My favourite subject throughout school was History. One of my children’s favourite TV programmes is Horrible Histories, history with all the boring bits left out and the goriest details distilled, so as to capture the imagination. You see, history is not the mere account column of What Happened When, but the telling of stories. And we tell stories in order to know who we are. When you have a story, you have an identity. And when you have an identity, you have a security. And when you have a security, you have confidence to live in the world. That is why people without a story go looking for one. That is why older men gather at the nineteenth hole, and the Youth of Today listen to strange music and wear strange clothes. That is why the old legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood get told and retold and put to the service of different generations who are searching for themselves in their own time.
History began with God the Holy Trinity deciding to create us to be in relationship with God and to represent God in the world he had created. And even though things go very wrong, God is committed to his purpose: the invitation to enter into a relationship, and the challenge to take up a responsibility. Noah is invited to rest in knowing God, and challenged with the responsibility of securing the survival of the domesticated animals when God floods the cradle of humanity from horizon to horizon. Abraham is invited to walk with God, and challenged with the responsibility of becoming the father of many nations. Joseph is invited to humble himself before the king of kings, and challenged with the responsibility of ruling over an Empire in order to save the world from famine. Moses is invited to know the God of his ancestors, and challenged with the responsibility of leading God’s people out from oppression. David is invited to be shepherded by God, and challenged with the responsibility of representing the Shepherd King. Peter is invited to stand firm on God the Rock, and challenged with the responsibility of being the rock on which Jesus would build his church. Paul is invited to share in Christ’s sufferings, and challenged with the responsibility of being the Apostle to the Gentiles. We are created for relationship and responsibility. They are the warp and the weft of the story in which God intends for us to discover our identity, and so to find security, and thus to live confidently.
In Romans 6 Paul writes about slaves: slaves to sin, and slaves to righteousness. Now, in the Roman world 90% of the population were slaves. This was not the total oppression that Moses faced in Egypt. A slave, and in particular a trustworthy slave, represented their master or mistress in day-to-day affairs. There were slaves charged with the education of the master’s children. There were slaves charged with representing his business interests: indeed, Jesus told a parable about a slave who represented his master’s business interests, managing the legal and illegal aspects, who, when the master was about to be exposed, proved himself invaluable by destroying the records of illegal interest charges, and in so doing reinforcing a different kind of indebtedness to be called-in at a later date. Jesus commends the slave as a model for us, in so far as truly exercising delegated authority to represent our master in his affairs. Moreover, Roman citizens had both city homes and country villas, where they lived for a few months of the year: again, a trusted slave would have managed the villa farm all year round, fully representing the master in his absence, and working closely with him in his presence. So for Paul, writing to the Romans, slavery was an extremely useful illustration of those recurring themes, relationship and responsibility.
In these early chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul identifies four different types of people. Those who do not know God through Jesus are slaves to sin. There are those who are faithful slaves to sin, representing the work of sin in the world. When we look at their lives, we see evidence of destructive and self-destructive behaviour. With such people we can only do as God has chosen to do, to step back and leave them to pursue destruction, in the hope that one day they will wake up and come to their senses. Then there are those who are unfaithful slaves to sin, whose lives serve God’s purposes in the world, through doing what God requires without knowing him. When we look at their lives, we see evidence of good works that build others up. With such people we need to introduce them to the One they are serving without knowing him: for God’s purpose for each one of us involves relationship as well as responsibility.
Those who know God through Jesus have become slaves to righteousness. There are those who are unfaithful slaves to righteousness, whose lives still represent the work of sin in the world. When we look at their lives, we see evidence of an internal conflict going on, recurring patterns of sinful behaviour, a lack of integrity. Paul writes that because of such people, God’s name is slandered everywhere. With such people – and we may find ourselves such people, from time to time or in a particular aspect of our lives – we need to encourage repentance and belief: a change of mind, and a new way of living. We need to encourage an embracing of responsibility, as well as of relationship.
And then there are those who are faithful slaves to righteousness. When we look at their lives, we see evidence of eternal life, of life marked by knowing God and representing him in the world. We see something deeply attractive, because it is the very thing we have been created for: relationship and responsibility hand-in-hand. This is what we are called to be, and to become.
Today, God wants to invite you, and me, to enter more fully into relationship with him. And today, God wants to challenge you, and me, to more fully represent him in the spheres of influence in which he has set us. This is the greatest story ever told. It is our family history, and it is still being written.