbath was made to be of us to people, that people were not made for the Sabbath. He was God’s free man, and it is no surprise to hear him tell the authorities that when they learned the truth about God’s priorities they would not longer be in bondage to hundreds of traditional restrictions and prejudices.
With that bit of background on how Jesus exalted freedom of conscience, I would now like to do a second introduction to this sermon. As most of you know already, not many novelists in the world rate more highly than the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. His [The] Brothers Karamazov is a masterpiece of world literature, and one chapter of that novel has been praised as “the greatest story in the greatest novel ever written.” Because it so dramatically pits the authority of the church against the freedom of the individual, I would like to jog your memory of it this morning as my second prelude.
Set during the dark days of the Inquisition, when the church smothered anyone who tried to reform it or who sought the freedom of conscience we value here, this chapter called “The Grand Inquisitor” features two principal characters. One is a stranger, clearly meant to be Jesus making a return visit after many centuries….gentle and loving as before, so that crowds are drawn to him for help and healing. The other is an aged Cardinal of the established church, who just the day before encountering the divine visitor had been busy burning heretics. And just as Jesus was arrested centuries earlier for preaching love, forgiveness and freedom, so now this Grand Inquisitor, recognizing a threat to the power of his church, orders his guards to throw the visitor into prison.
That night, the old Grand Inquisitor comes alone to talk with his Prisoner whom he has so quickly identified. He mocks the returned Christ for having offered people freedom centuries before, arguing that the masses really fear freedom and are forever willing to trade it for substitutes offered by the church. “There are three powers,” he says, “three powers alone, able to conquyer and hold captive forever the conscience of [the masses]…..those forces are miracle, mystery, and authority” — three things most people want so much that the church is able to control them by granting their wishes. “You wanted faith freely given,” he tells Jesus, “but we have corrected your work, and taught believers to follow blindly, even against reason…..”
Let’s consider those three forces for a moment, taking Mystery first. The word describes things that defy logical explanation, that seem in some way beyond normal human experience. Fascination with mystery goes back as far as we have any records of human life. Twenty centuries ago, in Christ’s time, there were various mystery cults which admitted members by fiercely guarded secret rituals : the Eleusinian and Dionysian mysteries, for example, with sanctuaries only the initiated could enter. (Special status, of course, has always intrigued us. More than one church holds people with the promise that they can please God in no other church. It may, in thoughtful moments, seem a little mysterious that God is so exclusive, but I know from my early life how attractive it can be). One of the most popular places, for those who loved the mystery and magic of special status, was the oracle at Delphi near the foot of Mt. Parnassus, where a temple stood over the mouth of a cavern from which came vapors thought to be the breath of the resident god. A priestess, sitting over those vapors on a tripod, inhaled them, went into a trance, and muttered words which were written down for interpretation by attending priests.
These mouthpieces for the Greek god Apollo, were clever enough to give answers so ambiguous that they could be made to fit almost any subsequent event, a strategy that kept them in business for quite a while. It was fascination with this kind of mystery that kept customers coming, until science and logic began to explain away one mystery after another. For example, there have been many stories about how earth and sky were created, one of them suggesting a solid, stable Earth set at the center of the universe for the benefit of a special life form, for whom the sun and the moon were hung in the sky to give light.
It was a comforting mystery — until expanding knowledge taught us that this planet is neither solid nor stable, made us wonder why the sun’s winter light should be so different from its light in summer, and why if the moon really was hung to give us light in darkness it should vanish entirely for one-fourth of each month. As science kept answering questions like those, the frontiers of mystery receded and people for whom mystery was the essence of religion felt betrayed. Many of my dear Catholic friends who did not read a word of Latin hated it when the Mass began to be said in English, because that diminished the mystery. If we can understand it, they seemed to feel, it loses some of its magic.
Congregational churches may be somewhat less captivated by mystery, but I have had parishioners complain vigorously when in some familiar ritual we said Father, Son and Holy Spirit instead of Father, Son and Holy Ghost . I’ve tried to explain that ghost was used in the famous English translation of 1611 because in those days the word ghost meant spirit and did not carry the connotations we know from stories of haunted houses and cartoons of “Caspar the Friendly.” So, in that same time period, when a Franciscan friar in Romeo and Juliet is called a “our ghostly father,” it means simply “our spiritual father.” That usage is dead, so to avoid the modern baggage of spookiness and the occult, it makes much better sense to speak of a Holy Spirit and not of a Holy Ghost. But the word ghost adds a touch of mystery, in addition to having a long tradition behind it, so some find it hard to give up. In his confrontation with Jesus, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor knows how useful suchs mystery and magic can be in holding his flock together.
