By Thomas Briedenthal
The passage we have heard today from Paul’s great letter to the church in Rome is summed up in this sentence: “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments righteousness” (Romans 6:13).
Or, in the Jerusalem Bible’s more colorful translation: “You must not let any part of your body turn into an unholy weapon fighting on the side of sin; you should, instead, offer yourselves to God, and consider yourselves dead people brought back to life. You should make every part of your body into a weapon fighting on the side of God.”
Paul is drawing a contrast between giving in to sin and giving ourselves over to God. For Paul, sin comes down to stubborn resistance to God’s will, while righteousness amounts to accepting God’s abundant love for us and paying it forward to our neighbor. When we welcome the stranger, when we welcome and care for those more vulnerable than ourselves, when we welcome the outcast and, above all, when we welcome Jesus, the kingdom of God comes very close to us, as today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel says (Matt. 10:40-42). Instead of submitting to the forces of selfishness and cruelty, we submit ourselves to the dominion of grace. This is what Paul means when he writes, further on in his letter: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).
Nevertheless, we may be troubled by Paul’s claim in today’s passage that when we present ourselves to God we become “slaves of righteousness.” He says we are either slaves of sin, which leads to death, or slaves of obedience, which leads to righteousness. This is tough language, and especially now.
As a nation, we are in a time of heightened tension around our history with slavery. We may be relatively comfortable with the notion that spiritual renewal is an escape from slavery to sin. After all, that’s what we mean when we think of Easter as a celebration of our exodus from our own selfishness, bitterness and fear. But the notion of slavery to righteousness — that is, slavery to God — is jarring.
Paul is using language that would have been familiar to anyone in the Roman Empire of his time. Slavery was considered normal, and it involved the total subjection of a certain class of people to the service of their master. What is striking about Paul’s application of slavery to the Christian life is that he turns it upside-down. For him, enslavement to God is the offering of all we are and all we have to God. In other words, it is something we choose to do, not something we are forced to do.
Here’s what I think Paul’s getting at. The more we follow Jesus, the more we give ourselves over to God — our bodies, our sadness, our personal agenda, whatever privilege we have or don’t have. Paul is talking about surrendering our very lives in trust to Jesus, who is the guardian and shepherd of our souls.
So, as Paul says, we present ourselves freely to God to be God’s instruments for good. But how do we do that? As Covid-19 regains strength, we may feel helpless in the face of forces that are stronger than we are. The same may be true as we consider four centuries of deep-seated racism in this land. Can anything really change on that front?
The Black Lives Matter movement insists that meaningful change must happen on the racial front, but in so doing it concedes that whatever advances we have made in racial justice are perhaps no more than superficial. Is real change, reaching down into four centuries of racial oppression in this land, really possible?
Where is the good news, the gospel nourishment offered to us by Paul today? I do find good news here, and I hope you do, too. Paul says we present ourselves to God as persons who have been brought from death to life. This brings us back to Easter and Exodus. We who were dead now live. We who continue to sin in big and little ways expect that in Christ we shall enjoy eternal life. But how has this new life been vouchsafed to us? And how are we to lay claim to it in service to our Lord?
The answer is alarmingly simple. As Paul says over and over, we are raised from the dead by the mercy of God, which breaks through our sinful systems and our little dramas. It is God’s mercy, offered to each and every one of us, that lifts us up from despair to hope, from selfishness to generosity of spirit, from lock-step division to common ground.
When we own this mercy, our relationship to sin in ourselves and in others is changed. This doesn’t mean that we are no longer sinners. It means that, whatever we have done or failed to do, we don’t have to give in to the false dominion of sin. We assume that the more we do wrong, the farther we are from God. Jesus says the opposite. No matter what we do, God is with us in mercy to see us through to wholeness.
So what does that mean for us in this hard time? Plainly put, we must be people of mercy because we have been shown mercy. A change of heart in our nation will require that each of us lay aside every temptation to hatred and revenge, and in every instance temper condemnation with mercy.
This is a back-breaking spiritual discipline which we will fall short of every day. Yet in the long run we can habituate ourselves to mercy, and this for two reasons.
First, despite our fragility and backsliding, it is as forgiven sinners that we are the evidence of God’s love. Our witness to God’s love in our lives is the chief way in which a pervasive atmosphere of alienation from God and from one another can be transformed into an atmosphere of honest and respectful dialogue.
Second, when we take God’s love for us to heart, sheer gratitude impels us to pass God’s mercy on. That gratitude, if we allow ourselves to feel it, is the living water that rises within us and crashes through every barrier, every levy we erect between ourselves and the ministry of reconciliation. We must not put up with injustice or inattention to our neighbors’ needs, but at the same time we must be mindful that every human being we encounter is a child of God.
Again, it is our experience of God’s mercy that humbles and empowers us. We have no other spiritual authority and we have no other grace. But this is all the authority and grace we need.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas Briedenthal is a retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio.