In his second letter to the church in Corinth St. Paul writes: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Before we begin to consider what these words mean for us, we need to clarify one thing—what exactly does St. Paul mean when he talks about “the Spirit of the Lord?” Who exactly is he talking about–the Holy Spirit or the risen Christ?
Well, both actually. Getting to our definition of God as the Holy Trinity—the Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God—was a long slog. It cost the Christian church an ocean of ink and a river of blood to define it, and the doctrine of the Trinity will always confuse believers and confound the world outside. How could it help but do so? The Koran says that we Christians are polytheists; we worship four gods—the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary. Well, we don’t, of course, but you can readily understand how someone looking at Christian worship from the outside might get that impression. How can anyone–even God–be one and three at the same time? It is literally impossible. The Trinity belongs to a certain kind of apparent nonsense we call a “paradox”—two contradictory things that are both true at the same time. If we dissolve a paradox we end up with two statements neither of which is completely true in and of itself. Paradoxes defy logic and common sense, when we are talking about God while living in this present world we can never escape them.
All orthodox Christian churches—even the weirdest–confess God as the Trinity–One in Three, and Three in One. Whether or not we as individuals accept it is not a matter of understanding it—as one of the Church fathers said–Human flesh has never understood the Trinity or ever will. It must always remain a paradox. The truth about who God is, which is perfectly obvious to him, will always be completely beyond us. That may be bad news to fundamentalists of all kinds—those who think that everything should be simple enough for them to understand–but it happens to be the case.
The creeds we confess in church represent only our best shot at explaining the way Christian believers through the centuries have experienced God—as One, but One in Three very distinct ways. The Son and the Spirit are two separate “persons”—two ways of being God, but not two gods. That distinction was pretty much settled for most Christians by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.
But when Saint Paul writes his second letter to the little church in Corinth that council and its result—what we call the Nicene Creed–lay two and a half centuries in the future. So he can hardly be blamed for using “the Spirit” and “Christ” pretty much interchangeably–and he does. For Paul the Spirit and the Risen Christ are not exactly the same thing, but he probably could not have said exactly how they are different either. They are both “the Lord.” (That may not be perfectly accurate by Nicene standards, but it is “close enough for church work,” as my father would have put it.) For Paul the Spirit of the Lord is the power that lives in Christians as a direct result of their baptism, and this indwelling presence of the risen Christ is what bestows upon believers a new kind of life, the kind of life that the historical Jesus lived, which Paul calls “freedom.” Freedom is the share we have in the risen life of Christ. But what exactly is that freedom?
From the point of view of the Church, those churches with moveable letters were probably among the most diabolical products ever invented. I firmly believe that Satan himself must have been involved in their development and marketing, and that he must derive a fiendish delight at the way churches misuse them. Everywhere you go you read stuff written on church signs that makes a mild-mannered believer want to crawl in a hole and die of embarrassment. There was an Episcopal church in the town where I served as a pastor that for a long time had a sign out front that proclaimed—“Christians do it in church.” Now what, I wonder, could “it” be, beloved? And what truth about what goes on in church was that sign supposed to convey? And what must unbelievers reading that sign think, reading such a message? No wonder they consider us simple-minded—or worse.
Now in all fairness church signs with moveable letters do not all say things as silly and naive as that. I recently noticed a sign outside a church that read—“If you follow Jesus you are truly free!” Now that’s not so bad, is it? It even sounds like St. Paul speaking—“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” But for me that statement still raises a lot more questions than it answers. Free in exactly what sense? Completely free or just freer than we would be if we did not follow Jesus? And freedom from what exactly?
Freedom from the burden of stuff is a “hot item” these days. There is a lot of talk currently about the positive benefits of getting rid of our excess stuff and organizing what remains to best effect. And there are a number of best-selling books available to tell us how to unburden ourselves of our excess baggage. Simplify!–that is their battle cry. If hoarding is the kind of damnation, de-cluttering their lives has become for many people a born-again experience. They have found a kind of salvation in disposing of their burden of useless possessions. They sing the praises of that feeling of lightness that comes from possessing only one hundred or so carefully chosen things.
And there is indeed some truth in what they say. A hurricane would be nice, I often think. How lovely it would be if a big wind came along and did the work of simplifying our lives. And without the precious junk and worthless treasures we have accumulated over the years, my wife and I might even be able to walk on water the way Jesus did. We would be lighter, maybe, but would we be free? It is a good thing to manage our accumulation of possessions. We all need confront our hoarder instincts head on. But I doubt that there is more lasting freedom in disposing of our possessions than there was in accumulating them. Ultimate freedom has to be located somewhere else.
Because even if we stripped our lives to the bare walls, our e-mails would still be piling up, and our cell-phones would still be ringing, (unless we had no place to plug them in), and Facebook would still demand our attention with its ceaseless flow of information. And even if we turned our backs on all that and got ourselves off the grid entirely, would we ever be really free while the shocks of 21st century life that keep on coming—boom, Boom! BOOM!—reverberate through the empty rooms of our ruthlessly de-cluttered lives. I think not, beloved.
