This Week’s Sermon – True Freedom

Greetings and salutations! Here is this week’s sermon, inspired by Paul’s words in Romans. Paul can be such a frustrating character to deal with sometimes, but his conviction was clear. I’m on vacation for two weeks after today, so the sermons return in August. And if my girls let me, I may have a post or two before then.

SCRIPTURE – Romans 6:12-23

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

SERMON
True Freedom
Romans 6:12-23
July 6, 2008

I was thinking the other day about the holiday we just celebrated. It’s commonly called “the Fourth of July,” because as luck would have it, that’s the date it falls on every year. I wish Easter was that easy! But it’s more formal name is “Independence Day.”

Think about that word “independence.” It’s actually a negative word. Let’s play amateur lexicographer for a moment. The prefix “in-“ means “not.” “Incredible” means “not believable,” “incessant” means “not stopping,” and “inhale” means “to not hale.” OK, I’m not so sure about that last one.

So if you carry this line of thinking on out, Independence Day celebrates the fact we are not dependent on something. What is that? What do we have freedom from? We are celebrating that we’re no longer dependent on the monarchy of England and that we no longer are subject to taxation without representation. We are free from oppression, from tyranny, and from calling our bathrooms the “loo”.

The 4th of July celebrates the things which we are free from doing. We know what we’re free from, but what are we free for? I’m sure if you were impressed by my use of the word “lexicographer,” you’re now secretly making fun of me for my bad grammar, but you get the idea. What does this freedom we celebrate give us the power to do? And how are we to use this freedom for the greater good, how can we give back from what we’ve received?

These are exactly the kinds of questions Paul is dealing with in this part of his letter to the Romans. He’s spent the first six and a half chapters defining this gift they’ve received through Christ and how they are now free from both the grip of sin and the control of the law. After Paul’s explanation, the Romans know what they are free from.

Now, in the section we read, he’s beginning to address what they are free for. I have a feeling there were some folks in the Roman church who were maybe getting the wrong idea about this freedom. Paul goes to great lengths to say, “Because Christ died for you, you no longer have to worry about being punished for your sins.” Of course, the initial reaction would be, “Woo hoo! I can do whatever I want now, because I know that God will forgive me for it. I’m gonna live a life of wild Saturdays and worshipful Sundays.”

Paul asks, “Shall we sin because we’re not under the law but under grace? By no means!” Yes, we are free from the penalty of sin, but that freedom was bought with a price, and carries with it some responsibility on our part. If we think that Christ’s death on the cross gives us carte blanche to live the high life because we know in the end we’ll be let off the hook, then we’ve severely missed the point. We’re not only free from something; we’re free for something.

Paul tries to explain this using the analogy of slavery. That might have worked when he was writing this letter, but things have happened in the subsequent 2000 years that have made this comparison less than helpful. “Slavery” is one of those words that carries with it such emotional baggage that we may have a hard time hearing what Paul is trying to tell us.

In Paul’s time, slavery was much different than we might think. Slaves were not always forced into their work, although some were. More often than not, people voluntarily became slaves as a way of securing basic necessities for living. A slave would be givin housing and meals and some kind of pay, which was often much better than what the person had trying to make it on their own. In exchange for what they received, slaves were expected to give 100 percent devotion to their employers. This was not a 9-to-5 job. Their service was their lives.

Paul uses that understanding of slavery to make his point about sin and righteousness. He says before Christ we were slaves to our sin, meaning there was no aspect of our lives that was free from sin’s dominion. But through Christ, we have been freed from sin’s rule in our lives and no longer have to answer to that master. Before, we were slaves to sin and free from righteousness; now, it’s the other way around, and we are free from sin. But, to finish out that juxtaposition, we are free from sin and we are slaves to righteousness. In Paul’s analogy, we are still slaves, but we’ve moved from one realm to another.

My grandmother just adopted a dog, a schnauzer she’s named Charlie. When she got Charlie from the animal shelter, his fur was all matted and he was in bad physical shape. It was obvious his previous owner did not take good care of him. Now, after just a few weeks with my grandma, Charlie is neatly groomed and very well fed, sort of like how I feel after I visit my grandma. He’s moved from one realm, where he was mistreated, to another realm, where he is well cared for.

Does this mean that at my grandmother’s house Charlie sits on the dinner table and hogs the remote control? Of course not! There are still rules to follow and standards to uphold. But now, instead of doing things out of fear of punishment, Charlie does things out of a response to the love he receives. At least I think that’s why he does it. He hasn’t actually told me that.

