Jeremiah 28: 5-9, Romans 6: 12-end, Matthew 10: 40-end
We’re going to talk today about slavery. Not because it is a hot topic at the moment, and not just because the Apostle Paul uses the notion of slavery in an extraordinary way in the passage we have just read, and not because the Matthew text is more than a little obscure. No, it is purely a vehicle for a very old joke. St Augustine was walking through the slave market in Rome one day when he spotted some very fair, pale-skinned slaves. When he asked where they were from, the reply was, “Sunt Angli”, to which the saint retorted, “non Angli sed angeli”, which, being translated, means, “not Anglians but Anglicans.”
Actually, we are going to talk about slavery, because we must. There is a daily conversation now about the legacy of slavery, of which our nation was the foremost in its development in the 18th century, and the legacy of colonialism, of which our nation was also the foremost in its development in the 18th & 19th century until it was dismantled in the 20th. It is inescapable, and we must confront it, and it is constantly before us when we read our Bibles, so we must fully understand it if we are to approach our God in worship and service.
There is a major difference between slavery in Jesus & Paul’s day and the 18th century. Yes, it was institutionalised in the ancient world, and yes it was unutterably wicked, but it was not industrialised as it was in the 18th century. Estimates of slaves in the ancient world vary, but it could rise to as high as 50% of the population in moments of extreme stress like famines, but it could also fall as low as 20% in times of prosperity. Slaves in the Graeco-Roman world could buy their freedom, and most were encouraged to do so. Slave owners in the Caribbean and the southern states of America had no intention of enabling that to happen until forced to by law.
So what exactly is a slave? A slave is human property – a human being who belongs to someone else, in the same way as we own a car. They could be bought in the same way as we would buy food or clothes, and their owner could then sell them on, as we can with any of our possessions.
Paul takes what is a commonplace experience for the congregation in Rome and uses it to describe both our relationship to sin and our relationship to God. The difference is not that the slave has been transferred from one form of ownership to another, it is that God has intervened to break the slave link to sin, and to liberate us to righteousness. Why? Because he loves us. Because he wants to. After much too-ing and fro-ing, Paul reaches his great conclusion: “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Note the difference – sin produces wages, but God offers life as a gift to us in Jesus Christ.
The freeing of a slave was called “manumission” – literally, the giving of a hand. While a slave, no physical contact would happen between slave and master. Once free, hands could be clasped. Paul is saying that in Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God is extending his hand to us, to set us free. That hand is forever extended to us, and we grasp it when we confess and are forgiven, when we pray, when we worship, when we feel the Spirit’s power at work in us.
We who have been freed from such a slavery are therefore called to do several things. Firstly, people need to know that God is offering his hand to them in love and grace, and they need to see that grace at work in us and hear about that love from us. Secondly, we are to walk in that freedom with responsibility, so that we do not surrender our freedom for slavery to sin. Thirdly, we are to reflect this liberating God to the world.
Which one of those challenges us the most? The Gospel passage has much to say about that. Jesus is preparing his disciples for mission, for going out to preach this liberating love of God and to demonstrate it by liberating people from all sorts of disease and physical oppression. Last week we read Jesus’s words about division. This week we read Jesus’s words about reward – but what sort of reward is on offer? A prophet’s reward? Think of Jeremiah, who burnt inwardly if he didn’t speak, and was mocked and ill-treated if he did speak. That is not too enticing a reward, is it?! And the cup of cold water offered to one of these little ones gets you known as a disciple – a follower of Jesus, a member of a feared and often outlawed cult within 1st century Palestine. That’s no great reward either – that way persecution lies.
It is the same with embracing our slaving and colonial past. We did not do these things, and we can possibly claim that none of our forebears were involved in any of it either, but we cannot ignore its effect and its continuing influence in our world, and the privileges we enjoy do take some of their origins in past evils. But we can look for positive examples of dealing with this legacy, and perhaps the best for us here is the Barn Church. The families who gave both the building and the land on which the Barn is built were bankers, who supported Wilberforce financially as he laboured to get his anti-slavery legislation through parliament. Once that was achieved, they turned their attention to churches. The growing working class in London could not afford to pay pew rent in the older churches so they had to stand all the way through services. The Hoare family built new churches which were not dependent on pew rent, and the Barn is the last in a long line of such inclusive and liberating buildings.
Money can be clean, wealth can be used for good rather than evil, conscience can triumph over evil. May God give us grace to rejoice in his free gift of eternal life, that we may live that liberated life in his world, and commend his love to everyone we meet.
Rev Peter Hart
Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay