Retirement as a Metaphor
1 Corinthians 8:1-13

The older you get in life, the more you have been able to notice through the years….
You get to a certain stage in life and all of a sudden all of your friends have got boyfriends or girlfriends; then they’re all getting married; then everyone in the whole community is having a baby; then all you hear is everyone asking what school you’re sending your kids to; before long everyone is talking constantly about their parents’ health problems, and … you know how it works…and, all of a sudden:  retirement plans!
I am still quite a ways off from retiring, but I am old enough to notice a few conversations about people approaching retirement age, considering early retirement (or not!), dealing with what happens when they have retired … all that sort of thing. 
One of the things that people, especially during the course of their working life, associate with retirement is the idea of freedom—freedom to do what they want, when they want; sleep in; go away for a few days; do nothing!  Behind some of this thinking is the idea that ‘work’ is a kind of bondage; and that no work is “freedom”.
Freedom is something that Christians value highly.  Lutherans commonly use a phrase that links freedom with the expression of God’s grace—we talk about the “freedom of the Gospel”.  And much of that conversation stems from the way that Paul talks about Christian freedom in his letters in the New Testament.  His letter to the Galatians is one in which he discusses at length the fact that God’s grace, communicated to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, frees us! 
God’s grace frees us from the condemnation of the Law—
the Law shows us our sin, where we have been wrong, where we have strayed from, rebelled against, or simply not lived up to the expectations of God’s will. 
God’s grace frees us from guilt
where condemnation is removed there is no longer a ‘taint’, a ‘stigma’, a price that we have to repay, or a point we have to prove.  God keeps no records to rub our noses in. 
God’s grace frees us from a life of fear of the consequences and implications of our sin—we don’t have to worry neither in the short term nor the long term about our eternal destiny.  [You may be aware of the move by an organization of humanists and atheists who have advertised on buses in England, and propose to do the same here—ads that read “There’s probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life”.  I actually don’t find God to be a cause of worry.  But it’s interesting that the original campaign in England was developed in response to and mimicking a bus ad campaign by a Christian group directing people to a website explaining that non-Christians would suffer eternally in a lake of fire.  Where is the freedom which comes from knowing and living in God’s grace in an outreach(?) message like that?]
But in freeing us from condemnation, guilt and fear we are not thereby detached from the Law, or removed from the sphere of God’s will.  Why would we want to be removed from God’s gracious will for us and for others?
We need to consider carefully what the freedom of the Gospel, the freedom of living in God’s grace, means and what it doesn’t mean.
If a person, on retirement from employment, feels liberated from a life of drudgery, abuse, constraints, pain and suffering—to a greater or lesser degree—than you and I would feel sorry for that person in terms of the kind of employment he or she endured; and feel sorry for that person with respect to the circumstances that led to that kind of a life of work.
But for many, work is actually an opportunity to give expression to the best of what a person is.  Daily work, ideally, is a blessing from God that allows us to use the gifts and energies and experiences given to us in an expression of ourselves and in a calling of service to others.  Whether in paid employment or in voluntary service, whether in the community or the home, a person who is free to serve others while using the individual gifts he or she possesses does not need liberation.  Indeed, some of our retirees are among the busiest in our community—liberated, perhaps, from excessive burdens of expectation—liberated to the joy of expression of self through serving others.
Martin Luther explored the whole concept of Christian freedom in a famous writing he called “On Christian Freedom”(!).  He opened with this little couplet:
A Christian is a free lord, subject to none. 
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.
At the same time a Lord, and a servant.  At the same time subject to none, and subject to all.
The reason for this thinking has to do with the very nature of God’s Law.  We are so used to thinking of God’s Law in terms of the “ten commandments” that we forget what is, perhaps, the better summary to start with:  Love your God with all… &  Love your neighbour….  God’s Law is summarized in the single-word command to Love.  God’s Law is an expression of God’s will, what God wants.  God is, in his very nature, Love.  So he wills Love.  He wants Love.  His Law is…Love.
The nature of Love is that it is always directed towards the benefit of another.  When we live in harmony with God’s will, we may indeed be free from the condemnation and guilt and anxiety which develop from unmet expectations, mistakes and failure.  But freedom from those things actually builds us up, encourages, enables and invites us to keep going, to keep serving, to keep loving.  It is a freedom to keeping take the risk, even in our world of sin, of being the creatures we are, made in God’s image, and risking the calling we have, to love like God loves.
In the reading from 1 Corinthians Paul discusses, in a pastoral way, how to deal with being a Christian in a situation where people have left their former beliefs behind, have put their faith in God’s grace, and yet live in the context of culture and community traditions and expectations all tied up with the former belief system.  I got an inkling of the nature of this as a young person growing up on a mission field in Papua New Guinea.  I have had to deal with it quite concretely with some overseas students who became Christians during their time at Luther College.

What I want you to notice about what Paul writes—read through it again later today—is the bottom line.  He doesn’t take the situation up as an opportunity to blast the Corinthian heathens with the fires of hell.  He doesn’t develop a detailed polemic against pagan idolatry and all the associated rituals and other religious practices.  He doesn’t lay down a new Christian Law, a new commandment, about what kind of meat can be eaten and when.
Paul’s bottom line is:  What will best help my brother or sister in the community know the loving will of God, and live confidently in his grace?  How can I best use my freedom from condemnation and guilt and anxiety—and either restrict my personal freedom or let go for all it’s worth!—to encourage the other person; to help the other person work through their questions or uncertainties or anxieties; to show love as the basis of our entire relationship with God.
The freedom of the Gospel is not a form of retirement from the Law, from the expression of God’s gracious will for his creation and for his creatures.  Grace frees to love.  That is an attitude that is quite different from obedience generated by a sense of obligation or a fear of failure.  Paul puts it rather neatly in Romans 13:
If you love others, you have done all that the Law demands.  In the Law there are many commands, such as, "Be faithful in marriage. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not want what belongs to others." But all of these are summed up in the command that says, "Love others as much as you love yourself."  No one who loves others will harm them. So love is all that the Law demands.
I said earlier, some of those who are officially retired remain very busy, very productive, and very effective contributors in our community.  In some cases you sense that rather than work to make an income, the work they offer can be completely “giving”—offered in a sense of loving service to others.
Maybe it’s a metaphor worth keeping mind:  that Christians are ‘retired’ from the obligation of the Law, and freed to live, in love, God’s gracious will.

  1Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. 3But the man who loves God is known by God.
 4So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), 6yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
 7But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
 9Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? 11So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.