In this past Friday’s Seattle Times was a story about a man named Ronald Dwaine Carnes, who committed armed robbery in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1970. Carnes was caught, convicted and sent to prison. In 1973 he escaped from prison until he was arrested in Iowa earlier this year. Carnes avoided prison for over four decades. And yet, we might ask: During the time he evaded the law, was he really free? Being out of prison is better than being in; but is hiding, deceiving, looking over your shoulder the same thing as freedom?
There was another story in Friday’s paper on Michael and Linda Mastro. The Mastros, you may recall, were real-estate tycoons in the Seattle area until they were convicted of fraud and money laundering. They were supposed to go to prison but they fled to France, where they live to this day. Here are people who have enjoyed vast wealth and power, with seemingly endless choices. They, too, have avoided prison, but again we might ask, Are they really free?
Here we have two stories on one day about ordinary people, as well as rich and famous people, escaping or avoiding prison. As I read these stories, they reminded me of today’s first reading, in which Peter escapes from prison, although not by his own power but by the power of God.
Today’s readings take on one of the most important questions of Christian faith—in fact, I would say, one of the most important questions of life: What is freedom? What does it mean to be free?
Jesus once said, If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. But what do you think of when you think of freedom? Many of us might say something about individual rights, abundant choices, and certainly in our culture, money. “The more money I have the more freedom I have.” That was what Ronald Dwaine Carnes believed; it’s what led him to hold up a convenience store. That was what Michael and Linda Mastro believed, and were willing to break the law to achieve it. The thing about defining freedom by the amount of money we have is that there’s never enough! No matter how much we have, if we believe that money is the key to freedom we can never have enough.
Money, individual rights, abundant choices. These are the things that define freedom in our society. The stories of our faith teach a different lesson: wealth may give a person power. Power may offer endless choices. But for Christians, independence and abundant choices are not the same as freedom. Our freedom does not depend on political or economic systems. True freedom has little to do with material wealth. Discipleship to Jesus Christ means that it’s possible for a Christian living in North Korea to be freer than someone who enjoys vast wealth and endless choices in our own country!
And yet, we are very likely to settle for a whole lot less than discipleship, a whole lot less than freedom. In today’s reading from John’s gospel Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me unconditionally? Will you do anything for me?” And each time Peter answered, “Lord, you know I love you like a brother!” At that point in his life, Peter was not “all in.” He wasn’t ready for discipleship. His relationship to Jesus came with strings attached. In fact, that was the story of Peter’s life the whole time Jesus was alive! This is the same Peter who later denied Jesus three times.
But something happened after Jesus’ resurrection. What we find in today’s first reading is a man who is “all in.” In the story we meet a Peter who has committed his life to Christ unconditionally. And look where it landed him: In prison! Peter’s commitment to his Lord led him to what we might call the opposite of freedom! But friends, a key to understanding this story is to realize that Peter was free before he was released from prison! Was he happy to get out of prison? Of course—he could hardly believe his luck! Peter did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision (v.9). Peter was free even in prison. Or, to put it differently, at some point Peter decided to whom he would be a slave.
Peter’s example leaves us to ponder what conditions we place on our commitment to discipleship. To what extent are we able to love Jesus by our actions unconditionally, and to what extent do independence, endless choices, wealth, power, and personal well-being define who we are?
Listen again to Jesus’ response to Peter and ponder what Christian freedom looks like: Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
Now, John tells us that Jesus was predicting how Peter would die—by crucifixion. But in hearing these words you yourself might be pondering how this description of youth and old age is literally playing out in your own life or the life of a loved one. A week ago several of us visited Jack and Betty Laffaw in Gig Harbor, their new home. Jack and Betty didn’t want to move from their beloved, long-time home in Newcastle. And yet, they allowed others to take them where they didn’t want to go.
But the deeper question that Jesus is getting at in using this image of youth and older age is: What does it mean to be free?
If we spend our days struggling for independence, for wealth, for control of our lives, we may never be free. Christian freedom according to Jesus himself includes what we might call the opposite of freedom: letting someone else lead us to where we would rather not go. Peter would rather not have gone to prison. But his commitment to Christ led him to where he would rather not go. Each of us every day decides if and how we will allow Christ to lead us, even where we would prefer not to go on our own.
This happens in ways great and small. I’m thinking of an example from a few weeks ago when Karen Sours stood up before you and described how she came to help take responsibility for leading our children to understand how to collect offerings on Sunday mornings. It was not something she wanted to do. No! she answered when she was asked. I’m not doing that! But then she remembered that earlier this spring at the baptism of Seth, Tatum and Zane hers had been among the loudest voices promising to take responsibility for their faith formation. In that moment spiritually she became “old,” allowing someone to take her where she didn’t want to go. A little thing? Maybe. But a step toward freedom.
This Friday marks our nation’s annual celebration. It’s called Independence Day, and that’s a good name for it! It’s much more about independence than it is about freedom. Disciples of Jesus Christ understand that it is not national identity, not political or economic systems, not choices, wealth or power that define human freedom. It is the ability to choose well who will be our master, to whom we will be slaves.
Christian freedom, we believe, is defined by our baptism. If you ask the newly baptized among us what baptism means, they will say, “God loves you, no matter what.” God’s unconditional love for us is the standard for Christian love for one another, the standard for human freedom. It was the kind of love Jesus was asking of Peter, and the kind of love Peter eventually responded to and made part of his own life.
So–how about you? Where does Peter’s story connect with yours? This side of the resurrection, does freedom for you still depend on the amount of money you have or the number of rights and choices you enjoy? Is Jesus for you simply a “brother,” a “friend”? Or, are you on the way to being “all in,” ready for discipleship, ready to follow Jesus…no matter what?