23 May 2016

Sermon preached 19 May 1996 – “The Freedom of Obedience” (Romans 6:15-23)

I want you to take a moment to try to form a picture in your mind. We are looking down to the narrow pass that separates the twin slopes of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal in Palestine. There beneath us is a vast crowd of the Israelite people. They have gathered at the behest of their mighty leader, Joshua, who has led them into victory after victory as they have laid claim to the land which God had promised them through Abraham centuries before. Now the battles are over. One by one the fortress cities of the Canaanite people have been conquered and the Israelites can look forward to peace in their land.

No longer the powerful young warrior that he once was, nevertheless there is still a commanding power in Joshua’s voice. The nation, he tells them, has come to a crossroads. They are free to settle in the land that God has given them. However, now they must make a choice. Will they worship the Lord and serve him in faithfulness? Or will they turn to the false gods of their ancestors? “If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you,” Joshua calls out to them, “then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” From the depths of the valley a mighty roar rings forth. “We will serve the Lord,” the people cry, “because he is our God.”

As the noise subsides, Joshua speaks again. “You are not able to serve the Lord,” he protests. “He is a holy God; he is a jealous God.” But again the unanimous cry thunders forth: “No! We will serve the Lord.” Again Joshua waits for silence and speaks. “You are witnesses against yourselves,” he warns them, “that you have chosen to serve the Lord.” A third time the cry echoes down through the valley, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him.”

In the lives of all of us there are certain defining moments, moments that set the course for much of our future lives. The moment you earned your very first dime; the moment you left home to live in independence from your parents; the moment you said, “I will…” These are some of the defining moments in our lives. And this was such a moment for the nation of Israel.

Another defining moment has occurred at St Paul’s Church this morning. Today in the sacrament of baptism three people, two infants (through their adult sponsors) and one adult, have expressed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and their desire to follow and serve him. In the washing of water they have visibly demonstrated their wish to die to sin, evil and injustice and to share in the life of Christ.

Baptism is a visible sign of what it means to become a Christian. It is a defining moment in life. As the people of Israel did at Shechem, we are saying, “We will worship the Lord our God and him only will we serve.” But what does this mean? Is what we are talking about a mere symbolic act, a matter of words? In response to this kind of thinking, in verse 2 of chapter 6 and in the opening verse of this morning’s passage from Romans, Paul uses an expression which we find from time to time in his letters. Our New International Version Bibles translate it, “By no means!” In Greek it is me genoito, which the King James Bible translates, “God forbid!” Perhaps the best way of rendering it today might be, “No way!” And so to those who would argue that becoming a Christian doesn’t make any difference to the kind of people we are, Paul responds, “No way!” To those who would want us to think that faith in Christ has no impact on our daily lives, he replies, “No way!” Then in the verses that follow he goes on to explain his answer.

Two kinds of slavery

For his explanation he uses the image of slavery. In the Roman world of Paul’s day there were sixty million slaves, and there can be no doubt that among those who first read his letter in Rome there were some who were themselves slaves. William Barclay gives us some idea of how masters could abuse their slaves the first century:

Pliny tells how Vedius Pollio treated a slave. The slave was carrying a tray of crystal goblets into the courtyard; he dropped and broke one; on the instant Pollio ordered him to be thrown into the fishpond in the middle of the court, where the savage lampreys tore him to pieces.[1]

In truth few masters ever displayed such cruelty to their slaves. In some cases slaves were better educated than their masters, had positions of great trust in the household and were treated with respect. But suppose, Paul suggests to us, you were the slave of a master such as Vedius Pollio and his lot, who treated you with cruelty and contempt from sunrise to sunset every day of your life. Then suppose you had the opportunity to come into the service of a master who was fair and kind, who graciously looked after your needs and treated you only with dignity and respect. Would you choose to go back to your former master? Me genoito! God forbid! No way!

This, says Paul, is exactly what the Christian life is all about. We can be slaves to sin. Or we can be set free from sin to be slaves to God. The choice is ours, and each has its consequences.

