First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 4

William Loader

Pentecost 4: 2 July  Romans 6:12-23

It is impossible to understand this passage without knowing what had gone before. Without that context it might sound just like any other moral exhortation: don't sin! But Paul has been addressing a major issue about what liberates people. He believes it is the love shown to us in Christ; in other words: God's goodness and generosity. It is not by telling them to obey commandments. He has just been arguing that when we accept God's generosity, celebrated in baptism, we enter a new way of life. By this he does not mean we turn over a new leaf and try harder from now on. Rather he means we enter a new system, we become part of a new dynamic; we experience a new set of possibilities. These are created by a new relationship with God wherein by opening ourselves to God's goodness we not only experience forgiveness and hope but also begin a journey where that love produces love in and through us. God's goodness and generosity reproduces itself.

It is in the light of entering this new life with its dynamic generation of love and goodness that Paul now declares: so don't let yourself be ruled by the competing system which generates sin. Paul sees sins as the fruit of relationships with God which have gone wrong resulting in alienation from God, from others and from ourselves. When we enter the new life with its new possibilities the old patterns and systems do not shut down. The destructive ruts and routines are still there. Paul is saying: you don't have to surrender to them because the new life can lift you beyond them. In 6:12 he identifies them as having their roots in our human bodies, in particular in our appetites. In this he shares the views of many of his time. For Paul the body is not evil; nor are its desires, but when we allow our lives to be determined by satisfying our cravings without any thought for the consequences for ourselves or others - whether that is as unsophisticated as sexual abuse or as sophisticated as ripping off the developing world through hogging wealth and resources - then we are caught up into a power network which produces destructive behaviour. Paul is thinking about two different systems: sin and death on the one side and goodness and love on the other.

6:13 is about integration and orientation. When openness to love becomes a possibility for you, then your journey has just begun. That journey includes the process of bringing all parts of your being into the sway of this liberating power. You allow yourself to be taken up into the dynamic goodness and generosity of God. That is what resurrection life is about. Baptism simulated death to the old system. Christian life means living that reality out so that it affects everything. As 6:14 puts it, sin no longer rules.

But then in 6:14 Paul goes on to say that we are longer under the Law but under grace. The heckles of his opponents would rise. No longer under the Law, the Bible (as he knew it)! - what can he possibly mean? You can just hear them reiterating their argument: "all this talk about love is not enough; you have to have the commandments! That's the trouble with Paul." Paul is being quite courageous here. It is as though he courts the opposition. So in 6:15 he restates their question for them: doesn't all this mean we should keep on sinning? It echoes the question with which he began in 6:1. Paul is not, of course, suggesting they dispense with scripture. But he is saying: when you live on the basis that you try to observe the commandments and keep on failing, then you are caught in a system which does not work. The Law treated in this way is bad news. He will go on in Romans 7 to illustrate this further.

Here he needs to reinforce his argument that accepting God's generosity does not mean we turn around and keep sinning. In the first half of Romans 6 he shows that this would make nonsense of what baptism celebrates: death to the old life and beginning of new life. In the rest of the chapter he tries a slightly different tack. The aim must be to be free from the old system, so it makes no sense to surrender to it. To develop his idea of a system he uses the image of slavery (6:16). Notice that he refuses to reduce the discussion to rules about doing good. He is always more interested in the processes and what they do to people. So he repeats: the sin system produces destructive behaviour; the grace system or the system based on God's goodness and generosity produces goodness and generosity. Here he plays with the image: we undergo a transferral of ownership from sin to God and goodness (6:18). Some slavery! But Paul is wanting people to think in systems and the dynamics that produce.

In 6:19 he half apologises because of his playfulness with the image. Some of his opponents would have made much of purity and holiness. So Paul picks this up in 6:19-22. Ultimately the fruit of living a life which feeds on God's goodness and generosity or grace is not just goodness and grace in our lives (and surely that is even more than the Law demands and more than fulfils it!); it is also holiness or "sanctification". For Paul holiness is not another sphere related to withdrawal or even especially to cultic practices and rites. It is love. For Paul God's being is not preoccupied with being untarnished and pure, but with being generous and self-giving, making something out of nothing, raising the dead, helping people from the sin-death syndrome into the goodness-life processes which love generates.

6:23 is not primarily about sins leading people to hell, and about the gift of life as escape from hell into heaven, as evangelistic missions propounded with this, one of their favourite texts. That arose because people did not read the Bible carefully or take it seriously enough. When we do read it carefully, we find that Paul is talking about something much more encompassing and is doing so with his back to the wall. He is contrasting two fundamental dynamics at work in human beings and their behaviour which also become the stuff of conflict among Christians. The way of sin and death shows itself in actions, but it is much deeper and stems from powerful forces within our own being which are generated through our alienation from God, from others and from ourselves. They are so destructive they can even take good commandments and subvert them to send us sinking further into the mire. That is the death - here and now and forever. Against it Paul argues the liberating effects generated by the relationship of generous love which God's goodness offers people. It sets up possibilities of transformation for people the effects of which are behaviours that express the same goodness and generosity in the world. That is "eternal life" - beginning in the here and now. That is the good news of which he is not ashamed (1:16) because it is powerful and is rooted in God's goodness (1:17). It still is.

 Gospel  Pentecost 4: 2 July Matthew 10:40-42

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