Obedience - Romans 6:16-23 (Pete Hillman)

Each of the young people who are being baptised this evening have faced a challenge in recent months. Most importantly they have been challenged by God’s Holy Spirit about walking a walk of faith with Jesus. But for each of them when they have sat down and chatted this through with one of the older Christians in the community they have had spelt out to them exactly what being a Christian involves.

Firstly they have been asked if they acknowledge that they are people in need of salvation. Do they admit to being people whose lives do not measure up to God’s standards? Do they know that the kind of relationship God invites them into with himself is not currently their experience? Anything we do, say or feel which gets in the way of this relationship is what the bible calls sin. Each of them faced that question and answered “yes”, this is how they felt.

Secondly they have been asked if they believe that Jesus is the only Son of God who was born, lived, died and was raised to life 2000 years ago so that they could be born to new life themselves, die to their old self and receive the promise of eternal life through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Again, to this each of them has answered “yes” this is what they believe.

But crucially they have also faced a third and possibly most difficult question. Indeed there may be those here this evening who could gladly say yes to these first two questions, even if we had more questions about some of the detail of those. But when faced with this final third question we must be able to come to the place that these three young ones have come to. The final, and most crucial question in some ways, is will you surrender your life to Jesus making him Lord allowing him to take control and lead you day by day. In essence this is what it means to be a Christian. To be one who follows Jesus, not just in the sense of acknowledging his existence but more importantly obeying him. And it’s this area of obedience that is one with which we struggle most of all if we are honest whether we call ourselves Christians or not.

The essence of sin

First of all disobedience is at the heart of what the bible calls sin. Sin is a broken relationship with God our Father which, as we have said is restored through relationship with Jesus the Son. And a right relationship with God will be characterised by obedience. Jesus said “if you love me you will obey my commands” not “if you love me you will sing songs very loudly and wear w.w.j.d. bracelets” or any of the other things we might associate with being a Christian. Obedience is the most important expression of our love and the core of a healthy relationship with God. And of course, that is exactly what baptism is about too. Whilst I can wax lyrical about the sacramental nature of baptism (and I’ve lost some of you already!!!) about what it symbolises and so on, one of the most important aspects of it is that it requires obedience. Jesus says to every person in this room tonight “If you are a follower of mine – be baptised.” The question is then merely one of obedience, will I or won’t I?

True freedom

Now obedience is not a very fashionable word these days is it? We become very uncomfortable with the word because we feel that it restricts our personal freedom. If I place myself in obedience to another than logic dictates that I have less freedom than I had before. I have been watching the re-runs of “The Monastery” in the last couple of weeks which is fascinating. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a group of blokes who join a monastic community (Benedictines) from ordinary life to see whether or not such a life enables them to discover something of faith and more of themselves. Part of what they are supposed to do is be obedient as this is one of the vows taken by a Monk. One of them objects to the Abbott that this will inevitably curtail his freedom to do what he wants. The Abbott responds by asking him how much he is really free?

St Paul, of course, poses the same question. Romans 6:16-23 says 'Surely you know that when you give yourselves like slaves to obey someone, then you are really slaves of that person. The person you obey is your master. You can follow sin, which brings spiritual death, or you can obey God, which makes you right with him. In the past you were slaves to sin – sin controlled you. But thank God, you fully obeyed the things that you were taught. You were made free from sin, and now you are slaves to goodness.' What Paul is saying is that we are not free at all before we come to know Jesus. We are slaves to our own sinful desires. That which we call freedom is not freedom at all.

Slaves to wagon wheels!

Now I like biscuits, chocolate biscuits to be precise, in fact to be even more precise – Wagon Wheels. And when I come home at the end of an evening shift at XS there’s nothing l like more than to switch on the TV and eat three or four wagon wheels. Now I justify eating three wagon wheels because when I was a kid, many years ago, wagon wheels were huge and now you have to eat three modern wagon wheels in order to have the equivalent of one traditional wagon wheel! In fact, wagon wheels were so big that they really used to use them as spare wheels for wagons so, if your actual wagon wheel broken you could actually replace it with a spare chocolate wagon wheel – and of course they doubled up as a handy snack in case of emergencies.

Now of course, none of that is true. The real reason I eat three wagon wheels is that I like wagon wheels. And when I go to the cupboard and take out the box with the wagon wheels in it I think to myself “I’ll just have the one…” Nothing wrong with that, one wagon wheel. I am free to choose and I exercise my freedom. Then, after I’ve finished the first I say to myself. “Hmm. Now I don’t need a second wagon wheel, but why should I not exercise my freedom and have a second.” And then of course the flood gates have opened and it’s no more wagon wheels for the boys in their packed lunch for the rest of the week.

Now am I really free and exercising my freedom? Of course not. The reason I end up eating three is not because I’m free but because I’m weak. Because I give in to my own desires. In a very real way I am a slave to wagon wheels!

And whilst being a slave to wagon wheels may not be the worst thing in the world Paul isn’t talking about wagon wheels! He’s talking about “selfishness, greed, anger, casual sex, hatred, slagging off our mates, drunkenness, jealousy”. All those things that keep us trapped and enslaved. Paul says, let them go, be set free and find your freedom in obedience to Christ.

The road less travelled

And so we come back to these young people in a skatepark in Benfleet in 2005. Why is this thing they do today so significant? Why is it such an example to us? Because they don’t have to do it – that’s why. No-one is twisting their arm. None of them come from a setting where they are being told that this is the thing you are supposed to do when you reach a certain age. Each of them is doing it because they choose to do it. They choose life instead of death. Freedom in Christ rather than slavery to sin and death. They do it because they have heard the voice of Jesus say to them, believe and be baptised. And that is one of the most powerful things in the world. People who refuse to go the easy way and choose the tougher choice. That example of obedience is what I want to hold up to you tonight as you see these three baptised in obedience to their Master who has called them and to whose voice they have responded.

I finish with a famous poem by Robert Frost:

Paths in a woodTwo roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Copyright © 1962, 1967, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine.

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