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Friday, September 6, 2013

Romans 6:19-23 - Who Do YOU Serve??

Anyone who lives the Christian life knows that one major aspect of that is transformation.  The passage in Romans 6:19-23 is traditionally read in the old Anglican lectionary on the 7th Sunday of Trinity, and the passage has an inextricable link to the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  This is due to one very valid reason: in our initial conversion, which culminates in our baptism, we receive a new identity as a follower - servant (Greek doulos) - of Christ.  The passage seeks therefore to remind us that we have a new life as contrasted with our old, in which we were in bondage to sin.  The metaphor of the slave is thus utilized by the Apostle Paul to illustrate the point.

There are several things this passage communicates to us.  First, it is important to remember that no individual is a free agent, in that we all serve something or someone.  That being established, the question is not if we serve a master, but rather which master we choose to serve?  Unfortunately, we are all human beings still, and of course our limitations at times put us in a position of having divided loyalties.  The result of that is always disastrous, as we will (and Scripture bears this out!) ultimately give preference to one loyalty over another, and that leads to a despising of one master we are attempting to serve.   In our own selfish nature, our loyalties are often determined by one motivation - "what do I get out of this, and how will this benefit me?"  Let's be completely honest - we all are guilty of that one, as self-preservation is a major trait of the human condition.  That is why much of Scripture - in particular the example Jesus sets in many cases - admonishes us to benefit others and mortify our own fleshly desires when they become central to our existence.  And, as Christians, it is also important to remember from whence we came, lest we should forget and be ensnared by those things that once enslaved us. 

Note many important terms we see in the passage as well.  First, there is this word "subject," which is translated from the Greek hupotasso, which denotes a voluntary submission of one's will to the authority of another.  This same idea, used in the different context of the marital covenant, is used in Ephesians 5:22-23.  And, it involves two elements - obedience and honor.   Obedience of course comes from the root obey, which means simply we do what we are told, as in many cases if the authority directing us is honorable, then the task will be to our benefit.  Honor involves a reverential respect to that same authority, and in order to obey one must honor first.  Honor and obedience are often lacking in today's society of the postmodernist, who often thinks in terms of humanitarianism to save his own neck and the postmodernist in turn has a rebellious and crass attitude about authority - this is a reason why postmodernists are often, if religious, "post-Christian."  I have even heard once some younger people espousing this mindset say that they don't address people by proper titles because they want everyone (including God, ironically) to be on equal footing with them to make themselves feel important.  In other words, if they can't feel important, why should anyone else?   It must be remembered in the lessons from American Indians that if everyone is a chief, where are the braves to defend the tribal lands?  Even the lowly creatures of nature have been endowed with a sense of order by God which facilitates their survival as species.  As an example, a few years back there was a popular program on Animal Planet called Meerkat Manor, and the whole plot of this program centered around a research project that monitored the lives of a family of these little creatures in the Kalahari Desert in Africa called the Whiskers.  A meerkat is a type of mongoose that is social, and there is an order to their society that must be maintained in order to assure their survival.  In the program, the Whiskers colony is led by a matriarch the project participants named Flower, and she is what is called a dominant female.  In that role, she has exclusive breeding rights, and she also determines essentially who does what.  If one of her subordinate females - usually a daughter - defies the rules and gets pregnant, her babies can be killed and she can be evicted from the group.  It sounds cruel, but God made that particular aspect of nature in order to ensure that the dominant female has offspring and in that sense it is a deterrent to chaos.  And, as God's creatures, these little mongooses also have a capacity for compassion - they look out for each other, and they work together as a unit although everyone also knows their place.  On occasion, even orphaned babies from other groups are adopted and made part of the family as well.  These diminutive meerkats know more about social order than some humans do unfortunately, and one thing you automatically notice about them is a healthy respect for the dominant female on the part of the rest of the group, and older members are given a respect.  This ensures a continuity.  That, unfortunately, is lacking today in much of our society because respect is considered almost taboo by the new order of postmodern thinking, and as a result order is being compromised and our society is becoming more chaotic.  May God use the humble meerkat even to bring us back to a healthy appreciation for the concepts of obedience and respect, because it could cost us dearly if we do not.

