How many times did you hear that verse growing up? How many pamphlets and leaflets have you read it in?
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
We have a language problem here. We have a serious, spiritual issue with the way in which we hear this verse. There’s a chasm between Paul’s original rhetoric and our understanding. It’s not just the way in which the good news of God’s grace has been turned into a threat, although most of the pamphlets I’ve thrown away over the years try to evangelize by the wages of death instead of the promise of life. That’s a problem, but so too is the fact that this verse is the culmination of a chapter of a letter from Paul to the Romans which uses slavery to describe our salvation; a chapter that uses the word “slave,” whether to sin or to God, eight times in the last eight verses.
Now, we might say, Paul was just using the language and social structure of his day to illustrate a point in a way that would be familiar to his readers. But I’m not willing to let Paul off the hook that easily. Jesus Christ, whom Paul proclaims, lived and died, rose and ascended to save sinners, thanks be to God; but along the way, and not by-the-by, he said that he had come to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the captive and to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). There are no slaves in the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s another problem: we do not hear the word “slave” in the same language as Paul wrote it. We don’t even hear it in the same way as one another. Because of our place in the world, we cannot help but hear the language of slavery in Black and White. Whomever we claim as our ancestors, we cannot hear the word, “slave,” without our history colouring it in.
I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you that is a particular, spiritual problem for people who look like me.
I read a book on Thursday afternoon (I mean, I sat down and read the whole thing in an afternoon) called Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US. Lenny Duncan, a Lutheran minister of Word and Sacrament writes,
Church, the cross was raised high by slaveholders… (Duncan, 44)
He writes to me, a White woman in the American church of today,
… it’s not just my freedom you are risking …, but also your own. You are just as trapped by the effects of chattel slavery and the broken cycles it has set in motion in our nation and church. ( Duncan, 48)
Why is this language gap a problem, even, or especially, for White people? Because it’s not just my freedom that is at risk, but my relationship with God in Christ, which is my salvation. Because when I hear the terms of salvation in Black and White, master and slave, I am tempted to see myself on one side or the other, and I am tempted to imagine God right alongside me.
But there are no slaves in the kingdom of heaven. There are no slave masters in the kingdom of God.
We need a radical reordering of our language, our thoughts, our prayers. Paul’s rhetoric will not do. God is not a slave master; God is not on the side of the slave holders. Jesus, God Incarnate, was a vagrant preacher, a poor man of an oppressed and occupied race and nation, who was arrested on trumped-up charges, beaten, and killed by the authorities for being too … [you know the word I want to say]; for being too much.
We need to remake our image of God to remember that at the heart of the Gospel, at the crux of the story of salvation, we do not find power, mastery, wealth, or political prowess. We find instead a man, a person, thumbing his nose at all of that and at the devil who tempted him with it.
That is the nature, the colour of God.
God so loved the world, that the lesson God wanted it to learn was not one of power, or wealth, or conquest, but the simple, defiant lesson of love. Love God, love your neighbour, love your enemy, just love.
I know, you were expecting an uplifting sermon about being back together in the church. But forgive me: what if our language about that needs updating, too?
I love you all, and I miss you as much as we all miss the old days of February, but I’m afraid that the way forward might not be somehow to push back toward the routines and rituals in which we had become comfortable. What if we are not going back to February any more than we are returning to the 1950s and cigarettes at coffee hour, as one of my colleagues pointed out; any more than to the 1850s and the era of legalized slavery? What if God is calling us into a new creation?
Please understand, I do not in any way believe that God inflicts a deadly and debilitating virus on millions of people so that a few can have an epiphany, a spiritual awakening. But what if we were to use and treat this season of unusual worship and unaccustomed challenges not as an interruption to the work of the church, but as an intervention, a call to awaken and with renewed vigour pursue the will of God, the love of neighbour, the restoration of creation?
We will not find the kingdom of heaven in the past; perhaps we can look for it in the present.
We will not find the kingdom of heaven in the past, but we do find it in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord, whose advice was to offer kindness, hospitality, humility, good news to the poor and release to the captive and the oppressed; whose life is eternal; and who promised his most bewildered disciples, “I am with you always [and everywhere], to the end of the age.”
Lenny Duncan, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US (Fortress Press, 2019)