Romans 6:18-23, Galatians 5:22-26; 6:1-2; Genesis 22; Leviticus 26:12-18.
We come to a place in the Church year in which Orthodox jurisdictions following the same calendar diverge in their epistle readings, though not the gospel readings. In the gospel for this Sunday, the fourth after Pentecost, we are heartened by Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile centurion who, though not a formal member of God’s family, exhibited faith: Jesus marvels at his spiritual fruit, in fact. Both epistle readings that have been selected to accompany this gospel speak about how fruit such as this is to be a natural part of one’s walk in Christ. In Romans 6:18-23, we hear metaphorical language about how our servitude has been transferred from slavery under sin, to slavery unto righteousness, with the “fruit” that we bear leading to holiness and eternal life:
Having been set free from sin, we have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. 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. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:18-23)
Those who read Galatians instead hear more specifically about the character of that fruit:
Brethren, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Gal 5:22-26; 6:1-2
Both readings are realistic and joyful! They both recognize the presence of death in the world, how being a slave to sin leads to death, and how Christians must crucify the flesh and so walk with Christ. They both have compassion for the frailty of humanity, reminding us of the presence of apt shame in our lives, and also of how we should bear each other’s burdens in humility and generosity. The first, however, sets the theological foundation for the second, which gives practical outcomes.
Let’s look at them more closely.
Why does Paul maintain the metaphor of “slavery” in Romans 6, when he is talking about our liberation from sin and death? This seems very odd. The lingering Protestant in me would prefer that he move from the slave to the son metaphor, from compulsion to freedom. And indeed, he does tell us that he is using this way of speaking in order to drive home his point: “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.” But what ARE the limitations that Paul sees that encourage him to persist in a metaphor about bondage, even while describing our life in Christ?
St. John Chrysostom helps us to understand that there is really no comparison between the life of servitude to sin, and our current situation:
Paul says that he is speaking in human terms in order to show that he is not making any exorbitant demand, nor even as much as might be expected from someone who enjoyed so great a gift, but rather a moderate and light request. . . . . The two masters are very different from each other, but even so, Paul is asking for no more than the same amount of servitude. People really ought to give much more to the service of righteousness, since righteousness is obviously so much bigger and better. But because of their weakness, which he does not ascribe to their free will or to their spirit but to their flesh, Paul is not making any greater demands on them. (Homilies on Romans 12).
In other words, one cannot compare the transcendent and holy God to any master, let alone an evil one. God has no needs so that He requires servants to serve him. The LORD’s yoke, according to Jesus is light, as is his burden—and so he is nothing like a hard slave-driver or demanding boss. The only purpose to think in terms of service is to help us to see the importance of obedience and faithfulness for OUR sake. The greatness of God demands MORE, and not LESS response than a taskmaster whom we might fear or hate.
We might think of the strange story of Abraham in Genesis 22, and how he was obedient to God in offering Isaac. For us, the story is horrific, and for Abraham it must have been puzzling, as well. After all, he knew that God was not blood-thirsty, like the so-called “gods” whom the people around him worshipped. God had given him a promise, and fulfilled it with a son. Why then, would He sweep all this away, and seemingly take on the exacting character of false gods? We have to track to the end of the story, and even beyond it to the cross, to get the answer. Abraham is NOT required, in the end, to sacrifice Isaac; he must only show his willingness. God is NOT like these false demons, but Abraham’s loyalty to God must be at least as great as the fearful worship offered by pagans. Not only does God provide release, but in that ram caught in the thicket, Christians are reminded of a greater truth: not only does God not require such sacrifice, for He owns all the cattle on a thousand hills, and needs nothing, but even more, He will take the necessary suffering on Himself, through the death of His own Son. What God did not require of Abraham, He himself performed for our sake.
Consider also God’s words to the infant nation of the Hebrews, as He establishes them in the land, and in their worship of Him:
“And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will discipline you….” (Lev 26:12-18).
God shows Himself to be the great liberator, the one who has broken the bars of Egypt, and set His people proud and straight in their own land. They were not meant to serve other men, but to live as God’s people, inheriting the promises given to Abraham and the other patriarchs. But their freedom is not automatic: it does not come whether they want it or not. They need to be invested in it, to respond to it, to live the only life that God has for them in the real world that is. Indeed, the freedom is neither automatic nor absolute—it is the freedom of children of God, of priests of God, of those who serve Him alone. If they will not live according to His commandments, then there will be consequences—consequences allowed by God. They will return to slavery under the land that will not yield fruit, under death that will accost them, under enemies that will exploit their weakness, under fear that will make them flee for no real reason. And God will do all this not because he NEEDS human beings to serve them, but to discipline them as His true children.
Because of our hard-heartedness, because of our inclination to wander, because of our desire to answer to no one —a dangerous thing for a creature!— Paul continues to use the metaphor of slavery. We are free—but free in service. We are free—but free as creatures, not as God Almighty. We are free—but only as we remain in Christ. The blessed Augustine explained the paradox of creaturely freedom in this way: “Lord, you are the light of the minds who know you, the life of the souls who love you, and the strength of the souls who serve you. Help us to know you that we may truly love you, so to love you that we may fully serve You, whose service is perfect freedom. Through Christ our Lord.”
Some might think, hearing this, that we are not talking about freedom at all. Surely freedom means no constraints? Hardly! That is the Devil’s creed, and contrary to every experience that we have. The free playing of a musician is dependent upon hours of practicing scales and arpeggios, of training ear, hand, and eye to be obedient. The freedom of an unleashed pet is dependent upon good recall, or he will get hit by a car or mauled by a predator. The freedom of a teenager is granted once the parents are certain he or she is self-disciplined. Every freedom we have takes place in a context of restraint and obedience to authority—whether external or internalized.
As we return to our situation under sin or under Christ, we hear Paul reminding us that there is NO fruit for those who are slaves to sin, only apt shame. Some of us have lives to remember that embarrass us, and drive us closer to Christ. On the other hand, the fruit that comes of true freedom, true service to Christ, is beyond anything that we can imagine. Yes, it begins and continues with discipline—asceticism, confession, repentance, self-control. But it goes on to eternal life, a life that is not only everlasting, but beyond anything we can imagine now. It is a life, as Paul describes in Galatians, marked by love, and cashed out as joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. There is nothing restrictive about these fruits, and in them, we see not only our unity with Christ, but our new relations with each other. We enter into a life of sharing burdens, not of grabbing our own privilege. We learn that service IS freedom—freedom before the LORD, and freedom with each other. We are no longer hampered by the enslaving patterns of self-conceit, provoking one another, or envy. God’s aim is to bring us beyond such childishness to glad and upright living, to sharing in His very own nature of love. Indeed, He aims to make us so strong that it is natural for us to act gently, especially to those who are weak or in error. We are to bear His very image! In this new world, not even the sky is the limit!