By John Davies
Readings: Romans 6:12-23 & Matthew 10: 40-42
Among the many issues that Paul tackles in his letter to the church at Rome is the nature of freedom. But whereas Paul sees freedom as obedience to the will of God, perhaps most people tend to think of freedom precisely as freedom to do whatever you want, with no regard to anything or anyone, a view of freedom that can have disastrous consequences. Paul makes a number of bold assertions in our reading:
- “Sin must no longer rule in your mortal bodies, so that you obey the desires of your natural self”.
- “Sin must not be your master; for you do not live under law but under God’s grace”.
- “You were set free from sin, and became the slaves of righteousness”,
- and “For sin pays its wages – death; but God’s free gift is eternal life in union with Christ Jesus our Lord”.
What Paul is talking about is Christian freedom in particular, but that can be hard for us to understand, because sometimes that freedom gets lost amid the busyness of everyday life. According to Paul, humans have to be under obligation to something. Therefore he writes, “You are in fact the slaves of the master you obey, either of sin, which results in death, or of obedience, which results in being put right with God. The question then is; what will we follow? Will we follow our passions or our self-control? Will we follow ambition or honour? Will we follow the promises we made to God, or believe that we are exempt from them?
So Paul urges Christians to be slaves not of unrighteousness (doing whatever you want regardless of the consequences to others) but to righteousness, a life in service to others and to God. Freedom, from this point of view, comes from mastery of ourselves, particularly our inner being. Only by saying “no” to one thing can we truly say “yes” to the other. Paul knew that in his day the people’s understanding of freedom led them into believing that, if you are lucky or strong or powerful enough, you could live without any obligations, any commitments whatsoever. Paul therefore invites the Christians in Rome (and also all of us) to consider that the choice before us is not whether to be obedient or free, but rather to what we will be freely obedient. Furthermore, Paul knew that human nature tends to move toward whatever seems easiest in the short term, and also that sacrificing short term gratification for long term happiness is difficult. He thus promises that God has granted to us the freedom in Christ to strive for things that bring long term happiness and eternal blessings. Paul believes that God has granted us the power to aspire to and achieve more than our surroundings or culture offers.
Paul suggests three places that this power comes from.
- Baptism, the place where God names us as His own children, and not because of anything that we have done, but simply because God has chosen to love us and adopt us as His own
- Christian community, believers were baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection and that they should remember and rehearse the promises of God and encourage each other in lives of righteousness.
- Prayer in the Holy Spirit, which draws us more closely into relationship with God and our neighbours, and serves to remind us that we are, indeed, God’s own children.
Paul wants his readers to ponder on the differences between religion and spirituality, but Paul wants them to realise that at some point they must stop being religious, and instead become spiritual. When I talk about being spiritual, I want to make one thing clear. I’m not talking about some wishy-washy mysticism; instead I’m talking about a faith rooted firmly in a belief in Jesus as Lord, a faith that is lived out in your daily life. Paul wants these believers to live out their faith in concrete ways, which can only be done when people aspire to live in love, because love is the essence of faith, and love accomplishes what Jesus set out to do. Paul is not concerned with issues of sin and guilt, but he is advocating for freedom from the power of sin, that is, believers can make a conscious effort on whether they should sin or not. Secondly, Paul is not concerned with growth to perfection but with an awareness of the once and for all saving act of justification done by God through Jesus Christ.
Finally, the gift of grace and salvation calls believers to live in obedience as a verification of the work done by Jesus Christ. Resisting sin, and victory over it, depends on our realisation that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. In verse23, Paul reminds us that the “gift of God is eternal life in union with Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is when we labour for God with faith, and we receive in turn something far greater than wages, for we cannot measure it with earthly standards. It can only be called the gift of grace; that we are given what we do not deserve, and that gift is eternal life.
Matt 10: 40-42
Our very short reading from Matthew’s Gospel brings a reward from God. It is worth reading Jesus’ words again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes God’s messenger because he is God’s messenger, will share in his reward. And whoever welcomes a good man because he is good, will share in his reward. You can be sure that whoever gives even a drink of cold water to one of the least of these my followers because he is my follower, will certainly receive a reward.”
Unfortunately, some people have taken this to mean that if they do good works, they are guaranteed salvation. No-one who calls themselves a Christian should set their motives for good actions as the reward that Jesus promised. Instead, our motive for doing anything should be our faith in Jesus as our Saviour. If we can demonstrate our love for God by doing good works in His name, then we glorify God’s great name. That way, our enjoyment will come through knowing we have served God, and exalted his name. Similarly, we will then be rewarded in obedience, and for obedience.
We are not called to serve ourselves, or our own nature, but to serve others, in God’s name. That way we will have served Jesus, who called us to serve and honour God, and who commanded that we do so. Whoever receives God’s messenger, or a good man, will receive the same reward. Justification by faith, and justification by good works, cannot be separated. It is because we have faith that we do good works; we do good works to demonstrate our faith, they are intrinsic, you cannot have one without the other. That’s why my grandmother always insisted that I should do at least one good deed every day, to prove my love for God, and my love for my neighbour, and to demonstrate that I had love and compassion in my heart.
It is NEVER to try and look good on my part, and NEVER to think that I am being good by being a good neighbour. I was never left in any doubt that my reason for living was to live for God, and to demonstrate that his love was alive in me. To have any other motive or purpose was also made clear to me that I would be bringing shame upon myself, and thus, dishonouring the great name of God. My grandmother insisted that you cannot separate Christian life and witness from the day to day existence outside of church. Jesus never once said he didn’t feel like obeying God’s will for a moment; he never asked God for a day off, and neither should we! That’s why life as a Christian is so special; we can place all our trust and faith in a God who loves us more that we deserve, or have a right to expect. We can then demonstrate that love to others, who may not necessarily expect to receive that love. We don’t do it because we expect great riches or gifts in this life, but rather, because we are happy to do so. That happiness is borne out because we love and trust in God. One simple deed, even if it’s only a glass of cold water to a thirsty person on a hot day can demonstrate that love. That glass of cold water may satisfy their thirst, there and then, but it may also give them a thirst to want to know more about the love of Jesus, and what it means to have that love in your life, and in your heart. And wouldn’t that be a great thing?
But, the greatest thing of all is that the offer is open to everyone; we just have to believe in God, obey His will, live the life He wants for us, and as a natural consequence, win the promise of eternal life. For Jesus’ promise, and God’s Word, are true, eternal and binding. For, as the Bible also promises, “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Whenever we make the essence of spirituality and holiness a matter of following religious rules, we have missed the point. For Jesus, a truly spiritual way of living is about being willing to give someone a cup of cold water on a hot day. It really is that simple.
A closing prayer
Heavenly Father, help us to be masters of ourselves so that we may become servants of others; may we bring refreshment into the lives of those who thirst for you. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.