Below is my sermon from July 2, the fourth week after Pentecost. Our reading from Romans turned out to be quite timely, as Paul discusses the nature of true freedom:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This year marks my third “colonial service” here at St. Paul’s, and it’s a tradition I have come to appreciate for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it is important to always remember that our Christian faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends nationalistic holidays; it transcends really, any division we seek to put upon ourselves as children of God: be it country, race, or gender.
But it also, we are reminded today, transcends time. In this service, we are invited to remember the generations and multitudes that have gone before us, not just at St. Paul’s, not just in America, but throughout the centuries of the faith. Every Sunday, we worship in communion with all the saints in heaven and on earth, but through this Sunday’s worship we have a more tangible reminder of it than usual.
And we have an especially appropriate reading for today from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where he talks about what it means to be free. I’d like to read just a few verses of it, in more modern English than we had the first go around: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness. What does it mean to be free? We don’t often think of being set free in terms of becoming a slave to something. What is freedom? We usually think of freedom in terms of freedom from things. Freedom from the tyranny of a distant crown; freedom from government meddling in how we speak, associate, or worship; or even freedom from a meaningless job.
We measure freedom largely in terms of the degree to which we are free from constraints. Freedom is personal independence. It is the ability to think for ourselves, choose for ourselves, and do for ourselves, without being encumbered by outside influences, whether they are laws, the needs of others, or our own moral compass. That’s the kind of freedom we like to think and talk about around the fourth of July.
Except, that’s not at all the kind of freedom that Paul is talking about in this letter to the Romans. Paul is living in a different time and place that really has no concept of personal freedom. Individualism is not yet even a concept, let alone the dominant practice of the culture. And from that perspective, Paul is able to cut right through our modern myth of personal independence.
In Paul’s understanding, we are all enslaved. Not one of us is a truly independent being. Our allegiance, whether it is a conscious decision or not, belongs to something or someone. We’ve heard the expression, “He is a slave to fashion.” He lets the passing fads of the day dictate his choices—what he buys, what he wears.
What about, “She is a slave to fitness.” She arranges her life and relationships around trips to the gym and rigorous workouts. Some people have pledged their allegiance to personal wealth and are guided by the whims of Wall Street. If you want to know who your master is, pay attention to the thing that most often occupies your thoughts. Pay attention to how you spend your time and money.
We are so invested in this idea of personal independence, that it grates on us to think about being a slave to anything. But Paul’s point is that we are all serving someone, whether we’re thinking about it or not. Like the Bob Dylan song goes, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, it may be the Devil or may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
The question is not whether we will follow someone or something, the question is not whether we will give our allegiance to someone, but the question is who? Who is going to have our allegiance? Because, like the golden age of baseball, there is no such thing as free agency. In order to play the game, you need to be owned by one team or another.
The teams of serving ourselves, of following our own best interests, as Paul says, obeying our passions, do not lead anywhere but death. Not literal death, but the death of compassion, the death of empathy. The teams of our business, or our family, or our whatever, above everything else leads to death. The death of community, the death of that which is bigger than ourselves.
But thanks be to God that we have been brought from death to life, that we have been bought from the powers of sin and self-interest buy the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. We who have once been slaves of sin have been set free from sin. Set free from that which seeks to control us, even within ourselves.
We have been set free, not in order that we might shake off all constraints, but we have been set free from sin in order that we might become slaves of righteousness. God’s love, God’s forgiveness and acceptance, set us free from that which binds us—even our own fears and limitations and shortcomings. But we are set free in order that we might be constrained by God’s righteousness. That we might be constrained by love of God and love of neighbor.
Martin Luther, in one of his more influential writings, titled, On the Freedom of a Christian, would have been able to give this whole sermon in his first two sentences: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.
We cannot be free, truly free, unless we submit ourselves to God, the source of true freedom. We are not truly free unless, in God’s love, we are subject to one another. May the love of God, the grace of God which frees us all from the bonds of sin and self-centeredness, bless us in our love and service towards others. Amen.