Proper 8, Year A
2 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Some of you know about a Christian satire blog called the Babylon Bee. It posts fake news reports that spoof all sorts of things that Christians believe and do, whether mega-churches, Baptists, Episcopalians, whatever. As one of my Pentecostal colleagues says, it’s an equal-opportunity offender. And most of the time it’s pretty funny. I post one of their articles to the church Facebook page every now and then, not because of who it makes fun of, but because it’s just funny.
One of the Bee’s favorite targets is people who believe the King James Version is the only accurate English translation of the Bible. In fact there are some who believe that the translators who produced it way back in 1611 worked infallibly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And some of them believe that any later translations that differ in any way from the King James are the subtle work of the devil to mislead God’s people and rob us of our salvation. There are even a few who, not having any knowledge of languages and how they developed, or of the history of Bible translation, think that the King James Version is as old as the Church herself. Well all that is the background to the Babylon Bee item I posted on the church’s page a couple of weeks ago. The headline read, “Apostle Paul’s King James Bible Up For Auction,” and the opening line of the article said that St Paul’s very own leather-bound copy of the King James Bible– “the only translation he was known to use”– had been listed on eBay, and that some blessed person could have the opportunity to read the Word of the Lord from the same 17th-century English edition that St Paul and the other Apostles used to found the Church… sixteen centuries earlier. Now in case you’re having a hard time keeping up, the Church was founded by Jesus several decades before the first book of the New Testament had been written, and about 1600 years before the King James Bible was produced. Are you with me?
Well, the King James Version is a magnificent piece of work, both for the beauty of its language and the accuracy of the translation. The scholars who translated it had access to the largest and oldest known collections of Greek and Hebrew scriptures at that time. But the thing is that lots of older and even more reliable copies of Greek and Hebrew texts have been discovered since then, and are still being discovered deep in vaults and libraries and caves all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Also– and most King-James-only people don’t know this either– the King James Version was revised less than two hundred years after it was first published in order to update a lot of words and expressions which no longer carried the same meanings, or which people no longer understood.
One very good example of that is in today’s second lesson. In just about the middle of the passage St Paul says, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” It’s a very strange thing that Paul says here– that we used to be slaves of sin, but are now slaves of righteousness. His letter to the Romans is full of stuff like that, stuff that we’ve got to read more than once, and do some digging in order to understand. Slavery to sin makes sense to us– being so mired in it that we can’t get free, like some kind of addiction. But slaves of righteousness? That’s a very strange turn of phrase.
In the King James Version you won’t find the word ‘slaves’ in that passage. It says, “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” That’s quite a bit softer language to our ears, and not nearly as troublesome. But the question remains, how could one translation say servants, and another slaves?
In the Greek-speaking world in which Paul lived and wrote, there was a big difference between slaves and servants. But in England in the early 1600s, slavery was not a very familiar concept, although the first slaves arrived in Virginia just eight years after the King James Bible was published. Up until then, the English knew firsthand about servants, and forms of servitude that were difficult to escape from, including indentured servitude, which is how a lot of people paid their way to the New World. But they didn’t know so much the outright ownership of individuals. So ‘servant’ was most likely a much more suitable word to use back then. And if slavery had never been introduced in America, servant might still have been a more comprehensible word for us to use. But since the institution of slavery is a major blemish on both American and British history, that word suits us better than servant does.
The books of the New Testament were all originally written in Greek (not 17th-century English). And the Greek word for servant is διακονος (diakonos), and the word for slave is δουλος (doulos). By the time Paul wrote to the church at Rome, his brother apostles had already created the distinct order of ordained servant ministry in the Church which they called διακονοι– deacons, whose primary work was hands-on pastoral care, serving the poor, the elderly, the hungry, prisoners and others, not as slaves, but as loving, caring fellow Christians. So with deacons ministering in every local church, there was all the more reason that Paul should avoid using the word διακονοι, servants, to describe the dramatic change of circumstances that new converts undergo at baptism.
Paul actually drops a strong hint in the direction of this teaching at the very beginning of Romans. Introducing himself in the first sentence, he says, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1). It’s interesting that most modern English translations of the Bible say ‘servant’ in that verse, even though the Greek word is very clearly δουλος / slave. Why do they do that? I have no idea, but it doesn’t seem right. Anyway, after making that dramatic statement that we read today, about having been freed from sin and becoming slaves of righteousness, Paul explains, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.” The people he first wrote to, just as people today, didn’t get how utterly serious the problem of sin really is. So he presents it in rather jarring terms that they do get.
