Romans 6 12- 23
My dad used to love doing the crossword in his newspaper. When we lived in Scotland it was always The Scotsman ( which I’m not sure is even still in print) and then we moved to England, he switched to The Daily Telegraph, simply because of the quality of the cryptic crosswords, which he firmly believed were better than those in The Times! Now try as he might, he could never quite manage to instil in me the art of the cryptic crossword, but I did enjoy the concise version and to this very day, if I come cross a newspaper with such a puzzle I am immediately drawn to it. Sometimes I can spend ages trying to think of a word that means the same as the clue, searching in the far recesses of my somewhat stretched brain for the answer. Sadly I am often stumped and then when I see the solution a lightbulb goes on and of course I realise that of course that is the perfect synonym!
Sometimes however we think that words mean similar things but actually the reality is very different and if we fail to really dig deep enough into the true meaning then we are in danger of losing sight of the implications of the word, not just on a personal basis but for the whole world.
I will confess that I have found this week’s epistle from Romans really tough reading. It contains words that I really struggle with – sin, slave, evil, wickedness, death. The concept of slavery is something that makes me shiver. I remember as a young teenager watching the TV series Roots, with its graphic depiction of the horror and injustice of slavery. More recently the film, Twelve Years A Slave, had a similar impact.
The murder of George Floyd has galvanised the world into sudden realisation of the long lasting repercussions of what happens when one group of people enslave another. It is over 150 years since the slave trade was abolished in the United Kingdom and years since the end of the American Civil War, yet the attitudes that emboldened white people to believe that it was perfectly acceptable to enslave black people are still out there.
America may have had it’s first Black President and wonderful as that was, it hasn’t made any difference to millions of Black Americans whose life chances remain way worse than those of their white counterparts
And in the UK there are many who have experienced similar disadvantages in life, who have been discriminated against, suffered violence and lost their lives, simply because of the colour of their skin. Last week two police officers thought it was ok to photograph the bodies of two murdered black women – would they have done the same if the women were white?
While it is wonderful to see so many people of all colours, genders, backgrounds and ages march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, does God not weep that such a movement needs to exist in the world he created to be in the image of heaven yet which humanity continues to wreck havoc on. You may be thinking that I have no right to speak of such things. I am a white woman with all the privilege that brings and I freely acknowledge that. I know little of the relentless discrimination from which others suffer and I am thankful for that.
But I also speak as the daughter of a woman who did know the ugliness of discrimination, not due to her skin tone but due to her faith. I speak as the mother of a child who believes the church to be an institution that judges him on the basis of his sexuality.
I speak as a woman whose martial status would have some say makes me unfit to be a priest. But most of all I speak as a child of God who seeks to live out the gospel by loving my neighbour, by calling out injustice and oppression and by reminding myself on a constant basis of the blessings that God has freely bestowed upon me and that is the key word – freely.
Freedom is a gift that God gives to all who turn to Him in the weakness of their humanity and ask for his forgiveness for the sins we have committed. Freedom is a beautiful, life giving word
Slavery is an ugly word that resounds with cruelty. Yet in this portion of Paul’s letter to the epistles, he uses a variant of the word eight times. In the world that Paul lived, slavery was common place, there was nothing unusual about being a slave. And if you weren’t in slavery, there was a fair chance that you would be in servitude.
So what’s the difference between the two. How does being a servant differ from being a slave? An obvious question – or is it? Slaves and servants are subject to the whims of others. They are not in positions of power or influence. They are there to respond to the needs of others. Sounds pretty similar really. But of course there is one significant difference. Servants are paid for their work. It may not be much, and it often isn’t, but they receive some small recompense from those who employ them. That is another difference – a servant is employed. A servant has an opportunity to escape cruelty, mistreatment, abuse. It may take an incredible amount of courage and be by no means easy, but a servant can make a decision to leave their post and seek employment elsewhere. There is nothing in law that can prevent them from doing so. It may not feel like much control but it is there.
A slave, however, has absolutely no control. He or she receives nothing for their hard work, except perhaps somewhere to sleep and a small amount of food. They can never escape the situation many of whom have been born into. They have no rights, no status, they are often invisible to the rest of society.
Paul was writing to an audience who knew all too well what slavery mean. He knew their context, he understood the sheer hopelessness and indeed helplessness that so may of them were burdened with.
So what does Paul do? He assures them that they need no longer be slaves. That there is a freedom to be had through faith in God. And he uses the imagery of slavery to make his point, because he knows they will identify only too well with this existence.
Paul explains to the emerging church in Rome, that whatever their social standing may be, they have two things in common – their former slavery to sin, and their belief that through the death and resurrection of Jesus they have been liberated from that slavery.
He casts sin in the guise of the slaver, demanding total obedience, taking control of the sinners whole life and condemning the sinner to a life that erodes their true self, that renders them nothing more than a lifeless shell who can only pursue one course, that of the sin that binds them, that blinds them to their true worth and value as beloved children of God.
There is no joy in slavery, there is nothing that is good about it.
Yet Paul goes on the describe obedience to God as an alternative form of slavery. He explains that in being set free from the slavery to sin we become slaves to righteousness. But there is of course a huge difference in this because we do so willingly and with joy that the one we serve is not cruel and oppressive, demanding that everything we do is for their benefit. The one that we have willingly pledged allegiance to is overflowing with love for us, desiring that we flourish and follow the path that he has set for us, a path of untold blessings.
In our Gospel reading Jesus speaks of the rewards that all who follow him will receive. He points out that in the smallest act of kindness, simply by the giving of a cup of water, there are blessings to be had. Jesus reminds us that our rewards are commensurate with our faith, not with the expansiveness of the gesture but with the spirit in which it is undertaken.
When we willingly bind ourselves to God and seek to serve him with our heart and soul we will know such freedom. We will be liberated from the relentless power of sin, that has enslaved us without us even noticing.
Slavery is unlawful in this country yet it continues to exist right under our noses. Modern day slavery is a reality whether or not we are prepared to acknowledge it. There are thousands of people living in our communities who are trapped by fear in a life that knows no freedom. Across the world there are millions who are slaves in all sorts of contexts, factories churning out the goods that others crave, the households of the rich that may look beautiful on the outside but which hide an ugliness within, the brothels that exploit those who have no option in life but to do the bidding of others, not for any reward but simply to stay alive.
There are millions who are slaves to an unseen master, that of sin. Those who do not realise that they are enslaved, who actually believe that they have control over their lives despite it being governed by greed, hate , jealousy, selfishness.
As Christians we are compelled to release those who are enslaved by sin and evil into lives bound by the liberating love of God. There are ways we can do this in practical terms by refusing to buy goods that we know have been produced by slave labour, be seeking to enlighten others of the true cost of those items.
And we can also lead people into spiritual liberation by telling them about Jesus, by showing them that a truly fulfilling life is one that is bound in obedience to God, not by the acquisition of stuff, not through the suffering of others but through the sacrificial discipleship that Jesus calls us too now, just as he did those followers who he sent out to proclaim the Gospel over two thousand years ago.
We are on the brink of a new way of living as as the world slowly emerges from the pandemic that has transformed lives in so many ways. There will be lament for what has been lost, for those who are with us no more as a result of this deadly virus. But there is hope as well – for a world that doesn’t just recognise the pain of others but actually works for the eradication of that pain, that puts aside the superficial differences in favour of the authentic commonalities of a humanity that was designed to live united, liberated and in a world that is governed by kingdom values, no longer enslaved to sin.