Sunday, June 29, 2014

Faithful Living - Freedom (June 29, 2014)

Faithful Living – Freedom
Romans 6:11-23
June 29, 2014[1]

What does freedom mean to you?  On this last Sunday in June, with Independence Day coming up, you might think that a sermon on freedom will be talking about our country and celebrating the freedom that we enjoy.  I truly treasure the freedom that has been won for us at such a price. But this morning, we are talking about freedom in a different sense.  We are talking about the freedom to offer ourselves as slaves to God.
It sounds a bit like a contradiction in terms.  But we find this apparent contradiction stated boldly in our Epistle Lesson this morning.  Romans 6:22 says that “you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God …”  Let’s look at what this means.
I recall taking a class in Political Philosophy when I was in college.  College philosophy classes, at least in the early 1970s, were havens for some of the more “unusual” students and instructors on campus.  Those were the days of a lingering, very unpopular war, days of protest, days of challenging and changing, if not eliminating, many of the rules that governed our culture.  Given my relatively conservative upbringing, those were days of internal conflict for me.  So I remember vividly struggling with my final exam in that Political Philosophy course.  I had to answer only one question:  what does freedom mean?
I don’t remember my exact answer, but I think I responded by quoting the words of John Locke that inspired Thomas Jefferson as he drafted the Declaration of Independence.  Locke was the one who wrote that all men were entitled to the blessings of “life, liberty and property.”  As you know, Jefferson revised that statement slightly to read “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  In those days, the colonists were rebelling against what they felt was oppressive English rule, in which they could be subjected to taxation but had no say in the matter.  The freedom they sought was from someone outside telling them what to do.  Self-determination was the goal that they sought—freedom from being controlled or restricted by someone else.
I think I got a B on the exam.  It was a passing grade, but my professor was not overly impressed with my response.  He was firmly of the view that true freedom is not freedom from external restraints, but it is internal.  He was by no means a religious person—I suspect that he was an atheist; but in one respect, he was much closer to the Apostle Paul than he would have wanted to admit.
Paul firmly believed that our freedom was not to be found in our external circumstances but in our inward existence.  He speaks of how sin made us instruments of wickedness (v. 13); but through God’s grace we have been brought from death to life.  He says “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but grace” (Romans 6:14). 
Paul knew that people wouldn’t really get his point. He knew that they would jump to the wrong conclusion, that  “if I am saved by grace rather than by my works, my behavior and my actions, then I don’t need to change my behavior—I can continue living the way I always did.”  In fact, they carried this logic one step further.  They asked, “Should we not continue to sin because we are not under law but grace?”  The more sin, the more grace.  Paul quickly responds, “By no means!” (v. 15).  He knew that we become slaves of those to whom we give ourselves.  He says 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” (Romans 6:19).  In other words, if we have truly presented ourselves to God, we no longer will act the same way, think the same thoughts, or speak the same words.  Our faith will be reflected in our deeds.
We don’t like to talk about “sin” very much in our world.  I have heard many people complain about the “guilt trip” that they say religion has placed on them.  I have heard of Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, Baptist guilt, or, in my case, Nazarene guilt.  How sad it is that the joy we find in serving God can be overshadowed by a perception that our faith is driven by obedience to a set of outward rules of conduct.  I admit that I chafed at the many rules for holy living that the church of my upbringing placed upon us. The rules that, at that time, stopped us from playing cards, dancing, going to movies all seemed designed to stop us from having a good time.
Those rules may seem a bit unusual to us today, but it helps us to put into perspective the “rules” that the Pharisees were caught up in about ritual purity, food laws, observing the Sabbath.  And yet neither set of rules seems quite to reach the heart of what Paul is talking about when he speaks of being “slaves to sin.”  What does he mean we are slaves to?  For Paul, sin is anything that separates us from God.  Sin isn’t just something we do, say or think and hope that a divine policeman doesn’t catch us; sin is rooted in an attitude that we want to go our own way.  Sin is rooted in a desire harbored deep inside of us that we should be able to do and think what we want.  Sin is the assumption that we don’t need God or need to follow God’s ways.  Sin is becoming attached to or chained to someone or something other than God.
Think about your own life—what are you a slave to?  Is there something or someone that stirs up anger or resentment within you?  Are you having trouble forgiving someone for something they have done?  Are you a slave to a life style—that takes up so much of your time, your energy and your life that you have nothing left over for your family, for your God?  Has a habit in your life developed into an addiction that you no longer can control, that runs your life?  Is there anything in your life that has become more important than God?
Paul was not advocating a legalistic approach to salvation—far from it.  But Paul did believe that when we have encountered the saving grace of the Holy One, our lives would not be the same. But did you notice—this lesson does call for action on our part.  Paul invites us to “present [ourselves] to God as those who have been brought from death to life,” to “present our bodies “to God as instruments of righteousness” (v. 13). 
What does this mean, to become an “instrument of righteousness?”  Remember the teachings of Jesus.  When He was asked to identify “the greatest commandment,” Jesus did not quote any of the “Thou shalt nots…”  Not that Jesus was doing away with the commandments that spoke of ways of living that were contrary to God’s plan for us.  He said that “not a stroke” of the law would be done away (Matthew 5:18).  But the “greatest commandments” identified by Jesus—the ones that Jesus said were the most important ones for us to follow, the ones that we were to pay the closest attention to, were affirmative commandments:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:27).
When we present ourselves to God and to God’s way of loving, things change.  What seemed at one time to be confining now becomes liberating. 
When our son, David, married Nicole on July 26, 2008, they made us all laugh when they made their grand entry into the reception hall.  They joyfully entered the reception wearing handcuffs!  I never got around to asking whether he was trying to hold on to her or was she trying to hold on to him.  I think that the feeling was mutual.  But it occurred to me—those handcuffs may be external “chains,” but they were no more confining than the wedding rings that they exchanged.  The real “chains” were the internal commitments that they freely made to each other to honor and cherish each other, to remain faithful to each other until they are parted by death.  But in those “chains,” they found the freedom to love each other fully.  When we commit to this way of loving, we become free to remain faithful.
God’s way of loving changes us--we become “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13), even to the point of becoming “enslaved to God” (v. 22).  Yet this is slavery without chains and without handcuffs.  This slavery is symbolized instead by a cross and an invitation to “take up your cross” and follow Him (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23).  The cross that Jesus spoke of was not just a piece of jewelry.  He called us to commit our very lives.  But just when it seems that this cross is too heavy a burden for us to carry, we hear Jesus tell us that the burden we carry sets us free from our chains.  When we take up our crosses to follow him, His “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).  For “when the Son makes [us] free, we are “free indeed” (John 8:36).
What does freedom mean?  Freedom means that we are no longer separated from God.  The freedom that Jesus offers to us is the freedom to realize who we really are—we are children of God—free to live and to love as God wants us to live and to love.  May you experience this freedom today!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.