Slaves to Freedom

June 26, 2011


Proper 8. Yr A. Romans 6, 12-23: Matthew 10, 40-42.

 

Can you imagine yourself as a slave? Can you imagine living in a situation where you have no rights at all, where you are obliged to do everything someone else tells you to do, where you have no home or clothing or possessions or food that does not belong to someone else, where even your children may be taken away from you and sold to work in another place, where you can be abused without any recourse, where you can even be killed, and no-one will object, because you are simply a possession, to be disposed of at will?  That is the sort of situation Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans, a society where everyone is either free or enslaved.

 

It’s almost impossible for us to conceive of living in such a society. We tend to complain about even minor restrictions on our our freedom to do what we want and go where we wish, when we want. But that was a reality for many of the new converts in Rome to whom Paul was writing, and even those who weren’t slaves would have known what life would be like as a slave. And yet Paul uses slavery to illustrate what it is to belong to Christ.

 

Our society values freedom highly. We celebrate when we think people have won their political freedom, throwing off the shackles of totalitarian systems or absolute monarchies or theocracies. But experience tells us that freedom is difficult to obtain and even more difficult to maintain. So often, as we watch events unfold, we realise  that the ‘revolution’ has simply replaced one sort of tyranny by another. The rule of the Shah is replaced by that of fundamentalist clerics, the army takes over from a corrupt dictator, or a dictatorship, often of one tribe or ethnic group, takes over when an imperial power withdraws. Again and again we see the pattern of dictatorship, followed by anarchy, followed by another dictatorship. Jesus made a point about this in Luke 11: when an evil spirit leaves a place, he said, he often returns, and finding the place swept clean invites seven more evil spirits to come and occupy it (Luke 11, 24-6).

 

These illustrations seem to indicate that human freedom is something of an illusion; we are always under the power of something. That is something that sociology and psychology tends to confirm – the way that our actions are strongly influenced by the spoken or unspoken customs and conventions of the society we live in. Some social systems may be less directive than others; but human beings need to be equipped to handle freedom, and it is not easy. I expect most of us can remember a time when we were suddenly given a new freedom to make decisions for ourselves: perhaps when we went from school to university, and had to discipline ourselves to turn up to lectures or hand in work; or when we first left home, and found that the flat and the oven didn’t miraculously clean themselves.

 

So when Paul wrote to the Romans about the choice between being a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness, he was not speaking theoretically, but about a real dilemma in which new Christian found themselves, and in which we still find ourselves. Believers are converted or make a commitment to Christ. They are justified and saved. But while salvation brings forgiveness for sin, it doesn’t bring freedom from sin. What Christians then experience is sanctification, a long process of growing in grace, but in which they continually struggle against the power of sin.

 

It’s important to realise that when Paul talks about ‘sin’ he is not talking about the occasional lapse into wrongdoing. He sees ‘sin’ as an external power, a spiritual force to be contended with, and one which humans could not defeated in their own strength. Only the power of God was strong enough to overcome the power of ‘sin’.

 

This view of sin helps me to make sense of the concept of original sin. It says it has nothing to do with our being born as a result of sexual intercourse. Rather, it speaks of the reality that we are born into a world where the pressures of society incline us to put ourselves, our desires, our family or our social group first. It is a real struggle to escape from that inclination, a struggle in which we need to put ourselves under the direction of a spiritual power that is as strong as our inclination to be selfish and do evil.

 

In chapter 6 of the letter to the Romans, from which we heard, Paul is talking about justification, the process of being put right with God. In the first 11 verses he talks about baptism, and uses the analogy of dying and rising again with Christ. In the passage we have today, he uses the analogy of slavery to show how we have a choice about who is to ‘own’ us and direct our lives. In the next chapter, he uses another analogy, that of marriage, to show how we are bound in union to Christ, and must obey him, as a Roman wife was bound to obey her husband.

 

So he says, Christian believers are like slaves, who have been bought by a new master, and must commit themselves wholly to the service of their new owner. But, the reality is that we are constantly tempted back to serve our previous master. That, he argues, is stupid. We may not wish to feel enslaved, but we have no choice about our enslavement. All we can choose is what sort of master to serve. If we choose sin, we are enslaved by a cruel master, in a life which is humiliating, exploitative, and exhausting. Slavery to sin is like an addiction, more and more difficult to escape from the more we obey it. It leads, Paul says, to spiritual death and separation from God.