There is another repetitious term used in this passage, and that is the word "bondage."  There are actually two aspects to this term, one being positive and the other negative.  On a positive, let me use myself as an example.  I am a former Notary Public, and as such, like many similar professions one often has to be bonded for their own protection.  The bond - which if I recall in my case was $100,000 - was meant as a safeguard against possible litigation if per chance an error in my practice of the office of Notary (which is a type of minor government official, I might add) occurred.  As Christians, we have a bond that is far more valuable - the shed Blood of Jesus Christ for our sins.  it protects us against the sting of original sin, and also deters the proclivity to further bondage to that sin. 

The negative side of this word "bondage" has to do with enslavement to something.  If a person is addicted - to let's say, drugs - they will eventually reach the point where the consumption of that substance dictates the course of their lives and will cause the person with the addiction to invest every resource they have into the maintenance of the addiction.  Sin is like that as well - the more one engages in sinful behavior, the more control the sin has.  Addictions and bondage to sin are also a form of idolatry, as they demand the full reverence of the person in bondage to them. 

That being said, it is important to understand that a person in bondage to one thing is free from another (6:20).  This can be good or bad, depending on the choice one makes.  The beauty about God is that he has endowed us with the free will to make that decision, be it sin or righteousness.  However, there are two things to remember with that.  First, if we try to serve both masters - God and the enemy - we will fail because our own nature dictates that one will eventually come to demand more of our efforts than the other.  Second, these choices must be weighed carefully, because choices do have consequences.  If we choose sin, for instance, we risk our eternity. 

To illustrate this point, in much of this so-called "Emerging Church" movement, often a lot of non-Christian occultic mysticism is appropriated into what is supposed to be "Christian" worship, and it alters one's worldview.  As a matter of fact, some of those practices are directly in conflict with Scripture and the clear teaching of the Church.  One of our friends fell into this trap recently when he started engaging in a practice called psychometry.  Psychometry is an occultic practice similar to tarot reading in which the "reader" takes a personal effect of the person he or she is "reading" - a photograph or other item of sentimental value is the usual practice - and then tells the owner of the object some deep or "insightful" information.  In short, psychometry is a form of divination, and the "gift" to do these "readings" is a demonic work, and as such it is expressly forbidden by Scripture.  Our friend, who does profess Christianity, swears that what he does is a "ministry" he was gifted with by the Holy Spirit, and he vehemently denies that it is divination.  However, the Bible doesn't say that one can "read" things as a spiritual gift - in many cases, it forbids such practices as a consorting with evil spirits.  Our friend who practices this stuff is also involved in "ghost-hunting" and other such activities, and although he is technically not officially involved with any "Emergent" groups, it is worth noting that ignorance brought on by exposure to occult mysticism on the part of these Emergent people has contributed to the confusion our friend has.  Other such practices - contemplative prayer, yoga, etc. - that many Emergents do engage in are similarly suspect.  And, they unfortunately are making those professing Christianity attempt - futile - to serve two masters.  However, the results have been disastrous, as many Emergents have apostatized and now have embraced universalism, accepted "gay marriage," and other things Scripture opposes.  They are slowly moving away from Jesus as their master to serving demons and ingesting their doctrines. 

The end result of our choices can go one of two ways.  In Romans 6:21 is the first - the reward for a life given over to the bondage of sin is death!   On the other hand, in 6:22 it affirms that the reward for serving Christ is eternal life.  However, the free gift of salvation in Christ is not forced upon us, but rather we must make a conscious decision to accept it as it is offered to all men.  Until we do, according to Romans 3:23, our end is death because we are in bondage to sin.  Our righteousness is not sufficient enough to receive eternal life with God - only through the righteousness provided in the shed blood of Jesus Christ can we receive it.

