Sunday, February 12, 2017

How free is our will?

A Sermon preached on Epiphany VI, February 12th 2017 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

As you will no doubt hear me say more than once this year, we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. One of the big Reformation themes was Free Will, and this was also the theme that lead to a brutally abrupt end of the relationship between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam. That is Erasmus with an E by the way, as opposed to Rasmus my dog. Erasmus was a renowned humanist philosopher and at least initially a friend of the reformers. In fact it was his new Latin Bible translation based on the original Hebrew and the Greek that helped identify some of the errors in the official Vulgate Bible on which some of the more contentious Catholic doctrine was built. But Erasmus was not happy when the Reformation lead to division and his and Luther’s ways eventually parted over the topic of Free Will.

Erasmus continued to insist that there was a part of the human will, which could participate in doing good works. He denied that humans were totally corrupt – or to use the later Calvinist term, depraved. Luther on the other hand believed that humans will always tend towards Satan. There is therefore no way in which they can ever truly choose; only God’s grace can enable us to anything good. In his pamphlet “On the Enslaved Will” Luther wrote:
“As for me, I firmly confess that if it were possible I would not wish to be given free will or to have anything left in my power by which I could endeavor to be saved… for my conscience would never be certain and sure how much it had to do to satisfy God. “

Here, as so often, we see a classic case of over-correction. When we encounter an error or mistake, we tend to over-correct. The pendulum swings not to the middle, but to the opposite extreme. That is why I failed my driving test several times. The first time I failed because I was too close to the parked cars, the second time too close to the middle of the road: I over corrected.

Luther and the other reformers denied free will as a reaction to the abuses of the medieval church in setting up systems through which Christians were supposed to be able to earn salvation and the love of God.  The more good works we choose to do, including the good work of paying for ever bigger and more beautiful churches, the more God will love us and the quicker we will get into heaven when we die. For Luther and Co. this was not only corrupt, but also dangerous. If our salvation depends on us, then there will always be uncertainty about whether we have done enough. And Luther suffered massively from this insecurity while still a monk. The denial of free will was – paradoxically – for him liberating:
“I am certain and safe, because he (God) is trustworthy and will not lie to me, and also because he is so powerful and great that no devils, no adversities could break him or snatch him from me.”

But I think it is still an over-correction and I do not believe in the doctrine that all human action is utterly corrupt. If it were, and if we were not able to choose life and the path of righteousness that Moses describes in Deuteronomy, then of course we also have a problem with today’s Gospel passage. Luther’s great hero, Augustine of Hippo, stated in his book “Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount” that “if anyone, will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian Life.” But what is the point of there being a perfect standard of Christian Life if we cannot attain it? 

In this morning’s extract from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cites various Old Testament commandments. You have heard that it was said, “You shall not murder.” You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” You have heard that it was said, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord,” which is a combination of the two commandments, “You shall not take the LORD's name in vain” and “You shall not bear false witness.” Then with the words, “but I say,” Jesus seems to strengthen, deepen, even intensify them. You shall not be angry, you shall not look at another with lust, you shall not swear at all.

The idea that the acts forbidden by the 10 Commandments do not happen in a vacuum is not rocket science. It is clear that the roots of actual violence, of betrayal, of lies are much earlier. We all get angry, we all desire something we shouldn't, we all find ourselves in situations where a lie seems the easiest way out. The question is, what do we do next? Do we get angrier and angrier; do we let the resentment smolder, until it catches fire and breaks out as verbal or physical violence? Or do we deescalate, and reach out to the person we have angered or are angry about and reconcile ourselves? Ignore all the Oriental exaggeration of being thrown into prison, or tearing your eye out. They are just vivid warnings about the consequences and costs. It is all about turning back, all about taking a step back from the brink. This is our free choice in any given situation. Step back, reconcile, compromise, be truthful, Jesus says, not because we it gives us a special place in God’s heart. We already have that. But because it is good for us and good for the world. 

Is Jesus asking us to do something impossible? Or do these rules only apply, as Martin Luther later explained, to the heavenly kingdom? No to both. The Jesus I know would never ask us to do something impossible – and as Jesus will say later in Matthew, when discussing the dialogue with the rich young man with his disciples, for God nothing is impossible.

The idea that Jesus’ teachings only apply to the next life also runs against everything he said and taught – including in the Lord’s Prayer: your will be done, on earth as in heaven. 

Jesus presents us with a series of practical steps and actions to counter our instincts. Achieving the perfect standard of the Christian Life is not something we can do straight away or probably every day. It is something we grow into when we choose to follow Jesus.  We do not become better humans at that moment. We choose a path, we choose a process of transformation, we choose God, we ask for God’s help in prayer, and we ask for and receive God’s forgiveness when we stray and when we miss the mark.  

So, I am with Erasmus on this. We have free will and we are able to participate in doing good works, because that is how God created us, not as slaves but as partners and as co-workers. We strive for Christian perfection not as the price of being accepted and loved by God, but as the consequence of our choice for God. We have seen the perfect human, Jesus, and we strive to achieve the ideal he embodied. 

Luther said, “I am certain and safe, because he (God) is trustworthy and will not lie to me.” I agree. For me part of that trust is that if I choose to follow the example of God’s Son, and allowing myself to be guided and empowered by God’s Spirit, and put myself fully and freely in God’s hands, then nothing is impossible.

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