|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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A story is told of a young protestant man who had a good friend who was Roman Catholic.
The Roman Catholic friend would tease the protestant by telling him,
“I can do ANYTHING I want, the bad, the nasty, the evil, knowing that all I need to do afterward is go to my priest, confess my sins, claim to be sorry I committed those acts, and be forgiven my misdeeds.
“Then I can leave the confessional booth and behave just the way I had before.”
So...doesn’t this make sense? Is it not true that all we need to do is ask forgiveness and our sins are forgiven? Didn’t Jesus tell us that? Does that not show up in his parables? Is it not true that Jesus forgave a thief while both of them were hanging on their crosses?
Do we not believe that we are saved by faith? And, if that is the case, why should we concern ourselves with our earthly human behavior?
Seriously, Paul proclaims so strongly that we are justified by faith. But then he tells us, in the twelfth verse of the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans: “...do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”
But WAIT just a MINUTE! WHY should we be concerned with our sin, if our sin can be forgiven?
Well, maybe we’re forgiven here on earth, but I am suspicious that Paul has longer-term plans in mind.
You see, for Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection was EVERYTHING. The totality of Paul’s theology was tied up in Jesus being raised from the dead. And the whole resurrection event is seen by Paul not only as a special human act on the part of Jesus, but also as a symbolic, transformative act in which we followers of Christ are called to participate.
In the tenth and eleventh verses, he has said, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul tells his followers, “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”
What are we hearing here? “those who have been brought from death to life.” Are we not hearing resurrection? Paul is telling his followers that it is starting-over time. And this time let’s get it right. This time let us present ourselves as instruments of righteousness.
In other words, Jesus did not die “for” us only as a sacrifice, but also as an example. And Just as he was moved by God from death to life, Paul calls upon his followers to also make that transition in their earthly lives, to move from being dead to sin to being alive to God.
“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
Now, the implication of this verse is that so long as one is living under the law, one is simply INVITING sin, TEMPTING sin. It is as if sin is just sitting there waiting on us to break the law. Sin has dominion over us so long as we live in fear.
But if we live under GRACE, that domination disappears. We are free. We need no longer live a deadly thou-shalt-not fearful existence. So it is time to reverse our lives. To live positive, affirmative, optimistic lives.
Am I being too pollyannish? I don’t think so. How many times do we live our lives worrying about doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing? So hung up on fear that we hesitate to assert ourselves in any way?
We are so fearful of possible trespasses that our adventures are very few. We are so busy avoiding the negative that there is no positive in our lives.
And Paul confronts his readers: “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”
Should we be like that young Roman Catholic, who claimed he could get away with anything, so long as he went to confession?
Actually, I think many of us want to have it both ways. We want to live under law and under grace, depending upon what suits us at the time.
The very same Christians who would hear their pastor preach grace over and over too often forget grace when something goes wrong. And then we hear, “But what did I do to deserve this?”
Or we lament what we perceive to be divine injustice: “He never did anything to hurt anybody. He always lived a good life. He was always helping people.” In other words, he followed the law.
If we believe we have fulfilled the law and all the commandments, we want to be judged by the law. But if we have doubts about that, then we want grace to come to our rescue.
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?”
And I think that Paul is telling us that there is an inevitability. We WILL be slaves. The only question is this: for WHOM will we be slaves? To whom will we be obedient?
“Leadership” is a concept that never seems to go out of date. It doesn’t matter what field you are in, “leadership” always seems to be a really big deal. There is leadership in the business world. There is leadership in the church.
There is leadership in government. Well, sort of. But think really hard about who the leaders are. Identify them in your mind. Now, ask yourself this: What or whom are THEY following? You see, there is no such thing as an absolute leader. Every leader is following somebody or something else. In the United Methodist Church the district superintendents may be the so-called leaders in their districts, but they are FOLLOWING their bishop.
A bishop may be the leader in his or her area, but he or she is obligated to uphold the discipline of the church. There is no escaping our followership.
Paul continues: “But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
Perhaps the concept of slavery is too harsh. Personally, I prefer the idea of obedience. Notice that Paul speaks of obedience “from the heart.” That would seem to be a voluntary obedience, an obedience of our own choosing, of our free will. Slavery, on the other hand, does not strike me as the kind of condition that one would freely choose.
And if we did have freedom of choice, which would we freely choose: to live under the law, or to live under grace?
I do suspect that there may be many Christians, even ardent followers of Paul, who nevertheless, in some part of their theology, want to be judged according to the law.
They want to know that there are certain Christian rules and regulations, and that if they follow them, they will be rewarded. Of course, they ALSO want to know that if others do NOT follow them, those folks will be condemned for not doing so.
But it is this kind of understanding of law and grace that allows US to put OURSELVES on the judgment seat. And we do not BELONG there. Or so I believe anyway.
But I’ve had conversations with folks who want assurance that they will be saved, and that those who are not like them will be damned. Such is the glory of dependence upon the law.
And Paul tells us, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.”
I’m not particularly fond of the way Paul expresses this in the NRSV translation. Let’s try the Contemporary English Version: “I am using these everyday examples, because in some ways you are still weak. You used to let the different parts of your body be slaves of your evil thoughts. But now you must make every part of your body serve God, so that you will belong completely to him.”
But listen to this same verse in Eugene H. Peterson’s translation: “I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture.
“You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing--not caring about others, not caring about God--the worse your life became and the less freedom you had?
“And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?”
This notion of focussing on members of the body, on different parts of our body, as if they were independent entities, is thrown out by Peterson. Instead, he focusses on wholeness and holiness.
Paul continues: “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.” Actually, what I think Paul probably meant was free FROM righteousness.
So free, that we didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to righteousness, or right thinking, or right living, or right anything. Basically, when we are free FROM righteousness, we are in a condition of ignoring God.
Perhaps the best way to understand this is to think of addiction, perhaps drug addiction. For the drug addict, the heavy user, righteousness is the FURTHEST thing from his mind.
The addict is in absolute slavery and submission, and ignores everything except that to which he or she is addicted. The only thing that matters is feeding the addiction.
Then Paul asks us, “So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.”
There are other things to which we may be enslaved. Some of them even may appear respectable. Like greed. Of course, we usually don’t call it that.
But when multi-billion dollar corporations fall apart in the desire to make more money, I would say we have some serious cases of enslavement to sin. Is Paul being too harsh when he says that “the end of those things is death”?
When very large institutions do die? Along with the jobs of enormous numbers of people?
Look at Paul’s question again: “What advantage did you then get?” Maybe Jesus said it better in the gospel according to Matthew when he asked, “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
And Paul sets up the contrast: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.”
Personally, I think that there is a more positive, healthy way of thinking of this enslavement to God.
Rather, I think that we might understand enslavement as a matter of obedience; and the obedience God seeks from us is found in wholeness and holiness in relationship with God and all of God’s creation.
And what is the alternative? It is found in a verse I first encountered--and memorized--in the third grade, as part of a vacation bible school project. I was one of those strange little boys who enjoyed memorizing bible verses.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I doubt that I understood that very well when I was seven or eight.
But over the past half-century since I was first introduced to that verse it has become abundantly clear to me that chasing after the emptiness of the material world may not lead us to death, but it most assuredly leads us to dead ends.
And in the meantime, God continues to offer God’s gift of grace. And those of us who choose to accept it find an abundant life in this world, and the promise of more in the world to come.
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