More than half a century has gone by since then, but I well remember the Sunday when I returned to my college room after attending the 8am service at the church across the road, my mind swirling with words from the epistle that we had heard. They are part of our reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans today as well. How could Paul possibly have given this injunction, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” And if he was right, why was I so unaware of “being dead to sin?” Most of my life would seem to roundly contradict that statement. Back in my room, I wrote those words on the fly leaf of my prayer book, and I returned to them repeatedly over the next 10 years, mulling over them, questioning, trying to find satisfactory answers to my worries. To cut a long story short, 10 years later the light dawned and I felt I “understood” the words, (though in a way which I would find difficult to explain to others,) while at the same time being all too well aware of my shortcomings. As the well-known hymn says, “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
That reference to chains, whether literal or metaphorical, reminds us of the plight of slaves. We have been hearing a great deal about this in the news recently, and there is a way in which their experience, and our knowledge of it through pictures and historical accounts, and unfortunately reports of immigrants who find themselves in a similar plight today, may help us to reflect more deeply on Paul’s words and what relevance they have for us. Earlier in this passage, he refers to our old self being crucified with Jesus so that, “the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin,” (my italics.) In all truth, I wonder how many of us, most of the time, feel as fettered by sin as that suggests? Yet how many times do we hear people saying, “I had no choice,” as an excuse for some wrong-doing? They feel cornered and trapped by the situation they find themselves in, and are unaware that there is, indeed, another way out. Sin and temptation act so subtly that they assert themselves insidiously into our lives, so that we end up no longer being aware that we are behaving wrongly. Somehow we all need to discover for ourselves how to escape that sense of being unable to behave in any other way, and to find another path, a way to freedom.
And if we were to seek freedom, what would that look like? Paul begins this chapter with a remarkable piece of apparent logic. Having argued the case forcefully and at length that, as one man’s sin led to man’s alienation and estrangement from God, so by another man’s act of total sacrificial love we have been restored to peace with God, Paul asks the astounding question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” In other words, is it the case that we should keep on sinning in order to see how wonderful that death was as we experience its ability to wipe our slate clean, time after time? If we see, as I hope we do, that that is a ridiculous argument, what does our new-found freedom mean? If we recognise the full cost to God of our sinning, there is no question that we would want to continue causing him pain. Clearly the death of Jesus is not an invitation to do what we like, when we like. “Love God and do what you please,” a commonly quoted statement based on something similar that Saint Augustine said, is not an invitation to spend our lives in a hedonistic haze; the emphasis is on the first two words, which means our lives are governed by that primary focus of loving God.
Paul explains all of this by linking the death of Jesus to our “death” with him through our baptism. We are to see this as being buried with him, so that we might also rise with him to new life in the here and now. We have been released from the shackles of our sinful nature and now live a life focussed on God and, as the collect in the Book of Common Prayer says, his “service is perfect freedom.” It is the effect of that service, compared with the enslavement to sin, which shines a light on the difference. The doing of things which are pleasing to God is not an onerous burden, but the natural outcome of our love for God and those actions bring us joy and satisfaction, whereas the sinful behaviours bring a resultant negative rebound which causes more pain and unhappiness for us. There is no escaping the consequences of our actions, whether good or bad. There can be no comparison between the situation of being enslaved to sin, and the experience of being obedient to God, serving him with all our heart, mind and strength. Where one brings misery and suffering, the other brings satisfaction, joy and life. Jesus himself said, “I have come that (you) might have life, and have it abundantly.” When all is said and done, it shouldn’t be difficult to choose which path of life to follow.