From what? For what?
As we approach Maundy Thursday, I am meditating upon Jesus’s washing the feet of his disciples and how this relates to our freedom. These thoughts on Christian freedom are crucial for our times of pandemic because in some Christian quarters “freedom” is misunderstood. Freedom becomes my right to do as I please, even if it jeopardizes others. Christian freedom means that my rights are no longer my rights, but the rights given to me as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. It means I must consider the lives of others, that their needs are more important than mine.
What is Christian freedom and how does it relate to Jesus and Maundy Thursday? The major passage of our freedom is Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (English Standard Version). I think the best way of translating the key phrase in Galatians 5:1 is not “for freedom” but “with freedom.”
Earlier in 4:21-31 Paul uses an allegory to discuss the fact that we are no longer slaves under the law. He recalls two women and their siblings from Genesis, Hagar and Sarah. Hagar was a slave, and even though her son was fathered by the husband of Sarah, Abraham, this male son was the child of a slave, whereas Sarah was not only free, but her son, Isaac, was the child of the promise. That meant that Isaac was the carrier of the seed that would eventually bring to fulfillment and fruition the promise of redemption and freedom in the person of Jesus. It is with the freedom of Sarah, the freedom of the promise, that Christ has set us free, because He is freedom.
Two prepositions define freedom: “from” and “to.” Firstly, we are set free from something. As Americans, we were set free from the tyranny of George III. Secondly, we are set free to pursue something. As Americans, we are set free to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As Christians, we are set free from the tyranny of the law, from the tyranny of sin, from the tyranny of false gods, from the tyranny of the flesh, from the tyranny of death, just to name a few.
But we are also set free to live lives under the sovereignty of God. We are set free to live the politics of freedom, the politics of the Kingdom, the politics as given by Jesus in his mandate in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has transferred us from one kingdom to another, from a kingdom of slavery into His Kingdom of freedom, from the domain of darkness into the domain of light. We have been set free from the tyranny of self-love, to live in the freedom of loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. We once only loved ourselves and our neighbors pragmatically. We are now free to love our neighbors principally and ourselves incidentally. We are free, that is our legal status; but we still, at times, maintain the thoughts and habits of slaves. Christian transformation is the process in which we unlearn slave habits and slave thinking and acquire habits of free citizens in the Kingdom of God.
How does this relate to Maundy Thursday? Maundy Thursday was the night before his crucifixion when Jesus shared a Passover Meal with his disciples. The Passover was the celebration of Israel’s freedom from slavery under Pharaoh. The Paschal lamb was sacrificed, and the blood was placed on the doors of the Israelites and they were set free from judgment and death. Jesus would soon be our perfect Pascal Lamb. His blood would set us free.
But two other significant things happened that night, too. “Maundy” in the Latin means "command." Because Jesus would soon set us free, He gave us His command to love one another as He loved us. He illustrated this command by washing the feet of His disciples, a demeaning act that only servants performed. Jesus was illustrating that we are now servants. Not to just one another, but to all humankind. We are to serve one and all alike, whether they are in our tribe or not. We are set free to serve others, free to put the needs of others above our own needs. In other words, we are set free from the tyranny of self and its mistaken notions of freedom and set free to be servants, sacrificing self-interest for the good of our neighbors and the glory of God.