The False Choice of Sin and The Freedom of Christ

The Voyage Home  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  25:35
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The language of the Empire and enslavement presents its adherants with a false choice: die or be enslaved by a life of sin. There is no other option than to simply play by the laws of sin and death that hold humanity in bondage. We journey towards another way when we see that Christ has broken down the law, broken down the sin structures, broken down the Empire who lumped upon us the false choice. Let a new kind of Freedom Ring!


15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Infinite Loops. Destructive cycles. Sin, repent, repeat. Never getting anywhere. Let’s be honest — we know a lot about what Paul is describing in this text. If you don’t, I know I do, I’m happy to tell you about it!

False Choices

Sin presents us with a false choice, a false dichotomy, a false dilemma: Either we keep being enslaved by patterns of pain and destruction, or we die. That may seem harsh and too much of a binary, but hear me out.
When we get locked into patterns of sin, practices of breaking covenant with each other and with God, we find ourselves confronted with this choice, this struggle. Do we seek to break the pattern? Sure, certainly, that’s what we want and that’s clearly what Paul wants here in this text. And he lays out the argument beautifully — we know what this is like, don’t we? And the false choice is that if we were to abandon the patterns and practices of sin, we would potentially have not identity at all.
Think about addiction, for example: Our addictions become defining characteristics of our personality. And to abandon them, the pattern they lock us into, we fear that at least a part of us would cease to exist. Part of us would die.
Or consider how this pattern of sin plays out in an abusive relationship. Someone we love, but someone we fight with — how do we get out of this? We fight and we are abused and we are discarded, but we are also linked with that person, it becomes a matter of dependency on them. I can’t leave this person, they are my everything. They hurt me, but they are my life. It cycles and cycles and we struggle to get out of it. Now, I’m not saying that the one held in bondage by an abusive partner is a sinner, but what I am trying to point to is that we get into these patterns of destructive behavior or habit and it is SO hard to break out, is it not?
And so we are presented with a false choice. Be enslaved to sin or risk death.
And this is exactly what the Empire wants for people. Enslave people to rules and laws and unattainable measures of success and the reward, just enough, for good behavior. Present the people with a false binary: keep up the patterns of sin and enslavement to sin or lose your home.
Another example, which is presently on our national minds: Do we continue to embrace symbols of sin in the name of patriotism, like statues or homages to historic figures? Because what other way is there? We can’t simply tear everything down and ignore our past or pretend that the pain of racism doesn’t exist. So, should we do nothing?
Thanks be to God — there is another way. There is a way out of this cycle. Not something of our own doing, but a freedom that we discover in Jesus Christ alone.
On the topic of national symbols — what we can do is reclaim and reimagine our past and our present and our future with eyes for justice and peace and equity. We can look back on our past and celebrate our history in new ways — like lifting up Black voices, leaders who stood for justice and fought for freedom, true freedom.
The musical, Hamilton, is at the front of our national consciousness this Fourth of July weekend. If you don’t know the story, it is a retelling of the Founding Fathers of our nation and specifically focuses on the life of Alexander Hamilton. And what the musical so beautifully does is reimagine Hamilton’s life through the lens of hip-hop, R&B, and soul — traditionally black musical genres — and imagines a call for freedom and equity for people of color in our nation, from the beginning. Perhaps there is good that comes from the voices of the nation’s founding fathers, good for all people, not just the privileged white male voices, but all people. Perhaps the work of the founding fathers can be reclaimed as a piece of our heritage that, while it has not fully been realized, has the intention to lift every voice and truly be a country where the immigrant, the person of color, the queer folk, the child and the elderly, are all celebrated and honored and given space to flourish. Perhaps another way is possible!

Breaking the Habit

But we have to find ways to break the habit. The habit of sin. We, like Paul, do not understand our own actions. We have so deeply engrained the patterns of sin which hold us all in bondage and create these false choices. We see that way of Jesus, the law of God, and we long for it, but it is just out of reach. We keep returning to the patterns.
I don’t want to simplify the solution, but I do want to note that much of our struggle is that we have become enslaved to patterns of behavior that become infinite loops. Research on habit formation tells us that every pattern, every habit, has a common loop involved and, if we are able to extract ourselves from the loop and change something about the action, we can break and change the habit. Every habit has a trigger, which initiates a habit routine, which then produces an outcome. Rinse and repeat.
To break the habit, we change something about one of the elements, the trigger, the routine, or the outcome. Nail biting? The trigger of anxiety leads to the routine of biting nails, which produces the outcome of some sort of relief from the anxiety. But, introduce that nasty nail polish that makes the nail taste bad and you disrupt the routine: there is not a satisfying reward, but rather a gross taste in your mouth.
Ok…take this way back to the level of racism and sin and destructive relationships and the false choice they present. We may tell ourselves, like Paul, that we do what we do not want to do and we’re stuck. There’s no escaping, woe is me.
The beauty we find in Christ Jesus is that the patterns of death are broken. Here is where we look to the cross and Christ’s resurrection and put into practice the whole concept of Christ breaking the powers of death. The false choice says that we will die if we stop sinning, if we break the habit. But in Christ, death itself is broken — and we are set free from the loop. We can see change happening in ourselves and others.
What if, instead of continuing in the pattern of racism or homophobia or greed or abuse or war, we changed the loop? Better yet, what if someone were to help us break the loop and try something new?
Back to Hamilton and our nation’s struggle to redefine ourselves: What if we looked back on those stories of past and we denounced the racism and enslavement we see AND what if we celebrated old symbols in new ways. What if we looked at the flag and saw it not as a symbol of imperial dominance, but rather as a weak, but hopeful symbol of equity and justice? What if we saw Lady Liberty, standing in the New York harbor, not as a gatekeeper, but as a sign of welcome?
Why do we have to keep up these false choices? Why do we have to keep the narrative? Let’s break it, let’s rise up, let’s claim justice! That is what the people of God do!

