Grace Presbyterian Church
July 2, 2017, Pentecost 4A
Freed to Obedience
I’m not sure if Bob Dylan ever studied Paul’s epistle to the Romans, but at least one song in his repertoire suggests he might have. I don’t think it’s one of the songs that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it still counts.
Maybe you remember Dylan’s evangelical phase? The first big single from that phase made it onto a Grammy Awards broadcast back in 1980. It was a thumping gospel-tinged number called “Gotta Serve Somebody.” And he did win the award that year.
It’s not the most complicated song, not quite the heights of poetry; Dylan runs through a list of things you might be, where you might live, any number of possible conditions – you may be a doctor, you may own banks – but by the chorus it doesn’t matter:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody/You’re gonna have to serve somebody/It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
As we’ll see shortly, this really could be a short take of one of Paul’s main points in this last half of Chapter 6. Paul might only quibble with the “gotta” part of the title: he would simply say that no matter what you think, you are serving somebody. It’s just a matter of whom you serve.
Picking up where we left off last week, Paul does another of his patented wrap-up-one-point-while-starting-another transitions, using verses 12-14 both to reinforce his previous point that you are no longer under the power of sin but under the rule of the grace of God, while at the same time urging that we are not merely to relax into this new rule; if anything, living into this grace is an active, even imperative thing – not at all passive.
For Paul it is imperative that we no longer present our bodies (our physical beings) or any part of those bodies as “instruments of wickedness.” (Given the frequent military use of the root of the Greek word here, the phrase might better be translated “weapons of wickedness”.) Paul’s talk of “members” gets people a little nervous or even giggly sometimes, but think of it this way: is there any part of you that cannot be used for malice, harm, menace, or some other kind of sinfulness? Think of the damage your hands can do, the horrors to which your feet can take you, the malice that can be unleashed by the tongue, the licentiousness in which the eyes can engage. You can go on from there. No part of us is beyond being a “weapon of wickedness”; therefore it is our imperative that, as creatures redeemed into the grace of God, we choose – actively, repeatedly choose – to live into that grace by not giving up our bodies to serve the bad, but presenting ourselves to the service of God.
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist who was also a survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. One of his more famous observations (or at least attributed to him), drawn at least in part from his time in those camps, was that:
Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In that response lies our growth and our freedom.
It’s not a perfect parallel, but it’s not bad. We are not compelled to continue in sin; God provides the space of grace to choose, over and over again, to submit ourselves to obedience, and our freedom is in that space.
There are so many things that would draw us back, not all of which would seem to fall into the category of “wickedness” (a word that probably trips up as many of us moderns as the word “sin” that is so pervasive in these chapters) – but anything that draws us away from God can be exactly that. The nineteenth-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard seemed to intuit this well; he writes:
O Lord Jesus Christ, weak is our foolish heart, and only too ready to let itself be drawn – and there is so much that would draw it to itself. There is pleasure with its seducing power, the manifold with its confusing distractions, the moment with its deceptive importance, and bustle with its vain toil, and frivolity’s careless squandering of time, and melancholy’s gloomy brooding – all of these would draw us away from our own self and to them, in order to deceive us. But Thou who art the truth, only Thou our Savior and Redeemer, can truly draw a man to Thee, which indeed Thou hast promised to do, to draw all unto Thyself. So God grant that we by entering into ourselves may come to ourselves, so that Thou, according to Thy word, canst draw us to Thee –…. (Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, trans. Walter Lowrie, 2004 edition, 141)
This helps us towards Paul’s great contention. As he did in last week’s reading, Paul uses an image deeply familiar to his readers, but one far less pleasant than baptism. Paul speaks of his readers as slaves – inevitably, slaves to sin, or slaves to God. Even knowing that some of his readers or hearers likely had been or still were slaves (and apologizing, if in a slightly passive-aggressive way, in v. 19), Paul nonetheless points to the inevitability of being bound to one or the other; if we are not bound to God, we are enslaved to sin.
We are apt to speak of “freedom” a lot, particularly two days before Independence Day. It is a much used part of our national vocabulary, and sometimes highly abused by those who would seek “freedom” to abuse or extort or otherwise harm “the other.” Paul would find such talk incomprehensible. Verse 16 makes it clear; any “freedom” we gain in Christ is freedom to obedience to the God who made that grace in Christ possible. As such, our full obedience, our full allegiance must be due to God, and only to God, if we are to claim to be under the dominion of God’s grace. We serve God, otherwise we are serving sin.
Where the language of justification was prominent in last week’s reading, in these verses the language of sanctification – the immediate and ongoing process of being made holy – takes greater place. The two ideas, though, can’t be separated. It’s not one being necessary for the other or one following the other, but of both being necessary and both being consequence of God’s redeeming grace. If we are under God’s grace we are justified by the grace of God and we are sanctified by our dying and rising in Christ and we are being sanctified by our dying and rising in Christ. It’s now and it’s done and it’s a lifelong doing. And part of that is living in obedience to God, which we can only do by the grace of God.
Dylan was right: you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Choose wisely.
For freedom to obey, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #331, God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand; #187, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us; #699, Fill My Cup; #697, Take My Life