God of love and freedom, we feel free most of the time. We are free to worship and serve you, and free to reject you. We are free to marry the person we love, free to befriend some people and free to ignore others. We are free to spend our time and money as we like. We are free to think the thoughts we have and feel the feelings that rise up within us. All this freedom. And yet you know that we are far less free than we believe. We are bound by habits and limited by false horizons. We swim with the flow of public opinion. The expectations of others shape our own. And things we learned early, later become impediments to the fullness of life. Show us the many enslavements that keep us from freely and joyfully loving and serving you. And give us the means to break those bonds so that we may grasp true freedom and the fullness of life you offer us. In the name of the One who burst the confines of the tomb, Amen.
Reflection: Love Slaves
Our Romans passage (6:12-23) is all about slavery this morning. It is a continuation of last Sunday’s reading in which Paul instructs that with baptism, we are no longer enslaved to sin but rather walk in newness of life. In today’s passage Paul continues, instructing us to cast aside our slavery to sin and to become slaves to righteousness.
Righteousness is an old-fashioned word. What does it mean? Doing the right thing. Being faithful to God. Acting with justice and mercy. Dwelling in God’s love and letting the love flow out from us. Which definition rings true to you? Which pushes the boundaries of your understanding?
What might it mean to be a slave to righteousness? The Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was a slave to righteousness in his campaign for freedom, safety and opportunity for Black Americans. His slavery to righteousness led him to embrace and espouse nonviolent direct action – sit-ins, freedom rides, marches – that put his body and life in danger. In 1963 he was criticised for being an extremist by White clergymen. They wrote to him when he was in the Birmingham, Alabama jail, asking him to stop it. He wrote the majestic Letter from Birmingham Jail in response, 7000 words of passionate plea filled with love for God and for the Church despite its many failures (you can read it at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html). If I were queen of the universe, I would paste it in every Bible. In it he said
“…though I was initially disappointed at being categorised as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.'”
He went on to name the prophet Amos an extremist for justice, the apostle Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel, the Reformer Martin Luther an extremist, and American heroes Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln extremists. And he said:
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
I read this now in the context of Romans, replacing the word “extremist” for “slave”. It seems a faithful rendering of the text. And I think about what I am enslaved to and what we are enslaved to in the West.
I am enslaved to the ideas that I can buy what I want at the drop of a hat without thought of the environmental or human consequences, that I am free to say what I want regardless of how that might impact on others, that the prime directive is to look out for myself and my family. I am enslaved to my comforts, my habits, my convenience. We in the West are enslaved to the use of fossil fuels, to economic structures built on the profit motive, to industrial practices that pollute.
What might it be like to be instead enslaved to love? To the kind of love that considers others’ needs as important as our own? To the kind of love that would have me give up my comfort and convenience so that others could have food or safety from rising sea levels or peace?
I fall far short. We all do. The system is stacked against us.
It is particularly overwhelming in these challenging times to embrace the reality that things have to change in the way we and the whole world operate in order to stave off climate change and this and future pandemics. It is hard to make the link between individual behaviours and worldwide consequences. But perhaps our experience in these months – when our personal behaviours have had to change to protect the life and health of ourselves and others – will give us more confidence about some of the hard choices facing us.
Being enslaved to anything doesn’t sound very appealing to me. But if we are going to be enslaved, if the nature of being human is that as creatures of habit we are prone to slavery, then I want to be a slave to love. I want God’s love to so fill me that I cannot not love.
May it be so. Amen.
Hymn Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love R&S 648
fill us with your love,
show us how to serve,
the neighbours we have from you.
Kneels at the feet of his friends,
silently washes their feet,
Master who acts as a slave to them: chorus
Neighbours are rich, and are poor,
neighbours are black, and are white,
neighbours are near and are far away. chorus
These are the ones we should serve,
these are the ones we should love.
All these are neighbours to us and you: chorus
Kneel at the feet of our friends,
silently washing their feet,
this is the way we should live with you: chorus
May the face of God shine upon you,
the love of Christ dwell within you,
and the power of the Holy Spirit employ you
as we go forth to love and to serve.