Texts: Rom 6.12-23
Paul’s metaphor begins with the assumption that all human life is lived in slavery to something. I think his point still holds true, though we wouldn’t call it “slavery;” instead, we would say that each of us devotes ourselves to something, that we each have guiding principles. For example, this week we will celebrate one of the guiding principles of our country: freedom. Our identity as Americans is founded on the idea that each of us ought to be free to live our lives how we choose without interference from outside parties, including our own government.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he was specifically writing about one set of priorities over which Jewish and Gentile Christians were arguing: the law of Moses. Jewish Christians thought that, as God’s chosen people, they were already righteous (meaning right with God), because of their obedience to God’s law, whereas the Gentiles had all sorts of disgusting, evil practices that they needed to abandon before God could accept them. You can imagine how the Gentiles felt about this. So, the core question Paul is trying to answer in this part of his letter is: whose priorities are God’s priorities? Whose side is God on?
Paul’s answer is neither. Or both. The law of Moses, he says, can’t make a person righteous. What makes us righteous is that God chooses to make us righteous; or in Paul’s terms, God justifies us—God chooses to make us right with God rather than expecting us to behave a certain way first. Just as in a word processor when you “justify” a paragraph the text is stretched and squished to fit to the margins; God “justifies” us by molding us to fit God’s margins. The proof of this is that Christ died for us while we were all—Jews and Gentiles, both—still sinners. Jews and Gentiles both—keepers of the law or not—are all equally loved and claimed by God not because of what we have done for God, but because of what God has done for us. That is grace.
So the question today is: if we don’t have to follow the law, does that mean can get away with anything? “By no means!” Paul exclaims, because we are all slaves to something, and if you allow yourself to give into sin, then you are a slave to sin. So he says this: “before baptism, you were obedient to the law—whether the law of Moses for Jews, or some other philosophical or moral code if for Gentiles—and you took pride in that because you thought your obedience made you righteous. You were slaves to those laws, but they got you nothing but death. So, instead, turn your devotion from those death-dealing laws to the life-giving grace of God: be as obedient to God as you were to those old laws.”
That is what he means by being a “slave to righteousness.” These two slaveries—to sin or to righteousness—are not equal opposites; it’s not simply a matter of one master or another. The sin to which we would devote ourselves—though it often seems easier and more agreeable—is harmful: “the wages of sin is death.” By contrast, “slavery to righteousness” is life-giving. Righteous can mean “right with God,” but it can also mean “being who we were created to be,” or “fulfilling one’s purpose.” For example, a pear tree that grows pears is righteous; a pear tree that bears no fruit at all, is not. A pear tree that bears apples is definitely not righteous—it’s not being a pear tree! Being “slaves to righteousness,” then, is actually not slavery at all, but freedom: the freedom to be who God created us to be.
Let’s try a different metaphor. Consider a plant growing in a sidewalk. It sprouts in the crack and it can only go one way: up. But, as a plant, that’s what it “wants” to do, anyway. That's what plants do: they grow up. So, even though it is constrained by the concrete, it is free to do what it is trying to do. That’s what Paul describes as “slavery to righteousness.” Slavery to sin, on the other hand, is like a plant sprouting under the concrete and being forced to grow sideways looking for a crack. The plant can survive this for a while and may even eventually find a hole, but it is not life-giving for the plant. If it doesn’t find a way out to get the sunlight, it will eventually die.
So with that background on Paul’s metaphor and his meaning, what are we to take from this today? We are no longer a Church of Jewish and Gentile Christians, trying to decide whether we must follow the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but we are still a Church full of people with divided loyalties. One of the points that Paul doesn’t make but assumes is that these loyalties inform our identities. Jews are defined by their adherence to the law of Moses just as Americans are defined by our devotion to freedom. These can be good things, as Paul will explain in the next chapter, but they cannot bring us life, only death.
We have seen in the last 16 years how the American enthusiasm for spreading freedom to the world was the reason given for nearly two decades of uninterrupted warfare. We have seen how American desire for freedom from government interference has been used to justify efforts to repeal laws that ensure health care for everyone. Freedom itself is a good thing, but our desire to serve freedom and the acts we take to do so lead to death.
The good news is that in baptism all the other loyalties that laid claim to us and all the other identities we have were washed away; they were nailed to the cross with Christ and put to death. When you came up out of the water you were a new person, a person with one identity: Beloved Child of God.
One message we can take from Paul’s letter is to be intentional about who we serve, for if we are not serving God, we are serving something else; and even if that something else is God’s very own law handed down from Sinai, making that something else our master will only lead to death. If we ever place loyalty to political party, to country, to ethical principle, even to family above God, we are presenting ourselves as slaves to those things—we are shunning the life-giving sunlight to burrow once more beneath the sidewalk.
We are free to offer our selves in service to lots of things greater than us. We are free to give our lives in service to our country, to offer our devotion and love to spouses and children, to give our time and our money to organizations and institutions that promote the values we would like to promote in the world; but we are not slaves to those things, bound to blind obedience to them because through the cross of Christ we have been freed to serve God above all else.
It sounds strange, but presenting ourselves as obedient slaves to God really is freedom, because all life is lived in service to something, but only service to God allows us to be what God created us to be. Because the “slavery” metaphor is harmful and harsh, perhaps it’s better to understand it this way: In the death of Christ, God has punched a hole in the sidewalk above us so that we may grow straight up into the sunlight, just as God created us to do.
The final question, then, is how we can be obedient to God without the law; to put it another way, how do we know what God wants us to do? The Jews had the law, the Gentiles had their philosophers, but what guide do we have to guide us into the way of God? Paul writes, “you… have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted…” The “form” of that teaching is not a list of rules or a moral code to which we must adhere; rather the “form” of the teaching to which we have been entrusted is a person, one who gave his life freely for his friends—and even for his enemies—trusting that whether he lived or died, he was in God’s hands. We trust that at this table, the name and the life of that person is written on our hearts; that gathered around this table, this community becomes the body of Christ; and so we trust Christ and the community that bears his name to teach us obedience to God not from a set of rules, but from the living Jesus himself.