He also recognizes how eagerly they look for miracles to confirm their faith. What he means is something supernatural, an event that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is believed to be an intervention by God, a violation of natural law. But there is another way in which people use the word to mean nothing more than something remarkable or marvelous, with no thought of the supernatural. A long time ago, when student apartments were not routinely rented with washing machines, I brought home one day a Bendix washer with the round door of clear glass in the front so you could see the suds and clothes tumbling. With our first child in diapers, Billie pulled up a chair, watched it work, and said, “This is a miracle!” But she was not involving God. She simply meant it was a blessed triumph of human engineering and that it was available to anyone who could guy it. This is not the kind of “miracle” the Grand Inquisitor has in mind in our Russian novel. He means what the Pharisees in the time of Christ meant when they asked for a sign from heaven — a clap of thunder from a clear sky, the sun going inexplicably dark, some prodigious event that could only be explained as an act of God.
Do you know how Jesus reacted to their request? According to Mark, he sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? No sign shall be given to them.” It is a flat, categorical refusal to win converts through supernatural proofs. When Matthew and Luke wrote later, with Mark’s gospel in front of them, each one qualified the utterance of Jesus so as to keep open his willingness to rely on supernatural wonders, so we are left a bit confused as to what Jesus actually said that day.
But on another occasion Jesus creates a story about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus who begged for a handout at the rich man’s gate. In this piece of teaching fiction, both die and end up separated by a great gulf — Lazarus in the bosom of Father Abraham, the rich man in the torments of punshment. He begs for relief, is refused, and then says, “Well, at least send Lazarus back to earth to warn my five brothers so they will not make the same mistakes I did.” And in his parable, Jesus uses Abraham to explain something about faith. “No, they have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear what they say.” It isn’t the answer the rich man wants; after all, he too had hear preaching without paying any attention. So he begs again for the miracle. “But if someone goes from the dead, they will repent.” When you hear Abraham’s final response, remember who is putting the words in his mouth in this parable: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced though someone should rise from the dead.”
Did Jesus know, on the day he told this story, that for generations yet to come his followers would try to bolster his message of how to live by tales of supernatural wonders? Were those who wrote about him later confused about his feelings? They record that he refused to perform miracles during his trials in the desert, and that he refused to authenticate himself before the Pharisees with supernatural wonders, only to turn around and portray him as walking on water and raising the dead. If you were here last week, I trust it will make sense when I say that perhaps the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith were not exactly the same person.
Well, we’ve talked about two of the strategies used by the Grand Inquisitor’s church to satisfy the masses, Mystery and Miracles, so a quick word more about the third, Authority. Is it true that most people want someone to tell them what to believe and how to make decisions? Freedom of thought during the Inquisition was a deadly sin, people who dared claim freedom of conscience were burned at the stake, and although the punishments may be subtler now, it is still true that a free-thinking Episcopal bishop may be vilified and persecuted, and that Catholic scholars like Hans Kung and Father Curran may lose their jobs for questioning the church’s right to be their final authority.
And millions applaud this because they fear freedom and feel authority is the only power that will hold believers together. But there is another reason for embracing authority. Freedom means responsibility, means you have to build your own faith, means an expenditure of time, thought, energy. I remember my amazement years ago when Clare Boothe Luce, wife of the magazine magnate Henry Luce, announced that she was converting to Catholicism because she wanted to be told what to believe and how to worship and not have to spend precious energy deciding on those things for herself. In words used once by an ardent young Nazi, explaining his loyalties, she wanted “to be free from freedom.”
In Dostoyevsky’s novel, the Grand Inquisitor knows all these things about human psychology and tells the returned Jesus that the freedom he offers will never be accepted by the masses. “We have corrected your work,” he says, “and have founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority “ — relieved them of the risks and burdens of freedom and brought them rejoicing to be led like sheep. He confesses to Jesus that he once prized freedom but turned back and joined the ranks of “those who have corrected your work. And tomorrow, he says, you will see the crowds give up their freedom once again and at a sign from me will help me burn you. “I have spoken.”
I shall quote for you now the end of the story and leave you to interpret it in the freedom of thought we cherish in this church. Listen carefully: “When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him…..He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless, aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more ¬ come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”
Reason, truth, freedom of conscience? The Grand Inquisitor had one thing right: no church has ever held millions together by offering those things. Miracle, Mystery and Authority — these are the holy trinity of religious power. If you doubt it, look around, listen to how people talk about their faith, read the religion section of the newspaper, and I think you will agree that the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s great novel wa right in believing that his way, with its emphasis on Mystery, Miracle and Authority, would always have more appeal to the masses than the difficult and dangeorus freedom offered by Christ. Perhaps Jesus knew it himself when he said, “The gate that leads to life is small and the road is narrow, and thos who find it are few.”
We cherish clear heads and warm hearts in this company, grac. God.
Help usbalance them in ways that make the kingdom come. Amen.