In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have heard much over the last month or so about slavery – an issue that constantly gets raised whenever racial tensions mount in our country. It is a history we cannot deny nor can we whitewash – a history that serves both as a memorial for us to pay attention to and a reminder that far too often hampers meaningful communication to get to the real issues underlying our racial divide. I do not wish to dive into this highly emotive and charged issue. What I find ironic, however, on this 244th anniversary of Independence is that we also commemorate as a nation the 157th anniversary of the bloodiest battle ever fought on this American soil, a battle fought in the sleepy town of Gettysburg, a battle fought to restore a divided nation and to abolish the unimaginable evil of enslaving other human beings created by the hand of God and who bear the image of that God. For us as the Church, it is not about skin color. This diversity only speaks to the creativity of our God. Moreso, it is about being a human being who has the capacity for the divine. When we look upon another person what we see is a soul bearing the imago dei for whom Jesus died and was raised up again. It seems to me this is what is getting lost in the cacophony of outraged voices making their demands.
However, even if we could by the mercies of God get our racial issues resolved, let us not suppose that racial differences will be permanently set aside. Let us also not suppose that slavery will be a dead issue. Slavery continues alive and well in this old world whether it takes on the form we are most keenly aware of or it takes on the form of human traifficking, of addictions in all their many and varied forms, of our myriad phobias that exist, and in our passions. We are slaves to our fears and anxieties and to what other people think about us. We are slaves to the court of public opinion – ask any politician who lives by the most recent poll – slaves to fashion, slaves to peer pressure, slaves to social media, to a persona falsely imposed, to debt incurred due to reasons of our wanting more than of our need. Like the Jews to whom our Lord once said that they were slaves, we might likewise say, “What are you talking about? We’re not slaves! We have the Founding Fathers to thank for our deliverance from tyranny. We are free men and women who live in a free society and who dwell in a land of freedom that is the envy of the world!” And to us, as to those same Jews to whom our Lord and Master once spoke, He would say, “’Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin’” (Jn. 8:31-36).
Sacred Scripture uses the language of slavery to convey its divine revelation. It not only uses that language but the concept of slavery often. In fact, the notion and the language of slavery permeates salvation since we are in “bondage” and in great need of “redemption,” unable or incapacitated to set ourselves free. Jesus our Lord and our God has come to “ransom” us who have been captured by the devil and held captive as his slaves to sin and death. The very fact that we call Jesus our “Lord” and our “Master” connotes only one thing: we then are His servants, His slaves. In fact, this is St. Paul’s preferential reference to himself in relationship to the Saviour and it is how he prefers to describe our relationship to Jesus Christ as well: he is the Lord’s “bondservant” or “slave” and we are the “bondservants” or “slaves” of God (Rm. 1:1; 1 Pe. 2:16). Many of our English translations tend to soften the hardness of that Greek word doulos by rendering it as “servant,” a seemingly more benign and less harsh word and concept, almost a euphemistic rendering. But, doulos means “slave.” When I was in seminary the first time around, I was part of a group of men who were gifted with towels upon our induction into the group by way of foot washing. Our towels were embroidered with the Greek initials or letters for doulos Jesou Christou – “a slave of Jesus Christ.” As you can see, I still have mine and I still use it here because of its great meaning for me: “a doulos of Jesus Christ.”
From a Biblical perspective, freedom or being free is really an illusion on this side of eternity. None of us are truly ever as free as we fancy ourselves to be so long as we remain willingly in the darkness of sin and death. Freedom, from a Scriptural stance, is really a matter of whose slave you are. Paul, in speaking to the Roman Church, says that he is doing so to accommodate “the weakness of your flesh.” He’s speaking “in human terms” to communicate the divine revelation of saving Truth, the same Truth or “form of doctrine to which you were delivered” as catechumens while still slaves of sin, he says, “yet you obeyed from the heart” this “form” or “pattern of doctrine” by which you were set free when you were baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rm. 6:1-17). This entire chapter six of Romans is rooted in and fleshes out the Mystery of Holy Baptism. The Apostle opens up with a question that forms and informs the whole of the chapter: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Shall we go on sinning, that is, living in sin, so that we can get more and more of the grace of God? And he replies with a resounding, “Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin [in the waters of Baptism] live any longer in it?” Having been baptized into the Death of Jesus Christ, we have died. Period! We are dead! We have died to the enslavement of sin and death, and the bonds of our ancient master, Satan, have been broken! And, we have been raised with Jesus Christ crucified in the power of His Resurrection to live now or instead as slaves of God. In other words, we are empowered and enlivened by the Holy Spirit Who has raised us up from death and sin to “walk in newness of Life.” And this “newness of Life” is an ongoing reality that we must feed by faith, hope, and love, and remains forever rooted in prayer and worship of our Lord and Master, presenting ourselves to Him as His living sacrifices just as we used to do with our former master (Rm. 6:1-17; 12:1-2). In short, we have been set free from one master in order to serve the only true Master and God! We have exchanged one life of slavery that garnered only eternal death and destruction for another life whose gift is Eternal Life in Christ Jesus our Lord and its fruit or advantage, as some translations have it, is holiness. This is a truth and reality expressed in one of our Morning Prayers: “O Lord, grant that now I may love Thee as I once loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness just as I once labored for Satan the deceiver. All the more shall I labor for Thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, . . . .” (9th Prayer).
The true freedom we yearn for can only come about by our absolute surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord and Master, a willing submission to His divine authority and righteous will as His slaves – a doulos of Jesus Christ. Until we do, we remain enslaved to our fickle whims and passions. Oh, to be sure, the evil one as deceiver gives us a sense of freedom. In fact, the Apostle says that until we yielded to Jesus we were “free in regards to righteousness.” But, then, what did you get from that?, he asks. What was the fruit of such alleged “freedom”? These things which now make us ashamed, he says, only served up eternal death and darkness. “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness [sanctification], and the end, Everlasting Life.”
Beloved, true freedom is never antinomianism, which is to say, lawlessness. Such only leads us further into chaos and confusion and, ultimately, anarchy. It is the demonic primordial rebellion! True freedom always involves borders and boundaries – laws – even if it is the “simple” “royal law” of love (Jm. 2:1-13). “For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness [sanctification].” Jesus teaches us elsewhere that it is impossible for us to split ourselves, to divide ourselves, between two masters. We can only serve one (Mt. 6:24).
The Declaration of Independence and its Covenant was signed and sealed on the Cross in the blood of the Lamb and it is renewed here at the Altar whenever we drink of His Blood and eat of His Body. The question before us each and every day is this: whose slave do I wish to be? As ancient Israel stood on the verge of freedom and was poised to enter into the fullness of the Promised Land after defeating their enemies, leaving far behind the memory of their captivity in Egypt, the Prophet Joshua posed to them this:
And now, fear the Lord and serve Him in uprightness and in righteousness, and put away the foreign gods that our fathers served . . ., and serve the Lord. But if it is not pleasing to you to serve the Lord, choose for you yourselves today whom you will serve, whether the gods of your fathers . . . or the gods [of those] among whom you live upon the land. I and my household will serve the Lord because He is holy (Jo. 24:14-15).
When it comes to serving God, there is no fence-sitting. To whom or to what will you be enslaved today? As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!