From Slavery to Sanctification 2nd July 2017 Madingley
Jeremiah 28:5-11 Romans 6:12-23 Matthew 10:40-42
I wonder how many people here picked up on the fact that today’s readings are the matching set of the pair as it were, to the ones we heard two weeks ago? No? To be honest, I had not done that until I sat down to reflect on them at some length, and write this sermon. However, two weeks ago we were looking at Paul’s highly influential concept of justification by faith, which comes down to the basic but very difficult aphorism for us to act on, “Just accept that you are accepted.” We cannot earn the love of God; it is being held out to us before we even think of turning and looking for him.
But as we saw then, human beings find it difficult to accept gifts without feeling that they have to do something in return. Today’s lessons explore whether we can just accept the remarkable love of God and that’s it, or whether there is some form of consequences for us as a result of our faith. The main argument for this comes again in Paul’s writing, in our second lesson. As a man of his time, he uses the image of slavery to explain what we experience when we come to faith, and change from, as he would put it, being slaves to sin, to being enslaved by Christ. That sounds strange to our ears.
But for the people he was writing to, this image was very close to their experience. About 2/3 of the community would have been slaves, or “freedmen” – those who had been slaves but had been able to buy their freedom. They knew that if they were slaves, they had no choice but to obey their master. Paul’s image of sin, of our seeming inability to do what is right on our own, shows sin as being like a slave master; before Jesus came, we found it incredibly hard to break the shackles of wrongdoing which dominated our lives. Once he came, those shackles were broken and we became free. Our enormous debt to him in freeing us becomes more and more apparent as we recognize how far short of God’s goodness and love we have fallen. Paul, with tongue firmly in cheek, even asks, in effect, “Should we continue doing all of these wrong things in order to reveal just how great is God’s goodness in forgiving us for them all?” In other words, the more we sin, the more we reveal God’s goodness! The answer to that question is fairly obvious – I hope.
So the power of the destructive tendencies in our lives has been broken, and we are in a new relationship with God. That does mean that we no longer have any excuses for our wrong-doing; if we are no longer slaves, bound in obedience to the dark side of life, then we cannot claim, after yet another shameful episode, “The devil made me do it.” No he didn’t; the powers of darkness, whatever form they take, don’t have any control over us, no claim on our obedience, any more.
What has been shown to us very clearly is that we do have a choice. We do choose whether to commit all those wrong actions, or better, to accept God’s love for us, to accept his call to faith. He is not an overbearing taskmaster who brooks no disobedience and forces us into doing what he wants.
So rather than being grudging slaves carrying out the demands of our master whether we want to or not, we turn to God in gratitude for our freedom. Instead of servile obedience, we long to carry out God’s will because we always wish to do our best for those we love. This is a desire from the heart, which engages the whole of us, rather than a carrying out of orders with our bodies, with our inner being feeling unwilling and resentful.
Paul has a strong conclusion about the consequences of the choice of who we serve. If we are enslaved to sin, it leads to darkness, even death. There is no positive outcome; it all leads in a downward spiral. However, if we choose to follow Jesus, the outcome is eternal life, with a completely different attitude to life on earth, and the promise of eternal life continuing after death.
This is where the complementary side comes in of his teaching about our being justified before God because of our faith in his Son. Paul speaks of our sanctification, our being made holy. If recognizing what Jesus has done for us, our justification by faith, is the foundation stone of our faith, so sanctification is our growth in love. It doesn’t mean that we become morally perfect, or have a sort of religious unworldliness about us. It is just the natural outworking of our faith as we get closer and closer to Jesus, so we become more like him. And the trademark of his being is his freely offered love. So we move further away from the self-centred-ness which is the trademark of being enslaved to the things of this world.
Justification and sanctification are inseparable; you can’t have one without the other. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that justification is what God does, over against sanctification being a sign of what we have achieved. Both occur as a result of our faith, with sanctification being the gift of God offered to us in the first place, and calling us to fulfil it in our lives. Saint Augustine memorably put it as, “Love God, and do what you will.” That sounds like a very dangerous statement, you might say, asking for trouble, until we recognize that in loving God, truly loving him, there is an ever-decreasing danger that we will do anything which would bring him sorrow.
Augustine’s statement gives a succinct summing up of these two foundational aspects of the Christian faith. It also shines a light on the fact that we do have a tendency to make things difficult for ourselves as we explore aspects of our faith and effectively make them more and more complicated. Behind the apparently complex theological terms of justification by faith and sanctification, lie the simple truth of the effect of Jesus’ work on our behalf.
An illustration of this lies in a story which did the rounds during the early 1980’s, and incidentally gets told by each denomination with variations according to the particular slant of that church. For we who are members of the Church of England, it goes: a group of Anglican theologians were having a meeting, and Jesus walked in on them an asked them the question he had asked of the disciples so many years ago: “Who do you say that I am?” They answered, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.” Jesus, looking rather puzzled, responded, “I’m what?!”
Which simply means that it is a good and useful thing to explore the implications and depths of our faith, as we have been doing, but we must never become so confused by theological terminology that we lose sight of the basic simplicity of it all. God loves us, he always acts first to draw us to him, and he then gives us the ability and all the help and strength we need to respond to him. That’s all! It’s enough!