Choose Your Master

Romans 6:15-23 (NLT)

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let’s start by looking at another important piece of Scripture in Acts 2:41-42, a picture of the church in its earliest days.

On Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit had fallen on Christ’s followers, Peter preached to curious people gathered in the streets. It was a most effective sermon.

“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all,” the author of Acts tells us. “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.”

Certainly, the grace of God was at work. People don’t come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior unless God is at work. But in response, the believers did something, too.

They “devoted themselves.” They devoted themselves to study. The apostles would have used the Jewish Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament, to help everyone understand who Jesus is in the context of Judaism.

They also devoted themselves to deep, deep fellowship. The church, the body of people who believed, became the center of most members’ lives. And they prayed, fervently.

Let’s name the key action again: They devoted themselves. To borrow from the imagery of a theologian named Helmut Thielicke, the believers opened their mouths so they could drink from the river of sanctifying grace. They were changed in the moment of salvation, and the change became an ongoing process that, with a little effort on their part, would continue for the rest of their lives.

Such effort is what Paul is describing in Romans. Paul uses a metaphor that can seem offensive today. If it makes you feel any better, it was offensive then—he practically apologizes for using it, saying the metaphor is necessary in order to penetrate weak, worldly minds.

If you’re going to be a Christian, you need to start thinking of yourself as an obedient slave, he says. Escaping the slavery of sin, you now must deliberately enslave yourselves to Christ.

Paul’s audiences, including us, find this offensive because of a delusion we like to maintain, the notion that we live our lives beholden to no one. We are, to use a very American word, independent people.

Yeah. Right. I remember thinking when I was a child, “I cannot wait until I grow up, because then no one will be able to tell me what to do.”

I grew up, and did I ever get a surprise. I had to get a job; with that job came a boss. I did what she told me to do, and I did what a series of bosses afterward told me to do. Even when I was a boss, I had a boss.

I continued my schooling in both college and seminary, and discovered those professors also had a lot of control over me. I appreciated the freedom of thought many of them gave me, but in the end, I did what they told me to do to earn those pieces of paper hanging on my wall.

Some of you here may be thinking, “Well, none of this applies to me now.” Maybe you’re retired or own your own business. “No one tells me what to do.”

Right. Call the IRS and inform them of your independence.

From a spiritual perspective, once we overcome the delusion of being beholden to no one, we should be delighted we can choose the perfect master. We have the opportunity to enslave ourselves to one who gives perfect, sacrificial love.

Our time as a slave to Christ is returned to us in immeasurably vast ways. We enslave our finite lives and receive eternal life.

Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you.” (When Jesus spoke, we were  metaphorically reduced to beasts of burden!) “Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find a rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

I don’t know about you, but I want a master who speaks such words, a master I can trust. To go back to last week’s imagery, I want to work in a safe field under a gentle master, with the assurance I have nothing to fear. When Satan was my master, fear ruled my day.

So, what does the new master call us to do? What are the tasks that “lead to holiness and result in eternal life?”

I hinted at them before as we looked at Acts. There is Scripture, where God reveals truth to us. There is fellowship, life in the church, where we find we are never alone. There is prayer.

Or, to boil it all down, there is a deep, loving relationship with the master and with each other.

Let me ask a question of those of you who are or have been married. If you spend just two minutes a day with your spouse, how will your marriage fare?

And yet, that’s how many of us approach our relationship with God, if we spend that much time. A quick devotional and we’re off to the daily races. We find time for other things—and there are so many other things—but God gets two minutes. Or less.

Saturday I saw some evidence of what it’s like to be in a community of people who take Scripture and prayer very seriously. Connie and I went to a gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It is a reform group within the United Methodist Church calling us as a denomination back to our roots as Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit-filled people rooted in Scripture.

I was sitting in a lecture on “The Call to Holiness” and the speaker referenced the image in the sixth chapter of Isaiah of the angels surrounding the throne of God, crying out to one another … .

Well, that’s when it became interesting. A large ballroom filled with people suddenly resounded with, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory!” The crowd had finished his sentence without missing a beat.

The speaker stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Perhaps he was taken aback at being in a room full of Methodists who actually knew their Bible. Not only that, they knew their Bible well enough to speak in confidence and in unison.

Their knowledge also clearly enhanced their prayer lives. For you see, in their unified voices, they joined in a prayer of praise that we believe goes on for all eternity.

