Jeremiah 28: 5-9 (page 655 in our pew Bibles) Prophets giving contradictory messages was as disturbing then as now. Jeremiah asserts that the genuineness of a prophet is determined by results, so only in hindsight. Personal gain or loss (of the prophet in question) is one set of criteria that any sensible person may apply.
Romans 6: 12-23 (page 943 in our pew Bibles) Paul contends that human beings are always a slave to something - whether that be God or sin. But there are consequences. The wages of sin are death and God's free gift is eternal life.
Matthew 10: 40 - 42 (page 815 in our pew Bibles) Whoever receives the disciples will receive a reward. The nature of the reward is not revealed. Perhaps hospitality to God's messengers carries its own reward? Maybe the fellowship that follows is the reward? In any case the notion of reward tells us that the act of welcoming does not go unnoticed by God.
Paul’s writing can be tortuous and difficult to understand and today is no exception and requires some unpacking..
On a human level, what is the point of Christianity, do you think?
In Paul’s words It certainly means being set free from the power of sin, suffering and death.
In Paul’s thought “sin” is not so much something you do wrong, more a “power” that has the ability to enslave you to habits, addictions, behaviours that are contrary to God’s will, and negative thought patterns that lead us to deny the redemptive power of suffering and convince us of the finality of death. We become slaves of nihilism, and without hope.
And that can affect any and all of us from time to time. Particularly when members of the family are having a tough time, when life has been cruel to them, it is so easy to lose hope and faith, and Paul calls this the power of sin over our lives. He reminds us in another place that our true battle is not against flesh and blood but is a spiritual battle.
So salvation means giving us freedom. Freedom from all of that which denies our status as created in God’s image, freedom from that power which seeks to dominate our life and thinking. We are released into a state of mind that sees goodness, generosity, hope and eternal life with our creator as both a future hope and a present reality.
But feeling saved is not our everyday feeling. We have these feelings from time to time and we feel great, but sometimes the power of sin can get the better of us. This spiritual battle is a fierce one with no quarter given. That is when we have to learn that this freedom or salvation is not dependent on how we feel. Our feelings oscillate – we can feel great or lousy within the same hour but salvation is presented in the Bible as an objective fact. It is in the fact of salvation in which we are to have faith not in how we feel about it.
So we have freedom. We are free as an objective fact and yet Paul calls this freedom from the power of sin a particular form of slavery. We are “slaves of righteousness”.
This is a difficult point to digest.
Paul’s theology here is quite challenging because he maintains that a human being is always a slave to “something”. True unfettered freedom is an illusion. None of us lead a neutral life where all decisions and behaviour are taken purely out of logic. We are led to do things by things greater than ourselves. We are products of our culture, class, upbringing, education and yes our religious beliefs.
How much free will we actually possess is an age old philosophical conundrum of course.
Paul would say that we have a little wriggle room as we appear to have the ability to choose who will be our master – we can choose who we believe and follow. God or the power of sin.
This is placed alongside a reading from the gospel which uses the example of a generosity of spirit and kindness, towards others less well off than us physically but can be extended to those less well off than us spiritually as well as a product of this salvation.
It entails reaching out to others and perhaps reaching out in kindness sometimes at personal cost, so done, not because we are wonderful in ourselves but because we are slaves of righteousness.
So, while giving someone a cup of cold water in its literal sense to someone less fortunate than ourself is one example, yet another would be being kind and generous, for example, to new people coming to church for the first time, instead of avoiding them. Ungraciousness is hardly a Christian response and shows a self-centredness, which may be perfectly natural but which is at odds with being a part of a Christian community.
What God wants is not a “natural” response but a “supernatural” response
But at the end of the day, as we heard in Jeremiah, being close to God and doing and prophesying his will has never been automatically popular. People prefer to hear what they want to hear and do what they’ve always done, no matter how much that might lead to death and decay.
Christianity is not an easy option. It requires sacrifice, it requires listening to God. Jesus says that we will be recognised as his followers by what we do - by the fruit we produce as a “slave of righteousness” rather than a “slave to sin.”