I am drawn to preach today on our second reading (Romans 6:12-23), on Paul’s powerful message to us about what it means to be freed from sin. But Paul uses a language in this passage that can be distracting and unhelpful in our current context. He writes about being “freed from sin and enslaved to God,” and I don’t think that’s going to be helpful wording for us this morning. So what I would like to do is read to you these verses from a wonderful paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson called “The Message.” Here they are:
But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus.Romans 6:22-23
This is what God wants for each and every one of us: A whole, healed, put-together life. Real life. Eternal life. Abundant life. The life delivered by Jesus. As he himself put it in John, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” That is the life that Jesus died to give us. The life that we were created to live, that we were meant to live.
But not the life that we always do live. Something gets in the way. And that something, of course, we call “sin.” “Work hard for sin your whole life,” Paul teaches us, “and your pension is death.” So, how do we break free of this cycle, and once again receive the whole, healed, put-together life delivered by Jesus? Paul break its down into three steps.
Freed from Sin, Not Freed to Sin
First, Paul teaches us that we have to get a right understanding of the freedom of a Christian. Freedom is such an important concept in the Christian life, and we see this in Paul’s writing over and over again. But Paul’s concept of freedom – the Christian concept of freedom – is very different from the world’s idea of freedom. And it is important to look at the differences in the two first, before we look at how God helps us to live into this awesome gift of Christian freedom.
(And, by the way, next Sunday being the Sunday closest to the 4th of July, I plan to continue wrestling with this whole topic of the freedom of a Christian next week.)
So what’s the difference between our world’s understanding of freedom, and the Christian concept of freedom as taught by Paul? I think it can be summed up in a single word. Paul tells us that we have been freed from sin. Our world believes that it is free to sin. And not only that, Paul argues that because we have been freed from sin, we are free to serve God and to serve our neighbor.
We are free from fear, free from sin, and so we are free to live for God and for others. The world, too often, looks at this in the opposite way. Believing that we are free to sin, and free from any obligation to our neighbor, to those around us, and to those around our world who do not have the same level of freedom, financially or politically or socially.
Just as an example, take a look at the news any day of the week, and chances are you’re going to find someone well-known who has made the news because they thought there were free to sin. They weren’t planning to be in the news. They just thought they could do whatever they wanted, without any consequence. And we read about them and wonder why they would do that. Why would they risk destroying their careers by doing something like that? The answer that God’s word teaches us is simple: When believe that we are free to sin, we are wrong. Because everyone who sins eventually becomes unable to do any differently.
Sin offers us a false freedom that eventually takes away our true freedom. Breaking free from sin begins with recognizing this. With realizing that, on our own, we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, as we often confess at the beginning of worship. But, then what?
Listening to God, Not Sin
Look again at Paul’s words:
Now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way!
If we want to be free of sin, if we want to stop listening to sin tell us what to do, we need to listen to something else. We need to listen to God. We all are listening to something, all the time. But what are we listening to? What are we filling our minds with? What message is guiding us through our day?
Today, we are reminded that we don’t have to listen to sin tell us what to do. Jesus sets us free from sin so that we can listen to God, so that we can follow Jesus, so that we can truly love God, and love our neighbor. So that we no longer have to serve our own needs and desires all the time. We are free from that. Free to love and serve others, without any thought to what is in it for us. And this is a wonderful freedom, indeed.
Many years ago, I heard a social activist say that it is truly amazing how much you can accomplish in life if you don’t care who gets the credit. I have never forgotten those words, and they have proved helpful to me many times. That is freedom. Not worrying about who gets the credit. Not concerned about what is in it for me. Living a life of true freedom in service to God, loving our neighbors as ourselves. That is the life that Jesus came to give us. He gave up his freedom as the Son of God to give us this new and wonderful freedom. What a gift!
The Advantage You Get Is Sanctification
And this brings us to the third and final pearl of truth in this passage from Romans. When we stop listening to sin, and discover the delight of listening to God, we receive a whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more life on the way. The theological word for this is “sanctification.” Literally, it means that we are made holy. And this being made holy is a process, a journey really, into being more and more the person that God has created us to be. To being controlled less and less by sin, and more and more by God.
I love how Martin Luther describes this journey of sanctification:
This life is not a being holy but a becoming holy; it is not a being well but a getting well; it is not a being but a becoming; it not inactivity but practice. As yet we are not what we ought to be, but we are getting there; the task is not as yet accomplished and completed, but it is in progress and pursuit. The end has not been reached, but we are on the way that leads to it; as yet everything does not glow and sparkle, but everything is purifying itself.
That is the journey of sanctification. The journey of becoming ourselves, truly, as God created us to be. And we are all on the way. We are not yet what we ought to be, but we are getting there.
We are all on this journey. But it’s a journey which we don’t take by ourselves. Not at all. It’s a journey that we take with the God who created us, with His Son who redeemed us, and with the Spirit who accompanies us. And it’s a journey that we take with other Christians, because, to be honest, it’s too hard to take this journey alone.
I once heard someone say they go to church every Sunday because they can’t be a good Christian on their own for more than seven days in a row. Right now, church means watching these services online. Not because we like doing this, but for the safety of those around us, and for our community. But this is still church, and we still need this; we still need church. And so we give up a little of our Sunday morning to worship in this way. We give up a little of our freedom, you might even say, and turn back to our Lord and our God, to listen, to really listen, to God. And to be set back on the only road that leads to life. The road that leads to a whole, healed, put-together life. That is the freedom of a Christian. We don’t just become the person that God has called us to be. We also become the person that we really want to be. Whole, healed. Set free. To live our lives for God, and for the world that God so loves. Thanks be to God. Amen