It was a Holy Spirit goosebumps sort of moment.

I want us as a little church in Ten Mile, Tennessee, to have such moments. I want us to all know the stories. I want our prayer lives to be rich.

Here’s what I will devote myself to today: I will do all I can to make such moments happen. It is my particular job as a particular slave to Christ to help us toward such moments.

I cannot do it alone, however. If you are willing to devote yourselves, come let me know, and we will find a way.

What Would You Uproot?

Luke 17:5-10

There are a couple of messages in Jesus’ words we’ve heard today that may puzzle us or even disturb our souls. Just remember, when the Bible does that to us, we’re growing.

I feel the need to preach this sermon backward relative to the text. By first exploring what Jesus said about the slave who had just come in from the fields, I think we can better understand what Jesus said about faith and its tremendous power.

Slaves of God

I initially don’t like the example of the slave coming in from the field. First of all, the idea of slavery is foreign to us now, so it’s hard to get into the right frame of mind to hear the example. Slavery was not uncommon in Jesus’ day, however, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus used the relationship as a metaphor.

The real source of my reaction, however, stems from the self-assured American in me. The line of questioning starts out okay: How would you handle your slave? Would you just let him plop down at the table before he finishes his last task of the day, which is to feed you? We as hearers of the story are in a position of power, a position any ambitious American seeks.

Jesus was setting us up, though. In the end, he flipped the story on us. Suddenly, we are the slaves, subservient to God. Even if we do everything we are supposed to do as God’s creation, we can at best say at the end of our lives, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

Those of us living in a world where we equate our success with our own genius or hard work may flinch at such a message. It strikes at our egos, at our sense that we can climb the ladder in God’s kingdom through sheer hard work. It is a message designed to humble us, to remind us of God’s infinite vastness and power and our inability to match him in any way.

When we find ourselves appropriately humbled, we’re at a point where we can at least begin to hear what Jesus had to say earlier about faith.

The Source of Faith

The disciples had been hearing some hard words from Jesus. He had warned them about the extreme danger of being the cause of other people’s sin. He also had talked about his powerful demand that we learn to forgive those who offend us, particularly if they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if one of them were to sin against us seven times a day, and then repent, we would be called to forgive that person seven times a day.

The disciples clearly felt they weren’t up to the task. “Increase our faith!” they cried out. Jesus told them they first might want to find faith.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed”—that’s a very tiny seed—”you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Faith is faith, Jesus was saying. It has great power.

It has great power not because of anything we do, but because of what God can do. Our faith is largely a matter of trusting in God’s power and plan. As far as the uprooting of mulberry trees, which have very large root balls, Jesus was using hyperbole. Mark and Matthew record Jesus teaching a similar message when he described a kind of faith that can move a mountain to take a swim, too.

Jesus’ point was not that the faithful would make great landscapers. It was that the faithful know anything can happen where God wants it to happen. He can change us into people who do no harm, people overflowing with forgiveness. He can change the world into what he would have it be. And we can participate in all of that by aligning our wills with God’s will.

As far as great miracles are concerned, sea-going mulberry trees and mountains are nothing compared with what Jesus ultimately did on the cross. The power of God crushed death; the gates of heaven were flung open to what previously could not approach God, unholy, sin-stained humanity. Christ’s resurrection and the ongoing witness of the Holy Spirit at work in the world today prove it to every generation.

Ultimately, our faith is about believing that what is wrong will be set right. Maybe the transformation happens in part now; certainly it happens in full at the end of time.

Pray On This

There are some things I would like to see uprooted and flung away now. I lift these up as a prayer:

Blindness to God’s plan. May the scales be flung from the eyes of those who cannot see Jesus because of the world’s distractions.

Greed. A sense that we have to have all of ours, whatever we think “ours” is, before we consider what others may need. May that sense dissolve.

Self-interest. It drives both parties of the U.S. government right now, and it frightens the rest of us into thinking we have to behave in similar ways. Someone, please read Philippians 2:4-11.

Meanness. I know, it sounds kindergarten-ish. “Stop being mean.” There sure are a lot of people in the world who seem to delight in cutting remarks and deliberate antagonism of others, though. May God rip away the meanness we find in ourselves.

That’s just the start of a list. What would you add? And do you believe your desires are aligned with God’s?

If so, have faith, and with God’s power working in you, you might make a difference.