Powers and Principalities
Sun, Jul 02, 2017


Duration:17 mins 54 secs

Our Second Reading for today comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6, verses 12-23. In the opening verses of chapter six Paul describes how Christians, through their baptism into Christ’s death, have died to sin and how through Christ’s resurrection they have received new life. Our text for today continues Paul’s theological claims about sin and grace by looking at the ideas of freedom and slavery. Let us hear this Word of God.

12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 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? 17 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, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.

20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

As Americans we love freedom, don’t we? On this Sunday before our nation’s birthday, “Independence Day,” we have sung about freedom in our opening hymn:

“My country, ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty.”

We continued into the second verse with “My native country thee, Land of the noble free.”

If we pause for a moment, we realize that we sing about freedom all the time. Gathered in a stadium before the beginning of a sporting event, the final words we hear are, “The land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Throughout this week of national celebration, we will hear about freedom again and again. And who among us is not at least a little moved by the classic Lee Greenwood anthem when the chorus swells,

“I’m proud to be an American,
Where at least I know I’m free.”

So, in the face of the wave of freedom that we celebrate this week, you may be questioning my choice of scripture for this morning. The lectionary, the three year cycle of suggested preaching texts, has brought us to these words in the sixth chapter of Romans: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” This is the land of the free and the home of the brave, right? We threw off the shackles of slavery, right? So why in the world Paul, should we present ourselves as slaves again?

To understand Paul’s argument here we need to first consider what he means by the term “sin.” When we think of “sin” most often it is an individual, isolated action of wrongdoing. For example, it is a “sin” each time we “use the Lord’s name in vain” because to speak in that way breaks one of the Ten Commandments. We also think of “sin” as a failure to do something good – for example not giving a cup of water to someone who is thirsty. But in both cases we typically think of “sins” as isolated acts that displease God.

Yet, for Paul, at least for the sake of this particular argument, “sin” is better understood as a realm of power, a cosmic force, or an addiction to a destructive life-style. This power and lifestyle appear attractive and are more than capable of ensnaring and enslaving human beings. Consider perhaps the power of a gambling addiction – when you’re winning everything is great so you keep playing; when you’re losing the only option available is to keep playing so you can recoup your losses. Sin tricks us into believing that we are receiving rewards and blessings for our actions, but ultimately the destination of all who are slaves to sin is isolation, hopelessness, and death.

As preacher Gary Manning puts it:

Sin is a power at work in the world--and Sin's twin power is Death. Sin is at work in governmental systems, in economic systems, in political systems, in ecclesiastical systems. And Sin's work is to deliver Death. Death to justice. Death to freedom. Death to peace. Death to human dignity. Death to the life that God wills for all of creation. Death! Death! Death! Such is the work of Sin.

Yes, the wages of sin is death.

But, my friends, the good news of the gospel is that the power of sin has been broken by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is how Paul began chapter six - we have died with Christ in baptism so as we rise with him, we are free from the lordship of sin. As New Testament scholar Paul Achtemeier puts it, “For the first time, Christians can do something other than sin. What a heady freedom! What a joyful turn of events! Christians are free!” In our liberty from the constraints of sin we are free to act in healthy and community building ways, to enter into relationships of meaning and purpose, to determine our own destiny, to finally to what God wants us to do!

So, if we have been freedom from sin, what in the world is Paul talking about when he writes: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” Being freed from slavery to sin, we are now slaves to righteousness, slaves to God? What happened to freedom?

Once again, Paul has a different, and potentially even offensive, understanding of freedom. Preacher and professor David Lose writes:

Where Paul sees freedom as obedience to the will of God, contemporary Americans -- and perhaps this is true of most of humanity -- tend to think of freedom precisely as freedom to do whatever you want, freedom, that is, from being obedient to anything or anyone, a view of freedom that has disastrous consequences.

Yes, we are looking for autonomous liberty, for the freedom to determine our own destiny, to choose what is right and good so that we might earn the favor of God and our neighbors and put a few stars in our heavenly crowns, right? But what we find in Paul, in the gospel, is a different kind of slavery – we have traded one master for another.

This distinction gets to the heart of what it means to be a human being and what it means to be a Christian, much less an American. For Paul, the idea of the totally autonomous and free individual upon which our society is built is a myth. Human beings are creatures, not gods. The desire to become autonomous, “to become like God” in the Garden of Eden is what got us into enslavement to sin in the first place. For human beings there is no neutral ground in which we are completely free. We will always be creatures subject to the authority of another. So, contrary to popular belief, according to Paul the choice is not between slavery and freedom, but rather, whose slave are you going to be? To whom are you going to present yourself for obedience?

Again, David Lose writes:

The question is therefore not whether you will follow something (or someone), but what (or who) you will follow. Will you follow your passions or self-control? Will you follow ambition or honor? Will you follow the promises you made or believe yourself exempt from those requirements? It's not a question of whether, but of what, and Paul urges Christians to be slaves not of unrighteousness -- doing whatever you want regardless of the consequences to others -- but to righteousness, a life in service to others and to God.

But here is the essential part: the claim of the gospel is that through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and through our Christian baptism the power of sin has been broken. Therefore, we are now slaves to God. It’s not really a choice after all. God has claimed us as God’s own. We are slaves to God, we belong to God, or as John Calvin put it, “We are not our own.”

My friends, if we can somehow give up the idea that each one of us is an autonomous and completely free individual, with the power and ability to do whatever we want and desire; if we can accept the fact that we are not gods ourselves, only then we can begin to perceive the blessings of our slavery. For as Paul writes, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As slaves to the beneficent God and Father of Jesus Christ:

We are freed from the dog eat dog competition of life and from the endless striving for approval.

We are free from the eternal quest to earn love and favor.

We are free from the fear that we are not quite as godly as we appear.

We are free from the hopelessness that this life is all there is.

Being a self-directed autonomous individual is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Through our bondage we are sanctified, transformed by the free gift of God’s grace so that we might freely and joyfully obey God’s commands and fulfill God’s purposes in this life. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer is said to have written: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Yes, through our slavery we are freed to live and love as children of God. We are most free when we are bound.

My friends, I want to invite you to make this freedom real in your life this week. In the midst of cookouts, fireworks, concerts, and parades, I want you to lift up one relationship or commitment you have freely chosen to God, but that you need some help with to live into. Maybe it is your relationship with your spouse or your children, a situation with an employer or an employee, a challenge in this congregation or community, a commitment to serving your neighbors or those in need? Pray that you might courageously and actively do God’s will. Pray that the Holy Spirit might fill that relationship and enliven that commitment. Pray that you might truly taste the freedom and joy that comes from embracing obedience as a holy commitment in Christ.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.