Finding a New Law and a New Freedom

In Christ, we find a new law and a new freedom. Those may sound like mutually exclusive perspectives, but I don’t believe they are. In Christ, we discover a new law — or said differently, we discover a new pattern of living, new rules and habits and community-formation that leads to justice and flourishing of life. And because we find these new habits, we find a new freedom. Christ is setting us free!
I keep looping back on these different examples and I hope they help us make the connection to what’s going on here in this text: think about the nail biting again — if you’ve ever been a nail biter or known one, isn’t there a beautiful freedom when you are released from that habit? Or, perhaps you were a smoker and found a way to quit — isn’t that a beautiful release and new freedom to have better lung capacity and health?
The freedom doesn’t mean you don’t have the urge or the struggle anymore. It certainly persists. Paul seems to be making a hyperbolic statement at the end of our text today, where he calls himself wretched and seeks rescue from death: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul gets it: this is hard and we feel weighed down by the pain of sin. We struggle.
I want to be a better man. I want to be a more loving partner to Stacy and father to Asher. I want to be a more confident and caring pastor to our church. I want to be a more vocal leader and advocate for those who are swept aside by injustice. I want to stand tall and speak truth to power.
But, wretched man that I am, it is hard! I have bad habits. I get stuck in loops of sin. I miss things, I neglect my calling. I struggle.
Thanks be to God and our savior Jesus Christ — I can claim a freedom in my struggle. I can claim a new law, a law which breaks the power of sin in my life. I struggle, still. But I can lean on the everlasting arms of a loving God who will help lead me into a new way of freedom.
Isn’t this what we want?

Our calling as a Church

I wonder about our church and our calling to step into this new freedom ourselves. As I said earlier, I believe this challenging season is inviting us to a new boldness, a new focus and passion for our calling as God’s people. For so long, we have been advocates and allies — but perhaps in this new season, we are invited to be more bold, to lift our voices and lift up the oppressed, to be set free and empowered by Christ to lead into a new kind of freedom as a church.
I believe our church can break the patterns of sin that hold us back. We can shirk off the chains of silence, of fear, of doing just enough to get by — we can rise up ourselves. Young and old, we struggle together and we can struggle towards something of this freedom in Christ, for ourselves, but also for others.
It is time, friends. If now is not the time, then when is? It is time for us to step up for Black people in our nation. It is time for us to step up for First Nations people in our county. It is time for us to be a place of sanctuary and welcome, for all people. It is time for us to lead in this.
How do we do this?
We need new habits.
And part of forming new habits and following Jesus into this new freedom is to be reflective. What patterns of brokenness are we living in? What injustices are we participating in? Who are we denying a voice, neglecting by not inviting them to the table? We need to examine ourselves, to wrestle with this inner conflict, as Paul is doing. We want this, don’t we?
We want justice for black men and women wrongfully murdered. We want space for LGBTQ voices, so we can celebrate their role in our community. We want a world of environmental sustainability, where all people partake in the flourishing of creation.
And we do not want the false choice of the empire. We do not want the way of death.
As the hymn says, we call for God to tune our hearts to sing God’s grace! We want to be formed in a new way, a new freedom, a new law. We want this grace so that we can extend it to others.
It is is time. Time to boldly claim this grace. Time to boldly receive a new way of living. And time to boldly step up and lead as Christ’s church in Bellingham, WA and in all our ability to reach beyond ourselves and boldly rise for the cause of justice and grace that all people need.
The work starts inside, in our hearts. I am committed to doing this work, I hope you’ll join me. I am tired of sitting on the sidelines. I am tired of doing just enough. It is time for boldness, for Spirit and heart and passion and hope. It is time for the false narratives of failure and being stuck to be put to death, themselves.
It is time for us to rise.
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