Proper 8A

June 23, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 10:40-42

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 22:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 13

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 6:12-23

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                    We’re in Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar, so our focus is not on the celebration of major Christian holy days, but on the ordinary days of Christian living.  Some liturgical traditions call this the growing season.  That is a particularly apt description of the epistolary readings in the Year A Lectionary cycle.  Week after week our focus is on Romans 6-8, where the subject is the problem of lingering sin. Nothing can hinder our spiritual growth more than lingering sin.

    What do I mean by lingering sin?  Well, the first five chapters of Romans have explained the fundamental Christian doctrines of human sin and divine salvation.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but God has provided for our need by graciously giving us the righteousness of Christ that we receive by faith alone.  Our sin has been forgiven; we have been justified; and now we are reconciled to God and held in the arms of his unconditional love.  But, there is still sin within us and we commit sin all the time.  What are we to do about this lingering sin?  That is the subject of Romans 6-8.

    Last week we heard the first part of Paul’s answer.  In response to the grace abuse that says, “Let’s sin the more that grace may abound,” Paul says, “We have died to sin; how can we go on living in it?”  We must live in the new reality of our death and resurrection with Christ; “count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (verse 11).”  Our reading for today begins with verse 12 which gives some practical, behavioral counsel for conquering the sin that still clings to us.  Not only do we have to think clearly about who we are in Christ (“count yourselves…”), but there are some things to do.  We must exercise our wills.  Make an effort.  Do not offer the parts of your body to sin.  Do not offer your tongue to swearing.  Do not offer your ears to vile music.  Do not offer your mind to impure thoughts.  Do not offer your hand to strike another person.  Do not offer your imagination to shady business deals.  Do not offer your genitals to illicit sex.  Do not offer your stomach to gluttony.  Offer the parts of your body to righteousness.

    Then in verse 14 Paul introduces a whole new aspect of combating the sin that clings to us even though we are forgiven and justified—“you are not under law, but under grace.”  He is responding to a second form of the “let’s go ahead and sin since we are already forgiven” argument.  This form of the argument says something like this.  “I know I don’t have to give in to sin anymore, but I want to.  I like it.  It’s fun.  It works.  And since I’m not under law, I can do anything I want, can’t I?  If I’m under grace and God loves me anyway, why shouldn’t I sin?”

    Paul gives what amounts to a one word answer—bondage.  When you sin, you come (back) into bondage to sin with all that involves.  Conversely, when you obey God, you come into bondage to God with all that involves.  Which kind of bondage do you want?  Picture a toddler, a little girl between the age of 18 and 24 months, wandering away from mommy at your local shopping mall, a look of gleeful rebellion on her little face.  But every tenth step, she turns to see if mommy is coming to get her.  In that little human being, we see one of the fundamental issues of life.

    We want to be free and we want to be loved.

    We want to be ourselves and we want to be held.

    Lurking behind these chapters of Romans is the very popular, but deadly idea that the only way you can be truly free is to break away from every form of bondage to God’s love and do whatever you want.  In these chapters, Paul preaches the very unpopular, but life-giving Gospel that the only way you can be truly free is to submit to the sweet bondage of God’s love and do what he wants.  Indeed, if you toddle away from God in the name of freedom and being able to live your own life, you will find yourself in a bondage that will finally rob you of your very life.

    Either way there is bondage.  No matter who you are, you are always a slave to something or someone.  Though many of our contemporaries don’t want to believe that, the thoughtful ones see it.  When the great American novelist, John Updike, was in Grand Rapids a while ago, he said, “Being human is no picnic.”  In addition to the fact that we can foresee our own deaths and can discern the absurdities of our existence, “we are enslaved to the need to provide food and shelter for ourselves.  We are in the grip of sexual impulses.” The atheistic psychologist, B.F. Skinner, took that idea to its ultimate limit in his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  He claimed that we are nothing but slaves to the forces of nature and nurture, our genetic makeup and our societal conditioning.  We have no freedom and, thus, no dignity.  We are nothing but advanced animals.  If you think otherwise, you are simply deceiving yourself.

    Anyone who believes in the sovereignty of God won’t agree with Skinner, but there is a different sort of bondage—not physical, but spiritual.  Everyone in this world is living in bondage, either to God or to sin.  Paul says in verse 16, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourself to someone to obey him as a slave, you are a slave to the one you obey—whether you are a slave to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

    “Don’t you know?”  The answer is “no,” many people don’t know.  We should.  It’s kind of a no-brainer, but then many of us have lost our minds about this whole business of sin.  Here’s the principle we should all know—actions have consequences.  What you do today will have repercussions tomorrow.  And when it comes to sin, that is terribly true. What you obey today will determine your slavery tomorrow.  You can’t just sin a little bit today and not have it affect tomorrow.  The idea that just a little bit of sin doesn’t really hurt is a diabolical lie going all the way back to that first bite.  Paul is simply echoing the words of Jesus in John 8:34.  “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.”  That is an unbreakable law of the spiritual realm.  That’s why you don’t want to sin.  It will make you a slave to sin.

