Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
June 28, 2020
“Law and Order”
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
We treasure freedom!! We like to go where we want to go and do what we want to do. We do not like restrictions. We don’t like to have to meet in small crowds, or no crowds. We don’t like to talk to another person from half-way across the room. We don’t like to get our glasses all fogged up due to a mask that is over our mouth and nose. Next weekend we are going to hear a bunch of illegal fireworks explode in our neighborhoods, celebrating the freedoms that we enjoy as citizens of this country. America is a land of freedom.
And our God desires us to have freedom, not just as citizens of a country, but as people of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) Paul begins Galatians 5 with the word, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (verse 1a)
But so many folks are not free. So many of us are not free. I’m not talking about the restrictions that we have had since March. I’m talking about the bondage we can have in our souls and minds when we live by the lies that Satan feeds us. Peter writes, “A man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.” (II Peter 2:19b) Sinful habits, addictions, compulsions, walking down the wrong path are all things that rob us of the freedom that God has designed for His people. This is what Paul says of that control, not from God, but from the devil, in our lives, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21) You and I can be bound by Satan and the deception that he can bring into our lives. Alcohol, drugs, pornography, bitterness have us by the throat.
But we can also be bound by self. Instead of living with the freedom of the joy of grace we turn religion into a performance-based duty. A performance-based life is based on what we do, what we have, how we behave and how other people perceive us. We rely upon ourselves rather than upon God to determine who we are and if we have any worth.
In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector look at the performance-based life of the self-righteous Pharisee, “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” (Luke 18:11-12) Look at me!!
There is no freedom here. It is a life of keeping score, believing that God is the perfect accountant. Is that where you get your worth? You do the best job at work – better than those slugs you work with. You are the perfect son or daughter, even in your old age. People will learn from you about how to do things right and if they don’t do it like you do it, they have it all wrong. But if you fail, or if life falls apart, you fall hard. You built everything on self and not on God and upon His loving grace and patience. You die by a self-inflicted wound. Life built on self will fail. Paul tells his listeners then, “So we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6b)
Paul in Philippians 3 compares the chains of having a performance-based life to a grace-filled life. Look at what was once important to him: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” But then a faith driven life, a life confident not in self, but in Christ, took over. “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philippians 3:4-9)
You want freedom – joyous, life-sustaining freedom? It won’t come by letting your flesh lead you. You won’t find it in your own efforts – a performance-based life. And here is the surprising part of our reading from Romans 7 – it won’t come from God’s law. In fact, God’s law will actually create a larger distance from Him. This chasm between a perfect God and all of us who are so far from perfect comes not because of the law but because of us. Three different verses in our text give us one continuous thought – the good command of God incites a bad response in us. Here are those verses, “The sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.” “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.” “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Romans 7:5,8,10) I guess it would be like when I was a child and my mom would tell me that I couldn’t have a cookie before supper because it would ruin my appetite. Well, now the cookie was exactly what I wanted – just because she told me I couldn’t have it. The ancient word is true, “We ever strive for what is forbidden, and ever covet what is denied.” (Ovid from Amores)
We are killed by our sin. We are killed by self. We are killed by the law. This would be an awful message if everything ended here. Recently the sins of the past, some of them hundreds of years ago, are catching up with those who did them. Their statues are removed, their names are withdrawn from libraries, institutions and neighborhoods. The past can destroy us all. But Jesus came to bring life, not death. He came to resurrect us from hopelessness. He came to succeed where we have failed. We call the law God’s “strange” work. We call the Gospel, the news of Christ’s death for our sin and His resurrection for our life, God’s “proper” work. I have titled the sermon, “Law and Order.” My idea of order is that of a new order, a new way, a road that only God can make. In Romans 7 this is the new order given, “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.” (Verse 4)
In Romans 8, after the whole dilemma of Romans 7, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24), we have God’s answer, all about His new order of salvation and the righteousness we now wear in Jesus. It says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.” (Romans 8:1-3) Same author, different book, same message, “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:4-6)
On a number of memorials in our country there is a phrase that tells us about freedom – “Freedom isn’t free.” How true! Someone fought or wrote or acted for us and we now enjoy freedom. That is also true for everyone in God’s kingdom. His Son, Jesus, gave you freedom. You have peace, forgiveness, eternal assurance – but it came at great cost – to Him.
You have a new order now. You are baptized by Christ. You are washed clean. You are pure. “You belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead.” You are free to fully live in joy, with freedom now, and in expectation forever. Amen!!