Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, ‘Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfil the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.’
1 My song shall be always of the loving-kindness of the Lord: •
with my mouth will I proclaim your faithfulness
throughout all generations.
2 I will declare that your love is established for ever; •
you have set your faithfulness as firm as the heavens.
3 For you said: ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one; •
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
4 ‘ “Your seed will I establish for ever •
and build up your throne for all generations.” ’
15 Happy are the people who know the shout of triumph: •
they walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance.
16 In your name they rejoice all the day long •
and are exalted in your righteousness.
17 For you are the glory of their strength, •
and in your favour you lift up our heads.
18 Truly the Lord is our shield; •
the Holy One of Israel is our king.
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
Sermon on Trinity Three
Dirty Harry in the film kept saying to anyone who would listen, “A good man knows his limitations.” So, it is interesting that Paul, in the same vein, says, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.”
Every one of us should keep the words of these prophets in mind whatever we do. I am joking when I call the fictional, film detective, Harry Callahan, a modern-day prophet, but I do want to take his words to heart. We need to know our limitations and speak according to them. How often have we listened to someone who has no idea whom they are addressing? We can think of our political leaders, we can think of our neighbours, we can think of our family. I know I can think of myself. I know that I have heard speakers who really don’t have a clue about the “natural limitations” each one of us have – they don’t know the blinkers their audiences have on – and so their words lack any conviction or import in our lives, especially if they do not speak “in human terms”.
This is not just something our leaders have to remember. Each one of us must do so. If I don’t speak within my own limitations, I will not be able to speak with you, but, more importantly, I won’t make sense to myself, let alone make sense to anyone else. “In human terms” – that, I think, is the mark of proper communication.
Well, the philosopher certainly does speak in human terms. He began his enterprise with “human being” and this start was so different from his predecessors, who wanted to speak only of eternal essences and transcendent realities. Never did they address the “accidents” of life – what constituted the thrown nature of each and every one of us.
The philosopher, like many of the fathers of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, speaks within the limitations of humanity, how each one of us is his or her own history, how we are “launched” into the stream of life. “Whither have we been thrown?” he asks. This question brings us right back to Paul’s letter. Paul’s prose speaks of human frailty, our possible sin. However, Paul does not condemn us merely to the wickedness of sin. Paul says we have been placed in the midst of an ultimate choice, a fundamental choice of life or death, righteousness or wickedness.
“No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”
We are in a place where we can choose to be an instrument of evil or an instrument of good. This alternative is so basic, so fundamental in life, we often miss when we have made our decision. It is lost amongst the distractions of everydayness because we “have to do something”, lost in the chatter of the masses because we listen to the “they” rather than our very selves. We don’t make judgements on what we do ordinarily, do we? When I am hoeing that row of turnips for my customer, I don’t really consider the freedom I am giving him.
All is not lost however. That essential choice remains in front of us always, we are able to live a full life, not merely that hollow life of disenchantment, the life – as Paul says – where our members are dedicated to wickedness. As the Apostolic Fathers said, “Choose life!” where we have no shame, but a life where we are sanctified by God, where we are dedicated to what is beneficial and good, where we are devoted to God.
Our lives when dedicated to righteousness are not deprived in any way. We are content and so we do not act wickedly by taking away anything from any other person. I suppose that is the essence of wickedness, isn’t it? – that our actions deprive another of any sort of freedom, that freedom which is fundamentally theirs. What else is righteousness – but the giving of freedom to the other?
A lot of sinful, wicked behaviour is exposed when we are “with” others in this extraordinary way. No longer do we grasp at the things others have, no longer do we envy the life of others in any way. Rather, we rejoice in the life of others – their life as they have it. We end up paradoxically with life in abundance, for we enjoy their lives as much as we enjoy our own. Doesn’t Jesus bless those who do righteous things? – For instance, the peacemakers – because they will enjoy peace of the prophets with everyone else.
What is righteousness? Paul doesn’t say, and we have such outmoded conceptions. Nor does he define wickedness explicitly. All he says in our passage is that wicked behaviour results in shame. This is not, I think, the red cheeks of embarrassment. No, this shame Paul talks of is a more fundamental feeling, perhaps it equates with that theological concept of “guilt”, the responsibility one feels for action undertaken which does not result in an ultimate good. I think the philosopher suggests this is what guilt is, though he suggests guilt is the fundamental responsibility for the whole of one’s life, not just those actions which shame us by turning our insides out, as I think when we deprive others of freedom in any way.
This guilt does not figure very much in our everyday lives, unless we are living for righteousness, unless we are devoted to God. At least that is the guilt I think Paul is talking about. “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”
Paul is speaking to our very real lives, the flesh and blood in which we dwell. Paul knows how often our stomachs rule our hearts and minds, and so on. However, he tells us explicitly that we are better than that, doesn’t he? He tells us to choose righteousness, to do the good, to become instruments of God’s purpose.
I would like to suggest that those who are the instruments of righteousness, are not the avenging angels of the apocalypse. No, they are the saints who have given us to ourselves in our infinite freedom. These angels stand alongside us to help us make free choices, not ruled by the limiting passions of the flesh. These angels love in an extraordinary way – that others are valued and become who they are essentially, in that fundamental choice for life in all its fullness. These angels keep offering us that choice, they keep thrusting us into a faithful existence, where we also will give others freedom, because that is what righteous love does for the other. We become ourselves through love, that extraordinary love of Christ. Agape makes no demands but gives to each beloved person a freedom without privation.