First Sunday after Trinity, St Matthias, Parish Eucharist, 26th June 2011

Reading Romans 6.12-23

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Terry Pratchett’s TV programme, Choosing to Die; the Slut Walks (demonstrations to protest that, whatever women wear in public, they are not inviting men’s sexual attentions); the government consultation on the registration of civil partnerships in places of worship: three signs of the passing of one world and the coming of age of another, in which the emphasis is on personal autonomy rather than on what the ‘authorities’ tell you about how to dress, or who to love, or what you can’t do with your own life.

As someone who came of age in the 1970s, I feel broadly at home in this world. Not entirely, though. I‘ve got questions about some of the autonomy agenda – the euthanasia issue troubles me, as do aspects of what feminists call the ‘raunch culture’ – and then there’s that double-think we are so good at: I don’t want anyone to tell me how to live my life, but a strong moral steer is just what I want for the kids, and (come to think of it) it would do no harm to those people who live over the road. But whose hands should be on the moral steering wheel? The government? Come on! The church, then? But here there is a bit of a problem, because at the heart of the church is the good news of Jesus, and his main message is not about moral law, ‘Behave yourself and live your life this way’; it’s not about how to be good but how to be saved. The good news of Jesus is: it doesn’t matter how much of a mess your life is in, just open your heart and forgiveness is there, God’s love is there. It’s what St Paul today calls the grace of God.

So, why don’t I just go right ahead and stuff myself in the great cafeteria of life? Some of it is bad stuff, but bad can be fun, and hey, God’s a forgiving kind of dude. Paul says so. This is exactly how some people reacted when Paul preached the grace of God: let’s continue in sin, so that grace may abound. In this reading from his letter to the church in Rome, Paul’s rebuttal is sharp. He paints a picture that I (child of the 70s that I am) struggle with; I wonder what you think?

You (he says) are not free, you are slaves. You were slaves of sin but now you are slaves of righteousness. There are always forces that push you around, just as masters do to slaves. The forces that used to push you around were death-dealing; but now that you have responded to the message of Jesus, the forces that propel you are life-giving and lead to righteousness. Don’t fool yourselves: the question is not, ‘I’m free, so what shall I choose?’ but, ‘I’m a slave, but whose slave am I?’

That’s Paul’s gist. Christianity as slavery. Offensive, isn’t it? Now slavery is part of the furniture in Paul’s world. It is the lifeblood of the ancient economy just as oil is for ours, so if we are dismayed at Paul’s words, future ages may be just as dismayed about our thoughtless car use and our prodigal air miles – ‘How could they do that?’ But still, we are not in Paul’s world, and what he says goes flat against the thing we are told we have, the thing that others this morning in Syria or Libya may die for, freedom: freedom of speech, freedom to vote, freedom to choose. Indeed, consumer capitalism encourages as much reverence for the words ‘Option’ and ‘Choice’ as patriotism does for ‘Queen’ and ‘Country’.  So who is this man who tells me that I’m not free? What are these forces that are supposed to be enslaving me? Let’s try and listen to Paul – really listen – and see if there may be in his strange words something of the truth that it takes a stranger to see.

If you’ve ever been addicted, you know what those forces are. They can make you spend every moment thinking about how to satisfy this craving, your master. And perhaps addiction is just an extreme version of something everyone knows, even if they don’t smoke, only have the odd glass, and can’t remember when they last got a lottery ticket. Addiction begins with free choice, the kind we make every day, but sometimes the choice you make today makes it easier to choose the same thing tomorrow, and harder to choose the opposite. Choose to gossip about someone to a friend today and it will be harder not to when you meet again tomorrow. Choose a bit of dishonesty today; if you get away with it (whether you dodge a train fare or seek to run FIFA), it will be harder to go straight tomorrow. Give in to lazy prejudice today… and you can fill in the rest.  So you and I can become slaves of the bad choices we made in the past; and what is more, our bad choices can block the freedom of other people, just as you have less freedom now than you might have had because of the bad choices of others. Isn’t that what lies underneath the turmoil in the Middle East and our economic troubles? (This, incidentally, is what Christianity means by ‘original sin’.)

The grace of God can free a person from the enslaving power of bad choices: grace is not a weak, permissive thing, it’s a hammer breaking a chain, freeing us to choose again. But if you choose God, then Paul calls that slavery too, which is really not what we want him to say. If we could stand him up here and ask him, ‘Life with God is such a beautiful thing, so why call it by such a horrible name?’ he might say,

I’m warning you never to think you are freer than you really are. You are always being obedient to someone or something, always ‘giving ear’ (which is what obedience means) to a voice that is not yours; just make sure it’s God’s voice.

You and I often have to do this without the public moral framework around us that (for all the prejudices and double standards) could be a help to older generations. With lots of things, no-one will tell you not to do them. Instead, it’s a matter of realising (or being shown?) that this pattern of life, that habit, this culture I’m part of, ‘leads to death’, as Paul puts it, that it really has no future. Then, when you choose life and swim against the tide, trying to be honest when others don’t worry too much, or to make a relationship work when others give up, then you need to be reassured: yes, this is God’s voice I’m hearing, this is the way that leads to life.

To do both these things we need space: time when we are not doing anything so we can get a sense of what life is doing with us; some room in life left empty for God to fill; space for grace. And if life makes that hard, then let’s use places like this to make it easier. I hope no-one here ever lets being late stop them from coming to church; but if you can manage it, get to church ten minutes early. And if you do, don’t chat – we have the sacrament of coffee for that – but bathe in quietness (and allow others to do the same). Lay down for a while some of the things that fill life up.

Paul talks about eternal life as the ‘free gift’ that our gracious God gives us. And God does indeed give freely. God has so much to give us, but sometimes we can’t receive it because our hands are too full.

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