As a closing thought, all humanity is ultimately in service to something else other than ourselves, although some philosophical humanists may think otherwise.  God gave us the freedom to choose the master we serve, be it Him or sin and death.  Each choice has its own consequences and rewards, and although we have the free will to make the choice, it is important that we carefully weigh the options.  If we accept righteousness, then the full climax of that is realized in the baptismal font (Romans 6:19).  Our choice is inevitable, whatever the one we make, and it must be an exclusive choice - contrary to some thinking today, we cannot have it both ways (see I Corinthians 6:14, 10:21).  Either we serve Christ, or we are in bondage to our sinful lifestyles.

I want to close on a related but somewhat humorous point.  On Saturday nights, I watch a program on RFD-TV called Larry's Country Diner, and one feature of this program is a character called Nadine.  Nadine's character is of this straight-laced but sharp-witted old church lady who wears print dresses, a pillbox hat, and she is seen carting around this huge Bible the size of a car door - she is really quite amusing!  However, in the humor is wisdom, and one thing she said once sums it well for what we have been talking about - "Some people sow their wild oats all week, and then pray for crop failure on Sunday."  I would say that is a good summary for this teaching, and it illustrates the futility of trying to serve two masters.  Our human nature has limits, is not perfect, and on occasion we will sin - Lord knows I screw up enough personally!  However, there is a big difference between the occasional screwup and the willful, rebellious embrace of a sinful lifestyle (you "gay marriage" proponents really need to get this, as I grow sick of the open defiance of the plainly-revealed truth about this sin in Scripture by its proponents who try to allegorize it, self-justify, etc. - it's time you listen to God and not to your own reasoning in this case, as your reasoning is flawed, especially if you are professing Christianity! That may get me into some trouble, but something has to be said).  The big difference between the two is the conviction of the Holy Spirit - when a Christian screws up or sins, the Holy Spirit that indwells the Christian does what is known as conviction, which essentially means that something within your being is saying, "Stop it - this is wrong!!".   If we respond in humility and sincerity to that conviction, it will lead us to repentance and we can therefore receive forgiveness for what we have done.  However, a willful, rebellious choice (such as "gay theology" as espoused by the Metropolitan Community Church or the justified racism of people like apostate "liberation theologian" James Cone) is giving allegiance to another master, and hence both a form of spiritual adultery as well as idolatry.  And, if one continues on that course, it will have eternal consequences.

Today, the challenge is yours - which master will you serve??  Will you accept the free gift Jesus Christ gave you - salvation through His shed Blood for our sins - or will you remain in bondage to sinful attitudes and behaviors because for some reason it is "culturally relevant?"  Again, weigh that decision carefully, because you cannot have it both ways.  If you choose Christ, you need to do so with surrendering your whole self to Him.  Let us consult the Prayerbook on this, as it has some words of comfort for those who choose to follow Christ:

"Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all who truly turn unto Him:

Come unto Me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you (Matt. 11;28).
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
Hear also what Saint Paul saith:
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (I Timothy 1:15)
Hear also what Saint John saith:
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins. (I John 2:1-2)"
(The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 edition, p. 76)

The above is said usually during the conclusion of the first portion of the Anglican Mass, when the priest traditionally dismisses the unbaptized and the catechumens in preparation for the Communion of the Faithful, the second part of the Mass in which the Eucharist is celebrated.  These "comfortable words," as they are called, are a sort of  "altar call" to the non-Christian to seriously consider salvation in Christ, and I like to believe that this was a similar thing John Wesley used during the Great Awakenings on the frontier to bring people to the Lord, as he preached out of this very same formula.  In that tradition, I challenge you today to examine the claims of Christ - He is not merely some "zombie Jesus," as some agnostic wag once called Him, but is God the Son, risen from the dead to bestow on us eternal life!  Sin can be an abusive taskmaster, and in return for living a life of sin, the unrepentant spend eternity in the unquenching fires of hell.  Jesus, on the other hand, is loving, and not only does He become our Master, but He is more than that - He is our friend, our big brother, and most important, our God who gave Himself for us.  If you are struggling today, seek the Lord, and let Him cleanse you and give you new life - the alternative is hell and damnation, total separation from God, for eternity.  God bless each of you, and may this lesson speak to your hearts today.