Free to Be, Free to Do
Sermon preached by Jeanne Gay
Romans 6:12-23 Matthew 10:40-42
As most of you know, I teach English composition on the college level. Mostly I teach freshmen, usually first-year-out-of-high-school kids. And when I listen to them talk or read what they’ve written about that transition from high school to college, sometimes it’s as if they’ve entered a whole new world. It used to be that their lives were ruled by bells. If they loitered in the hallways after a bell rang, they were in danger of being chastised at the least and given a detention. But now they’re in college. After three or four hours of classes during a day they’re free to go home—it’s a whole new world.
But sometimes I have students whose previous schooling took place in another country. One of the most memorable of my foreign students was a young man I’ll call Abraham. He was exceedingly tall and very black—and eventually I learned that he was one of the “lost boys” of the
And here Abraham was, in my college technical writing class. For him, being here was truly being in a whole new world. A world filled with possibilities. A world in which he had value just for being himself. A world where life was possible.
In this passage from Romans, Paul is also talking about two kinds of worlds—one ruled by death and the other by life. This is not always an easy passage for us, because when he talks about slavery he’s using language that sets us on edge, but he says himself that he’s trying to explain himself in terms that his audience will understand. What we need to be about is trying to understand what he’s talking about—and not get hung up on the slavery imagery.
As is usually true in the Bible, it’s helpful to look at what came before the passage in question so we have some context for understanding it. And what Paul has been talking about is what we often call salvation by faith (as opposed to salvation by works). He’s been saying that what liberates us—what redeems us—is the love shown to us in Christ. God’s goodness and generosity is what saves us, not anything we can do ourselves.
Paul says, “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Not being “under law” means that there aren’t sets of commandments that we need to follow in order to be in a right relationship with God. When Christians tell us that there are certain things that we must do—or must not do—in order to “get right with God,” they’ve missed the point of what Paul is saying here. Paul’s saying that since we are “under grace,” God reaches right out to be in that right relationship with us because of God’s love for us.
Now Paul knew that there would be those who just wouldn’t believe him and that they would scoff and say that if we don’t have a bunch of commandments to follow then we must be allowed to sin whenever we want. And as anyone trained in rhetoric as Paul was would do, he addresses the objections he knows he’ll get so he can refute them. “What then?” Paul writes. “Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”
Being a Christian—and knowing that God loves us and accepts us just as we are—is no excuse to live any old kind of life we want. We sometimes think that “freedom” means that we can do anything we want. I remember reading about a citizen of
But that’s not the meaning of freedom here. This is freedom from bondage. Freedom from having no real choice because sin keeps us tied up. And Paul is saying that when we say, “No, I want to be one of God’s people, not one of sin’s people,” then we are freed to live lives that lead to eternal life, not to death.
So does being under grace automatically keep us from sinning? No, that’s not what Paul is saying, either. Paul knows that in this life we’ve been freed to live, the old patterns and systems do not shut down. The destructive ruts and routines are still there. But what Paul is saying is that because we are under grace, we don’t have to surrender to those destructive ruts and routines—we’re not in bondage to them. This way of living can lift us beyond them.
We know about those destructive ruts and routines. We all get stuck in them from time to time. Procrastination can be one, or obsessive shopping. Pornography, gambling, drinking, using drugs, smoking, overeating. Making snap judgments. Being lazy. All those destructive ruts and routines, those patterns and systems that try to suck us in so that they become bigger and bigger parts of our lives … pulling us away from a right relationship with God.
But because God loves us—because of that salvation by faith—we aren’t stuck in those destructive ruts and routines. We are certainly free to choose them, but because of God’s grace we aren’t in bondage to them. Like my student Abraham, whose life now is not in danger of being ended every minute of every day by soldiers or starvation, malice or disease, we have a new life.
“The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes. Those destructive ruts and routines only lead to a life ruled by death and fear. “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” And that eternal life doesn’t begin someday off in the future, after we’re dead. That eternal life in Jesus Christ—that life of possibility and love and growth and peace—that life begins now. We celebrate its beginning with baptism, as we’ve done this morning with Hailey and with Kristina, and we renew it every time we say, “Lord, I believe.”
And what does that freedom allow us to do? Why, to love each other as God loves us, to build each other up, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. To give the thirsty a cold cup of water. To rescue lost boys and heal lost girls. To invite others into eternal life along with us. To be God’s people.