Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 2, 2017
Romans 6:12-23 Commentary
“The wages of sin is death.” So proclaims any number of homespun billboards I have driven past over the years. Not a few church signs have sported this just-less-than good news, too. It’s the kind of thing non-Christians expect to hear from finger-wagging preachers or other pious purveyors of the Gospel. It’s what vaguely crazed street preachers shout out on street corners, standing on top of an inverted 5-gallon plastic pail and assailing passersby with this bromide of judgment.
Read in the context of Romans 6, however, it is just possible to take these words another way. Oh, true, they still won’t be the best news anyone has ever heard. This other possible angle on this now-famous phrase won’t evacuate all hint of judgment, either. But it is possible that Paul is being more matter-of-fact than hellfire-and-brimstone. It is possible that at least in part—possibly even in large part—that Paul is less predicting some divine judgment when the roll is called up yonder and more making a simple observation about how life works in this world of ours.
After all, in these verses Paul is making a case for righteous living as a baptized believer and he does this by saying matter of factly that everybody is a slave to something and so we all get to choose our masters. Nobody really lives free and clear. No one actually can re-invent him- or herself at every turning of the way. We might like to think of ourselves as independent free agents, as self-made individuals who make life up as we go along and who rely on our wits and our intelligence moment by moment to make prudent decisions. But it’s a lie, Paul as much as says.
People who dwell outside of Christ and the grace that brings true life are addicts, slaves, indentured servants to their own passions and to the whims of an amoral, immoral culture of indulgence. “Look back at how you used to live before you met Jesus” Paul urges his Roman readers. “You were enslaved to your appetites, eating and drinking too much of the wrong things all the time. The drunken parties, the wanton orgies, the morning-after hangovers, the constant sense of regret and embarrassment over how you behaved when you got drunk . . . In retrospect does any of that look like freedom?”
Even today, how many people don’t lament being caught up in a “rat race” they cannot exit? How many people work 70, 80 hours a week but who long ago forgot the reason why? How many won’t tell you if asked that they are so busy making a life for themselves that they forgot actually to HAVE a life in the first place? Look at the soaring opioid addiction in the United States not to mention dependency on alcohol, cocaine, and other substances.
Then listen to how people talk if by some intervention they are able to leave all that behind. What is one of the first things ex-addicts say over and over? “I finally got my life back.” That’s how a former slave talks. That’s how someone whose life had been OWNED by someone or something else talks. True, not everyone who is outside of Christ has an existence that is that hugely consumed by addiction and the like, and yet even short of such extremes, there are plenty of people who seem more owned by their wealth than the other way around. There are many people who find themselves anxious all the time about how the markets are doing, what’s secure, how well set up they are for retirement. In fact, there are legions of brokers, financial planners, and securities advisers out there whose whole careers come down—on some level—to managing other people’s fierce anxieties.
So when Paul says in the final line of Romans 6 “the wages of sin is death,” he is not so much making a prediction as an observation!
When I was about 9 years old, we had recently moved to a farm in the country and so my parents bought me a horse. It was actually a Shetland-Welsh pony but it turned out that, “Shadow” (as we named her) had never had a saddle put on. But my Dad saddled her up, cinched everything secure, and threw my 5-year-old brother and me onto her back. Well, Shadow cared for this not at all and took off like a shot, nimbly bucking the two of us off her back with no more than 2 or 3 flings of her body. My mother and her mother observed all this from the house. As my Dad and a neighbor ran over to make sure we were ok—we were—my Dad told the neighbor, “Right now my mother-in-law is quoting Scripture to my wife: ‘A horse is a vain thing for safety.’”
She was. But in this case she was not predicting this but OBSERVING it as she watched my brother and me pick ourselves up off the earth onto which Shadow had deposited us.
“The wages of sin is death” is perhaps more like that than we think. Paul surveys the landscape of the Roman world, sees its human carnage, and concludes that such party-hearty, out-of-control living is itself a kind of living death that leads to actual death one day. And if beyond that horizon Paul sees also an eternal death as a result of God’s judgment on sinfulness, well, so be it but even that is finally just an extension of what had been happening on earth all along to begin with.
How much better, Paul advises, to let yourself be a slave to Christ! And that, Paul reminds the Romans, is who you are now. As noted in last week’s sermon commentary, Paul is reminding the Romans of their new identity in Christ. This is who you ARE now. Act like it! Be happy slaves to righteousness in Christ. Because—and this also bears itself out in common sense observations of everyday life—this leads to delight in God’s good creation. Not just in the sweet by and by but also in the near term, living happily inside the moral boundary fences God has established leads to a flourishing and a joy in all that God has made.
True, the Christian life can be the persecuted life, too, and no one needed to remind Christians in Rome (of all places) of that reality. And also true, just being a believer is no insulation against sickness or tragedy coming your way. But abiding in the ways of God leads to life, not death, to joy not despair. Lean into all that goodness, Paul says. It is who you are now by baptism in Christ so go with that good flow!
“The wages of sin is death.” That may sound like puritanical judgmentalism. But then again, there are any number of burned out, chewed up, hungover, heroin-addled, sexually broken people in this world who would need no convincing that this is true.
Just ask them.
If you need any indication of how well known Paul’s final words from Romans 6 are, you need look no further than a recent New Yorker cartoon that had been featured on my page-a-day New Yorker calendar back on February 2. The cartoon shows a highway toll station with three toll booths. The booth on the far left is labeled “CASH”, the center toll booth is for “EZ-PASS,” and the one on far right “WAGES OF SIN.” But that toll booth did not feature the usual window through which to pay the attendant but was clearly a curtained Confessional Booth from a Catholic church. And it was the only “toll booth” to which a car was headed!
Even the secular world well outside the church has some sense that there is such a thing as sin, that it does have some kind of consequences, and that sooner or later we each of us needs to deal with that fact. CASH and EZ-PASS will only get you so far . . .
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