In any case, I am delighted to be with you all this morning for this first opportunity to preach to you all today.
It’s not generally common for Episcopal preachers to take up the Epistle appointed for the given Sunday as the text for their sermon, and there’s a good reason for this; it is, after all, in the Gospels that we are most immediately faced with the account of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that so inspires our devotion towards him. But when we come across a passage such as today’s portion from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, we are confronted by the bold exploration into the mystery of grace that only Paul can give us.
Of all the truths of the Christian faith, the one that intrigues me again and again is its embrace of the body. Ours is a material religion, rooted not in some spiritual escape from the limitations of embodiment or the physical world, but rather in the midst of those particularities. Being in Christ is about being fully, authentically human, which means that grace works in and through our bodies. As Paul puts it, we are to present our bodies as instruments of righteousness by the grace and power of God.
You’ve no doubt heard someone describe him or herself as a “creature of habit,” but the reality is that each and everyone of us is a creature of habit simply by virtue of being human. In order to survive in a world of things, we create patterns in our lives so that we can order ourselves towards continued life on earth. These patterns are our habits, the routine actions by which we direct ourselves towards the goal of life. And herein lies the challenge of being human, because it’s not a given that we always pattern our lives to achieve life. We’re not mere creatures of instinct, we have free will which opens up the possibility that we can actually habituate ourselves towards self-destruction.
So consider a bad habit in particular, because if you’re like me, those are the habits that I’m most conscious of. There’s actually a good deal of paradox involved with a bad habit. On the one hand, it feels like a negative imposition on your daily life; in your mind, you know that it doesn’t make your life better and that it might actually be a real obstacle to living life to the fullest. You experience your bad habit as a sort of bondage; you’re enslaved to it, in a way. And yet, is it not also true that to let yourself fully succumb to it yields a certain sense of freedom? You certainly get to stop worrying about it for the time being, and to accept your bad habit feels like allowing yourself to do what you want. On the other hand, to do the work of overcoming the habit is hard, and it might be more uncomfortable than just persisting in the bad habit. Beating the habit leads you into another kind of bondage; you’re now bound to the new life of consciously maintaining your freedom from what has passed away. This new life is defined by new habits which replace the old, and the so-called “freedom” you once had to pursue your bad habit now appears to be a pale comparison to the real thing you’ve now achieved. You trade the false freedom that came with your bad habit for the true freedom that comes with good habits.
This is what Paul is getting at with his metaphor of slavery, slavery to sin or slavery to righteousness. And just to make it clear, as Paul himself does in our epistle today, the “slavery” being discussed here is merely a “human term” employed for the sake of our understanding. By using slavery as a metaphor for human life, we are in no way underwriting or validating the abomination of slavery as we know it from the American story.
Rather, his point is to show that we are inescapably ordered by something external to us, some transcendent principle which is beyond our grasp. We are not neutral, as nothing in Creation is. We live, therefore, in the midst of a complex network of habits and desires, and somehow, we are tasked with navigating this network for our whole lives. Sin enters this network when we redirect the desire that only God can fulfill towards some lesser thing. It’s what happens when we seek a counterfeit form of transcendence by exploiting the things around us. And these sinful acts accrue together to form what Paul calls the “body of sin,” which is not only the individual self that is fully habituated towards sin, but I’d say it’s also the entire corporate body of the human race, all of us together building up systemic structures of violence and oppression. The body of sin includes the powers and principalities. In any case, this is the slavery to sin that human life has come to be defined by. We have the habit of exploiting ourselves and others to achieve a false sense of freedom which leads only to death. And when grace comes into the picture, these habits of sin are revealed to be the tyrants they really are. Grace overthrows them and places us back into right relation and service to God. For sin no longer has dominion over us. And now we are able to present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.
In this new life of grace that we enter into by the waters of baptism, obeying the demands of righteousness can now be an act of freedom, and therefore of love. The fear of the law which once compelled our obedience has been cast out by the love of the Son for the Father in which we now participate by faith. His love is now our love. And as slaves to righteousness, the only dominion that sin can wield over us is the dominion we choose to create again in ourselves. This is why Paul is so insistent that the gift of grace is by no means a cause to sin that grace may abound all the more. Sin only functions as a rival master; and so our willful obedience to it can only result in another slavery. But what has been taken away by the work of Christ is the absolute bondage of that slavery to sin. We can now resist it, resting in the true freedom of union with Christ. So whereas we were once slaves to sin, our wills being bound to obey the demands of iniquity unto death, we now have died to death in Christ, and thus we are now slaves of righteousness, free to willingly obey the demands of justice.
So as you go about your life with Christ, saying your prayers, sharing in the sacramental life of the Church, giving alms to the poor, rest in the knowledge that it is none other than the grace and power of Christ which guides you along. For you are bound to him in his death and resurrection -- and thus bound to his Gospel -- so that you can present your bodies to God as instruments of righteousness.
So thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.