We are no longer slaves to sin, but we are still slaves. We are free from serving sin, but we are also free for servine righteousness. While Charlie is free from his old life, he’s not free to do whatever he pleases. In this country, we’re free from England’s rule, but there are still laws to follow and responsibilities to uphold, like voting and obeying traffic signals.

I think what Paul is worried about is that the Romans will take their new freedom to mean that the hard work is over. They can just sit back and let the freedom of Christ wash over them. But Paul is saying getting up off the couch, because you still have work to do. Sin is constantly pursuing us, and we have to be vigilant about using all our resources – including our bodies – for the work of the Lord and not the work of sin. St. Jerome, an early Christian mystic, wrote that he thought by fleeing to the desert he could leave behind the temptation the dancing girls of Rome. But he found that even in the desert he had a problem with the dancing girls of Rome. The temptation to sin will never leave us, so we must be about God’s business in our lives.

What Paul is saying to the Romans and to us is that we have a choice. There’s a lot in our lives over which we have no power, but that includes the fact that as Christians, we have no power over whether or not we are loved and forgiven. Through Christ, that’s already happened. What we do have power over is whether we live like that’s happened.

That’s why Paul says, “Do not offer parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness.” Paul’s choice of Greek words here refers specifically to sexual sins, but in reality all of our bodies can be used for sin. Our mouth can gossip, our eyes can roll, our hands can clench into fists, and our feet can walk us away from a situation where help is needed.

That’s our choice. That’s what we have power over. That’s what we’ve been given the freedom for: to choose to live as servants of righteousness. Now, I know no one is perfect, and I know we all still slip up, but that’s not an excuse to stop trying, because the sin in our lives will never stop trying to drag us down. We get to choose how we use our mouths, our eyes, our hands, our feet. We have the choice of making ourselves weapons in the hands of God or weapons in the hand of sin, and each decision we make contributes to this.

Paul writes elsewhere in Romans that we all fall short of God’s glory, and he’s right. We are in a divine-human partnership, and I have to tell you that we don’t always carry our share of the load. But God doesn’t give up on us. For some crazy reason, God keeps hoping that we might choose to be a little better today than we were yesterday. We don’t always give God a reason to believe that, but God believes it anyway, so much so that God sent us Jesus to show us the magnitude and depth of God’s hope in us.

The dancing girls – or men – of Rome will always be with us. The temptation to sin may change form and color, but it will never go away. What Paul is saying is that we no longer have to answer to that master nor suffer the consequences of our own fallibility. While we can’t earn our salvation – Christ already took care of that – we can live in such a way that’s a response to God’s grace. We are no longer motivated by the fear of what God will do to us, but by the inspiration of what God has done for us.

Will we ever reach perfection? Not even Charlie the dog has a chance at that. But I would like to believe God is less concerned about what stage we’ve reached than what direction we’re facing. I pray we can keep our eyes on the gift and glory of Jesus Christ, and live our lives in that way. After all, that’s what we’ve been given the freedom to do. 

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One response to “This Week’s Sermon – True Freedom

  1. Michael

    Kory, I enjoyed your sermon this past Sunday and wanted to share with you my thoughts and sermon reflections from two weeks ago (admittedly, it was a little dense at portions). I hope these thoughts spawn fruitful discussion.

    Romans 6:12-23

    Prayer:

    God of Grace and Mercy, find us in this sacred place with hearts prepared to be attuned to the whispering of your voice and the radiance of your presence. Give us ears to listen and minds to discern through your spirit here with us. May these words from my mouth be found pleasing unto You. Amen.

    Sermon

    The book of Romans is a complex and yet rich epistle in our Scripture. Although there are a number of tensions and difficulties in the letter, some of the most magnificent theological systems have been developed from the framework, logic, and language of Romans. To wrestle with the words of Paul in Romans is to find ourselves immersed in the historical struggle of ideas prompted by this epistle. Unfortunately, Romans is also a letter that we may be very familiar with. And the dangerous thing about familiarity is a false sense of understanding. Too often we think we understand what is most familiar to us, and yet it is often the case that the most profound mysteries and deepest truths live beneath the familiar and the ordinary. May we enter into Romans today with humble hearts and a desire to hear God speaking to us through the complexity and familiarity of this letter.

    Now if familiarity with the letter to the Romans is not an issue you deal with, maybe it is the familiarity of basic, traditional Christian concepts. As Christians we are, most likely, aware of the very many theological terms that get thrown around in sermons, conversations, and bible studies; “Christianese” is a name I’ve heard some people give this language of “sin,” “grace,” “faith,” “Christ,” and “justification.” These are terms we might use so routinely that we fail to reflect and concentrate our energies on what they might mean for Christian faith. If you are anything like me, this is often the case. I tend to take certain words, concepts, and ideas for granted and only when I turn to examine them closely do I uncover a depth and richness I had not expected nor considered before. So, this morning, with the help of Paul’s thoughts in Romans, let us turn to the Christian word “sin,” and think about what it might mean for us as Christians living today, how might it affect the way we live and breathe as faithful witnesses to the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

    Growing up Christian the word “sin” was very familiar. There were all kinds of sins I was taught to avoid. In fact, my tradition in the Nazarene Church for many years taught strict avoidance of such sins as Movie-going, make-up wearing, and jewelry-flaunting. An ethic of purity focused our attention on the sinful actions and behaviors which corrupted our communion with a holy and righteous God. We were to avoid this pollution, we were, with the help of God, to avoid these sins. So, for me, “sin” was a word for a list of actions that were displeasing and unacceptable to God. It was a way of “missing the mark,” a mark of righteousness set up by God. And, since none of us could ever act so perfectly before God, we were told of our eternal damnation. Fortunately for us, the Grace of God and the gift of Jesus Christ prevented such destruction and eternal despair, if we turned to God and Christ in faith.

    This way of talking about “sin,” as an action that displeases God is a simple and sometimes helpful way of talking about our Christian life. And we can further classify this way of thinking by talking about, on the one hand, sins of commission, or the displeasing acts we commit, and, on the other hand, the sins of omission, or our lack of action when God truly demands it of us. But what does this say about who we are as humans before God? Is only looking at our actions or inactions a deep enough account of our human reality? Is this all there is to sin, or is there more?

    Paul points us in Romans to the idea of “slavery” or “bondage.” In Romans 6: 16 Paul informs us that we are slaves either to sin, or to obedience. The strange language of “sin which leads to death” and “obedience which leads to righteousness” reveals a deeper consideration of our human nature than mere assessments of human action or inaction. For Paul, Sin and Righteousness are elevated to a cosmic level, given foundational control of our being as humans in the world. St. Augustine understood our human situation as most basically about love. Just like Paul, the issue is about what controls us at our deepest level. For Augustine, our wills are directed by love to something, be that God (the highest good) or ourselves. The direction and orientation of our will, provided by love, gives to us the range of possibility for our actions. In other words, we are gripped by something at our core, it is either a love of Sin or a love of Righteousness. If it is Sin, we are turned toward ourselves and away from God, if it is Righteousness, we are turned away from ourselves and toward God.

    Paul’s language of slavery and bondage is important on two levels. First, it helps us see the difference between what we could call today capital “S” Sin and lower case “s” sins. Paul reminds us of the depth and pervasive reality of capital “S” Sin; something more than simple action, it is an orientation and a constitution. We are constituted by Sin and oriented toward it. We could think of Sin as woven into the fabric of our being, and resulting in sins, the actions or inactions. But then, on another level, the language of slavery and bondage in Romans echoes the central narrative of Israel in Exodus: the Israelite slaves of Pharaoh who are set free by God to come to the “promised land.” Paul demonstrates the gravity of our sinfulness while placing it on the cosmic scale of liberation. Like the Israelites, God has set us free from slavery to Sin and death and given us over to Righteousness. Paul writes: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification” (6:22). We are set free from Sin to work toward the Righteousness found with God. God sets us free from being slaves to the meaning and purposes of Sin. Instead, we are given the meaning, purposes, and Truth of God found through faith in Jesus Christ.

