…that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. Romans 6:6
What does it mean to be enslaved to something?
In a week filled with talk of racial injustice, of the long-term effects of oppression and calls to re-evaluate how we understand our history, it’s important that we step back from hot-button commentaries on statues or Aunt Jemima pancake syrup and think for a moment on the bigger issues that are under the surface. This is important not because of politics – really, I think the last thing we need is a politically-motivated church; it’s important because our job, you and me together, is to be Christ’s voice of hope and forgiveness and mercy right here, close to home. How can any of us offer hope, or reach out in mercy, or even attempt to guide our children’s understanding of the world around them, if our understanding is built on nothing more than the talking heads on TV, and whatever article happens to have the most likes, shares, or angry faces online.
Big problems require big solutions. And in a world set on quick and easy solutions, we’re not going to find any lasting answers unless we step back and think before we speak, or comment, or like and share.
Slaves to Sin?
Freedom from oppression is one of the key themes of God’s work from Genesis to Revelation. And, as much as it may make us uncomfortable, slavery is a key idea in St. Paul’s message of the Gospel; the language is familiar: we are slaves to sin. And this message really has two goals: that we would understand the world’s predicament, and, from there, we would understand the sort of freedom offered to us by Jesus.
But if we step back from the noise of current events, we’ll find one of our issues, even for preachers and clergy, is that we love to talk before we’ve listened. The Apostle Paul says we were slaves to sin. But before we can make any sense of that, we have to first stop and make sure we understand what is really meant by those key words: sin, and slaves.
Sin: it’s bigger than you.
We live in a world that is entirely built around the individual: my hopes, my dreams, my freedom, my work, my earnings, my responsibility, my rights. And, as we’ve built this world all about me, we’ve come to define sin the same way: the individual things I’ve done and choices I’ve made that have directly hurt someone else. It’s a definition of sin that protects me: I can sleep easy at night because I haven’t murdered anyone, I haven’t actually had an affair with anyone, so it’s all good. I don’t need a saviour today; I have nothing to confess, because I haven’t purposefully hurt another individual today.
But that’s not what scripture means by sin. That’s an awful individualistic lie.
I wish sin was defined that way, because it lets us off the hook; but it isn’t. We made that up.
“Sins” aren’t boxes, individual actions, to avoid checking off the list each day. Sin is an archery term. It means “missing the mark”. It’s not about individual things done or left undone; sin isn’t even just about things done on purpose, or things done by yourself. Sin is what God calls anything that isn’t a bullseye. This isn’t horseshoes and it isn’t hand grenades: almost living a perfect life is sin. That’s why scripture can say “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. The hasn’t been and there will not be a day I can pat myself on the back and say “I don’t need a saviour today”; there has not been and there will not be a day when I – my decisions, my choices, and the unintended consequences of my actions or my silence in the world around me – haven’t fallen short of the glory of God.
We are enslaved by sin.
And, lest we slip back into our individualistic view of the world, this “missing the mark” isn’t just about me. We do not sing “O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the Alex.” …or the Kristina, or the Ruth, or the Theo. We did not sing this morning “the sacrificial Lamb who saves the ‘me’ from sin”.
We’re not just talking about the individual things you or I did on purpose to hurt someone else. We’re not even talking about the sins of a group of individuals.
Sin, falling short of the target, is not just individual, but corporate; God sees sin when our relationships, our politics, our laws, our marketplace, our investments, our pension plans fall short of the glory of God, fall short of God’s will for how we will live in the Kingdom of God.
Sin is – pardon my use of a word you’ve heard in the news – systemic.
A network, a system of which you or I might be the tiniest of insignificant parts, but which, in spite of the progress made, in spite of the work being done, in spite of choosing only the necessary evils that do the least harm, nevertheless misses the bullseye. Nevertheless it’s sinful: it falls short of the glory of God.
We have to put aside the old progressive lie that we can pat ourselves on the back as a society, because there has not been and there will not be a day when the Lamb did not have to be slain for the sins of our world.
We have to acknowledge – foundationally – that, short of the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, our individual and corporate efforts will never be good enough to pay the price of a world that not only falls short, but isn’t even aiming at the target that is the Kingdom of God.
