July 2, 2017 “Freedom” – Romans 6:17-23 (w/Spanish translation by Charo Schaeffer))
July 2, 2017 – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
I made a $1.65 an hour at my first job, serving coffee and juice to folks one summer at the Brentwood Market near Beverly Hills in southern California. When school started I was free to quit, even though my employers wanted me to come in and help after school. They wanted me to come back the next summer too, but I found a better paying job cleaning offices for a janitorial company.
We used to take that kind of employment freedom for granted in the United States. If you don’t like a job or want better wages, you can quit and find something else. But that hasn’t always been the case and still isn’t. Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about the plight of the indentured railroad servant:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get.
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.
You might think that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. We have labor laws and minimum wage and all that. But while I was on vacation I read a USA Today article about port truckers in California, the people who haul stuff made overseas from the docks to railroad yards or storage depots. Those truckers are supposedly independent contractors, but they bought their rigs with loans from the trucking companies. If they quit they lose everything they’ve paid in. They work long hours, make less than minimum wage and often can’t even cover their truck payments, fuel, etc. If they complain, they get fired or given less work. Despite what the companies claim, these truckers are not free at all.
As Paul writes in our text about being slaves to sin, he is talking about a servitude even worse than the abuses employers can heap on people. Yet he is also talking about serving a better Master, who gives us freedom much more liberating than the right to choose where we work.
Verse 17 says, “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.” It is a “teaching,” that sets us free from sin. In America we’ve been very proud of education. Parents who didn’t get to go to college work long and hard so that their children can have that opportunity. With a good education you can get a good job, you can work for a good employer. What you learn will give you freedom for a better life.
As students these days pile up mounds of debt to go to college, it’s not so clear that education will set you free. College is certainly a good thing, but it can also make you another day older and deeper in debt. Let us pray that our young people may find ways through and out of slavery to their student loans.
The teaching, the education Paul is talking about will set you free, because it is the teaching of Jesus. What Jesus said in John 8:32 is inscribed above the doors of the Knight Library at the University of Oregon, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” But Jesus wasn’t talking about a library filled with books. He was talking about knowing Him, about following Him, about being His disciple. Jesus is the truth, the teaching that will set you free, free from sin and free from death.
So Paul says in verse 18 that we have been set free from sin and “have become slaves of righteousness.” Without Jesus we are as helpless in relation to sin as slaves were in this country before the Civil War, as helpless as people still are who are trapped in low-paying, dangerous, health-destroying jobs today, as helpless as students trying to pay off huge loans. If you’ve ever deliberately and seriously set out, on your own, in your own strength, to quit sinning in some particular way, you know what I mean. Sin has a grip on us. We are addicted to it, as much as the poor girls and boys who are enslaved by sex-traffickers are addicted to the drugs they are given.
If you don’t like the pictures I’m painting, I’m sorry. I’m just doing what Paul says in verse 19 that he is doing, speaking in human terms because of the “weakness of our flesh,” our human limitations. Paul talks about sin in the graphic terms of slavery to help us understand just how powerful it is and how important it is that we get free from it.
The rest of verse 19 tells us to switch masters, to move from slavery to sin into slavery to righteousness. Paul says that because it is possible. An employee can feel totally trapped by her job, a student by his loans, an addict by her drugs. But God does not mean for us to be totally trapped in sin. There is a way out, a God-given freedom from sin.
As we celebrate our American freedom on Tuesday we tend to think of it in terms of all the personal choices we have. We are free to work where we want, to shop where we want, even to worship where we want. Those are nice freedoms. But we also find ourselves free to do wrong when we want, to drink too much alcohol, to watch pornography, to cheat on a spouse, to be selfish and mean, to take advantage of others in ways that are perfectly legal. We may be legally free but still enslaved to sin. As Paul says in verse 20, in that situation we are “free in regard to righteousness.” We may choose whether we want to do what is right or not, and we often don’t.
Verse 21 asks us what advantage there is to that sort of freedom, the freedom to do wrong, to live in sin? What do we get out of all that sin which only makes us feel ashamed when we think about it? As Paul says, “the end of those things is death.”
In April, Kate Moore published a book called The Radium Girls. It’s the story of young women in the 1920s who worked in factories putting luminous, radioactive paint on watch dials and clocks and gauges for the military to make them glow in the dark. They themselves got covered in dust from the paint and glowed. They were taught to lick the end of their paint brushes to make a delicate point to do fine work. As time went on, these women began to get sick, to suffer horrible illness from the radioactive substance they handled. One woman went to the dentist to have a tooth pulled and her whole jaw came out with it. Their bones weakened and their legs and backs broke. They died. What started out as a wonderful new job opportunity ended in death.
Moore’s book chronicles how the women began to fight back, to take legal action to hold their employers responsible. They won settlements, but for some the money simply paid for their funerals. Eventually the plight of the radium girls led to new regulations on workplace conditions, but many of them gave their lives before those changes happened.
The radium girls were trapped by employment that brought them death. The Bible says we are in the same kind of situation with sin. If we stay in it, we will die, forever. The good news is that we can be free. As verse 22 explains, “you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.”
Radium and sin will both kill you. As horrible as radiation poisoning is, dying of sin is worse because it lasts forever. The good news is that by faith in Jesus Christ you can be free from sin and have a life that lasts forever. Trust in Jesus and God will forgive your sins and set you free from them and bring you into His kingdom for eternity.
Verse 23 sums it all up. This is the true freedom which God gives you. Choose your employer. Choose your wages. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The radium girls died and made things better for a few people after them. Jesus died to set us all free, free from all the sin and wrong that makes us feel so trapped and enslaved. And Jesus rose again to set us free from the consequences of sin, to lift us out of death into the freedom of eternal life. My prayer is that everyone here will make the choice, and make it over and over every day, to turn away from sin and be free, to turn toward Jesus and find life. May you have that gracious and eternal freedom.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj