Monday, June 15, 2015

The Freedom of God

Our catechism questions tonight focus on the part of the Apostles’ Creed that describes the Father as “creator of heaven and earth.” Question 44 addresses the question of why we call the Father “Creator.” Let’s read it together:
44. Why do you call God the Father “Creator?” I call God the Father “Creator” because he is the sole designer and originator of everything that exists. He creates and sustains all things through his Word, and gives life to all creatures through his Spirit.
Question 45 explains why that is important.
45. How does recognizing God as Creator affect your understanding of his creation? I acknowledge that God made for his own glory everything that exists. He created human beings in his image, male and female, to serve him as creation’s stewards, managers, and caretakers. He entrusts his good creation to us as a gift to enjoy and a responsibility to fulfill.
Freedom is something very important to us. As Americans, we sometimes describe our country as the land of the free. The largest benchmarks in American History: The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, just to name some of the big ones, all have to do with us as a people craving, seeking, or defending freedom. Freedom from what? Usually some sort of tyranny, some sort of oppressive rule. At the heart of this love for freedom is a more fundamental belief: an idea that there is something degrading about being enslaved, about being controlled, about having our wills directed by another. And on top of this, that humans are special and unique. Being human entitles you to be free.

This very fact has led to one of the largest riddles of existence: Are we free? Or is the entire universe (us included) so ordered and structured that every single event is determined from the very beginning, making every choice simply an illusion? We’re not going to answer that today. But the question, if you see what’s at stake, pits two deep passions together: On the one hand, we want to know that the world is a place of order and that it’s not completely random. We want to know that we can rely on our car to start when we turn the ignition. On the other hand, we want to know that we aren’t just cogs in a machine, driven by fate. We want to know that we aren’t controlled. We want to know that we are free. Again, we’re not going to answer that question right now – at least, not directly. What we are going to focus on is what the Bible says. Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth.” This means that before “in the beginning,” before there was a “beginning,” there was nothing. Question 46 reads:
46. What does it mean that God made both heaven and earth? It means that all things, whether visible or invisible, physical or spiritual, were brought into being out of nothing by the Word of the eternal God.
There is some very old Christian language here. It goes back at least as far as St. Augustine in the 4th century. It’s the phrase “out of nothing.” A lot of times you will hear it in the Latin, “ex nihilo.” The Christian doctrine of creation is not that there was some amorphous blob called the universe, and then God came along and shaped it and worked it into the world we know today. It’s that, before there was anything – anything “physical” like planets, plants, animals, and people, as well as anything that we might call “spiritual,” like heaven, hell, angels, demons, souls, whatever – before any of that, there was nothing. Ex nihilo – “out of nothing.”

The idea that God created heaven and earth “out of nothing” tells us at least two important things about God.

1. It tells us that God created the world freely.
2. It tells us that God created the world for freedom.

So, first, God created the world “freely.” What do we mean by this? Remember that philosophical problem I mentioned earlier: We might wonder whether or not our own choices are really just the carrying out of a large series of causes and effects. We wonder, “Are we really free?” But with God, we do not have to wonder – we know. If anyone is really free, it’s God. How so? Because before God created heaven and earth, there was only God. So the only cause for God to do anything was God himself. Nobody told God what to do because there was nobody to tell God what to do. He simply created the world because he freely chose to. He did it because he felt like it. He didn’t have to, he didn’t have some deep emptiness inside his heart, and only a universe would allow him to ease the pain of his loneliness. No. In fact, traditionally, the phrase theologians have used to describe God’s utter freedom is “divine apatheia,” or divine apathy.

Divine apathy is the idea that God is so infinitely free from need, from constraints, that he is even immune to what we call the passions or the emotions. This isn’t to say that God doesn’t care about us or that God doesn’t love us. It’s actually the opposite. A father might be stressed about work, and takes it out on his children. A child takes a cookie from the forbidden cookie jar because he can’t control his desire for a cookie. A woman’s child has died and she becomes a recluse and hides herself from the world until she quietly dies. Think of the way you talk to your loved ones moments after you hit your finger with a hammer. Think of the way that our anger, our desires, our sorrows, our pain can control us and totally overtake our will so that we act irrationally, we do crazy, and often sinful things. Divine apathy means that God experiences emotions in a way that doesn’t overtake him. And because of that, we can trust that he is good and will only do good towards us. This is why it is important to insist that God is free, that he acts and creates only out of his good freedom, and is compelled by none other than himself. This means that everything is a gift. Everything is, at its most basic level, grace – the free gift of God. Life is a gift, love is a gift, salvation is a gift, but even our very existence, the fact that we might not exist, but God desires that we do anyway – it’s all the radically free gift of God. And there is only one proper response to give to the giver of a gift: thanksgiving. Our entire lives are to be acts of thanks in response to the grace given to us. This, of course, is exactly what Jesus does in the Eucharist: He lifts the bread, looks toward heaven, and gives thanks to God. This is why we can call the Eucharist, “eucharist.” Eucharist means simply “thanksgiving.” That is what we do as we share that meal together, we give thanks to God.

