Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 29, 2014

School is finally out. SOLs have been taken, snow days have been made up and the children are free. Free from the tyranny of alarm clocks and schedules, free from homework, free to play with their friends, free to go on vacation, free to enjoy themselves just doing nothing.

In a few days we will celebrate the 4th of July, Independence Day. We celebrate our freedom from foreign domination. We celebrate our democracy, in which we are free to assemble peacefully, to vote for our leaders, to worship as we wish. We also celebrate our individual freedoms that the American Revolution made possible. We have rights and privileges. We can pretty much do our own thing and be independent of the rule of anyone else over us.

Paul would not understand this concept at all. Paradoxically Paul only understands freedom in terms of slavery. Slavery is a hard word for us to hear because of the many negative connotations it has had for us – people being sold, families being separated, human beings being treated as property. Slavery is something we would want to be rid of at all costs. There was slavery in the Roman Empire too. Paul accepts this reality and uses it to make a point, but Paul means something a little different by the term slavery. Paul says people cannot be independent agents. They must have loyalty, allegiance, fidelity to someone or something. It could be money; it could be power; it could be your reputation or any number of other things. To Paul all those loyalties are loyalties to sin, however lofty they may be.

But now there is another option for a master, Paul tells the Roman Christians. Because they have been saved by grace through faith, they can make a choice to be slaves to obedience and righteousness, which is right relationship with God and neighbor. With Christ’s life, death and resurrection, there is now a choice to be made, two masters to choose between, one being the domination of sin and the other being the love of God. Before the good news, nobody had a choice. Everyone was a slave to sin and death. Their mortal bodies were servants of sin and gave into the temptation to do self-centered things, rather than God- and other-centered things.

Even the people under the law were slaves to sin, Paul says. People’s sinful passions were aroused by the law telling them what not to do, and the law required strict obedience to earn your salvation (remember Paul had begun life as a devout Pharisee, following all the laws to the letter). The law put a border around sin, and people constantly went beyond that border. That is why sacrifices had to be made, to appease God when you broke the law. That did not mean there were not righteous people who lived by the law, but no matter what they did, they were still victims of sin and death. Everyone suffered from Adam’s sin.

When Christ came, things started to change. Jesus preached repentance, literally turning around and facing the other direction. He wanted people to look outward at God and neighbor to find out how much God loved them and all other people. Some people followed him after hearing that message, but it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that brought to reality the opportunity of choosing a new master, of opting for right relationship with God and others instead of being self-centered and sinful.

The sign of choosing a new life was baptism, in which you symbolically died and were resurrected with Christ. Like him, the Romans were called to consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. By choosing God you admitted that you were not your own to do with as you pleased. God had given you faith to accept this new life of grace, one which you had to do absolutely nothing to receive – it was not something earned but a gift from God.

Now where does freedom come into this? When people were slaves to sin, Paul says, they were free from righteousness. They didn’t understand it and probably were too mired in becoming more and more sinful to know how to act that way. People who chose the way of Jesus were likewise free from sin. They would still be tempted by it and struggle with choosing between sin and righteousness, but they were in the enviable position of being able to choose to act righteously because God was with them.

So what is the response to having the option to choose obedience to God? How do we show our gratitude for this great gift? First we adjust our perspective. We see ourselves as God’s children, loved infinitely by the One who saved us from death for eternal life. We see ourselves, as Jesus told us, as servants of God. Therefore, we are not to present our bodies to become instruments of sin, but of obedience. There are several places Paul names a variety of sexual sins that many of us wouldn’t dream of doing. But there are things in our lives today that are equally important. For example, we are to stop hurting our bodies. We are to quit smoking, eat the right kind of food, get enough exercise, avoid drunkenness, get enough sleep. We are to give up attitudes of judgment, resentment, fear and negative self-talk. We present ourselves to God to get help to change attitudes and behaviors because we cannot do it on our own. If we could have, we would have, if we consider ourselves followers of Jesus.

Two stories in the Washington Post this week grabbed my attention. One was about a woman who has become a “godparent” to 37 children. Many of them grew up in D.C. public housing. They came to her in various ways, and she developed deep relationships with them. They became the first college graduates in their families because of her intense personal involvement with them and her financial support. One of her godchildren said “She gives life and love to so many people. I have a mother who loves and supports me, but Sharon is something else.” The other story was about a camp counselor who has forged close connections with many campers at Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. He helps them through their fear of the bugs, their homesickness and other difficulties.

These two people have been shaped into loving, caring people by what they do. They are moving toward sanctification, which is what Paul calls being made more holy. The more we do things that are obedient to God, the more we are shaped and molded into the image of God, into what God calls us to be.

There is something to be said for being a slave to something besides God. There is short-term gain to be had. The sinful experiences make us feel good for a while, but then go away, and we have to have more of them to gain satisfaction. That is what obsession or addiction is like. If we are sinning by omission – as in not doing the right things to keep ourselves healthy and ready for service, then we cannot do the hard work we are called to do and resort to doing what is easy, also a short-term benefit. But there are no long-term benefits to being a slave to sin. The wages of sin is death.

Being slaves to righteousness and having God as our master has better short-term benefits and unbeatable long-term advantages. Life with God begins as soon as we are join the Christian community. We learn to love and serve others by caring, listening, working for justice and peace, welcoming the stranger, inviting others into the grace of God’s love. We get the long-term benefits of sanctification and eternal life in Jesus Christ.

When we are slaves to sin, we do whatever we feel like doing. When we present our bodies as instruments for evil, we are out of tune with God and with others, and our music is off-key and cacophonous. When we present our bodies as instruments for good, we play in harmony with God and God’s people and experience the joy of new life. We are truly free, not “from” but “for” God’s work. Choose slavery to God and God’s love, and receive all the gifts that choice brings.


      - Rev. Ann Barker