Even if we could dispose of the weight of the possessions that burden us, there would still remain the problem of other people. A wise man named Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote: “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” And what he meant by that is that if you have people who depend upon you, you will never—for good or ill–be really free of your responsibility to them. Love—and the burdens it entails–will always bind you. Like the song says–“Chains Chains Chains. . . .”
In this world there is no freedom from anxiety about those we love–not for ordinary people anyway. There certainly are people who don’t worry about their fellow creatures. They live for themselves or for some higher vision of the truth only they themselves can see. And not all of those people are sociopathic monsters either. Some are great saints—I know of their existence not from first-hand experience but from books—individuals who are able to love humanity without attachment to any particular human being. All the saints I have known, however, have been of the lesser variety, ordinary people who are as deeply enmeshed in the world of people and things as I am. But at the same time they have possessed an extraordinary degree of freedom.
My mother devised her own system for managing the gradual accumulation of possessions. She made an ironclad rule that whenever she acquired anything she had to get rid of something else. But when she died she still had a lot of stuff. I know. It was my task to dispose of it. Some of her things I still have. Now they are part of my burden. I hold onto them partly because there is something of her in them. Our lives are still interwoven, you see. And my mother was certainly entangled by love and anxiety for other people—for my father, my brother, and for me and my family too. Certainly she must have worried about herself, especially during her last long struggle with cancer.
But with all that there was always a deep serenity in her, an interior freedom that some people mistook for coolness and emotional distance. And it was a sort of distance—a self-created distance. My mama wasn’t the Buddha. She was too busy doing what had to be done to sit down under the Bo tree and meditate. But in her own way she had reached a rare level enlightenment. She grasped the Buddha’s insight—that our ultimate freedom is to be found in disentanglement from everything, even the Self. And she was always preaching in her own mild way that gospel of detachment. Rise above it, Billy—I heard her say that to me a thousand times. I still do hear her say it her in my mind’s ear, and occasionally I even succeed in obeying her holy, ordinary teaching.
You probably won’t hear very much about detachment in the preaching of the church today. Churches in the western world in their deeply and tragic confusion have latched onto a jumble of imperatives—Do this. Do that. So when you go to church you may hear about how you should be more involved in politics, or be more environmentally responsible, or be more socially active on behalf of the needy, or be more invested, particularly in the structure of the church itself. The image the church has of itself is of a happy hive of humming committees all involved in accomplishing little goals for the greater good of society as a whole. In this it is only responding to the demands of the world outside, which insists that it do something to justify its existence.
But the function of the Church is first being, and then doing. What it does in the cause of justice is commendable. Like Martha in the Bible who bustled all around preparing supper for the Lord and his disciples, what she did was good. But Jesus himself pointed out to Martha the limitations of the busy, busy, busy model. The church in America today—where it is not just simply just withering away–is a “Martha, Martha church,” rather than a “Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening church.” It has lost the simple command of the gospel—first to be and only then to do.
Because where else but in the church can we practice living in the Kingdom of God while we are still in this world. Where else will we learn to get beyond our personal likes and dislikes, beyond our superficial attachments and our petty prejudices to that which really matters, our relationship with the Lord who the Spirit. As St. Ignatius of Loyola counseled—“We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.” We need to rise above those things simply because none of them ultimately matters.
That isn’t to say that those things—health, love, material well-being, success–don’t pen-ultimately matter. They do. Gaining and losing them can matter very, very much to us at various moments in our lives. Their attainment can fill us with the profoundest earthly happiness and their loss can literally break out hearts. That’s what it means to be human. But in our rejoicing and in our grieving we have to continually remind ourselves—these things in the end mean nothing. The gaining and the losing are the same. All that means anything is the Spirit of the Lord. And as St. Paul tells us—“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Freedom is not an illusion, but in this world it is never fully a reality either. It is always the process of becoming free. Our life in Christ is the gradual process of letting go of all the other stuff in order to see Jesus more clearly everywhere around us. As St. Paul writes: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” The longer we look at the Christ, the true and only icon of God, the more we become like him. We are being liberated from ourselves, beloved, gradually and by stops and starts, but as long as we live here we can never fully detach ourselves from this world of people and things. “Chains Chains Chains. . . .” While we live in the “real” world, you and I cannot escape the chains that bind us—nor should we try too hard for in trying to shake ourselves free of them we become still more entangled.
Ultimate freedom is our destiny, however. It is the destiny of the whole universe and of every creature in it. But we anticipate that ultimate freedom when we realize that none of this really matters and live as if that were the case. Those things that matter in this real world don’t matter in the Really Real one. When we are in Christ–or rather when he is in us–we have one foot in each. So at the same time we are bound in chains and we are ultimately free. It is yet another paradox. As we said before, beloved, when we are talking about God in this present world we can never escape them. But here is where we are.