Romans 6:12-23 In the old days, before free agency existed for professional athletes, a player would sign a contract with a team, and then would be bound to that team and its owners. Sometimes the owners traded them to another team, but the player really had no say in it. Their only real choices were to sign a contract to play or to retire. There was no shopping around and looking for a better position. You might not call it slavery, as even then, professional athletes were well paid. But it was a form of slavery in the sense that the apostle Paul describes slavery in his letter to the first century Roman Christians, which is the condition of a person being controlled by someone else (or perhaps something or some system).
Paul lived in a time when possibly about 1/3 of the population was enslaved. Sometimes they were born into slavery, sometimes they were forced into slavery though war and conquest, and sometimes they would sell themselves into slavery due to pay off a debt. We find mention of slaves throughout scripture because it was part of the landscape at that time and the morality of the institution was not questioned even by Christians. Paul uses the familiar concept of slavery to draw the stark distinction between living under the power of sin and living under the control of God.
Mention slavery to us in 2020 and we get wary. No one today wants to use slavery as an example of how we relate to God because we know it as a horrible, degrading, harmful institution in this country that continues to exert ripple effects in our society even 155 years after it officially ended. So, it takes extra effort for us to dig down into understanding Paul’s reasons for using the metaphor of slavery. Paul begins this letter identifying himself as a slave to Christ, right off the bat in chapter one. When he says that, he means that his ultimate allegiance and loyalty is to Christ. Not that Christ owns him in a degrading way, but that he chooses to live a life controlled by God, serving Christ, walking in step with the Spirit. In Paul’s mind, he surrenders his life to God in contrast to surrendering himself to the power of sin. It is God who occupies his thoughts and his energy and his focus. It is God whom he serves.
We know all about competing forces for our time and attention. How many times have you felt like you were a slave to your electronic device, whether it be a computer or a phone or something else? How many times have you felt like you were a slave to your kitchen or your yard, as they seem to keep you from doing other things that you enjoy? How many times have you felt controlled by something else other than God? That is the distinction Paul is making here.
He first describes being controlled by sin as what life was like when his readers were controlled by the law. Whether you were a Jew, a Greek, a Roman or a US resident or citizen, you would have been appalled at the idea that living under the law was a bad thing. Each society has their own sense of respect and appreciation for the laws we live by. The first recipients of his letter would have been saying to themselves—what does he mean, living under Law is bad? He is pushing them (and us) to see that truly our lives as followers of Jesus are living under the grace that God offers to us through Jesus Christ and no longer living under the old law. He would have gotten their attention, that is for sure.
Does that mean we can just sin willy nilly, flippantly thinking, “Oh, God will forgive me. I live by grace.” Paul says, “No!”. If we offer ourselves to sin, we are essentially slaves to sin, and that is not the direction we want to be going. On the contrary, we want to be committed to serving God and God’s purposes in the world. In Paul’s mind, it is a given that you are going to place your allegiance somewhere. If you choose God, you are automatically not choosing sin, or injustice. The same goes the other way—when we choose to place our allegiance to anything that is not God, defined here as sin, we are automatically not choosing God, or justice, or righteousness.
I find the words from The Message very helpful. Peterson chooses to describe sin’s power over us as tyranny. Listen to the way he paraphrases some of Paul’s words: Sin can’t tell you how to live. Don’t give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Now you are listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!
As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Where did it get you? A dead end. God’s gift is real life. Eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.
You see, the idea is that we put ourselves under the power of the Master who loves us unconditionally, God, who sent his own Son to die for us, who raised his Son from death as a way to reconcile us once and for all to him. Paul has argued very effectively in the first chapter of this letter that we human beings are either going to be God-centered or self-centered. Now he is spending this entire chapter fleshing that out more fully. In the first half of the chapter, he points out that it is Jesus Christ who has pointed us in the right direction, and through baptism we are headed on the right road toward God. This is often described as justification, the act of God declaring that we sinners are made right through Christ. Then in the section we read this morning, Paul focuses on how we can keep moving in that right direction toward God, which is often referred to as sanctification, or the ongoing process of regeneration where sinners are being transformed for holy living. Sanctification is a life-long process that does not end. Justification is often looked at as the first step in that process. But I will lean toward our forebear in the Presbyterian church, John Calvin, who looked at both justification and sanctification as God’s work, not our work, both of them bathed in grace. An associate professor of new testament studies at the United Methodist Saint Paul School of Theology, in Kansas City, Missouri., Dr. Israel Kamudzandu, has a beautiful expression: as Christians we have been launched into an ocean of grace.
Living in an ocean of grace, we are given a choice– whom shall we serve? God, or righteousness, which leads to life or sin, or injustice, which leads to death? What does it look like when we agree to serve God, to surrender ourselves to God’s control? Let me give you a few examples… I read in the newspaper this week that there is a neighborhood in Nashville that has become gentrified, where more upscale housing has taken the place of more dilapidated housing. After George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, a black man who lives in the Nashville neighborhood shared on his neighborhood website that he was afraid to take walks in the neighborhood now, for fear of the way neighbors would see him. In response, neighbors, one after another, offered to walk with him. So now he and his mother take a walk each week with more than 100 members of the community and their strollers with kids and their dogs. He says: “It’s not a protest. It’s about unity. I feel human and I feel heard.” When we surrender to God’s control, we treat all of our neighbors with respect. When we surrender to God’s control there is hope for unity in the community.
As I watched some of the goings on at the General Assembly this week, I was struck again and again at the patience and kindness of the moderators, both the outgoing ones and the newly elected ones who began their work on Friday with hours and hours of online meetings. It is a difficult task to ensure that all voices are heard, to continue to make time for questions, to provide translation services for Korean speakers and Spanish speakers to be heard and to understand, and to give the commissioners the space to wrestle with important decisions around the issues of how to address racism, poverty and the fall-out from covid19, taking action about repairing 92 dilapidated church buildings of Native American congregations, budget shortfalls and denominational leadership going forward. We have a practice for every vote to poll the 4 groups of advisory delegates at the assembly—young adults, theological students, mission advisory delegates and ecumenical advisory delegates. Everyone else waited to vote until these groups were polled and their results announced. Then there were the parliamentarian and the stated clerk on hand to answer questions about procedure, who remained patient and clearly committed to serving the church at large. When we surrender to God’s control, our own desires to “get on with it” or to make quick decisions, are put on the back burner, making room for listening to all voices.
Curt Flood was an African American player on the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team in the 1960’s. When his owners wanted to trade him to another team, he refused to go. He sued Major League Baseball for the right to become a free agent. In a letter to the baseball commissioner, asking to be allowed to be a free agent, Curt Flood wrote, “I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold.” His challenge went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1969 and cost him his job. He did not win, but his insistence on what was right ended up paving the way for other players to have a choice in who they played for, changing the entire landscape of professional sports from one that could have been likened to owners and slaves to one that now allowed players the freedom of movement. Curt Flood decided that if what he was doing would benefit future players, it was worth doing, to me an example of what it means to serve what is right instead of serving himself.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, “Sin can’t tell you how to live. Now you are listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!” Listen well. Serve well. Amen.