Only Perfect Freedom can receive the Perfect Gift of Life from God
There is a radical demand inherent in Christian’s discipleship that is hard for the worldly-minded to accept or understand. This demand is no less than total surrender of the person’s mind and heart to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And this demand is even greater for the one who is called to follow Christ in His life of total consecration to the kingdom, either in the religious life in the Church, or in the pastoral office, for they must literally leave everything behind in this world and follow Him. For vocation of the Apostle demands leaving behind even parents and spouse and the blessing of children, owning a home and stability of life, and hardest of all, even their own autonomy, their self-direction in life.
And there is to be no looking back. No going back. Unlike Elijah who readily allowed Elisha to go back and kiss his Father and Mother Goodbye and dispose of his oxen in a banquet, Jesus seems harsh in telling a would be disciple who wants to follow him but first asks to bury his father, “let the dead bury the dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And then he tells another who first wants to return and say farewell to his parents, “”No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” It is His way of teaching that the Kingdom of God must be put before everything else, including one’s family relations.
This was true even for those first Apostles who were married men with homes and occupations and the autonomy natural to mature men. It is very telling that in the Gospels, once they are called, there is no mention of their wives, not necessarily because they were literally left behind, but this silence of the Gospels makes it clear that even marriage for these apostles had to be subordinated to their apostolic calling in the service of the kingdom. In Luke 18 Peter himself says as much when he asks Jesus what reward they can expect since they have left “everything” to follow Him. And Jesus clarifies this “everything” immediately when he says that those who have left “home, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom, will be repaid many times in this life and inherit Eternal life as well. So whether Peter and the other Apostles literally left their wives behind or not, the apostleship they have been called to will inevitably subordinate everything to its own demands; and thus we can see why the Church right from the beginning recommended celibacy, and later came to require it of her priests – it is simply not fair to wives, nor appropriate to the married vocation, to make them subordinate in practice to any other calling, no matter how elevated.
Moreover, we have no question as to whether Peter and the other apostles literally left their homes – for like the Son of Man they will have nowhere to permanently lay their heads – and their livelihoods, and the autonomy that went with all that. From then on they would have no fixed home or income, and they were not to look back to their old lives or they will end up judged to be “unfit for the reign of God.” And they would no longer choose their own paths in this world, but would have to be docile to the Holy Spirit directing them through the external missions given by the Church, and to the interior movements of the Holy Spirit enabling them to fulfill those missions.
What is the purpose behind all this radical abandonment demanded of the Apostle, something which must be lived by all Christians, in their docility to the Spirit acting through the Church, and in the interior graces of their souls. If this is demanded of the Apostles, it is also demanded of those to whom they have been sent, for if they are to be disciples of the Lord, then they too must become detached from the external goods of this world at least in spirit, and must surrender their minds and hearts, their inward autonomy, to the Spirit. But what is the end of the of all this abandonment?
The goal of all this abandonment is, says St. Paul, the acquiring of true freedom, Christian liberty, which in turn enables us not only to better serve God, but this interior freedom is necessary if we are to open ourselves to the gifts that God desires to pour out on his children, and above all the gift of Communion with His Divine Life. Yes, to be united with God, in communion with God, demands real freedom in the creature, freedom to accept what can only be a gift received in freedom. Communion with God is the goal of our life, and perfection of our happiness; Christian freedom is the necessary condition to receive this perfection as a Gift.
Paul says all this in his Letter to the Galatians, which we just heard: It was for liberty that Christ freed us. So stand firm and do not take on yourselves the yoke of slavery again.” Because the Old Covenant was incapable of communicating God’s grace, the law, the commandments, were a good thing in themselves, but without the grace of Christ, they became like a yoke around the chosen people’s necks, a yoke of slavery. Now Christ had freed them by giving them the Spirit and his gifts of grace, gifts which alone enable the Christian to attain true freedom, not by disregarding the law, but by freely fulfilling it under the guidance of, and by the power of, God the Holy Spirit. This is the only true freedom, to be able to fulfill God’s will, not by coercion, but freely, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, Christian freedom then gives us true autonomy in relation to the things of this world, by freeing us from sin, which causes us to become enslaved to these things. But Christian freedom cannot be autonomy from God, for only our communion with God enables us to acquire this freedom, by acquiring God’s Spirit.
If the Apostle detaches himself from this world’s goods, it is to free himself for the service of the kingdom, and for the surrender of himself to God and the gift of Communion with God’s Spirit. This is the formula for freedom, and the way to Salvation. The one who possesses the Spirit possesses true liberty of action, for he or she now lives in accord with the spirit’s direction, and by the power of the Spirit at work in the depths of the soul surrendered to the Spirit. Mary is the perfect example of such docility, and she is therefore Mother of the Church guided by the Spirit. He or she no longer lives according to the flesh, by which Paul means, to live depending upon one’s own natural powers, or the power of the world. Life according to the flesh, leads not to freedom, but inevitably leads to slavery to sin,
Paul is writing to warn these new Christians that they cannot be living by the Spirit, in communion with the Spirit, for the Spirit would not move them to backbiting, bickering and tearing each other to pieces. The Spirit always directs us to unity, to communion, to harmony in the Church. Sins which tear people apart, especially sins of the human tongue used to divide the community, indicate rather a life according to the flesh. For the Spirit never directs us to say anything that would harm our brother or sister, and thereby harm the unity and communion we should share with each other in the Spirit. Those who divide the unity of the local Church, whether in Galatia 2000 years ago or today in the local church community, by their poisonous tongues, are frustrating the work of the holy Spirit sent by Christ precisely that they may all be one, one in faith, one in discipline, one worship and prayer. Those who undermine this unity in the Bride of Christ brought about by the Spirit, this unity which is necessary for our salvation, will, as Paul says, end up destroying themselves by destroying the saving unity of the Church in the Spirit.
But if Christians possess the freedom of the Spirit, then they will show it, by following the direction of Paul when he says: “out of Love place yourselves at one another’s service.” This is the ultimate test of whether or not we actually possess God’s Spirit, do we love one another in the Spirit, who enables us to put aside personal likes and dislikes, and generously give of ourselves to build up this community of salvation, under the direction of God’s Spirit acting through the Church’s ministry and in the souls of the faithful. Or when things do not go our way, do we prefer to withdraw ourselves, or worse try to withdraw others from their communion with the local church. Jesus’ words to the apostles surely apply to all Christians, that anyone who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is unfit for the Reign of God.
This is what Paul teaches the Galatians, and Christian wisdom heeds this advice:
…remember that you have been called to live in freedom – but not a freedom that gives free reign to the flesh. Out of love, then, place yourselves at one another’s service. The whole law has found it’s fulfillment in this one saying: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is the formula for Christian Freedom. Such freedom leads to life in the Spirit as a true child of God our Father, and a true child of the Church our spiritual mother. What unites us to them, leads to perfect freedom and salvation; what divides us from them, leads to self-destruction.