Benediction Online

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Advantage You Get is Sanctification

Romans 6:12-23

When I was a teenager and my sister had gone to college I finally had a room to myself. I had the typical adolescent sleep disturbance that meant I stayed awake most of the night and slept until noon. In my room was a big old radio. So I lay in bed into the early hours listening to pirate radio stations broadcasting rock music from ships anchored far enough off the coast to be outside the area covered by the BBC’s monopoly of radio. Even more than I liked the music, I liked the idea that I was engaging in subversive activity – music broadcast to me in contradiction of the broadcasting law. Then when I seriously got religion I listened to TransWorldRadio broadcasting the gospel from Monte Carlo. I loved the fact that by simply turning the dial I could hear people talking in different languages, and I could get forbidden music from the ships at sea, or radio evangelists serving up an inerrant and infallible Bible all night long.

In today’s excerpt from Paul’s great Letter to the Romans, he writes, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.

Being freed from sin is just the beginning of what it means to be Christian. Paul tells us that we are what we obey – and the Greek word can also mean listen to or hearken to – so when he talks about being freed from sin, we can perhaps think about it as changing what we listen to - being able to change the radio station in our head. No longer do we have to listen to the station which broadcasts ways of thinking and living that lead to the withering of our souls, the hatred of other people, and the destruction of our environment. We are free to turn it off. That is the first step. When we become Christians, when we open up to the power of God in our lives, we are given a radio dial and we can choose to listen to, hearken and obey not just the old station but the new one too.

Being freed from sin means that the dial on our internal radio is no longer stuck on one station, so we can change it; we can choose to listen not to the voice of sin but to the voice of righteousness – we can choose not to listen to the voice of the culture of death but to the voice coming from outside the norm.

“Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” Being enslaved to God is not an appealing idea for most of us, used as we are to the idea that freedom is worth fighting for. But I think we can stay with the image of the radio – slaves listen to and obey the voice of their owner – we listen to and obey the voice of God’s Spirit. The difference is that God does not take away our free will – we can choose to keep turning the dial and seeing what else is out there. So our obedience to God is obedience that is freely given. Just as God’s gift of life abundant is freely given to us, so we in turn give back our loving obedience, our attentiveness, our surrender to Spirit.

The advantage we get? Sanctification.

Sanctification is the process by which we become the Christ-like beings that we were created to be. It isn’t just for saints or professional religious – monks, nuns and clergy – it is a normal part of growing up as Christians. As we mature in the Christian life so we stop fiddling with the dial and choose to tune in to God. Instead of our own ideas, we want to know what God’s are. Instead of deciding what to do with our day on our own, we want to ask God to direct our thoughts, our words and our actions. Why? Because we have found that it is so much more satisfying, so much more fulfilling. Living each day with God, developing a deeper and deeper more intimate relationship with the divine, is the most satisfying and life-enhancing thing we can do.

And in the process of listening to Spirit we are sanctified, made holy, made into the Christ-like beings we were created to be. But unlike lying in bed listening to the radio, this is not a passive process. We are called to be co-creators with God and to be active participants in our own sanctification. We are called not just to hear God’s word but to put it into practice. Otherwise the radio becomes just background noise that may be playing but we don’t really notice it. Sometimes Jill and I will be at the gym or out for lunch and she’ll say, “do you remember this song?” and I have to listen really hard to even hear that music is playing in the background. That’s the danger of being people who regularly go to church and hear God’s word – if we don’t put it into practice it can just become so much background noise that we aren’t paying attention to while we go about our lives pretty much ignoring God.

Some of us are reading “Practicing Peace in a Time of War” by Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron. This is a slim volume, if you read it in one sitting it probably wouldn’t take more than 90 minutes. But the point of reading it is not to have an intellectual understanding of the ideas she presents, but to try to put those into practice in your life. Now that is much harder as she challenges us to sit with the discomfort that usually leads to aggression, to become familiar with our desire to correct other people’s ideas or to snarl at the driver who cuts us off, and to let the feeling be without feeding it with our thoughts. This little book is part of my personal process of sanctification right now as I attempt to practice letting things be as they are, including my feelings about them, without immediately needing to make myself more comfortable. God is using Pema Chodron to help me learn new habits of becoming more Christlike. But it doesn’t just do to read the book once through and think I understand it.

Understanding is not sanctification. It doesn’t matter how much you study and how much you grapple with complex notions of who God is and the nature of creation - if you aren’t turning everything over to God, if you are hearing but not obeying, you aren’t getting anywhere. You are not living the life that God intends for you.

Paul says, “Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” By the end he doesn’t mean what you get at the end of your earthly life or the prize you get at the end of the race. The Greek word is telos which is an important concept in Christian thought but one not easily translated into English. It means “fulfilling what was intended”. So the telos of a chair is to be sat on. A chair that is in a shed rotting is not reaching its telos. Our telos is to become Christ-like beings in unity with God. That is eternal life.

And that is the gift of God. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is the free gift of God. But it is not enough for us to receive it – it is not enough for us to find that we can listen to a different radio station, a different message, one which has hope and life. That is just the first step. Then comes the long slow process of welcoming God, becoming obedient to her voice and turning our lives over to her service moment by moment, day after day. And as we do so we will find that this is a joyful thing, it is filled with hope and new life because it is our telos. It is what we were created for.

And the new life which wells up in us is not ours to hoard but is a gift for all of the cosmos. That is the wonder of co-creating with Spirit.


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