In the Name...
Attending a wedding for the first time, a little girl whispered to her mother, "Why is the bride dressed in white?'' The mother replied, "Because white is the colour of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life." The child thought about this for a moment and then said, "So why is the groom wearing black?"
Many of us know the story of Faust or at least we've heard variations on the theme. Someone sells their soul to the devil for wealth or fame or in one comic spoof - for a donut - only, in the end, to lose everything.
Of course, we don't often think about our souls being objects of bargains. A bit ironic since we live in an age of bargain, where many say, "Everything is for sale. Everything/everyone has a price." And that is the recurring question of our culture, "What is your price?"
It starts at an early age. Not just on TV with toys and snack-foods. Companies give schools free computers in exchange for advertising time with the kids. Let's make loyal Apple or Dell customers. Former Education Secretary William Bennett once warned a graduating college class, "Those who say that young people are America's greatest natural resource are the ones who want to strip-mine your soul."
We all know about naming rights and sponsorship in sports. Race cars are mobile billboards, and NFL coaches can only wear a certain company's clothing during games. And sponsorship, of a sort, extends even to churches. Some identify themselves by taking the name of a prominent donor such as Davies Memorial Methodist Church. And others take the name of a place such as Lake Mirror Church of God. Of course, that can have drawbacks if the church has to move. One of the best I ever ran across was in Washington, D.C. where there is a church which calls itself, for real, "The 19th Street Baptist Church located on 16th Street."
Now, in today's text, St. Paul writes about evil spiritual forces which want to get naming rights over us. Principalities and powers, he calls them, the powers of sin and death. "But, thanks be to God," he says, because through the redeeming work of Christ, "you who were once slaves of sin ... have become slaves of righteousness." That is, we have been liberated so that we can become slaves.
Does that sound a bit strange? I know people who have a problem with this concept and I wouldn't be surprised if some of you find this language challenging. America is a culture which values freedom. Mess with our freedoms and we get militant. Well, how do you feel about the TSA and Homeland Security? The freedom of the individual has become the highest value in our society. And not just within our borders. Most of our wars have been fought to liberate people from slavery or tyranny. So it seems very counter-cultural to talk, in church, about a slavery that is really a freedom.
I think, though, that St. John Paul II had a handle on it when he said: "Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but, in having the right to do what we ought." "Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but, in having the right to do what we ought."
In other words, freedom is not a license for gross self-indulgence. Indeed, that behaviour can often lead to the most brutal bondage of all. People, for example, who freely choose to indulge in drugs, quickly find themselves slaves to drugs—and drugs are a harsh, degrading and destructive taskmaster.
The singer Amy Winehouse gained some notoriety for her drug-use and frequent trips to rehab. I remember a few years ago, after she was treated for emphysema, the result of her addictions and smoking, that, at the press conference after her release from hospital, there she was, on camera, puffing away on a cigarette. She died within a couple of months of that interview.
The French philosopher Rousseau wrote that, "Man is born free, but, is everywhere in chains." Now, Rousseau was writing about government, but, he was not far off understanding the moral point of both St. Paul and St. John Paul that freedom is the liberty to choose our servitude.
In today's lesson, Paul was writing to the Christian Church in Rome, the capital of the world's greatest empire. To be a Roman citizen, as opposed to a Roman subject, was the ancient world's greatest privilege. Citizens enjoyed rights denied to others. They could hold Imperial office. They were exempt from local taxes. They could not to be sued or tried in local courts. They could not be sold into slavery for debt. They were as free and advantaged as anybody could be back then. And yet, for all that worldly freedom, they were spiritually slaves because Roman citizenship was a system based on inequity and oppression, on conquest and subjugation.
For conquered peoples could, indeed, become citizens, but, only as a reward for certain services rendered the empire. You had to swear allegiance to the god-emperor and become a collaborator with the power structure. For a subject to become a citizen, you had to make a Faustian bargain.
And, St. Paul knew this better than anyone else because he was born a Roman citizen. That means his Jewish parents had to have done something to earn this reward. It's interesting that in all Paul's letters, he talks a lot about himself and how devout a Jew he was, but he never once mentions his home life.
I've often wondered about Paul's hyper-orthodox-religiosity, but, it could be explained if he felt he was atoning for the sins of his family. If he believed they had sold their souls for material gain, it makes sense that he would throw himself into observing the Law of Moses with a zeal which, as he modestly describes, was second to none.
He understood all too well that the only way to avoid being a slave to sin was to become a slave to righteousness and this is the point he is making to Christians who are Roman citizens living in the power-centre of the world. He's trying to teach them that they are not as free as they think they are; that their social and economic comfort is based on deceit and lies, on other people's poverty and suffering, and that makes them slaves to those very sins and evils.
This was hard for people raised in that culture and system to hear. Many, today, find it hard to hear as well. They want an Amy Winehouse style of religion. Something to fix them when they're broken, but, otherwise to leave them alone as they continue to do whatever they want whenever they want.
This week, we celebrate the 241st anniversary of American Independence. Some say that America is today's Rome and that Americans enjoy many of the same freedoms and advantages as did the Romans. The comparison is not unfair as the lifestyle we take for granted comes at a cost which is often not readily apparent. All the more reason, then, for us to pay attention to St. Paul's letter to the Romans and read it as if it was addressed to us, personally.
For the true liberty we should celebrate is the freedom to do what we ought to do, as we are, in the words of a famous song, guided by the light from above. As St. Paul said, in another place, we have been bought at a price. We have been liberated for servitude. May we spend that servitude serving the Author of Liberty of whom and to whom we sing.
In the Name...