March 16, 2014

Slaves in Chains

Have you ever been in one of those situations where you are tasked with sharing with someone both some good news and some bad news?  What about being on the receiving end of such a transmission of information?  Which bit do you usually want first?  I guess really that decision depends on what the news is.  Sometimes the bad is better to have first because the good mitigates it somewhat.  Say you get a knock on the door one day and a strange man sadly announces that he has some bad news: he has just run over your beloved family cat.  But, as the tears are starting to glisten in your eyes, he shares the good news: he will gladly replace the animal free of charge to you.  With prodigious thanks you might inquire curiously as to the effectiveness of his mouse catching skills to know if he is going to be a worthy replacement.

Sometimes, though, reversing the order can help bring someone back down to reality.  I saw an American’s Funniest Home Video once where a guy had been given a Powerball ticket by his friends.  When they invited him over to watch the drawing, his eyes grew bigger and bigger as one-by-one the numbers on his ticket were drawn including the Powerball multiplier.  Good news!  Then, as he was jumping up and down and making a fool of himself, another friend calmly walked over to the VCR (this was an old video…kids, ask your parents), popped out the tape of the previous week’s drawing, and handed it to him…bad news!

So really, it depends on how you want to frame something as to whether or not you present the good news or the bad news first.  Well, coming into our new series, Leave Your Chains Behind, I knew that I had both some good news as well as some bad news to share with you.  As I thought back and forth about where to start, I decided that dessert would taste better first before bringing us all back down to reality.  As a result, last week we talked about the incredible news that when we are given the best free gift ever—freedom in Christ to be rightly related to God—this comes with not a single string attached.  In spite of a fair bit of entirely understandable skepticism of the contrary, our freedom in Christ comes without a single catch.  This gift horse’s teeth are all the right length.  We can shut down our cynicism meters because this news really is as good as it sounds.  We are set free to live free.  Period.  Good news…as long as we define freedom properly.  We are set free to live free as long as we understand freedom as living in a manner most accordant with reality and not as possessing the ability to do whatever we want.

But…and as I say that I can almost hear some of the cynicism meters in the room firing back up…there is an other side to this good news.  Now, it’s not a catch; just an other side.  But we have to talk about this other side because if we don’t, we run the risk of falling to it without realizing what has happened.

This morning, then, I want to take a few minutes with you to talk about this other side.  After taking a minute to look at the context of the passage in which we learn about this other side, I want to prove to you that it actually exists.  Perhaps that seems unnecessary, but given the nature of this other side, there are at least as many folks skeptical of what I’m going to share with you this morning as there were skeptical of the notion that our free gift from Christ really is free in the first place.  And so prove we will.  From there I want to unpack this idea a bit before setting in front of us the choice we all must make here.  All of that said, we learn about this other side in the middle of an episode from Jesus’ life as reported by the Apostle John.  If you will find your Bible in whatever form it happens to take and turn with me to John 8, we’ll get started.

Starting in v. 12 of John 8, the apostle records a debate that took place between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Jesus sparked the whole thing when he boldly declared himself to be the light of the world.  He looked at all the people gathered around Him and declared, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Well, this obvious self-association with God was too much for the Pharisees gathered around Him to ignore.  They essentially accuse Him of lying and the back-and forth battle begins.

The Pharisees flatly refuse to accept the notion that Jesus is anything other than a charismatic teacher with shady origins.  Jesus, on the other hand, refuses to back down from who He knows He is.  The Pharisees counter over and over with what are essentially demands for evidence: if you are who you say you are, prove it.  Jesus comes back by observing that their inability to accept the proof He’s already given, to wrap their hearts and minds around what He’s saying and claiming about Himself—all taken directly from the Scriptures they profess to hold in such high regard—is evidence of the fact that they really don’t have any kind of a real connection with God.  If they did, taking Him at His word would have presented no challenge.  Ultimately, things escalate.  Jesus argues that much contrary to their vaunted claims of righteousness, they are really children of the devil and are doing his bidding.  The Pharisees counter that Jesus must be demon-possessed and may have come out of a sexually scandalous background.  Finally, Jesus makes an undeniably explicit claim to equality with God—in the Temple of all places!—and His opponents pick up stones to kill Him on the spot.  And at this incredibly tense moment when His life was on the line the text says, “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”  I would really like to have seen exactly how all this went down.  Did Jesus make Himself invisible?  Did He just blend into the crowd like a master of disguise secret agent?  How did He get away?

