Sunday, August 02, 2009

Slaves No More

Exodus 16:2-5, 11-15
John 6:2-35

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” Romans 6:16

Many of us are slaves to certain habits and behaviors, but not all habits and behaviors are inherently destructive. While it is true that some of us are slaves to alcohol, gambling, tobacco, work, and even food; others among us are slaves to physical fitness (ok, some of YOU might be), financial discipline, and healthy eating. In fact, it may be that we are all slaves, in one sense or another, to something in our lives and not really be consciously aware of it. They are not always such bad things to have in our lives, but all behaviors speak to a certain human trait I believe to be inherent in all of us: we are creatures of habit. And because we have within us a certain “survival instinct”, we are also possessed of certain self-serving, though not necessarily selfish, behaviors. If something works for us in the beginning, we will pretty much stick with it and even protect it almost at all cost.

So as we identify those habits we could probably live without, we sometimes create new habits with which to offset the old. And sometimes we don’t. Old habits are hard to break, and it really doesn’t matter how we come by these habits or even why, although knowing why we do things might help us to stop if we truly want to stop. I remember my aunt trying – IN VAIN – to get me to stop biting my fingernails by putting that awful-tasting stuff on my nails. My initial fear was that this “stuff” might look like gloss, but it dries well. My second fear was the inevitable “change” that would come as a result if I were to stop biting my nails. Then it occurred to me: stop putting the nasty stuff on my fingernails! That problem was solved pretty quickly … but I still bite my nails.

Captivity has a nature all its very own, but we rarely associate “being held captive” with “being creatures of habit”. We typically understand habits as learned behavior, of course, but we also more often enter into these habits of our own free will, if subconsciously. That is to say, we are not often forced into habitual behavior by external forces even as we are certainly influenced. Regardless of how or why we learn certain behaviors, by the time we figure out that a substantial portion of our lives is devoted to these habits, whether good or bad, it’s very nearly too late. We are hooked and, thus, enslaved.

It might be easy to confuse “habit” with “hobby”, especially if we have hobbies we devote a great deal of time to. Some hobbies are downright addictive! And if we devote such time to these hobbies that the things we must deal with are ignored, there is a problem. It is “patterned” behavior that compels us to act very nearly mindlessly, and this is not how we were created.

Witness the people of Israel in the wilderness, suddenly free. Because the nation had been captive for 400 years, the concept of freedom is completely alien to Moses’ generation. They are unable to conceive of it or act within it - and because they are so limited even in their ability to think independently, they remember with FONDNESS the “pots of meat and … bread to the full” they once had (Exodus 16:3). It does not seem to occur to them that they were being “tended” like so much livestock because they simply did not know any better! If we re-read the first chapter of Exodus, we will be reminded that the people of Israel were not “captured” in battle. Rather, they were slowly and “shrewdly” enslaved over a period of time. It all happened because the Egyptians realized that the vast Hebrew population could spell trouble for them “in the event of war” with Egypt’s enemies (Exodus 1:10). Israel failed to realize it was being enslaved until it was too late, likely because their essential needs were being met for them even as they were being mistreated.

Jesus expresses a similar sentiment to the crowd that sought Him out on the other side of the sea: “You are looking for Me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). Whether these of the crowd were poor who were finally able to “eat their fill” on the other side of the sea is not nearly as relevant as the fact that they were willing to mindlessly follow a free meal, having completely missed the “big picture”. And these were likely of the same crowd from the other side willing to take Jesus “by force” to make Him their king (John 6:15). Jesus met their basic and most essential physical need and because of this, they were willing to hand over their very lives to Him without fully realizing or even appreciating Him for who He really was (is!).

Right off the cuff, one may be tempted to ask how being drawn to Jesus could be a bad thing, even if blindly and involuntarily drawn. The short answer, of course, is that there is nothing “bad” about being drawn to Jesus. The long answer goes deeper, though, in that if folks could be drawn to Jesus with just bread and fish, they could be drawn to anyone with just bread and fish. Modern-day “false prophets” know exactly what people want, and they know how to provide what people want. And if a person’s immediate and crucial need is met, whether that need is social, personal, financial, or physical, the “provider” of that relief soon becomes the “taskmaster” after having initially – and temporarily - served as “savior”. The relationship never was one of trust or even respect, and there was certainly no element of freedom or voluntary action. Like the bad habits we acquire over a period of time, we are soon “captured” without ever having been consciously aware.

I cannot say I care for Paul’s choice of words in referring to himself as a “prisoner”, though he does say “in” the Lord rather than “of” the Lord. And we do know that Paul’s “captivity” was strictly voluntary on his part; he is still possessed of his own, independent mind. Before his encounter on the road to Damascus, he was possessed of the minds of others by seeking to persecute, and ultimately destroy, this “new” movement of Christians by what we now know as “legalistic” religion that demands mindless obedience; aka, “following the crowd”, rather than a free will response.

And this is the proclamation we should acknowledge for ourselves when we freely choose to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Just as we offer our gifts, we offer ourselves completely and entirely when we freely choose to come forward and “commune” with Christ. When we hand ourselves over to Him through this Sacrament, and when we do it with our minds wide open, we are making a bold proclamation of liberty, having been set free from our sinful past. We proclaim the New Life that is offered to us, and we freely pledge our allegiance to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Be warned, however. If you or I choose to participate in this Sacrament only because we think we are expected to, we are still prisoners of our past – and this divine Gift becomes nothing more than a mindless habit to which we are involuntarily held captive. Even worse still, it becomes poison rather than nourishment (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

Jesus never asked for “mindless slaves”. He called His disciples His “friends” with whom He shared all He had received from the Father so that they, too, would be “in the know” (John 15:14). And we are further reminded in Luke 14:25-33 that we are to enter into a relationship with the Lord through Christ after having taken everything into consideration, to “count the cost”. If it is blind obedience He gets from us, there is no relationship, “love” is reduced to nothing more than a word, and our hearts – which He wants above all else – are not in the relationship. We are simply “mindless slaves” who have been “captured” rather than “redeemed”.

Come forward today in this Sacrament, and every day in your daily living, not because you feel obligated … but because you are loved. And because you are loved, you are thus set free.

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