If we are enslaved to righteousness, though, we have a loving master, who offers us not wages, but a free gift of salvation, freedom, and eternal life in the presence of God. And both this death and this life are to be experienced here and now. We are are not talking about what will happen to us after death, but about what happens to us as we live our lives on this earth.

 

This is not to say that being a ‘slave of righteousness’ is an easy life. Like any slavery, it demands obedience, and is costly, particularly because our previous master, sin, is still trying to direct our lives. Jesus warned us that we cannot serve two masters, but often we try to do so, with great cost.

 

The reality of slavery is that your whole body is at the disposal of your master; and Paul talks in this passage about putting our whole selves, bodies as well as minds, into the service of righteousness. Our society tends to emphasise the freedom of each individual to do what they like with their bodies; so this instruction of Paul’s goes against the cultural norms of our time.

 

Unfortunately, when we talk about bodies and sin in our society, the emphasis tends to be on sex.  This is sad, because it limits our conception of sin to just one part of us. As the letter to James tells us, our tongues are capable of inflicting great damage on others and doing many evil things. Our use of our bodily strength can inflict real physical damage on others, and our minds lead us into all sorts of wrongdoing. Desire for food, for water, for money, for living space, for all sorts of physical comforts lead people into many more evil acts than their sexual desires. When we think about surrendering our whole selves to Christ, we are committing every part of our bodies and every part of our lives to the service of righteousness.

 

In this passage, Paul presents us with three pairs of choices: to choose righteousness over sin; to choose freedom over slavery; to choose the gift of God over the wages of sin.  In the letter to the Romans he also indicates the resources we can draw on in order to have the strength to continue to be obedient to our righteous master.

 

The first resource is our baptism, when we are incorporated both into Christ’s death, but also into new life through him in fellowship with God, and are given the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.

 

The second is the Christian community of which we are part, which, when it is truly working as one body, enables each of us to offer our particular gifts in the service of Christ, and strengthens us when we are weak. The third is the Holy Spirit, given at baptism, inspiring the Christian community, which controls the minds and spirits of those who are committed to Christ, and helps them to overcome the evil desires of their human nature.

 

Committing ourselves to obedience does not come easily to us in our society. We live in a culture that tends to think that sin is exciting and liberating, whereas commitment to a belief system is limiting and stupid. We are urged to grasp the freedom to do whatever we like – but which so often is just conformity to a passing fashion or to something which eventually damages our minds or our bodies. It requires an act of faith to commit ourselves to struggling for a righteous life, in faith that it will bring the peace and perfect freedom that Paul promises us. But as he says in the letter to the Corinthians, to chose righteousness is to chose the foolishness of God over the wisdom of this world.

 

The choice which the non-believing world presents us with is obedience versus freedom. The choice which Paul presents us with is to be freely obedient to righteousness which will eventually bring us real freedom, or enslaved to the illusion of freedom which will eventually kill our spirits.

 

Which one will we choose?

 

 

 

 

 

Whose side are you on?

January 9, 2011

(Isaiah 42, 1-9; Matthew 3,13-17)

Has anyone ever said to you “Whose side are you on?” It usually happens when you are involved in a discussion, and you make a point which demonstrates that the issue is less clear cut, less ‘black and white’ than other people thought.

 

Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the Jewish nation in exile that he is on their side. It may not seem like it to them. After the glory days of King David and King Solomon, the kingdom had split in two, and first the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been defeated and overrun and their elites deported to a foreign land. This was explained by the prophets as God’s punishment for their lack of loyalty to the Covenant.

 

But through second Isaiah, God proclaims that he is going to do something new. He is going to restore them to their position as his people, renew the covenant with them,  and make them a light to the whole world. There will be no doubt that he is on their side. But he is going to do it in an unexpected way. They might expect God to send them a warrior King, who will defeat their enemies and establish their dominance by force of arms. But the King God will send will be a Servant, whose main task will be to bring God’s justice to the world.

 

He will do so in gentleness. He won’t make a great fuss about it, or be high-handed or brutal. His way will be so gentle that it wouldn’t break a bent reed or snuff out a lamp. Both of these metaphors tell us God’s servant will have a special care for those people the rest of society thinks useless or unimportant. A bent reed was no use to make a pen for writing, or for building with; all that could be done with it was to break it and use it for fuel. A dimly burning wick was worse than useless,it was a danger. As it burned towards is end,it grew dim, and the wick could break and fall onto the rush covered floor,causing a fire; the only safe thing to do would be to extinguish it. But God’s servant would do neither. He would bring liberty, teaching and the rule of God not just to the Jewish nation, but to the furthest ends of the earth.