In any event, toward the middle of this contentious debate, when Jesus is really pushing the Pharisees regarding their identity, their chief defense centered on the fact that they are “children of Abraham.”  You see, for a long time, what marked a person a “real” Jew was primarily genetic.  The real Jews were direct descendants of Abraham.  Everybody else was a “come here.”  And, because Moses reported that Abraham’s descendants were going to be vehicles for God’s blessing, if you were a part of the club, you were set.  You needed to be a faithful keeper of Moses’ law, of course, but really, if you were of the right stuff genetically, that was the most important thing.  With this in mind, when Jesus announces that His followers have access to the truth that sets people free, the Pharisees understand Him to be arguing that, by contrast, the folks who don’t accept Him and His teachings are not free.  This simply didn’t fit their worldview.  Thus, they very naturally challenge Him back with a question in v. 33: “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.  How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”  Now understand here that the Pharisees thought Jesus was speaking in primarily spiritual terms.  They knew their history well.  The Jewish people had been enslaved to a variety of different empires since the fall to Babylon in the 6th century B.C.  They were currently slaves of Rome.  In spiritual terms, however, they figured that they had always been free to serve God and receive His blessing because they were children of Abraham.

You know, thinking about that for a minute, there have been a whole lot of different people across human history who would have responded to Jesus here in a manner awfully similar to that of the Pharisees.  “We’re not enslaved to anything, we’re ­­­­­_________.”  Your particular worldview determines how you fill that blank.  How might you fill that blank?  With an ethnicity?  “We’re not slaves, we’re white.”  A socio-economic status?  “We’re not slaves, we’re rich.”  A particular religious tradition in which you were raised?  “We’re not slaves, we’re Baptist.”  Do you look a certain way?  Wear a certain size of clothes?  Belong to a certain gender?  Are affiliated with a certain political party?  People have always found ways to set themselves apart from the struggling masses.  For the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, genetics—being a descendant of Abraham—was the trick.

Here’s the problem: these kinds of culturally-conditioned identities have never worked to help people move beyond the realities that keep us from becoming fully who we were designed to be in any kind of a lastingly meaningful sense.  In fact, it is a reliance on just these kinds of culturally-conditioned realities which are not meaningful in an absolute sense which keep us from rising beyond our brokenness.  If Jesus’ mission was even in part about bringing us freedom (and I argued last week that this is most definitely the case), then He could not let this notion stand a moment longer.  As a result, Jesus responded to the Pharisees by announcing a deeply spiritual truth that is at one and the same time liberating and yet really terrible news. They may have thought their heritage somehow made them extra special before God, but Jesus called them to think again.  Look at v. 34: “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.’”  You see, things like social standing, economic status, ethnicity, body type, politics, or genetics may bequeath some cultural advantages, but nothing more meaningful than that.  Everyone is a slave to something.  You may have some cultural advantage that allows you a temporary reprieve from one societal pitfall or another, but everyone sins, which means everybody’s a slave.

Now, once again, if you have been around here long enough to have been thoroughly trained to the not-so-fine art of thinking like a church person, you are sitting there right now thinking, “Well, duh!  Again…hello…VBS…”  But to most folks, the notion that we are slaves apart from the freeing power of Christ in us doesn’t sit very well.  So then, are we?  Was Jesus right (beyond, you know, the fact that He was…Jesus)?

