St Barnabas and St Michael’s 25th November 2012
Reading – Romans 6:1-14
I believe in Jesus so why can’t I do what I like?
Now, I hope none of us would say this directly but when it comes to the big decisions in life – who to marry, where to live, what job to do, do we feel free or do we allow Jesus to shape and mould our decisions? As a pastor, one of my biggest heartaches comes when people drift away from the Lord because Jesus is no longer the priority in their lives.
A Christian girl grows up with a strong faith and a desire to serve Him full-time. But she goes away to university. She falls in love with someone who does not believe. Soon they are living together, maybe later on they get married. Church is still somewhere on the radar, but it’s now way down on the list of things to do, behind career or family or leisure.
A Christian couple spend many years working hard for their local church. But as the children grow up, they want to move to a nicer area with better schools. They try for a while to come back to their old church, but it’s hard getting up and travelling on a Sunday morning, and there aren’t really any suitable congregations in their area. Bit by bit, their attendance starts to drop off, and though they may still have a faith, their new home and their new circle of friends attract more and more of their attention.
Then there’s the quiet young man who sits on the back pew each Sunday. He does not say much, but everyone knows he has a strong and deep faith. That is, until suddenly he stops coming. Eventually it turns out his best friend has introduced him to a new hobby, and he spends every Sunday morning flying model aeroplanes instead.
I could give plenty more examples, but I had better stop before anyone starts thinking I’m particularly getting at them. The point I’m trying to make is that the church in this country has a serious problem. It’s not women bishops. It’s not issues of human sexuality. It’s not the words we use in our services. No, it’s something even more fundamental than any of these. It’s the fact that most of the time we do not connect what we believe with the way we behave.
Over the past few years there have been lots of debate about church growth. One measure of growth is the number of people who come through our doors. Another measure of growth is the amount of prayer and Bible reading that takes place in a believer’s life. I believe, however, that the real evidence of growth is shown when someone says, “I believe in Jesus. Therefore…”. Therefore, He will govern who I marry. Therefore He will govern where I live. Therefore He will govern what job I do.
Faith is not just about we believe in our minds, or the feeling we have in our hearts. As Paul makes clear in this passage, it’s about sharing in the very death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s about making a radical break from an old way of life and starting on a whole new way of being, with Jesus at the centre.
Recently we as a family have been working our way through all the old Star Trek series. We’ve made our way through the original series and are just about to finish the Next Generation. Now as far as we are concerned, it’s just harmless entertainment. But some people take their interest much further. They become Trekkies. They attend Star Trek conventions, dressed up as their favourite characters. They spend hours discussing the world of Star Trek. Some even try to learn to speak Klingon.
Now I don’t want to offend any Trekkies here this morning, but the problem is, the world of Star Trek can never become reality. I hope that’s not a shock to anyone present. It was, and will always, remain a fiction. But as I keep on saying, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a historical reality. And because it is a real event, it should change us at the deepest level. Our faith in Jesus Christ should make us into nothing less than a new kind of person.
The believers in the early church knew this well. After all, the moment they were baptised, they were cutting themselves off from an old way of life. They could never again go with their friends down to the local temple for the festivals. They could never again join with their fellow workers in their pagan guild meetings. They could never again swear loyalty to the emperor as a god. Baptism was a radical break with the past. Once they confessed Jesus as Lord and were plunged under the fast flowing waters of the local river, their life changed forever. As they came up again to the surface, they knew they had staked their whole future on Christ and His church.
That’s what Paul is talking about when he says in verse 1 that we died to sin and in verse 2 that we were baptised into his death (that is, the death of Jesus). Now the first believers didn’t need these phrases explaining to them because most of them could remember their baptism. But Paul wants to remind them what happened because he knew that his opponents were seeking to twist his message. Because Paul was saying that you are saved by faith alone, they claimed Paul was saying it didn’t matter if you sinned or not. If you believe, then Paul’s message seemed to be you could do what you like. After all, if God is a God of grace, then He is always there to forgive. So why not go out there and sin as much as you like!?
Now I hope all of us would realise that isn’t at all what Paul actually taught. But I wonder if at a deep sub-conscious level we sometimes buy into this argument without perhaps even realising it. “Yes, I know I shouldn’t really be watching this programme. But if I’m sorry later on, God will forgive me”. “Yes, I shouldn’t really have lost my temper like that. But God loves me anyway”. “Yes, I shouldn’t be skipping church this Sunday, but so long as I’m there next week, it’ll be OK”. It’s something we all do from time to time. And what we need to realise whenever we think like this, we are cheapening the cross of Christ. The death of Jesus is no longer a precious offering of God’s own Son for us, but an excuse to justify our own behaviour.
No, let’s be clear – following Jesus has immense and life-changing consequences.
