We have been reflecting on Paul’s letter to the church in Rome for the last five weeks. I have spoken about the historical context previously, particularly about the Roman Imperial Theology in which the emperor was considered to be the “Divine Lord and Savior” of the world that stands in direct contrast to Paul’s claims about Jesus. Keeping that context in mind as one reads this ancient letter to the church can greatly help our understanding of it.
Another aspect of that historical context important for our reading of this morning’s text is the Roman use of slavery upon which their economic system depended. While slavery may seem like an ancient reality for most of us today, the social and economic impacts of slavery in this country is a on-going reality that one has to take into account to understand the dynamics of the horrible violence we have seen just this week in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and now Dallas.
Slavery shreds the fabric of human society long after the last chattels are broken. Consider that it took a full century after the Emancipation Proclamation before the voting rights of African Americans were acknowledged in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And now, a half a century after the Civil Rights Act of the year before, it should be abundantly clear to everyone paying attention that we still have a long way to go before the Dream of Martin Luther King Jr. is realized where every person’s civil rights are respected regardless of the color of their skin. With all this, the ancient and the modern contexts in mind, listen to these words from the Apostle Paul.
So ponder with me what it means to be led by a “spirit of adoption” rather than a “spirit of slavery”. Those led by the Spirit of God, Paul says, put to death the deeds of the body and do not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Those two phrases — ‘deeds of the body’, and ‘spirit of slavery’ – are two sides of the one coin we typically call sin, except that we usually focus only one the one side, “deeds of the body”, that we sum up in notions of personal morality: honesty, integrity, sexual fidelity, charity, doing no harm to others, do not lie, steal, cheat, murder, and above all, be good to your pastor. Those are “deeds of the body”. But it’s more than that. That is also a corporate side to this coin we call sin.
Think about what a spirit of slavery was in that first century context, when all economic activity, from harvesting crops to building roads, was heavily dependent upon slave labor. Case in point: The colosseum, which I used two weeks ago as a backdrop for my sermon, was largely built on the backs of Jewish slaves captured in the defeat of Jerusalem about 10 to 15 years after Paul wrote this letter. It’s hard for us to imagine what such a world was like.
I heard someone with experience in 12 step groups call this a ‘spirit of addiction’. It’s a good analogy, because I think many of us know, either through personal experience or that of a loved one, what addiction is like. How controlling and frightening it can be. But a spirit of slavery was not just the problem of an individual or even a group of individuals, it was not simply a question of personal morality as if slavery would be OK if slave masters would simply more loving in their treatment of the human beings they owned and controlled.
Paul makes pretty clear in his letter to Philemon that one can not be a follower of Jesus and an owner of slaves. Philemon must welcome his former slave Onesimus back not as a runaway slave but as a long-lost brother in Christ. The call of Paul to reject the spirit of slavery here is a call for Christians everywhere to accept their social responsibility in every time and place, to replace that spirit of controlling, oppressive power with a spirit of adoption that elevates the status of the lowly and oppressed to that of an heir as a child of God.
To make this claim in a society where one’s status was determined by one’s birth, race, gender, nationality or even religion, and to throw all of that out and to say those are the old ways of the flesh replaced by the way of the spirit available to any and everyone regardless of their current station in life, is an incredibly bold, audacious claim.
To be led by that spirit, then, is to live lives of personal morality plus social responsibility, rejecting the way of the world, or the way of the flesh as Paul calls it, in favor of the way of God, the way of the spirit. To reject the way of death in favor of the way of life.
Paul characterizes this way of life as the spirit of adoption. Those led by the spirit are not only children of God, they are heirs of a divine inheritance. Now we use ‘children of God’, too much, I think, — we over-use it. And so we take for granted that everyone is a child of God and hence it ceases to be anything special.
But again, in that first century Roman context, it was a different story. There were many children of many gods, but these were usually legendary war heroes, like Achilles, or the heads of state like Caesar Augustus. To be called a child of God was more than an affirmation, it was a declaration of immense value and worth. It was a way of saying, “Slaves’ lives matter.” So valuable, in fact, Paul calls them and us ‘joint heirs’ with Christ. It doesn’t get any higher than that.
Thus, in this brief paragraph, Paul has taken us from debtors of flesh to divine inheritance. From a spirit of slavery to heirs of God as people led by the spirit. What does that mean, then, to be led by the spirit? How do we know when we are following the Spirit of God and when we are just following our own desires and influenced by our human biases?
With the horrible tragedy in Dallas on Thursday, I am reminded of that Texas icon of wit and colorful sarcasm, Molly Ivins, may she rest in peace. Molly wrote in one of her syndicated columns back in 1993 this reflection:
As a civil libertarian, I of course support the 2nd Amendment. And I believe it means exactly what it says: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Fourteen-year-old boys are not part of a well-regulated militia. Members of wacky religious cults are not part of a well-regulated militia. Permitting unregulated citizens to have guns is destroying the security of this free state.
One can only imagine what Molly would say to recent events if she were still living.
In one of her last columns, she dryly noted the joy of learning that God had been named chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. I was curious how they got Her to accept the position. So I checked, and I found out it wasn’t quite the case — Molly wasn’t being totally straight with us in that column. The Republican Party did not elect God as chairman. It turns out that actual chairperson, Ms. Tina Benkiser, in a very enthusiastic, spirit-filled speech to the party faithful, made the affirmation that God is the chairman of their party, which I simply take as a claim that they are being led by God.
Now, there might be in the grand state of Texas, a few Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, folks of other political affiliation, who also happen to be Christian. I realize it’s a stretch of the imagination, but there might be, there in Texas, folks of other political persuasions, that might feel that they too are being led by God.
And that raises a thorny issue: who has the right to speak for God in our world? To say which side God is on, or not. Is that something we determine by popular vote? Being election season, we hear all kinds of claims for whose side God is on. What are we to believe?