Well, let’s start with what Jesus meant.  This is a pretty critical claim so we need to make sure that we don’t misunderstand Him.  Jesus meant (are you ready?): everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.  I know, right!  I’m glad He wasn’t trying to beat around the bush or anything like that.  Now, perhaps there might be some confusion as to what it means to commit a sin.  That’s certainly understandable.  Much of our culture has no real concept of sin so talking about committing it will certainly flummox some folks.  Definitionally, sin is an action or attitude that is out of sync with God’s character, performed or held in direct contravention of His expressed standards.  That’s a fancy way of saying sin is doing something God doesn’t want you to do as an act of rebellion against His authority as God.  These actions or attitudes are spawned from a prior belief, held consciously or not (meaning you may know you think like this, or you may not know you think like this, be either way, if you sin, you do think like this), that something or someone other than God is residing in what would traditionally be thought of as His place.  Committing a sin, then, would be following through on this belief by actually performing this action or holding this attitude.

Doing this, Jesus says, makes us a slave to sin.  At the point of sin, whatever or whoever this other master to which we have now submitted ourselves is, that’s the thing calling the shots in our lives.  And, lest someone try and come back with the retort, “I am my own master.  I don’t have anyone calling the shots for my life,” not so fast.  If this non-God master is you, then what has happened is that you have reduced yourself from a creature made in the image of God to a mere collection of appetites before which you are powerless.  Animals—that is, creatures not made in the image of God—act by instinct.  They are not in control of themselves.  They don’t have a sense of self.  Think about it: if you are a god unto yourself, then you couldn’t have been created in God’s image because you didn’t create yourself and you don’t believe in any other god.  This is what our culture misses.  Even if we reject every other non-God master out there, being our own master is no improvement of things.  Here’s why: you can’t control your appetites.  “But I said no to that extra piece of cake last night!”  Good for you.  Did you say no the night before?  The night before that?  Did you turn down that last little bit of self-indulgence?  Will you turn down the next one and every single time thereafter without fail?  “But I wanted it that one time!  I was totally in control then.”  Perhaps.  But what about that one time when that bit of self-indulgence actually hurt you or someone in your life and you knew it would beforehand.  Were you in control then?  Answer carefully.  Either you weren’t free…which you can’t admit for fear of losing the point…or else you were actively doing something to hurt either yourself or another person.  Well, no sane person actively does something to hurt themselves on purpose and purely in the name of self-indulgence.  That goes against the self-preservation instinct.  And, in spite of some bad arguments to the contrary, we know inherently that it isn’t right to hurt someone else on purpose.  This means you’ve done something intentionally which you knew to be not right.  Stay with me here.  People don’t do things which they know to be wrong unless somehow compelled to do them.  And, if you have been compelled then you are not free, are you?  Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.

Here’s the tough reality we need to face: As long as you walk apart from Christ, and even when you disconnect from Christ when you have been walking with Him for a while, you don’t make many free choices.  Now, notice there that I don’t say “any.”  In Romans 6 Paul points out that slaves to sin are free with regard to righteousness.  Slaves to sin can and do occasionally perform righteous, God-honoring actions as a result of being made in His image whether we want to admit it or not.  We have that freedom when we are slaves to sin.  We do not, however, have the freedom to not sin…our appetites demand it.  But, in spite of having the freedom to perform righteous actions, we don’t do it very often because we are so busy trying to please whatever happens to be our master instead of God.  But I digress…the point here is that hardly any of our choices are freely made.  Let that sit on you for just a minute.  When you aren’t connected to Christ for whatever reason the vast majority of the decisions you make aren’t free…because you’re a slave.  This notion runs directly counter to how we are taught to think and feel about ourselves.  We are instructed from day one in this culture that we live in a free country and that we are freest when we are pursuing who we most feel like we are; when we are living out of our deepest-felt identity regardless of any cultural or biological facts that might restrain us.  And yet the truth on the lips of Jesus here is that when we are living out of any identity other than our identity in Christ, we are slaves.  We are so because regardless of what our chosen identity happens to be, if it is other than what we have in Christ it is going to, by definition, be a sin-filled identity.

