Gods Gifts of Free Will and Love

John 3:14-21

Today’s Gospel compels us to think of two of God’s greatest gifts to us, his love and our free will. The two go hand in hand. We hear, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”, and then we’re encouraged to use our freedom to choose the light as a response to God’s love.

 

Freedom is a concept that is easily misunderstood. Freedom isn’t the same as simply being autonomous. Freedom is a gift from God and must be rooted in God. If we live our lives outside of God, we in fact become slaves of sin and darkness.  And if we are slaves, we are likely to careen through life losing sight of our purpose and meaning.

 

Comedian Billy Crystal typified this state of affairs in a film in which he played the part of a bored baby boomer who makes his living selling radio advertising time. On the day when he visits his son's school to talk about his work, along with a bunch of other fathers, he suddenly lets loose a rather cynical monologue to the kids in the class. He says…

 

"Kids, value this time in your life because this is the only time when you still have your choices. Boy, it goes by fast (he says).

 

When you're a teenager, you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Thirties? You raise your family, you make a little money, and you think to yourself, "What happened to my twenties?" Forties, you grow a little pot belly, you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud; one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Fifties, you have a minor surgery - you'll call it a procedure, but it's really a surgery.
 

In your Sixties, you'll have a major surgery, the music is still loud, but it doesn't matter because you can't hear it anyway. In your Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale. You start eating dinner at 2 in the afternoon, have lunch around 10:00AM, breakfast the night before, and spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate soft yogurt and muttering, ‘How come the kids don't call?” He wraps up this rant by saying," Got any questions?"

              

This rant kinda prompts us to reflect upon our own existence.  Who am I?  What is the purpose of life?  What happens when this life comes to an end? Faith and an acknowledgement of God’s gifts of love and freedom allows us to seek answers to these important questions.

 

True freedom is rooted in our communion with Jesus. Only disciples are truly free and only the free can truly love. In a novel written by Thornton Wilder, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, he ends with these words: "There is a land of the living, and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Love is the “why” of life. The freedom to love as Christ loves us is what produces meaning in our lives. As we hear in Galatians, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather serve one another humbly in love.”

 

To choose to serve one another in love takes us from the cynical land of the dead, the feckless existence described by Billy Crystal, to the land of the living, where we feel love and find meaning and fulfillment.

 

Let’s define what we mean by love for just a second. We know that the New Testament was written in Greek, and Greek has at least four different words for the single English word “love.”

 

All four Greek words imply some kind of bond, connection, attraction or appreciation between someone who loves, and someone or some- thing that is loved.  But the “love” that I’d like to focus on is the one that is referred to in the bible more than the others combined - that is agape love, which is sometimes translated as charity.  Maybe a better translation is simply, “a Christ-like love”. It is a self-forgetful love.

 

When St John in his First Letter writes, “God is love,” this is agape love. God is self-forgetful, focused on our good, and he gives us the freedom to choose the light and find happiness and fulfillment.

 

This confluence of God’s gifts of freedom and love came into focus for me when I was watching a video of a town hall discussion where a member from the audience asked Christian author Ravi Zacharias this question as he reflected on tragedies such as the one that occurred a couple weeks ago in Parkland, Florida. He asked, “Why didn’t God stop the violence? Couldn’t he stop the young man from pulling the trigger?” The writer responded by saying this:

 

He said, “The supreme ethic that God has given to us is the ethic of love. It is the peak of all intellectual and emotional alignment” (this self –forgetful agape love). It places value upon the other. He continues:

 

“You can never have love without intrinsically weaving into it the freedom of the will. You can’t have love without having the freedom to choose it. If you are compelled by some mechanism to a loving decision, you are not expressing love. You may be complying, but you are not choosing to express that sentiment and the reality of love.”

  

If love is the supreme ethic, and freedom is indispensable to love, and God’s supreme goal for all of us is that we will love him with all of our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves, for God to violate our free will would be to violate that which is a necessary for love to flourish.

 

He continues, “If we’re insisting that God always stop the trigger, why shouldn’t he stop everything else – the paint can from spilling, a hurtful comment by a colleague, or the car accident. If we are insisting God protect us from that which is destructive, we are denying the freedom of our will to choose and to love God, and others, with all our hearts, minds and souls.” Here in these comments, I think, we see the primacy, and the interrelation, of love and freedom.

 

In the midst of the world’s penchant for self-centeredness (instead of self-forgetfulness), and all the stupid political antagonizing, the chaos and strife, we need to be ambassadors of God's love for humanity. We need see God’s love in the context of our freedom and show the world that love is possible. We need to show the world that we choose love!

 

God has shown us the way to self-giving love. We need look no further than the faces of the parents of those kids who lost their lives in Florida to know the sacrifice that God made by allowing his only Son to be hung on the cross. Only Jesus, the icon of the Father's love for you and I, shows us how to love. His way is simple, revealing and clear.

 

How do we love? Well, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” If we think about that little “even as I have loved you” phrase that is embedded inside there, and considering the magnitude of Christ’s love for us, it makes that command a pretty steep hill for us to climb, doesn’t it? You might even say that it’s like a Mt. Everest kind of hill!  The daunting nature of this expression prompted someone to say, “A very few may make the summit of Mt Everest, but no one actually lives up there.”

 

 

In other words, occasionally we may succeed in loving others as Christ loved us, but none of us lives there consistently. It’s the same as Paul’s command, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” We never reach a point where we can say, “You know, I’ve got that love thing down pat!  This command of loving as Christ loves is one that we need to keep working on.

 

St Francis de Sales said it this way: "You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working, and just so, you learn to love by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves."

 

In Lent, we’re called upon to not just imitate Christ but be transformed little by little to be like him. By definition, imitating means to simulate or mimic. It connotes an action that is done only in a certain space in time. Our charge is greater than that. We are to use our gift of free will to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus, a little more and more each day.

 

Maybe a less intimidating way of looking at our walk of faith is by asking ourselves the question, “Is Jesus the center of my life? Or said another way, “Is Jesus the telling influence of my life?”  If we can answer this question in the affirmative, maybe not even as a resounding yes, but to say with conviction that it is our intention, we will have moved ourselves from the Billy Crystal character type of existence who has no real purpose or meaning, to a life where we feel fulfilled, and enjoy an inner peace, knowing that we ourselves are loved.

 

And so we pray today, “Lord, thank you for all of the ways that you love us. Help guide us away from surrendering our freedom to those things that we mistakenly deem to be important, but are outside of your will. We know that true freedom is rooted in our communion with you. We know that nothing is good that is against your will, and all that is good comes from your hand. Place in our hearts a desire to please you, and fill our minds with thoughts of your love, so that we may grow in your wisdom and enjoy your peace.”

 

Amen

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