And this is hard for those on all sides of the current debates to hear: but if the sins aren’t just individual, purposeful actions, then the solutions can’t be personal empowerment. If the focus on me and my rights is part of the problem, then more individuals fighting for more individual rights can never be part of any ultimate or lasting solution.
There will never be a day that me or you haven’t fallen short, and no amount of rights or empowerment can change that. But that doesn’t take us off the hook. Rather, that is the hook: we have to follow Jesus. Every day, every day, I have to acknowledge where I’ve fallen short, and more than that, I have to look at the world around me and acknowledge where we have fallen short.
Not to talk our way out of it, not to congratulate ourselves for doing better than yesterday, but to look around, acknowledge the mess, and say all we can say: “Lord, have mercy”, and “Lord, let me take up my cross and follow you.”… and then do it.
And that’s where things change: so many of the voices we hear today would either have us excuse ourselves (“I’m not a racist; I’ve always treated people fairly”) or else attempt to carry the entire weight of the world on our own shoulders.
Like an addict in recovery, we cannot escape this system by ourselves; we need a higher power. The weight of the world would crush us; but if we die to self, die to sin, and cling to Christ’s death and resurrection, we’re not released from the burden, but we find that, sharing our load with him and one another, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light.
Enslaved to sin.
You were slaves to sin, Paul writes. And if there’s one thing our modern, individualistic minds get wrong about slavery, it’s how all-encompassing it is.
We want to believe that we can make good choices, clean up our act, and be masters of our own destiny. But that’s this world’s biggest lie. That would be true, we could make our own bed to lie in, if we were free. But we’re not.
No, it’s not fair. Slavery isn’t fair.
In Genesis, Abraham has two sons. One born to a free woman, one born to a slave. One born with an inheritance, and a land, and a name. The other born of despair and regret, born indebted to another, with no hope to ever inherit, own, or lay claim to anything in the world around him.
Which of those boys are responsible for how they were born? Neither.
But here’s the uncomfortable truth that St. Paul wants us to hear: In spite of what we tell ourselves or what the world tells us, none of us is that first boy. All of us are born enslaved to a world of sin. All of us are born into a system of corporate consequences built up and compounded by every missing of the mark.
And the slave can clean up their master’s house as much as they want, they can give their life to the cleaning up of that house, but as long as they’re enslaved, it can never be theirs, they can never pass it to their children, their work can’t last. We are born enslaved in this world of sin.
Christ came and paid the ransom for the sins of the world. Christ paid to emancipate you and me from the slavery to the system of sin we were born in to.
But, once we’re free, once we’re made free in Jesus, then we are responsible for our own decisions, and not just the things we do on purpose, but for all the ways we take part in the system we ourselves were freed from: we find ourselves called to repent, day in and day out, not just for things we’ve done, but for all the ways we’ve dishonoured that ransom paid; for all the ways we’ve been happy to remain slaves, sweeping the floors and polishing the furniture in the household of sin. Once we learn to accept that we are sinners in need of a saviour, then we no longer need to cling to the worldly structures around us. Once my identity is rooted in Christ, I can call it like it is, speak the painful truth, and reach out in mercy with the good news that we all need to surrender, lay down our arms, admit our failings, accept the ransom that was paid in exchange for our pride, and then simply follow with the humility of one dependent on the free gift of God.
Stepping back from the news headlines, these words from scripture are uncomfortable. They’re difficult because they go against the arguments on all sides; they’re difficult because they confront the lies of individualism, rights, and personal freedom that our world has built upon.
Our task is to confess our faults and humbly follow Christ.
We don’t need to yell, we don’t need to shout, we don’t need to put up signs. But we do need to be faithful: to first learn the truth of the Gospel, to accept that all of us fall short every day, and then speak that Gospel truth to a world that is confused and divided. We need to stop before every comment, before every good post that we share, and ask the question: “is this telling the truth that every day, each and every one of us has fallen short of the glory of God, or does it let someone off the hook, or let us pat ourselves on the back as though we don’t need a saviour?”
Because if it isn’t the truth, it’s a lie. If we’re not for the truth, then we’re against it, and we’ve allowed ourselves to be enslaved by sin.
“Jesus said, “do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worth of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
What can we say?
Lord have mercy. Let me take up my cross and follow you. Amen.