    What a wonderful message for us this morning, a message that reaches to the depths of our soul and saturates our lives as Christians. We are free from Sin’s bondage to work for God’s Kingdom. And yet, this does not seem to be the whole story. What about the continuation of Sin? Don’t we still struggle with our own desires in tension with the will of God, all of which occurs despite our Christian faith? What about the Christian life that still struggles with the enduring reality of Sin? Why must Paul write to this community of faith in Rome about Sin if they have been set free from Sin to be slaves to the Righteousness of God? Here we might find an insight from Luther to be helpful. Martin Luther, a Magisterial Reformer of the 16th century, reminds us that we are simultaneously justified and sinners. In other words, although we find comfort in the reality of God’s Grace which sets us free to God’s purposes in the world, we still admit the reality of our human condition in the world. More simply, we are still sinners who now find meaning, purpose and Truth in the Grace of God as it has been revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

    Thus, we operate in the reality of God’s Grace while still struggling with the depth and breadth of our human sinfulness. What, then, does this mean for our lives of faith as Christians? I suggest to you this morning that it means we do, and must continue to, find hope and comfort in the beautiful gift of God’s Grace, and yet, even in doing this, recognize that Sin is woven into the fabric of our being. So while we are no longer slaves to Sin’s meaning and purposes, no longer oriented towards it, we must still deal with its presence in our daily lives. This is the ground for Christian humility; we are not perfect and pure vessels of God, but broken pottery that God manages to piece together for God’s purposes in the world. The reality of Sin is a reminder that in each moment we must look to the Grace of God to sustain us as we struggle in this life. We have been set free to struggle after God’s purposes, and we can be ever joyful for that, but we must not forget that we remain sinful and fallen creatures.

    I submit to you this morning that Sin is more than mere action, it is the limit-factor of our very being as humans in the world. Sin limits our capacities and abilities; it erects borders and fences around human aspirations. And, if we reduce sin to lower case “s” sins alone, we forget what capital “S” Sin teaches us; namely, that Sin is a social reality extending beyond our individualized notions of human existence. Paul demonstrates the cosmic or social dimension of Sin. Sin is not only about the one-time actions individuals do, but about the collective force and social institutionalization of Sin. Sin is a part of every aspect of existence, not just a part of singular actions. Thus, we must remember that since Sin is always social, and we are helplessly social beings in the world, Sin becomes an enduring, lasting situation for us as Christians. As a result, we must take our sinful reality seriously.

    We cannot look at ourselves as pure and righteous creatures worthy of praise and admiration (on our own account), or capable of absolute self-transformation. No, we are, in the language of Isaiah, “filthy rags” blessed by God’s Grace to do more than we could ever do on our own. We need God in each moment, and we must look to God in all things. When we sense our limited reality before God, the reality of our selfish sinfulness as social creatures of this world, we become aware of all we cannot do.

    This way of seeing the human life before God has become more real to me each and every day. I see the hubris and pride of a fallen world, but not a world outside of the Christian faith. Rather we confront the hubris, pride and sinful reality of a world that extends to and includes Christians. In fact, it is Christians who can be the most ignorant of their sinfulness, for they feel justified by God and thus pure as God’s people. We might get fooled into thinking we were sinners, but are now justified and saved, that this is an either/or situation. But that does not seem to be accurate; I think Paul, Romans, and the biblical witness point to the insight Luther articulated, that we are both sinners and justified. To recognize this, to take Sin seriously, in all its depth, we must turn it on ourselves. The Christian concept of Sin is not one that includes everyone but us, it includes everyone and most especially us. We must remember that Sin is a part of our daily, very social, life, and we must struggle to live out God’s call despite that reality. Ignoring this and thinking we are good, nice Christians is a view that distorts our human reality. We are sinful people.

    But, thanks be to God, we are not only sinful people. We are sinful people who have found Truth, Meaning, and Purpose in the Grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. May Paul’s message ring true for us this morning. By God’s Grace we are set free to work for things we can never accomplish on our own. We are set free to live out God’s purposes, not our own. We are free to enter into God’s community of faith, hope, and love, not our own community of selfishness, vengeance, and pride.

    This past week I heard a moving quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th century American theologian. He was a strong and outspoken voice for the sinful reality of our human world, who also spoke of the beauty of the Christian message for an otherwise hopeless world. He writes:

    “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
    Therefore, we must be saved by hope.
    Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
    Therefore, we must be saved by faith.
    Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone;
    Therefore, we must be saved by love.
    No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint;
    Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

    This morning, may the voice of God remind us that we are sinful people in a fallen world. May God keep us aware of our own sinfulness and the sinfulness that is present in all the world. But let us, at one and the same time, hear God whispering God’s Grace toward us to give us the faith, hope, and love we need to be free for God’s purposes in our world. Let us be reminded of the great paradox, that while we are sinners, we are also the justified people of God called to labor in Truth, Meaning and Purpose for the Kingdom of God. For through faith, hope, and love we can do more and be more than the sinful people we are. May this beautiful mystery resonate in our hearts this morning, this week, and forever. Amen.

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