This morning I would like us to think about the passage we heard read from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Because of their situation, the people who were part of this church understood one thing very clearly, but needed something else explained to them. They understood slavery and they needed sin to be explained to them.
The people of Rome understood slavery because they were surrounded by it. It is estimated that at least a third of the people who lived in Corinth, the city Paul was writing from, were slaves. It is also thought that the church in Rome was made up mostly of slaves and of people who had been slaves. They understood that a slave had to do as her master said, or would not eat, would be punished. They knew that a slave could only be owned by one person. They knew that unless the slave was redeemed, that is, was bought to be freed, the only end to slavery was death.
They needed sin to be explained to them because these are people who had not been Christians very long. The habits from their previous way of life were probably still very strong. They weren’t always aware of the damage that these old sinful habits were doing to their Christian lives. They knew that they had been rescued by the grace of God, but it seems that they had misunderstood this generousity and thought that it meant that they could now do what they liked, because they’d be forgiven anyway.
So, as we pick up the thread of Paul’s letter, he is using the Roman’s knowledge of the thing that they understand very well to help them to understand the thing that they need to learn. He does this by using the metaphors of freedom and slavery to illustrate the relationship between sinfulness and righteousness, life and death. He does with a series of contrasts:
V 13 do not be an instrument of wickedness but be an instrument of righteousness
14-15 not under law but under grace
16 slaves to sin, leading to death or to obedience which leads to righteousness
18 set free from sin, become slaves to righteousness
19 were slaves to impurity leading to wickedness now offer as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness
20 were slaves to sin were free from righteousness
22 now set free from sin and slave of God
21-22 result in death result is life
23 wages of sin is death but gift of God is eternal life.
If we split these contrasts out into two, we get two portraits to compare.
On the one hand we have the slave of sin, of impurity and of wickedness, completely compelled to do and be bad, free of righteousness, this one is a tool for wickedness, whose path leads inevitably to death.
On the other hand we have the slave of God, of obedience, of righteousness, and of holiness. Free from the compulsion of sin, being an instrument to bring more righteousness, whose path leads to life.
For Paul there is no third possibility. Every person is either a slave of sin or a slave of God. It is likely that this was quite offensive to some of the people in Rome who heard this letter read out. Those who had been freed from slavery, or who had never been slaves, would not have liked to hear that they were slaves, either to sin or to God. Paul would have known that people might take offence at this, but he still says it. It was very important to him that people understood that sin is very powerful, and that a life given to God is one that must be completely given to God, nothing held back.
In some ways we live in a very different world to the people who lived in Rome 2,000 years ago. We find it more difficult to understand this illustration that Paul uses because we are not surrounded by slavery in the same way. However, in other ways we live in a very similar world. Sin is still a very powerful force that separates people from God, damages relationships, and leads to death. Because it is so powerful, it is really important that we find ways of understanding this for ourselves, and sharing that understanding with others.
How would it be if we took the basic idea that Paul is trying to get across, and use a different metaphor, one that many of us are very familiar with, maybe another one that involves the economy. This week I heard a lot on Radio Stoke about personal debt. There was a report out this week that the place outside of London and the South east with the highest levels of personal debt is Crewe. Just as the Roman economy was built on slavery, so our economy is built on the availability of credit. Businesses borrow money so that they can invest in product development and in new markets. For many people buying things on credit and paying it off over the long term is normal.
But what happens when it all goes wrong? When the economy gets into trouble, when people lose their jobs and their income isn’t there to meet the repayments. People get caught in a debt, unable to pay their way out, every penny is soaked up in interest payments, the capital is never reduced. Until they die, the debt is written off or paid, they are utterly helpless. We hear these stories every day. It might be our story, or the story of friends of families of ours. We know this story. How might we use this story to help us to understand the power of sin?
On the one hand we have the person in debt to sin, to impurity and to wickedness, every effort is taken up with trying to pay off the loan shark , with nothing spare to invest in righteousness, this is the one who is a tool for wickedness, whose path leads inevitably to death.
On the other hand we have the person whose debt has been paid by God, who invests in obedience, righteousness, and holiness. Free from the compulsion of sin, they work to release others from debt, and their path leads to life.
For the only way to repay the debt we owe to sin is to die, unless we accept God’s offer to repay that debt with the death of his Son, and to live in gratitude for that repayment, in freedom.
As we’ve heard, Paul is clear that there was no choice about slavery. Either people are slaves to sin or slaves to God. It seems to me that it can also be said that there is no choice about whether we are in debt. We are either in debt to sin or in debt to God. We might find this idea offensive, especially if we are the kind of people who have been bought up to avoid debt and are proud of the fact that we save up to buy things. However, I think that if we listen carefully, and with humility, there is great good news here.
There are two ways that someone might owe their lives to somebody else. The first way is if they have spent more than they had and now have to spend their whole lives trying to work off the debt. They owe their life to their captor.
The second way is because they have been rescued from certain death, and feel that they are only alive because of the other person’s action. They owe their life to their rescuer.
We no longer owe our lives to sin, because our debt has been paid and we have been rescued. We now owe our lives to God. Are we going to live us those who have been bought with the price of God’s son? We are surrounded by people who still owe their lives to sin. Are we going to share the good news that their debts can be paid, and that they can be rescued?