And this brings us to our second point: Not only has God created the world freely, but he created it for a reason: that it might be free. God created the world for freedom. Before heaven and earth, there was God, the Triune God, eternally existing in perfect peace, love, and fellowship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This eternal harmony between the persons of the Trinity is what freedom looks like.

We read in Genesis that God spoke heaven and earth into existence. In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we read that this speech is the speech or “Word” of the Trinity. We mentioned this before when talking about the Holy Spirit: The Father speaks, the Son is the word, and the Spirit is the breath which carries the voice of God. This Holy speech is the sound of God’s free love, and as we already mentioned, the creation of heaven and earth out of nothing is indicative of the utter freeness with which God created heaven and earth. But God’s goodness knows no end. For he created us that we might be like him. This is what it means that he created us in his image and likeness. The same perfection of peace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity – the freedom of God – is exactly what God desires that we imitate together as the Church.

Of course, we are not God. We have to distinguish between God, the creator, and us, the creature. The way we enjoy the freedom of God is set forth in Genesis. Understand, first of all, that when the story of Genesis 1 was written, it was written in contrast to many of the other creation stories of the time. It would take certain elements of those stories, retell them, but then give them a twist which said something like, “See it wasn’t like that, it was actually like this…” One good example of this is the creation story of the Akkadians, who told the story of Marduk, chief of the gods. The Hebrew creation story and the Akkadian story certainly had some similarities, but one big difference was that Marduk created man from the blood of a rebel god – whereas in Genesis, man is made from the dust of the earth, given life by the Spirit. An even bigger difference is that the Akkadian gods are not at all like our god. Our god eternally exists in peace and love. Their warring, savage, angry god exists among other gods. Maybe the biggest difference, though, is that Marduk creates man to serve the gods food to ease their hunger. The Akkadian gods are not at all like our god. Our god needs nothing. In fact, compare this with the story of Genesis: God creates the world, creates men, and then says, “Go ahead and eat.” Marduk enslaves man to meet his needs. Yahweh needs nothing, but simply creates man freely so that he may meet man’s needs.

Christianity is, among other things, a feasting religion. From the get go, God wants to eat with us. That is the shape of creaturely freedom. That is what we were created for, to know the freedom of God, by sharing in a meal of peace and love in the presence of the Father. And of you read the whole bible closely, you could see that the whole thing could be organized as a series of dinner dates from Genesis to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in Revelation. Sadly, there is that part, only few pages in, about how we failed to play our part as honored guests. Question 47:
47. If God made the world good, why do I sin? Adam and Eve rebelled against God, thus bringing into the world pain, fruitless toil, alienation from God and from each other, and death. I have inherited a fallen and corrupted human nature, and I too sin and fall short of God’s glory.
If any human person lived freely, it was Adam and Eve – and they freely rejected God’s hospitality, they failed to show gratitude for endless grace, and thus introduced what Christians have called “sin” – that word which indicates slavery and bondage to self-centeredness. The self-centered person is enslaved to his own passions, is unable to see others, unable both to give to others, and unable to return thanks to them. In short, “sin” is the impossibility of experiencing the freedom of God.

Just to drive the point home once more, let’s close with Question 48:
48. How does sin affect you? The God-opposing, self-centered power of sin, which is present in all people, corrupts me and my relationship with God, with others and with creation. Because of sin and apart from Christ, I am spiritually dead, separated from God, under his righteous condemnation, and without hope.
Unfortunately, it’s my job this week to end on this bad note. Next week, Ryan will share with you the good news – kind of a good cop, bad cop scenario. I do have a spoiler, though: Sin doesn’t go unanswered. Much of the bible tells about God’s patient work to disentangle us, to free us, to redeem us from the slavery of sin. He finally accomplished that through Jesus.