 

Though his way would be gentle, he wouldn’t be ineffective or weak, because he would be sustained by the strength of the God who created the earth and gave life to all humanity. God had chosen the Servant and God delighted in him. He was to be sent to do God’s work on earth.

 

Isaiah didn’t identify who God’s Servant was. It could be he was speaking of an individual. It could be he was referring to the Jewish nation, or a faithful remnant of them.  It is clear that the gospel writers identified Jesus as the Servant, since there are constant references to the Servant Songs of Isaiah in their writings. So when we hear the Servant Songs, we hear them as referring to Jesus and his ministry. But they could equally refer to anyone who does God’s work of bringing justice into the world. They refer to those who are on God’s side, as God is on theirs.

 

The Hebrew word for justice means so much more than our contemporary English word. ‘Zedakah’ means much more than doing things according to the law; it goes well beyond retributive justice (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth)  or equal application of the law. In the Old Testament it is frequently paired with the words for compassion and grace. Justice is equivalent to righteousness, and loving-kindness, which show a particular concern for the defenceless, the sick and the vulnerable, and which are characteristics of God,.

 

In New Testament Greek, too, the same word, dikaiosune, can be translated as integrity, virtue, charity, piety, godliness, righteousness, justice. This is the word which Jesus uses when he answers John the Baptist’s objections to baptising him. he thereby affirms that he sees his ministry as doing God’s will, and as applying God’s standards of justice.

 

His baptism is affirmed by the descent of the Spirit (the spirit which Isaiah prophesied would be given to God’s Servant) and by the voice from Heaven, which proclaims (again, like the Servant) that God delights in him. In Matthew’s version, the message is addressed not just to Jesus, but to everyone. It is a proclamation that he is on God’s side, and God is on his.

 

Righteousness and justice are particularly important in Matthew’s Gospel. In his birth story, he says that Joseph was a just or righteous man. This did not mean that Joseph simply kept the rules; if he had done so, he would have denounced Mary and had her punished when he found out she was pregnant. On the contrary, he went against the rules, shielding her from punishment by resolving to divorce her quietly; and then standing up against public opinion by marrying her and adopting her son as his own. Like the Servant, he was strong but compassionate.

 

Righteousness also features twice in the Beatitudes, as a human characteristic which will bring blessing from God. For Matthew, this is a defining characteristic of the Christian community, the followers of Christ, those who have made the choice to be on his side. Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, presents his readers with the necessity of making that choice before it is too late.

 

His baptism by John in the Jordan is shown in the Gospels as the moment when Jesus made public his commitment to work for God’s justice and righteousness. John the Baptist proclaimed the same standards; he rejected the approaches of the Sadducees and Pharisees because they didn’t really understand how far their understanding fell short of what that meant. Jesus later said that his followers must have a higher concept of righteousness than those of the religious elite: unless their idea of righteousness and justice exceeded that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, they would not enter God’s Kingdom.

(Matt 5.20).

 

Our baptism is the moment when we decide, and make public whose side we are on. We are called to recognise who Jesus is, and to follow him in doing what he did. We promise, as he did,  to do God’s will, and to be God’s faithful servants for the whole of our earthly lives.

 

For some of us, that commitment was made for us when we were infants; but we take responsibility for it ourselves when we are confirmed, and every time we re-affirm our baptismal vows, and every time we have to make a decision about how to act. Will we act in accordance with earthy standards of righteousness and justice – or in accordance with God’s standards?

 

It is very, very easy to forget what a radically different standard of righteousness baptism commits us to. It is all to easy to fall back into a less demanding definition, which simply asks that we keep the rules and accept the current definition of what is good or bad or the traditional interpretation of what it means to be righteous.

 

If we study it carefully, the Bible can open up to us the full richness and complexity of God’s standards of righteousness. The Bible can be interpreted in a restrictive, judgemental and negative way, reinforcing human concepts of righteousness, which teach , that only a few who consciously believe and don’t break any rules will be saved. Or it can reveal to us the full glory of the God who will go to any lengths to save even those who consciously reject his call: his judgement on human evil, yes, but also his compassion for human weakness and the repeated offer of forgiveness and eternal life to all who turn to him in repentance and humility.

 

Christian baptism calls us to Live God’s Love (as the Bishop of St Albans has titled the current diocesan initiative). The Feast of the Baptism of Christ today is another chance for us to reconsider exactly what that means in our lives, and decide once again whose side we are on.