Slavery to sin

To be a slave to sin is to be trapped in a downward spiral. Paul uses three words to describe what is involved. The first of them is “impurity” in verse 19. For the ancient Jews impurity or uncleanness was a technical term. It had to do with one’s fitness to join in the religious observances of the nation. If you had a certain type of skin disease or had been in contact with a dead body or if you were a woman in her period or had recently given birth, you were considered “unclean”. But in the New Testament Jesus turns that around.

Nothing outside a person can make that person ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him ‘unclean’. … For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’ (Mark 7:15,21-23).

What the Bible is saying, then, is that to be a slave of sin means that we become tainted inside, in the realm of our hearts and minds. We do things that we know are wrong because “Everyone else does it, so why shouldn’t I?” We secretly gloat over our fellow workers’ failures because somehow we think it makes us look better. We embroider the truth a little bit when we talk about others, just to give the story a little more spice. This is the kind of thing the Bible means when it speaks about impurity. It is the direct consequence of being in slavery to sin—to all the negative forces in our lives—and the list could go on and on. But Paul has more to say.

Impurity is not the only consequence of our enslavement to sin. Paul goes on to speak about “ever-increasing wickedness”. In Greek the expression means something like “lawlessness which leads only to further lawlessness”. The actual word Paul uses is anomia, which some of us might recognize in the French word anomie. Anomie is a word we hear today to describe the spiritual decadence which is undermining our society inch by inch. We become inured to the outrageously violent words of rap music which pollute our young people’s minds and ears with thoughts about breaking women’s backbones and forcing fellatio on them till they puke, or perhaps even defend it as artistic expression. We criticize governments that move to limit child pornography on the Internet in the name of free speech. We worship athletes and pop stars who leap into bed with literally hundreds of sex partners.

The outcome of such lawlessness can only be anarchy and the general collapse of our society as we know it—and finally the ultimate decay, which is death itself. The progression is easy to follow. Bondage to the forces of sin taints and distorts or inner being. This impurity of heart and mind inevitably leads on a social level to lawlessness and decadence. And that in turn delivers us to that state of being (or non-being) which we call death, where life has been sapped of all of its God-given beauty and meaning. It is a tragic picture.

Freedom in Christ

Right beside it, however, Paul gives us another picture, an altogether different one. The picture this time is not slavery to sin, but slavery to God and to Christ (which, ironically, the Bible tells us, is true freedom). The contrast between the two forms of slavery is total. As with slavery to sin which leads to impurity, lawlessness and death, slavery to Christ also brings with it three consequences.

The first of these, says Paul, is righteousness. We come across this word and its cognates at least fifty-five times in the letter to the Romans, so it is important to understand what Paul means. Essentially, when the Bible speaks of righteousness, what it is talking about is right relationships, living in harmony with God and with our fellow human beings. To be Christ’s willing slave means placing myself in obedience to him. And his first two commands are these: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. This is what righteousness means in practical terms. So it is that we ask in the service of baptism:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

To which the candidates reply, “I will…” In doing so, they commit themselves to living a life of righteousness.

Paul tells us at the end of verse 19 that righteousness leads to holiness. Here I would prefer to use the old word “sanctification”, for what Paul is describing is not a final state, but an ongoing process. “Sanctification” may be even less understood than “holiness”. But what we are talking about is a path, along which as we travel it, we become increasingly infused with the character of God.

From time to time we may see a sunset whose grandeur reflects the glory of God. We may look at the delicate petals of a flower and be reminded of the magnificence and intricacy of God’s creation. How wonderful it would be if people could look at you and me and in us see something of the beauty of God’s nature! When we are enlisted in the service of Christ, that most certainly is the goal that he has set for us. We are embarking on a journey, whose destination is to become more and more like him. “Dear friends,” wrote St John, “now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

To some this path of righteousness and holiness seems dreary and restrictive—and all too often because we Christians have done our best to make it appear so! In reality to give ourselves in Christ in this way is to discover life, life as it was meant to be, life, as Jesus promises, in all its fullness.

To bring ourselves back to where we began: Like the people of Israel at Shechem you and I stand at a defining moment. The words of Joshua ring in our ears, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” Will we be slaves to our own selfish desires, or will we be slaves to Christ, “whose service is perfect freedom”?

[1]           William Barclay, The Letters of Timothy, Titus and Philemon, 270

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