Slavery doesn’t get such a good rap nowadays. Historically it is not that long ago that our own and other Western economies depended on slavery - a couple of weeks ago our Prime Minister was taken to task for suggesting there was never slavery in Australia - and even now we need to be vigilant that the endless supply of goods we take for granted as consumers do not come from supply chains where men and women and children work in conditions that amount to forced labour. But we recoil at the language St Paul uses in today’s reading from the letter to the Romans. Be slaves, he tells us, not of sin but of righteousness.
Partly we react to this sort of language because the fight against real slavery that affects the lives of millions even today is so important - but the other reason this sort of language is difficult for us is because - deeply rooted in Western culture ever since the Enlightenment in the 17th century is the notion that as individuals with inalienable human rights the possession of personal freedom is the foundation of happiness. As modern people increasingly we want freedom not only from the tyranny of dictators, or freedom from discrimination based on ethnicity or religion, we also want freedom of travel, freedom from boredom, freedom from obligations or conventions. We want freedom to do whatever we feel like, and we react badly whenever that freedom seems to be curtailed.
And St Paul of course disagrees with us. In fact for Paul, freedom to do what I want when I want to do it leads straight back into slavery because it is a certain prescription for falling back into the dominion of sin. And he expresses this as being subject to the tyranny of our own desires. Paul understands that freedom is the condition of a life well-lived, but he also understands that ‘freedom from’ - this or that - is never enough to lead to human flourishing. Theologian Rudolph Bultmann puts it very well - ‘genuine freedom is freedom that directs us beyond the clamour and pressure of momentary motivations’. Paul’s basic point is that we are always either self-centred or God-centred. St Augustine takes this point and expands on it. We are made in God’s image, he assures us, but as the result of the Fall we human beings are universally damaged by sin. We have free will but it is weakened. And so we are easily enslaved by false images of the self. In our modern age we can be enslaved by glossy advertising, we can be slaves to fashion or to consumerism or property or status. And Paul’s basic point is that our addiction to the project of the self needs to be put to death.
But that is impossible. We can’t by our own decision free ourselves from what enslaves us because actually what most enslaves us is - us. We are addicted to false images of ourselves that we buy into incrementally and without realising it and because, as Augustine reminds us, we are so affected by sin that we do not have full control over our own will. We are able to orient ourselves to God’s purposes only through God’s grace.
This passage in Romans is traditionally thought of as being about the human response of sanctification - the first half of chapter 6 being about justification or the fact that the righteousness of Christ rather than our own righteousness acquits us in God’s sight. But sanctification, or the good life as Christians, is also beyond our reach. For St Paul the righteousness of Christ is surely the lynch-pin, but as Christians who do not wish to be slaves to our own false self-image we also need the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to keep us oriented to what gives us life. The good news is that the change of orientation is possible - the frailty of our human existence is able to be brought into unity with God’s life because in Jesus God first joined his divine life to ours. The possibility of our human response to God is in other words a consequence and a sign of the power of the resurrection.
That’s the good news, or shall we say the short version! But the outworking of this is that we need to grow in discernment, in the ability to tune into God’s Holy Spirit, to correctly understand and to follow where God is leading us. St Paul makes the point that just as enslavement to our own false images of the self is a self-reinforcing spiral, so is life in the Spirit. As we practise the fruits of the Spirit which in the Letter to the Galatians he lists as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" we also grow in discernment, in the ability to recognise and follow where God is leading. It is a self-reinforcing spiral because it is the work of the Spirit within us. And what grows in us is a will that is more in tune with God’s purpose for us. Another point that Paul doesn’t make about the practice of discernment but that is made very capably by the late Bishop of Windsor, John Taylor, in his remarkable book, The Christlike God, is that whatever else God is like, God is like Jesus. Because Jesus is the reflection in human life of God’s own life. So if you are wrestling with what God wants for you, if you are trying to discern God’s leading, then the first step is that God’s purposes for you are always going to be congruent with what we see in Jesus. Never opposite, never contradictory to what we see in Jesus. It’s a simple and self-evident point, but it’s worth remembering.
Just a few words about our reading this morning from the Book of Genesis, where Abraham is continuing to try to work out what God is requiring from him. I think last week I used the term coined by the great feminist Bible scholar, Phyllis Trible, who called this story, as well as the story of Ishmael and a few others, ‘texts of terror’. If we are not terrified by the idea that the God who created us and all creatures in love might want the sacrifice of an old man’s only remaining son, then we probably haven’t been listening. Or even that a loving God might want to test an old man by making him think that God wanted him to sacrifice his son. Bishop Taylor’s point seems applicable here!
God certainly wants us to centre our lives on his loving purposes, both Genesis and St Paul agree. And St Paul back in chapter 4 of Romans also makes the point strongly that God’s purposes are wider than ours, and that Abraham’s trusting faith that God’s purposes are good is commended as faithfulness. This is utterly consistent with the point he makes in chapter 6 that we read today, that our own purposes and priorities that come from our false image of ourselves need to be put to death so that we can orient ourselves to God’s purposes. Paul is nothing if not uncompromising, and his good news is hard to follow!
To step back a bit from the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac - what he is learning, I believe, is that God’s purposes are always for life, not death. Human sacrifice did happen in ancient Israel, actually, and we can read of it in the book of Judges, in 1 Kings, and the prophet Micah who reminds the people around eight centuries before Christ that God never requires child sacrifice but does require justice, and kindness and humility. The fact that this seems obvious to us is of course a good thing, but the evidence is that this understanding of God grew gradually. Abraham starts the journey believing God is calling him to sacrifice the child that is the bearer of future hope and finds by journey’s end that God is calling him to mercy and integrity. Perhaps the story is a reflection not only of Abraham’s growth in understanding but the journey of an ancient people that led them away from a vision of a vengeful and capricious God to one of mercy and loving-kindness. It might also be a reflection of our own journey of understanding as our vision of God becomes wider and more inclusive.
Both the story of Abraham and the passage from St Paul are about the task of discernment, the task of following God’s leading for our lives, and both make the same basic point about trust, and about quietening the chatter of our own preconceptions and self-serving desires. Who are we going to serve? The false god that we cobble together in our own self-image or the God who created us in love and who takes on our own human form to share his life with us? The first option looks more appealing at first. The second one requires us to acknowledge we are not the centre of our own lives, and demands from us trust and discipline and attentiveness and love.