12Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No 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 of righteousness. 14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 15What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But 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, 18and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. 20When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What I Am Learning:
This passage seems to set Jesus' followers up for an impossible situation: Jesus offers "freedom from sin" but we seldom experience such a state. If we fail to achieve such perfection, then are we really followers of Jesus?
Having been assured of perfection and then falling short, we either give up the game or reduce what "perfection" means such as "believing the right things or going to church or just being a bit nicer than some other people."
I don't believe this is what Paul is trying to say at all. NOT ONE BIT.
For Paul "sin" is not some naughty stuff we do or the human capacity for mistakes as limited beings. Sin is a system, a culture, a worldview that holds us captive. Sin is a narrative about the world that human beings that we enact that reduces us, others, and the earth to be subjects, slaves of that narrative. Such narratives tell us who we are, what life means, and what kind of world we are living in.
The narrative he was talking about in this passage was the domination culture of the Roman Empire. Their Lord of the Flies culture and the Godfather Governance had at its core a narrative that human life is about competition and violence in which the winner takes all and the losers (indeed there are many losers) get nothing. We call this "domination culture." The winners were righteous and good and noble and awesome because they win. The losers were cursed by the gods or god as bad and useless because they lost and their losing was simple proof of their lack of good character. They all got what they deserved and the system was right to reward them with it.
Sound familiar? It should, because that is the narrative proposed by so many of our leaders and by so many of the voices in our heads. We are living the same narrative today.
This narrative of domination turns us into deadly instruments of death who target one another and the earth - and ultimately ourselves. We are all just combatants in a hunger games that never ends and includes everyone fighting everyone. It steals the meaning of our lives and relationships, turns time into money and money into the measure of our worth.
Martin Luther encouraged people to be "theologians of the cross." What he meant by this was to speak the truth about what is happening in the real world. We are to seek and speak truth about what is happening just as Jesus and the prophets before him spoke truth to power and encouraged the voices of those on the margins.
But this is not as easy as it sounds.
- How do we begin to recognize the effects of a domination culture when we have been raised in it since birth and it has deeply shaped our perceptions, attitudes and action?
- How do we begin to sense that other narratives are even possible?
- How do we begin to imagine what kind of community narrative might better provide for the thriving of the human race and the planet of which we are a part?
In Romans 6, Paul speaks of dying and rising, daily, in baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In other words, the connections between the neurons in our brains that were formed to fit the narrative of domination need to die so that another set of connections can take place.
What story does Paul suggest? He used the word "righteousness."
Righteousness does not mean "perfection." Righteousness refers to "a way of being that works for life." When your car starts it is righteous as it fulfills its purpose. When a crop grows and produces fruit for animals and humans it is righteous.
Paul is saying that the wages of the domination culture of the Roman Empire breeds death, its wages are death.
In Jesus God offers another way to live, a way that brings life to human beings, human communities and to the earth. Jesus called this "the kingdom of God." It was a direct replacement of the Roman Empire's narrative of domination.
Paul says that by the gift of God, we don't have to live by that death dealing narrative of domination anymore.
Instead we can daily die to the narrative of domination and rise to God's way of mutuality - a way of life that
- honors each moment of our lives, every heartbeat, as pregnant with meaning and possibility
- encourages us to mutual relationships with other people, who are also beautiful and of immense value
- takes part in God's work to change institutions and systems driven by the narrative of domination
- gives us hope in God's ultimate healing of the world even when it seems to not being going great
We don't have to be slaves to the narrative of domination but are offered every day an alternative story of God's way of mutuality. Domination is a false narrative that is not worthy of our obedience, worship and life. God's way of mutuality invites us to stand up straight again, to take a deep breath of enjoyment and to see that we and every person are God's beloved ones.
Jesus invites still to enter into his narrative of mutual love and respect, to be a part of the beloved community in a world that turns human life into so many producers and consumers.
He invites us into the freedom of our own God-given humanity. In this freedom, we glimpse from time to time what Paul calls sanctification - moments of wholeness, of true appreciation within our relationships with others.
I am always saddened to see how domination culture uses passages like this - how it distorts texts of freedom to make people feel bad and useless. This is why the scripture must not just be a book on the shelf or on the nightstand in the hotel. It is when God's narrative of mutuality takes hold within and among us that the meaning of these passages can once again be found.
We don't have to wait for the Godfather Governance to go away. We may have been raised in the narrative of eternal competition, but Christ has given us a glimpse of another story to live by, and its beauty draws us ever onward, cherishing the wonder of the moment.