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The freedom imperative

by
26 June 2020

Aphesis is the word that defines what the task of the Church is all about, argues Anthony Bash

Godong/Alamy

Icon of the Beatitudes (Melkite Church, Nazareth)

Icon of the Beatitudes (Melkite Church, Nazareth)

IS IT heartless to take issue with most diocesan mission statements? After all, they are the work of many hands. Committees and bishops’ leadership teams have sweated over them for days in conference centres and retreat houses, agonising over every word, poring over phrases, and satisfying competing interests and points of view.

But few mission statements really focus on the imperatives of the gospel. They do not tell us much about how the Church should reflect on its identity and values, or how to respond to many of today’s pressing issues, such as the racism embedded in our nation’s culture and history.

When Jesus preached at Nazareth (Luke 4.16-30), he quoted words from Isaiah 61.1-2. His message, he said, was “good news to the poor”. It is good news for the outcasts, the misfits, the ill and the dying, the disadvantaged, and the marginalised. The poor to whom Jesus refers are not only those who are poor in a literal sense: those without the money and opportunity to feed and clothe themselves. He also includes those who face illness, hardship, neglect, prejudice, exclusion, loss, and disability. He means the people who are deprived of what the healthy, the happy, and the advantaged take for granted.

Jesus’s ministry clearly illustrates what he means. Those made wretched by their suffering were restored. Lepers were cleansed, people in pain were healed, and the dying were restored to life. The marginalised — tax collectors, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, sinners — were welcomed, often to the dismay of those who enjoyed the privileges of being acceptable and accepted.

Jesus’s generosity is a foretaste of what is to come when there is a new heaven and a new earth. The agony of brokenness will be reversed. Justice will prevail. Wrongs will be righted. A new order will be in place. And there will be no more weeping, poverty, hunger, suffering, and death.

 

IN THE passage from St Luke’s Gospel referred to above, Jesus says that the gospel is to “proclaim liberty to the captives” and “set free the oppressed”. But, at first sight, and if taken at face value, his words do not seem obviously relevant.

“Proclaiming liberty” and “setting free” are phrases in English that include and translate the Greek word aphesis. Aphesis means “freedom” and “release”.

Jesus is talking about freedom and release for all people who are excluded and who are ground down by the hardships and injustices of life. His words point us to what we are to do and say — especially to those who are afraid and uncertain; who are oppressed; or who face hardships and privation. The Kingdom of God — present in the here-and-now, and to be fully realised in the future — will bring freedom and release from unfairness, from discrimination, and from the numbingly crushing experience of illness, frailty, and grief.

In other places, the same word, aphesis, means “forgiveness”: a distinctive marker of Christian relations with other people. Forgiveness in a setting of truth, justice, and restitution brings freedom and release for people who suffer from the way in which sin can distort and destroy, and from the rot in relationships which sin can bring.

With aphesis, we are not really talking about specific things that we should do or not do. Rather, we are referring to what characterises the Kingdom of God — a form of existence which is free from all that makes life sometimes so utterly unfair, fearful, cruel, and unbearable. It is the result of actions that liberate people from what binds and limits them.

Our task has always been to be vigorous in ministry that helps people to have a foretaste of the release that God one day will bring about. When we practise a way of life which models aphesis, we are helping people to experience what the Kingdom of God is like. We give them a preview of God’s greater aphesis, which, one day, will become the “new normal” for humanity and creation.

Christian ministry is aphetic when it strives for release, freedom, and forgiveness for others. Such ministry is an essential part of what it means to live out and practise the ethics of the Kingdom of God. It is ministry that builds a future without oppression and injustice.

The death of George Floyd has confronted us with what we do not want to face: that racism is embedded in our culture and history. A languid response is to fail to live out the gospel that we say we believe. An aphetic response is to strive for justice, and for freedom and release from the pervasive effects of the sins of racism.

 

SO, WHAT can we do today for those experiencing the scourge of racism? And what is our responsibility to all those who in other ways are “poor”: the disadvantaged, the dispossessed, and the disempowered?

Our task is to do what is aphetic, and so work to right the wrongs of a racist past and a racist present. It is to work for release and freedom for the socially, economically, or spiritually oppressed — those many millions who are captives to the evils of our modernity. It is to seek justice for those who are violated, neglected, overlooked, disregarded. It is to unbind those who are afraid of illness and death. To all people, we can proclaim and practise the release and freedom that are a foretaste of God’s greater aphesis at the end of time.

This is the imperative of the gospel. This is the imperative of the Church. This should be the new focus of our mission statements.

 

The Revd Dr Anthony Bash is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

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