Over the last few weeks, I have been reading a book called Formed by Love written by my professor of theological ethics, Scott Bader-Saye, Ph.D. In his little book on Episcopal ethics, Bader-Saye invites us to consider how to live out the Gospel by confronting big questions and then considering how we are able to put these things into practice in our work, our play, our prayer, and our rest. It is a fabulous little book on how ethics is bigger than simply “doing the right thing.” Instead, it is about living out our true identities by growing deeper and deeper into our telos, a Greek word for end. In short, ethics is about becoming who God has created us to be from the very beginning when God spoke humanity into being in God’s utterance, as Rowan Williams describes it.
In chapter six of this little book, Bader-Saye raises the question of doing what we want and uses this question to reflect upon the notion of freedom. He writes, “The point of the Christian life is not to show that we will do as we are told, but to be transformed into the image of the God we have to know in Jesus.(2 Cor. 3:18)” As the chapter continues, he uses the Collect for Peace from the Book of Common Prayer as an invitation for us to consider freedom from within the Christian perspective. The collect begins with, “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom.” How is it that service and freedom are connected in the same sentence in that collect? How can it be true that perfect freedom is found in the way that we serve God? Bader-Saye offers, “Living into our identity as those created in the image of God is both being true to ourselves (enacting true freedom) and being faithful to God (enacting true service).”
Tomorrow, as we noted in the bulletin last Sunday, is Juneteenth. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas and declared all slaves in the state to be free. Though an unofficial holiday in the United States, it is an important one in the Black community, It is a day that marks the end of chattel slavery in the United Sates, but we know that it did not mark the end of the struggle for “perfect freedom” for Black America or for America as a whole.
Perhaps part of the struggle is that we have gotten so concerned about the individual rights that we have forgotten about the need to think about the whole. If we are to live out this perfect freedom that is available to us as those created in the image of God, it is going to mean that we seek out ways of living our lives in order that those around us are also able to live out their lives being formed in the image of God. The challenge for us is to find a way to move forward in order that the multitudes are able to enter into the pattern of life that God invites us into in and through his Son Christ Jesus. The moral questions in front of the church right now are not pitting one good against another good. Instead, it is a question of how we cultivate the common good and create the space for the many to realize their telos alongside the neighbor that is also striving to live into her telos.
Perhaps an easier way of thinking about this is through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, by now, we have all seen posts on our social media channels about whether or not to wear face masks or whether or not to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Without getting into the political debate of such topics, it is possible for us to consider these things from a Christian perspective. The question we might want to raise is, “What am I called to do in my life to love my neighbor as myself?” While I might not like the idea of wearing a face mask, I can recognize that doing so is a meaningful action for protecting the lives of people I love. The simple act of putting on a face mask while in public spaces is one way I can find perfect freedom because I am striving to live according to the image of love, which St. Paul tells us, “does not insist on its own way.” (1 Cor. 13:5 NRSV)
If we are living according to the image in which we are created (the image of God, which we might also phrase as the image of Love), we are to model our lives according to that image. In so doing, we are seeking to nurture a common good, a common end, for the whole of humanity. The ways that we live out our faith in the everyday are the methods through which we invite others to know the love of God not simply because we claim to follow Jesus but also because people see that same love reflected in our actions. Of course, we will have moments in our lives in which we miss the mark. We will have to ask for forgiveness and strive to learn from those moments, but each of those moments helps us grow into the “the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13 NRSV)