1 John 5:1-6
(see below for Confirmation video!)
One of my favorite stories is about freedom. Freedom is an easy concept to understand, isn’t it? It means the ability to do whatever we want, right? I think most of us would agree that, basically, that’s what freedom is: it’s being able to do what we want, when we want.
The problem with this definition of freedom is that it contains a bit of a lie. Freedom always comes at a cost. I know that we’re used to hearing that phrase in the context of the military, but loss of life is not the only cost of freedom.
I know I’ve told this story before, but it’s my favorite story to tell during sermons, so forgive me for telling it again. I’m almost certain you’ll hear it more times than just this one, too, so you might as well get used to it!
The late Reverend Peter Gomes, former chaplain at Harvard University, used to tell this story from his freshman year at the institution. He attended a cello master class. This class had nine cello students at Harvard who were playing for a master cellist who got a special exemption from the Soviet Union to come and visit to help these American students. The first seven students played and he gave some helpful technique tips to them – hold the bow this way, try louder here and softer there, etc.
Then the eighth student played. This eighth student was, like Peter Gomes, a freshman. He started to play, and this Russian cello master got excited. He started jumping up and down, out of his seat. He was so excited he started talking too fast for his translator.
The student, a Chinese-American who was born in Paris, couldn’t understand a word of what was going on, but these two men communicated through gestures and the language of music. A master class is normally a very boring and polite affair, but the audience for this one stood and roared with applause at the end as the master and the pupil were both so pleased with what happened. The pupil’s name was Yo-Yo Ma, and he’s probably the only cellist you’ve ever heard of. He’s probably the most successful classical musician ever in terms of the number of people who have listened to his music.
Anyway, Rev. Gomes thought about this moment often. He thought about all the times that he played outside as a child – the freedom he had. He thought about how Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, would not have had that freedom. He would’ve been inside his house, practicing his cello. While little Peter Gomes was with friends, little Yo-Yo Ma was with his cello. In that light, it’s a sad story about a little boy who was forced to grow up too soon. It’s like the horror stories with which my generation is all-too familiar, about parents who overprogram their kids so that there isn’t one spare second of childhood.
But the more Rev. Gomes thought about it, the more he realized something about Yo-Yo Ma. Sure, he wasn’t always free as a child – but as an adult, he was free to do things that Peter Gomes never could. He could sit down and play beautiful music. He could move people to tears without speaking a word, just by sitting at his instrument. There was a freedom in his life that few people ever get to experience – but it came at the cost of other freedoms.
Today, we bring five young people into our church as new members of the family of Christ. They will henceforth be members here. And joining a church is not just fun-and-games (although it is hopefully both of those, from time to time). It’s especially not a license to do whatever you want. It means that you are putting definite parameters on your life. You are saying that you’re going to do your best to live a life that follows Jesus Christ. You are going to be the kind of person who looks out for those in need and helps them. You absolutely, positively give up some of your freedoms. You can’t do “whatever” you want, because you realize that there are some things that a good follower of Christ probably shouldn’t do. You give up freedom.
But with that being said, you lose freedom in the same way that a top musician like Yo-Yo Ma loses freedom. You lose freedom the way an elite athlete loses freedom. Professional athletes have strictly controlled diets, so they can’t eat whatever they want; they work out a million hours a day, so they don’t have a lot of free time; they’re forced to work on their bodies relentlessly, sometimes to the detriment of their minds. But they are free to do things with their bodies that the rest of us can only imagine. People who excel in their chosen field always have to give up a little bit of freedom. But giving up on those freedoms often yields greater rewards; and for many of them, it’s worth it.
Similarly, Christians give up freedoms because the ends that they desire are greater than the sacrifices they make. Yes, they have to give up things, but the joy that Christians receive from knowing that we are doing right? That is priceless. Following Jesus means committing, sometimes to what seems our detriment – but it’s worthwhile in the end.
Our passage today states, “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” In other words, while the tasks of obeying God may be difficult, finding the desire to do so is not; and when we desire to do what’s right, those difficult tasks suddenly don’t seem so difficult.
The question we have to ask ourselves, though, is this: what are these commandments that we have to follow? There’s a great movie starring Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire called The Cider House Rules. It’s about some sharecropping farmers on an apple plantation, and this set of rules they have to follow. The rules are written on a board in the cider house. The only problem is, none of them can read.
Sometimes, we might feel this way as Christians – that we don’t have a guidebook. The obvious thing to say is “The Bible is your guidebook,” but the Bible is huge and intimidating and it’s hard to find where to look, and it’s much more complicated than just a regular ol’ rulebook like the one that comes in a Monopoly box. So the simplest guide for us as Christians is found in the life of Jesus.
And when Jesus gives a commandment to the disciples, he gives them this one: “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” When we show love for one another, we show our love for God, and vice versa. It is our duty to help those around us, even if they’re not the kind of people we like to be around. Our whole reason for being, our whole reason for following Christ, is about giving up our own lives in order to help others, just as Jesus did. Jesus gave up his own life in total, for others.
I think this idea of loving one another, loving the undesirable, is most pointed when we look at young people being confirmed into the faith. Young people face social pressures in the way adults never do. Adults don’t have to find someone to sit with at lunch, or work on a project with, or even just be friendly to. We can be “professional” in our relationships with one another once we reach adulthood. But young adults have to interact with people and even form real relationships with people they don’t like. They must love one another, even if they don’t like one another, because that is what Jesus asks of them.
We are all asked to love and serve one another. Therefore, I would like to take a moment to speak directly to the people being confirmed today. Today, your Christian journey begins in earnest. You will stand before us and say that you would like to join the church – that you want to be a Christian, and that you are willingly giving up some of your freedom. But when you give up that freedom, the joys and rewards you receive are truly a delight.
As for the rest of you, this is where we get to remember that this journey, this attempt to live as Christ lived, is never over. We continually need to try our best to live as Christ lived. Our work is never done; we are always trying to live up to our calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. And may we always have the same enthusiasm to do so, as if it were our first day following Christ. Amen.