    That would be a crying shame, since we have already been freed from sin by the work of Jesus Christ through your faith in him.  Verse 17 says it this way:  “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”  There’s a terribly important truth in those words—there is no middle ground in this matter.  You are either a slave to God or a slave to sin.  You can’t avoid living in the house of bondage.  The only question is, bondage to what or whom?  Will it be the hard but sweet bondage to God’s love or the easy but bitter bondage to sin?  We must choose, not whether, but to whom we will be in bondage.

    As I was reflecting on this, I recalled a bit of ancient history.  Well, not actually ancient, but from several decades ago.  In my neck of the woods, there was an organization called Freedom Flight Task Force.  It was responsible for bring large numbers of Vietnamese refugees to West Michigan.  Part of my memory of those times is a book about Vietnam, entitled A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.  The author, Robert Butler, writes, “We’re all immigrants of a sort.  We’ve all left something.  We’ve all been exiled from somewhere, even if it’s just from our childhood.  How do I shape my identity in the present in relationship to what I’ve left behind?”

    That was exactly the problem the children of Israel faced again and again as they wandered in the wilderness after God delivered them from the house of bondage in Egypt.  They weren’t permanent residents of the Promised Land yet with its milk and honey.  They were immigrants and they had to decide over and over again which direction they wanted to go, which bondage they preferred, whose slaves they wanted to be.  Would it be the whip-wielding, back-breaking old Pharaoh?  Or would it be the water-parting, fire-breathing Yahweh.

    How many times didn’t they think about the Good Old Days back in the house of bondage?  At least they had tasty food and readily available water and permanent housing back there.  Although they were free from Pharaoh, they still lived with the memories and the pleasures and the lure of the house of bondage, because they found that bondage to Yahweh isn’t always easy either. So at the end of their wandering, as they stood at the edge of the Jordan River, Joshua had to challenge them all over again.  “Choose you this day whom you will serve.”

    That is Paul’s call to us Christian immigrants, journeying in the wilderness somewhere between the gates of hell and the Promised Land.  To help us choose, he lays out another simple principle—if obedience determines slavery, then slavery determines destiny.  He spells out the consequences of the two kinds of bondage.  First, in verse 19, he talks about bondage to sin; “you used to offer the parts of your body to impurity and to ever increasing wickedness….”  And says verse 21, “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?  Those things result in death.”

    Here’s where bondage to sin leads—to impurity, to uncleanness, from one little sin here and another there to a sense of uncleanness, in other words, to increasing wickedness.  You can’t just sin and then quit by moral effort, because sin is progressive and addictive.  Sin leads to more sin.  It’s enslaving.  And finally it results in death—not that God will kill you for sinning, but that sin itself will kill you.  Sin looks like so much fun; it feels so good; it seems to work in this old world.  But it always results in death.

    Here’s where bondage to God leads, according to verse 22.  “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness and the result is eternal life.”  The more you offer yourself to God as his slave, the more holy you will become.  Holiness, like sin, is progressive, addictive, habit forming.  Once you start to practice obedience as a life direction, you will see holiness grow.  And in the end you will find eternal life—not as a reward for holiness, not as an earned wage for righteous deeds, but as a free gift of God’s grace purchased with the currency of Christ’s precious blood.  “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (verse 23).”

    The toddler in us is faced daily with this choice—do I want to be free or do I want to be loved?  Do I want to be true to myself or do I want to be held by God?  The devil says you have to choose one or the other, and it is better to be your own master. “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”  The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that’s a false choice.  Indeed, it is only when you know you are unconditionally loved by God that you can be yourself.  It is only when you are caught in the sweet bondage of God’s love that you are truly free.  It is only when you realize that you are under grace, living in the house of gracious bondage, that you will truly enjoy living.  It is only when you offer yourself to God as his slave that you will begin to experience the incredible joy of eternal life here and now.

    Illustration Idea

              Solomon Northrup tells a terrible tale in his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave.  Northrup was a free black man living in New York when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War south.  His book, now an award-winning movie, paints a picture of southern slavery that will make any sensitive soul cringe in pain and shame.  For twelve interminable years Northrup lived in the house of bondage, and he wants his readers to know that it was not pleasant.

    After he was finally redeemed from his bondage, he wrote his book in part to expose as a diabolical lie the slave owners’ propaganda that slaves were better off under the white man and that they actually enjoyed the slave’s life.  As a free man who was literally dragged into slavery, Northrup wanted everyone to know that there was absolutely nothing good about slavery.  Living as a free man was infinitely better.

    What a message for those who’ve been set free from the house of bondage to sin!  No matter what the world’s propaganda tries to tell us, freedom in Christ is infinitely better than being in bondage to our own sinful desires.