First of all, as Paul puts it in verse 6, our old self was crucified with him (that is, Jesus) so that the body of sin might be done away with that we should no longer be slaves to sin. That’s a rather complicated way of saying that if we believe in Jesus we should say “no” to sin. To misquote an old advert, if something looks like sin, or sounds like sin, then the chances are, it is sin. Our response should not be to see what we can get away with, but to get as far away from it as possible. Don’t let anyone kid you – there is no eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not get found out”. But there are the ten commandments, as well as the rest of Scripture, to teach us what is and what is not right in God’s eyes.
In the Garden of Eden the serpent tempted Eve with these words, “Did God really say…?” It’s the same way the evil one tempts us today: “Did God really say…?” “You don’t take that stuff in the Bible seriously? Oh come on, it’s only a harmless bit of fun?” And every time we hear those little words, our response should be to tell him to get lost. Jesus died my death on the cross. The moment we realised this and believed in him, our old way of life died with him. So there can be no going back. From now on, it’s God word that counts, and it’s Jesus who is Lord in my life. We should no longer be slaves to sin, and whenever we have the choice, it’s Jesus who wins out.
Of course saying no to “sin” is not always this easy. Sometimes sin is immensely and almost irresistibly attractive. We may have a little voice in the back of our mind telling us something is wrong, but when we are dealing with overwhelming desire, it can be so hard to resist. Or, as some of you know only too well, sin may entangle us in an addictive behaviour so that it seems impossible to break free. The statistics about the scale of online porn, for example, or online gambling in this country are absolutely mind-blowing and Christians are no more immune from these sorts of temptations than anyone else.
And if you are struggling to do the right thing this morning, then I hope Paul’s second point in this passage will help you. For not only have we shared at the deepest level in Christ’s death, we have also begun to share in Christ’s resurrection. Paul writes in verse 8: Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him and clearly we will only experience the final victory over sin when we are called to glory. But we start sharing in Christ’s resurrection life the moment we put our faith and trust in Him.
How does this fact help us in our struggle against sin? Because new life in Christ is new life in the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t leave us on our own to try ever so hard not to get things wrong, or look down disapprovingly on our lives as we constantly make a mess of things. He stands right with us day by day, longing to pour into our hearts again and again the gift of His Holy Spirit, to strengthen us, to help us resist, and more positively, to make us more like Him.
This doesn’t mean that our lives become instantly easier, and we shall be looking more at this whole theme of struggle next week. But for now, let me just suggest when you are really being tempted, when it’s getting so hard to do the right thing, even a simple cry of “Come, Holy Spirit” can help. Take a moment before doing anything to reflect on the enormity of Jesus’ love for you. Recognise He is right there with you. Don’t try to hide anything from him, because you can’t hide anything anyway. But be open, be honest, and be willing to receive from Him. And you might well then find that the temptation becomes less strong than it seemed at first. After all, Jesus really has won the ultimate victory over sin, and that victory is for us to claim.
In the end, of course, the choice is ours. Do we follow Jesus, or, to use the words of the old Prayer Book, the devices and desires of our hearts? And that’s a tough decision we all face. Sometimes to follow Jesus might mean we lose the respect of those closest to us. We may invite ridicule, abuse and hostility. In his first letter Peter writes of unbelievers: They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Pet 4:4). And isn’t that so true of our own experience? “Everyone else is doing it, so why don’t you join in?” “Don’t be such a killjoy – be one of the lads?” “You’re so old-fashioned, why don’t you get with it for a change?” The pressures particularly on our young people to conform are absolutely immense and we should never underestimate the challenges they face day to day.
And this is why the biggest issue the church faces in this country is connecting the way it behaves with what it believes. Because it is the courageous choice to be different, to stand out from the culture around us that shows Jesus really is Lord. When Paul writes in Rom 6:13 Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life he is not trying to beat us with a stick so the Christian life becomes a miserable, dull existence where we are constantly and dourly seeking to follow God’s commands. He is urging us to follow the path of life and hope. Sin may appear attractive in the short term, but in the long run nothing can beat knowing Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
Yes, following Jesus can be hard. It can be difficult to say “no” to sin. It can be hard to experience the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. Our choices may provoke hostility and ridicule. But when we are prepared to stand up and counted as followers of Jesus, then certain things happen. We ourselves experience the joy of knowing we are doing our Father’s will. Our choices act as a positive example to other believers who are struggling with the same kind of issues. And some of those who do not yet believe begin to see that following Jesus is not just about doing churchy things, but rather it’s a radical, positive alternative of way of living that offers hope and peace and love.
I believe in Jesus so why can’t I do what I like? To put it very simply, because Jesus is Lord, because as He said in our gospel reading, No servant can serve two masters. So who are you going to serve this week? How will your decisions and your actions prove that you are a follower of Jesus?