He is describing what we are before we belong to God and what we become afterward. The relationship of the slave to his master is something that people in first-century Rome understood very well because, among the congregation that he was writing to, many were slave-owners, many were slaves, and many had been slaves but were now free. It’s even possible that there were Christians in Rome who had once been slaves, but had risen to a position in which they could afford to own slaves themselves. Philemon was one such slave-owner. He was a Christian who owned a Christian named Onesimus. Paul wrote a letter to him in which he reminded him that even though Onesimus was his slave, he was also his brother in Christ, and he should treat him accordingly.
Paul wrote to people in terms that they could readily understand, like in today’s reading where he says, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” In that statement Paul is alluding to one particular way that a person could become a slave back then. For any number of reasons, usually having to do with poverty or debt, a person could willingly become a slave in exchange for food and shelter or to clear a debt, sort of like indentured servitude, but maybe a bit more permanent.
Paul is saying that in a similar way we enslave ourselves to sin by willingly embracing it, by presenting ourselves to it. You don’t necessarily set out with that intention, but little by little you get sucked into it to the point of being unable to free yourself. Think of the heroin addict who will trade everything he’s got in order to feed his addiction. And he’ll do whatever it takes, sell or steal whatever it takes, to get the next fix. “You once presented your members,” you dedicated/devoted yourselves, which is what the Greek word means, “as slaves to impurity.” “Don’t you 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?” The more a person engages in sin– presents, devotes, dedicates himself to it– the deeper he sinks himself in it, and the more solidly he gets stuck in it. And the deeper he goes, the less able he is to free himself.
Now here’s the good news: there’s another word associated with slavery which, in English, is redemption. One of the titles given to Jesus is Redeemer. But a lot of folks don’t really know the origin of that word in relation to God. When I was a kid, we’d mail in so many cereal boxtops to redeem the cool toy pictured on the box. Where I come from the redemption centre is where you take your empty beer bottles to get the deposit back. In this country there are lots of churches called the Redemption Center, which brings us closer to the point. The word means to take/buy back. And that’s where St Paul is going with his teaching about being slaves to sin/ righteousness, although he doesn’t get there in today’s reading. Redemption in his day was the key that freed slaves. Some slaves back then were allowed to take jobs on the side to earn money so that they could redeem themselves. But that usually took a very long time. Sometimes a generous master would free a slave after years of faithful service. And sometimes a third party would buy the slave and set him free. And that’s the transaction that has taken place in order to free us from sin.
Jesus alone is that generous third party who is able to redeem us, to pay the price. St Paul teaches that the Son of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:7), in order to present himself to our slavemaster as the price of our redemption. On the cross he absorbed into himself the sin of the world. But because he is God, it’s impossible for sin to destroy him like it would have destroyed us. Instead he destroyed the power of sin and took back what belongs to him, namely all those whom he created in his own image– us! He has redeemed us and set us free.
In the ancient world, rather than redeeming a slave and setting him free, it was more often the case that the redeemer bought the slave to use for his own purposes. But Jesus didn’t do that. Like the nine lepers that he healed, who went away and didn’t come back to worship him (Lk 17:11-19), he lets us do as we please. But St Paul urges us to present our members to Jesus as slaves of righteousness, which is what will sanctify us, what will make us holy. After all, Paul says to the Corinthian church, “You’re not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1Cor 6:19-20). And St Peter says that we were redeemed, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1Pet 1:18-19), which is of more value than every precious thing on earth. And the reason Jesus redeemed us is because, as Jesus himself said, we are more precious than everything else on earth (Mt 6:26).
The bottom line is that we humans have to have a master to serve, of one sort or another. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re the masters of our own fates and the captains of our own souls (W.E. Henley, Invictus). But that’s just not true. In fact that was the prize the serpent promised in persuading our first ancestors to commit the first sin. We’re really incapable of being our own masters. And every time we try, it turns out badly, because we invariably end up placing ourselves under the mastery of sin. And as St Paul says at the end of today’s reading, the reward, the wages, of sin is death. Sin unrepented of always leads to death. But the gift that God offers in its place, and it truly is a gift that’s just waiting for us to accept, and nothing that we could ever earn, is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. We’re not our own, Paul says, and we can never be our own. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re surrounded on every side by the grace of God. And all he asks of us is to open up and let him fill us with it. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+