Jeremiah 29:10-14, Romans 8:1-11
July 3, 2011
If anyone knew what it was like to be bound by the law, it was Paul. If anyone knew what it was like to be in bondage – in slavery – to a set of rules, it was Paul. Those rules, the Ten Commandments, were given as a symbol of the God’s amazing covenant with his people, but for some they had come to be worshipped more than God himself. Paul was one of those people. He was a Pharisee. And as he described himself, he was a “Pharisee of Pharisees.” (Acts 23:6)
To the Philippians he wrote this. “If any man thinks he has confidence in himself, I have more.” I was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin. I was a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” (Philippians 3:4-6) Paul was very proud of who he was. And as a Pharisees, he made that last thing, “righteousness under the law,” the focus of his life. That’s what Pharisees did.
Maybe you remember the story of the Pharisee who came to Jesus and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) Do you remember Jesus’ answer? He said “You know the commandments,” which of course he did! There were a number of times Jesus answered the Pharisees that same way. And the more I read those passages, the more I think he was playing on their focus on the law! And I think that was the case here. He knew that man’s heart. He knew that the law had been the focus of his life! The man said, “All these things I have done since childhood.” That was likely to have been literally true. For the Pharisees, it was of ultimate importance to keep their “righteousness under the law” as spotless as it could be.
The Pharisees, including Paul – Saul, actually – strove to be the most righteous people there were. They taught the law, and they claimed to live the law to the letter! And Jesus often challenged them on that. You may remember how he accused them of keeping the letter of the law, but forsaking the spirit of the law! He saw that the law had become their god. They worshipped it more than the God who gave it. And he saw that their “righteousness” had become a huge source of pride for them. They wore their complete adherence to the law as a “badge of honor” before the people.
There was even one group of Pharisees who were so intent on not letting their eyes stray to another woman, that when they saw one approaching they would close their eyes and stumble blindly along the road. They came to be known among the people as the “Blind Pharisees.” And isn’t that interesting when read in Matthew 23 how Jesus accused the Pharisees of being “blind guides,” and leading the people astray in their blindness.
I say all that today because it’s the Fourth of July weekend, and we’re hearing a lot of talk today about freedom. And when Paul, the “Pharisee of Pharisees,” the one blamelessly keeping the law his whole life, wrote the words we read today, it was truly amazing. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” And the pronoun there is significant! He used the first person at that moment because he knew this himself!! He learned it the hard way! “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do.” In other words, the law was weakened by what people like him had done to it.
“The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death!” I wonder, if it was possible that Paul/Saul could have been in the group of Pharisees that Jesus was arguing with in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel. Because after a heated encounter, laced with many accusations and challenges, Jesus turned to those who were following him and said, “everyone who continues in sin is a slave to sin. But! If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed!” I wonder if Paul had heard Jesus say that! Because his words here in Romans show that he now believed it!
In Christ we are free indeed! We are free from this “law of sin and death.” We are free from bondage to the law and the sinfulness of our lives. God’s love and forgiveness does that. And Paul would conclude this whole chapter with the amazing statement how “nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” That’s the end of this part of Romans in which he laid out the Christian faith step by step. After that he went on to deal with questions and controversies. But he reaches the conclusion that nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love!
But do we ever forget that? Do we ever feel like we’re drifting away from that certainty of God’s love? Do we ever find ourselves flirting with that bondage to sin? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Because when that happens, it usually does so little by little. Here and there we let some little thing go in our faith. Almost unnoticed, we fall back into those “comfortable” old patterns. Then, when we hear we are “free in Christ Jesus,” we say, “No thanks. I’m doing just fine, and I don’t want to think about doing anything ‘radical.’”
Does that ever happen? Do we ever get complacent and lazy and think, “No, that sounds too bothersome for me.” I think you’ll agree it does. It happens to all of us from time to time. Maybe it’s happening for you right now! You know, rarely does a person reject God outright. More often it happens to us little by little. And we fall, almost imperceptively, into those times when we “hold God at arms length,” as I’ve often described it. Little by little we forget the freedom we have in Christ.
That’s what I want us to think about this “Independence Day” weekend. In Christ we have been set free, from the law of sin and death.” Do we know that? Do we live it? It’s been said that “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.” And I think the same could be said about freedom. “There are none so enslaved as those who refuse to be free.” Or “There are none so bound as those who choose slavery.” And sometimes in our lives we find ourselves back under the bondage to sin and death because we have chosen that bondage.
Coincidentally, while all these thoughts about freedom were running around in my head, I found myself watching the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” Have you seen that one? It’s a great movie about men in prison, one of which, Ellis Redding – “Red” – was played by Morgan Freeman. (“Freeman” is an interesting name for an actor in a movie about prison!) Well, I love the scene near the end where Red has been paroled. After 40 years of being in prison, he’s now free. But he’s having a lot of fears being on the outside world. And he’s not sure he’s going to “make it.” And at one point he says, “all I can think about are ways of breaking my parole, so they’ll take me back to prison, where things make sense.”
People “get used to” being in prison! And people “get used to” being in bondage to sin. They almost resist the freedom we have in Christ! They think it will demand too much of them. They’re too “comfortable” with the way they live their life and their faith, that they don’t want anything to change. So they say “No thank you. I’m just fine.”
In early 1700’s, the American colonies were starting to resist. But the idea of freedom wasn’t that strong. When shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, most people simply wanted to be treated fairly by their mother country. They didn’t want to break away. It was only later that the idea of “independence” began to grow. For many people, a certain amount of tyranny that was to be “tolerated.” And even by the end of the war, there were still many “loyalists” in the colonies. And when the war was over, a number of them got on ships and went back to the old country. Either because they were worried about how the victors would treat them, or because they simply didn’t want to give up their loyalty to Briton. They didn’t want freedom, because winning freedom had proven costly. And it appeared that staying free would be hard work!
The same can be said of our freedom in Christ. It was costly for God. It can be hard work in our lives to keep it. People sometimes take the freedom we have in this country for granted. We can easily do the same with our freedom in Christ! We can take it for granted!
So I want us to remember. Slavery to sin and death is an subtle thing. It sneaks back into our lives when we don’t notice it. We let our freedom go, and don’t think about it. And sometimes maybe we even find ourselves thinking about ways to “break our parole so they’ll take us back to prison.”
I want us to remember today that “The law of the spirit of life in life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.” “For if the Son makes us free, we are free indeed!”
Eternal God, we thank you for the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. Help us to live the free and victorious life in him, and to know the joy he offers in your steadfast love and your amazing Grace. Help us to remember that this day, and always. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.