Sunday, July 2, 2017

You're gonna have to serve somebody

A Sermon preached on July 2, Pentecost IV, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Jeremiah 28:5-9, Romans 6:11-23, Matthew 10:40-42 
“The wages of sin is death, but so is the salary of virtue, and at least the evil get to go home early on Fridays.”[1] No that was not a quote from St. Paul from his Letter to the Romans, but from the late Sir Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett is responsible for the Discworld series of novels, which I am a big fan of. But he was also a convinced atheist and I do not agree with his version of Paul’s famous verse. 

Why? For one thing, in his original Paul does not offer a choice between sin and virtue, but between sin and righteousness. Righteousness is much more than virtue, it is about belonging to God, about behavior appropriate to this position, about a state of justice that God desires, and that we are to help establish, in the righteousness for the whole world and all of Creation. For another, I believe and have seen that there is a significant difference in the consequences of the two courses of action. They are not equal. Sure, both the sinful and the righteous, and everyone in between will die. This life has a defined end. We believe however that if we live God’s way, if we present all of ourselves to God to be used as instruments of righteousness, that sanctification, a new life beckons. Where Pratchett is right, is that we don’t get to go home on Fridays …. A life in God is 24/7!

We do have a free choice, Paul is saying, but not between slavery and a life of absolute freedom. Our choice is between two masters and two sorts of life under these two masters. To quote another author, Noble Prize winner Bob Dylan from his song "Gotta Serve Somebody"
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Everything we have and all we are: our members, that is our limbs, organs, mind, memory imagination, emotions will be used in the service of one master or the other, and they will be transformed in the process, for better or for worse.
Paul does not mention the devil, but the way he describes sin, not sins, makes it sound like a lord or master who demands obedience and full commitment, and who pays a wage, albeit one we do not want. Paul’s focus is not on all the major or minor sins that people actually commit, but on the underlying principle or power of sin. The one thing you are free of as a slave to sin, Paul says with some irony, is “in regard to righteousness.” (Romans 6:20) He is right of course, in a truly just society most sinful actions, which rely on some kind of exploitation, would not be possible.

So the alternative to sin is righteousness, which as I said earlier is more than just behaving well; it is about serving God’s righteous purposes. This too requires full commitment, for you cannot serve two masters. That is why Paul uses (and apologizes for using) the metaphor of slavery. We are either slaves to righteousness or slaves to sin. Obedience is required in either case. Serving Christ is of course not an onerous burden, that is where the comparison breaks down.  The result or advantage of our dedication to God in Christ is “the free gift of God (that) is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) This gift is unearned, because it is not contingent on our behavior, but only on our commitment and God’s commitment to God’s people.

We will experience consequences or results in this life too. At least some “sinful” behavior already shows signs of its destination; it is destructive of self, of relationships, and of the world around us. It is cumulative, Paul says. Presenting, dedicating yourself to “impurity” leads to greater and greater iniquity …. It gets worse and worse. This is the very present and very current aspect of the death to which obedience to or dependence on sin can lead.
On the other hand channeling all our energy and initiative for God and good also has an effect. If we live this life as people dedicated to God then we already beginning our resurrection lives. We begin to experience our transformation. Sanctification or becoming holy, taking on the characteristics of God, is the term Paul uses. 

How do we know if we are really living “righteously?” At least in this chapter, Paul does not give us specific moral or ethical instructions. But he does tell us where to look. Paul talks about being “obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” (Romans 6:17) Sometimes our heart will tells us what is right. Sometimes what we have been taught – that includes the Gospel, but also other aspects of Christian teaching and practice, such as the Covenant we make at our Baptism, the Eucharist as a reminder of how and why Christ died for us and as means of communing with Him and with one another. We are to become holy, to take on the characteristics of God as experienced in Jesus: “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made God known.” (John 1:18) And if we do not know, if we have no clear answer in Scripture, then there is always prayer. Ask God what the right course of action is.

“You're gonna have to serve somebody,” Bob Dylan sang. Freedom is never absolute, because we are not alone, we are part of an interdependent world. Every free choice we make impinges on someone or something else. Nevertheless, Christians are free. Christian liberty is first and foremost freedom from sin, which does not mean we will never, ever make a mistake again. Paul is clear that Christians too have to resist sin and sin’s attempts to make us obey its passions and desires. What freedom from sin means is that sin has no power over us, we cannot be forced to do wrong, because we serve another Lord. Christian liberty is not the license to do whatever we want, not a moral vacuum: By no means! Christian liberty is doing what is right; it is a free choice, from the heart, to serve Christ motivated by God’s free gift, by his love for us, by our love for him and for our neighbor. Even as “slaves to righteousness” we still know freedom. We are free from fear, free from death, free to serve, free to welcome, and most of all we are free to love.

[1] Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad (A Discworld Novel)

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