Freedom, Grace, and Rattlesnakes

At first glance, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems like nothing more than a nice greeting and thanksgiving among friends. You’ll have to forgive me for opening with a little history lesson, but I think that the weight and significance of this passage, beyond a simple greeting, becomes clearer when we understand a bit more about the people it was written to.

The city of Corinth was resettled by Julius Caesar as a Roman colony about fifty years before Jesus was born. It was initially repopulated by freedmen from Rome whose status was just above that of the slave. So, because Corinth lacked a traditional landed aristocracy, an aristocracy of money quickly developed alongside the worshipping of a fiercely independent spirit. Economic prosperity eventually returned to Corinth, and with it, folks from all over the world with different religions and cultures flooded the city. And yet, the Hellenistic vices of old, of sex and the worshipping of the individual mind were still there for all to partake. As one Biblical commentator says, the addiction and devotion to money, sex and personal autonomy present in Paul’s Corinth made it the New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas of the ancient world. But don’t let that mislead you, I think it would be more helpful and accurate to say that Paul’s Corinth, and the people he addresses in his letter, are people just like you and me, people who are looking for freedom and salvation and happiness in things like sex, money, food, politics, education…people who think we’re free, “modern” people, who have cast aside the old ways of thinking and are now empowered to do whatever we think the right thing is, whenever we want to do it. People who think we can freely choose to be happy. But of course, just like the Corinthians, we aren’t as free as we think. Our vices become our shackles and our failures become our chains.

This is why Paul’s words are so powerful. To people who are hungry for true freedom, Paul reminds them of the riches and strength they’ve received through the grace of God. “In every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…He will strengthen you to the end.” To the self-satisfied and creature-oriented Corinthians, boasting in their self-actualized freedom, Paul gives a word of thanksgiving that is glaringly God and Christ-centered. Everything comes from God and is given to us in Christ Jesus, including true freedom.

At certain points in our lives the myth of our personal freedom and autonomy wears offs—at times in painful ways. Perhaps we look back at the different chapters of our lives and sometimes find it difficult to recognize ourselves, always attempting to be the person we thought we were supposed to be, always striving to please someone or some idea of who the perfect, capable and successful man or woman of the day was supposed to look like. The painful truth is that we were never free, we were always trying to be someone else.

Or perhaps even more painfully you look back at the different chapters of your life, or at this present moment, and what you see is a person who failed to live up to the expectations and demands they were swimming in. Maybe you see a person who tried to be the good student, the good mother, the creative and savvy business person, the attentive spouse, all the while carving out time and space for your interesting hobbies that would impress at the dinner party. You felt and you feel the need and the law to be all those things, but you have failed. You were just you, attempting and failing to be someone else.

In his beautiful and powerful new song “East October”, John Moreland sings about someone realizing that they were always trying to be someone else, trying to project some better version of themselves out into the world, whatever image the world has told them is the right image. He sings:

Looking backwards all my pictures
Look like send-ups of stolen Scriptures
We were children dressed up like men
Paintin’ places we’d never been

When we come face to face with the reality that we never were and never will be able to call ourselves free on account of anything that we’ve done, by cultivating the proper identity, by satisfying our desires of the flesh, by finding the right partner who will provide the support we need, by successfully living the good life we’ve chosen for ourselves… When we realize that we’ve failed, or that that life was never one that we chose on our own, we’re left with a very empty and lonely feeling.

“How’m I ever gonna get by?
How’m I ever gonna get by all by myself?” John Moreland sings.

The good news for us, for the Corinthians, and for all men, women and children in every time and place is that we’re not all by ourselves. We may be painfully aware that we have guilt, regret and loneliness as companions on this difficult journey, but the powerful presence and gift of God’s grace has ahold of our lives as well. And in that grace, we find true freedom.

Paul reminds us, “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

True freedom doesn’t come from a political savior, it doesn’t come from our ability to will it and achieve it on our own. Instead, true freedom enters in through the painful cracks of our lives, in those moments when we realize we aren’t free, and we feel like we’ve lost everything. It’s in those moments that our sins and failures and the pieces of our broken hopes and dreams are replaced with God’s grace. Replaced by the one who took our place on the Cross, so that you and I might be free and found blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Free from having to do it all on our own, free from having to do the impossible, from fixing our pasts and securing our perfect futures, free from being alone and having to get by all by myself.  

Even free enough to pick up a rattlesnake. Now, that is a pretty hard pivot, I admit, but bear with me.

I don’t want to sound like I’m promoting snake-handling, but I absolutely am suggesting that you all read the book, “Salvation on Sand Mountain” by Alabama native and UVA graduate Dennis Covington. It’s an incredible book that tells Covington’s personal story of the years he spent with a snake-handling community in the Appalachian Mountains in the mid 90’s. You might assume that a book written about these neighbors of ours by someone who was then a New York Times reporter would be full of rational critique and mockery, but Covington’s book is nothing like that. With real grace, he writes in a way that extends humanity and dignity to the worship and way of life of these men and women. Snake handling has only been around for about 100 years, and this book begins by describing its origin as a response to the false freedoms of modernity observed by a group of people seeking a true sense of freedom.

“[Southerners] are as peculiar a people now as we ever were,” Covington writes, “and the fact that our culture is under assault has forced us to become ever more peculiar than we were before. Snake handling, for instance, didn’t originate back in the hills somewhere. It started when people came down from the hills to discover they were surrounded by a hostile and spiritually dead culture. All along their border with the modern world—in places like Newport, Tennessee, and Sand Mountain, Alabama—they recoiled. They threw up defenses. When their own resources failed, they called down the Holy Ghost. They put their hands through fire. They drank poison. They took up serpents.”

When their own resources failed, when they realized the world couldn’t save them and they couldn’t save themselves, they called down the Holy Ghost and relying and believing so strongly in the presence and power of the radical grace of God they felt the freedom to do the unthinkable, to pick up a rattlesnake in the left hand and copperhead in their right. put so much faith in the power and presence of God that they took up rattlesnakes in order to prove it.

Covington writes that paradoxically, the freedom experienced by these snake-handlers is entered into through surrender. “Handlers talk about receiving the Holy Ghost. But when the Holy Ghost is fully come upon someone, the expression on their face reads as though someone, or something, were being violently taken away from them. The paradox of Christianity, one of many of which Jesus speaks, is that only in losing ourselves do we find ourselves.”

When we lose ourselves, and when the idea that we can save ourselves is violently taken away from us, God’s grace finds us. And in God’s grace is the freedom to breath, the freedom to live and the strength to endure. While we may not be able to stand blameless before the world, before each other, or before a mirror, the Holy Ghost has descended upon us and washed us clean with the blood of Christ. By the grace of God, we have been freed to stand blameless before the Lord. You certainly don’t have to pick up a rattlesnake to feel true freedom, in fact you don’t have to do anything other than receive the gift of your salvation that will strengthen you to the end. When your own resources fail, fear not, because the perfect freedom of God’s grace will never, ever fail.     Amen