Pastor Brett Davis serves at Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg.
Pastor Brett Davis serves at Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg.
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of town, at Muhlenberg Lutheran Church. It is truly a great joy to be a part of this community with such a live, rich sense of ecumenism, to share together in our pastors’ Bible study and groups, and to work together for our community. So in this 500th year of the Reformation, we rejoice at this, and I, as a Lutheran pastor, rejoice that we are living out the truth, the truth that Martin Luther and the early Reformers got at least a handful of things wrong, including their treatment of Anabaptists. Instead, today we live out our unity in Christ, and marvel that the Holy Spirit is still reforming the church – and us – daily.
Thank you for your warm hospitality to me, and to all in this community – a true response to Jesus’ words we just heard from the gospel of Matthew. In fact, I’ll admit that while I’ll make reference to it in closing, reading this gospel about welcome made me think – there’s no way I, a Lutheran, will be teaching you Mennonites, about hospitality and welcome –so instead, the Spirit led me in another direction this morning – and I simply receive your hospitality.
It’s this text from Romans I’ve been wrestling with. Especially taken just on its own, its language of slavery makes me uncomfortable. I preached last week at Muhlenberg and touched on the fact that many verses of scripture, have been used to justify slavery. So now again confronted with language that refers to slavery as a good thing is hard on my ears and heart.
I’ve found peace with this in wrestling with it, by the Spirit’s leading to consider why Paul would use slavery language – what aspect of it is analogous? What the Spirit led me to share with you today is a very simple point about slavery and its use as a theological term – I believe Paul talks about slavery here in Romans precisely because no one chooses to be a slave. No one works their way up to it – in fact, the very thought of that is ridiculous. It needs to be said, in practical and sociological terms, that slavery is involuntary. This is important to say as a corrective to history, which implied that by nature some folks were destined to be enslaved, or that it really wasn’t all that bad if you just went along with it. But this is also a current matter too, as too many women, children, and even men are trafficked as slaves or manipulated – because they were vulnerable, at the wrong place at the wrong time, or some might say, wearing the wrong thing. But no one chooses slavery. Paul would say, “By no means!”
I think the reason that this slavery language makes me uncomfortable is because it seems an inappropriate comparison. I feel that if I use this concept of slavery, a horrible human sin, as analogous to a theological concept, I somehow downplay how bad slavery is and play up our own piety. It’s not appropriate to say that my faith in Christ is anything like slavery. It feels a mismatch because life in Christ is actually quite attractive, slavery is not – and no one would choose slavery. But perhaps right there is where Paul is making a theological point.
We were enslaved to sin, not of our own choosing but involuntarily. Paul argues here that we are enslaved to grace, to Christ, the same way - involuntarily. Our relationship with Christ is involuntary, not of our own doing – but the work of the Holy Spirit – the word alive that transforms us. Christ in baptism makes a claim on our life. We are now involuntarily in a relationship with the Lord of Love through grace. Not under law, under the fair-weather relationship of works-righteousness and earning our keep, but rather under grace, having met the Lord of Love in baptism.
Paul writes here in Romans that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. How could this be? Well, you don’t choose love, do you? Especially deep, abiding, unconditional love. It makes you present your members for obedience – to jump up in the middle of the night and run to CVS when your beloved, your child, your best friend – is sick and needs something. You do this out of pure obedience – out of love that is not a choice but completely involuntary – there is nowhere else you’d rather be – nowhere else you could conceive of being. To do otherwise is unthinkable. I think this is the thrust of Paul’s language of slavery – you are completely changed in Christ - this is the word that transforms us and we are never the same.
Here in Romans and his other letters, Paul loves rhetorical questions – and sometimes, he even answers them. The question we get here in Romans 6 is, “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but grace?” He responds with one of his favorite emphatic responses, in Greek, me genoito – by no means! Other Bibles translate it as “absolutely not,” or I also like “no, amen,” but I would argue that it means something even stronger.
Here I love the way that “by no means” is a double entendre – answering the question both literally and also theologically. Should we sin? By no means! By no work of our own, by no human means could we do this – now that we are under grace. This would be like staying in bed when your child needs medicine in the middle of the night, or not answering your spouse’s cries. By no means! Bound by love, we literally cannot do it! It’s not human means that made us a slave to righteousness, but God’s doing, and we couldn’t get out of it if we wanted. Bound now by grace, our work, our lives are no longer a means to an end – we have been given the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. It’s like the old spiritual – this train is bound for glory.
Let me say it another way. Paul’s question, “should we sin now that we are under grace?” or as earlier in the chapter, “should we continue to sin so that grace may abound?” These questions are borne out of the fear that unconditional love will be mistreated. It would be as if you told your beloved, your parent, your child don’t tell me that you love me unconditionally – I’ll just walk all over you then! But you hear how ridiculous that sounds. The beloved, hearing of unconditional love, does not now suddenly become free to cheat or sin, but the heart hears and loves all the more – involuntarily!
We’re no longer enslaved to sin because we know love through grace. Faith receives this – the free gift of God, eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s about the relationship.
Even hospitality, getting a cup of cool water, becomes not a means to an end, but the involuntary labor of love. The other morning, as I worked at the computer, although he was about to head out the door for a run, I asked my husband for a glass of cool water. He did so – not out of compulsion, but joy – not under law, but grace! This is freedom in Christ, made so by the free gift of grace.
This is the deep irony of freedom in Christ – that you actually have no choice in the matter. Christ claimed you in love, and faith from inside of us, a free gift, responds likewise with love. It’s involuntary, this response. It’s about relationship. As Bonhoeffer put it, “To be precise, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means, ‘being free for the other,’ because I am bound to the other. Only by being in relationship with the other am I free.”
It finds you up in the middle of the night with your sick child. It finds you speaking up for the little guy before you carefully weigh the possible consequence for you. Love finds you getting a cup of water, opening your door, changing your whole life – these things don’t even process as a choice – you just do them.
Perhaps this is one way to discern where the Spirit is moving - when have you thought – “by no means!”?
When to do otherwise seemed unthinkable. When you couldn’t have done it by your own means but only with God’s help. Thanks be to God for the Lord who claims us, that we might be free to act in love. Could we do otherwise? By no means. Amen.
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