I was at a ministers gathering years ago, and made some comment in the course of conversation of the task of interpreting scripture while preaching. One of my colleagues, from another Disciple church (this was down in California) said in all sincerity that he didn’t do that. He did not interpret scripture. He simply said whatever it is that God told him to say to the congregation! Didn’t have to interpret it through a human mind, it came to the congregation unfiltered.
And I thought, why didn’t I think of that! How simple it would be to prepare a sermon because you wouldn’t have to think about it. Just tell them what God tells you to say. So I’ve decided that’s what I’ll do. Don’t like what I say, don’t question me, question God! And why should preachers be the only ones with such clarity? Why shouldn’t we all just say or do whatever it is that God tells us to?
Having difficulty to decide what to wear in the morning? Just ask God. Trying to make up your mind what car to buy? Well, do whatever God tells you to do. Don’t like to pay taxes? Ignore them! It is your God-given right!
Instinctively, I think most of us here know that such thinking is religious nonsense. 9 times out of 10, I can guarantee when someone says, “God told me…” you can be certain that God did not. I’m convinced that when people talk like that, what they’re really saying is ‘I am so sure that I am right that not even God would disagree with me’.
Reminds me of the old story of Rabbi Moshe, who was in a debate with other Rabbi’s, 4 of them. Rabbi Moshe seemed to always be on the losing side, but the rules of the debate were that the majority wins. The vote was 3-1, so the other Rabbi’s were trying to convince him that they were right and he was wrong. But Rabbi Moshe was convinced that he was right, and he said to them: “If I am wrong, may God strike me dead, but if I am right, may the breath of God blow out this candle”. Sure enough, the storm clouds began to gather, the wind began to blow, and whoosh!, blew out the candle.
Rabbi Moshe said “See!”. The other Rabbi’s said “So? The wind blows all the time. What does that prove?”. Rabbi Moshe said “If I am wrong may God strike me dead, but if I am right may lightning strike that tree”. And the storm clouds began to gather and the sky grew darker and it began to thunder and sure enough, lighting came down and struck the tree, split it in half. And Rabbi Moshe said “See!”. And the other Rabbi’s said “So? Lightning strikes the earth 100 times a day, what does that prove?” Rabbi Moshe said “If I am wrong may God strike me dead, but if I am right may the voice of God speak from the heavens and justify my cause”. And sure enough, the skies split open and the voice of God thundered down and said “Rabbi Moshe is right, listen to him”. Rabbi Moshe said “See!”. The other Rabbi’s said: “So? Now the vote is 3-2!”.
There are those times of absolute clarity when we may be certain of what God’s will is for our lives. Even extraordinary events, the metaphorical “road to Damascus” encounter when Christ blinded Paul, but those are a once in a lifetime experience if at all for most of us. Yet I have no doubt that God does speak to us in many ways on a daily basis. But the hard reality is that it is never so simple as, “God told me.” Instead God gives to us tools and resources, the stories of our faith, the scriptures, the community of faith, our tradition, our own minds, all things that we can and should use (with prayer) to discern the will of God. But all of that takes effort.
Do you know what that’s called? That’s called spiritual maturity. We don’t get spoon-fed answers for every situation. We have to do the hard work for ourselves. God is not going to do it for us.
We often discuss how to ‘market’ ourselves, how to get our name out. If we only had an image, a logo we can use that people will recognize and will understand that’s what this church is about. I’ve often threatened to use the one image which really doesn’t say so much of what we are about as what we are NOT about — a man with tape over his mouth, and the caption that says “The only problem with churches that have all the answers is they don’t allow any questions”.
We encourage questioning, we encourage thinking. That’s the kind of church that we seek to be. We don’t have all the answers in a nice, neatly wrapped-up little package so that we can say ‘this is what God wants us to do’.
What we do have, however, is the promise from Paul, that even if we cannot know the mind of God, we can be led by the spirit of God. So what does that mean? With Christian groups working on the opposite sides of almost every issue facing our nation today, from building walls on our southern border, to transporting oil through our city, what does it mean to be led by the spirit of God?
As tempted as I am to say, “well God told me to tell you”, I will refrain. So this is just one pastor’s interpretation, take it or leave it, from a lifetime of study and discernment, on what it means to be “Spirit led”, taking our faith seriously to make that “Spirit of adoption” applicable in all areas of our lives and society.
When we de-humanize and demonize others, we are following the spirit of slavery.
When we show love and respect for every human being as a valued child of God, we are led by the Spirit of God.
When we treat others with contempt, when we judge them as worthless, we are following the spirit of slavery.
When our respect for human rights are not limited by the bounds of our minds or the borders of our land, we are led by the Spirit of God.
When we use race and religion, nationality, political ideology and sexual identity to determine who is welcome and who is not, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, that is the spirit of slavery.
When we can stand together with all of our brothers and sisters of the human family — not because we share the same faith or the same ancestry or the same color of skin or the same ideology or even the same desires — but because we share the same inheritance as children of God, one humanity that must share the same resources of our one earth, that is the Spirit of adoption.
When we finally understand what it means to say, “Black lives matter” given the reality where clearly they do not matter to many in our country, including some in uniform, we have that Spirit of adoption. And to that we must also add “Blue lives matter” to stand with our public servants in uniform who are trying to do the right thing that we will not return to that spirit of slavery which has held its grip on this country for so long.
This is our challenge and our calling, that we may, as Paul says, not fall back into fear, but by the spirit of Christ, bear witness that we are all children of the one God in whose love we are joined together as one people, black and white, gay and straight, police and citizens, immigrants and native born, working to establish God’s justice here on earth as in heaven for all God’s people.
May it be so here, may it be so everywhere, may it be so now.