So then, what do we do with this?  I mean, compared to the good news of last week this is pretty terrible news.  Think about it: everybody commits sin.  All the time.  And, everybody who commits sin is a slave to sin.  Guess what this means.  Everybody’s a slave.  Is that it, then?  Are we all just slaves and tough noogies?  Well, that’s not what Jesus said.  Stay with me.  Jesus said that everybody who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The first time you do something at the behest of someone other than God, you are slave to whatever or whoever that is.  You may change masters over time in kind of a reversed slave auction block, but still you remain a slave.  Even if only ourselves, when we sign up to meet the demands of our appetites, those appetites own us.  Furthermore, there isn’t any kind of cultural identity that offers any particular group of people a reprieve from this.  Different groups may struggle with different kinds of sin, but they are all slaves of sin.  The solution to the problem of our slavery, then, is not to be found any particular cultural artifice.  Becoming more liberal or more conservative or more masculine or more feminine or more neutral or wealthier or poorer or whiter or blacker or whatever is not going to solve the problem.  Listen to Jesus’ words carefully once again: everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  But do you notice who’s not mentioned there?  What group of people is specifically excluded from this?  The people who don’t sin!  If everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, then everyone who does not commit sin is not a slave to sin.  But wait a minute, didn’t I just say that everyone sins?  Well, I did…but that’s not quite totally accurate.  Everyone who’s not living totally out of the freedom Christ offers sins.

Well now, which is it?  Does everybody sin or are there some people who don’t?  Yes.  Everybody sins, but when people who have taken up the journey of following Christ live consistently with their confession, relying fully on the freeing power of Christ, they freely choose to do things which are honoring of God and not those which aren’t.  Now, yes, they do one set and not the other because their freedom demands it which can seem from the outside looking in to be a condition, indeed Paul himself refers to these folks elsewhere as slaves of righteousness, but this righteous lifestyle is fully consonant with reality as defined by the God who created it and thus is freely chosen.  In other words, though, and more to the point: they don’t sin.  And, if they don’t sin, they aren’t slaves to it, are they?  Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  Everyone who doesn’t, isn’t.

 

So then, we are left here with a choice.  We can be slaves, or we can be free.  Now, at first blush that seems like a pretty obvious choice.  Give me a quick show of hands: who wants to be a slave?  Nobody?  Yeah, me neither.  Obvious choice, right?  Well, maybe not so obvious as it first seems.  You see, the consequences of our enslavement very often don’t immediately come to bear on us.  Because God created us with the ability to make meaningful, consequential choices—a great gift of dignity, by the way—we go through our daily lives with apparent liberty.  We pretty much do what we want and even where that isn’t honoring of God, we don’t often face the kinds of immediate consequences that would dissuade us from that with much of a sense of urgency.  I mean, it seems like it would have been nice for God to have created the universe with little warning bells that went off every time we tried to do something dumb, but that would have taken some of the meaningfulness out of our choices.  If there was a physically painful response every time we started in the direction of disobeying God we probably wouldn’t do it as often, but then neither could our choices carry meaningful consequences.  Instead, God kind of frontloaded us with the “hot stove” effect through what’s sometimes called objective morality such that the bells ring inside our heads and our hearts, but those bells are easy to ignore…especially when ignoring them brings us a lot of immediate, if temporary, pleasure.  No, this choice, as it turns out, is often very difficult to make.  Yet still the choice remains: Slave or free.  We can live comfortably within the bounds of reality or we can shrug them off and live with the chains of fantasy.  But we will choose one or the other.  There is no middle ground here.  Either we are wholly submitted to God or else we are entirely enslaved to something else.  Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  If we are going to leave our chains behind, these are the stakes facing us.  Either we leave them behind entirely and enjoy the no-strings-attached freedom we have in Christ or else we remain bound.  Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  If you want to leave your chains behind, the choice is clear.  And speaking of choices, I hope you make the choice to be here for the next couple of weeks as we examine the kinds of behaviors consistent with each side of this choice.  You see, for some folks, the lifestyle that comes with the chains—made to look oh-so-enticing by our culture—seems worth the risk.  The Apostle Paul, however, declares otherwise.  The lifestyle of slavery comes with all the rules you might expect a slave to have to obey.  The life of freedom, on the other hand, requires no such laws to restrain it.  Be here as we take a look at this issue from both sides.