An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Paul speaks to the Consumer Culture

A sermon on Romans 7:15-25 & Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 by Nathan Nettleton

In case you haven’t noticed, our New Testament readings are following through Paul’s letter to the Romans at the moment, and I’ve been going with them, preaching mainly from these Romans readings. This morning we come to one of the more difficult passages in the letter. It’s difficult even to read because it’s a bit of a tongue twister, but it’s the theology behind it that’s controversial.

Paul says, “Even though the desire to do good is in me, I am not able to do it. I don’t do the good I want to do; instead I do the evil I do not want to do. … My inner being delights in the law of God. But I see a different law at work in my body – a law that fights against the law that my mind approves of. It makes me a prisoner to the law of sin which is at work in my body. … With my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”

Now the controversy over this passage is about whether Paul is describing his experience before he became a follower of Jesus Christ, or whether he is saying that this is still his experience. Regardless of what you think about that, the thing that amazes me about this passage is how easily it could have been written about our experience today – the best part of 2000 years after it was written.

We have the desire to do good, to live the way Jesus would have us live, but we find ourselves unable to do it. In our minds we know it makes sense – the promises of fullness of life, of love and grace appeal to us, and yet within us we find something else taking control. We find something else that hooks into our bodies and dictates a different set of responses, of values. Something that takes us captive and enslaves us to ways of living and behaving that we would rather be free of.

Well let me tell you the bad news first. There is something that is not just your own desires that is seeking to enslave you in that way. Let me explain it in one of its extreme forms first, after which it may be easier to see its common forms.

You’ve all seen plenty of news about drugs like heroin. Some of you have had friends who are addicts. Often in their own minds they are exercising their free choice to consume a product that gives them pleasure. But as outsiders can usually see, they have in fact become enslaved. They now have a need that continually reasserts itself, usually at a growing rate, which makes them entirely dependent on those who can supply the means to meet that need – heroin. This works very well for the suppliers who obviously have much to gain from people developing this need for their product. Their income is assured and its none of their business what people have to do to get the means to pay for the product. After all they’re “free” people.

Now when we see it in that form, we understand what’s going on, we can see how the enslavement works. But let me tell you that “free market capitalism” or what ever else you want to call it gets most of us by the short and curlies in pretty much the same way. The only real difference (apart from being legal) is that most of the products don’t create their own “need” in the way that heroin does, so the need has to be artificially created through suggestive marketing. They do this by creating an association in your mind between a product that you don’t need and something that you really do need.

Take Coca-cola for example. They don’t advertise it by telling you that its sticky black liquid, with secret ingredients, containing a mild stimulant, that tastes good to drink. Instead the advertising associates it with things that you really do need – fun, friends, community, fullness of life, and something real and eternal that you can trust. So they bombard you with images of beautiful people having a great time in joyous groups and the slogans say “Coke adds life”, “Coke, the real thing”, “Things go better with Coke”, and “Always Coca Cola.” Life-giving. The reality. Improves things. Eternal. None of those things are in any way actually true about Coca-Cola, but if they can build that connection in your mind, and it operates beneath the level of consciousness because otherwise you’d easily see through it – if they can get you unconsciously connecting those things then they’ve got you, because when you’re yearning for something real and life-giving you’ll find yourself, without even thinking, feeling thirsty and reaching for a Coke. And in reverse when you see the Coke emblem it will trigger the “that would make things go better” response and again they’ve got you. And they certainly don’t have any interest in helping you distinguish between needs and wants or simplifying your consumption patterns.

So if you want to know why it is that consumerism is out of control in our society, why even those with full time jobs in this wealthy country find their income barely covering their expenditure, then think about how the heroin trade works and sit down and decode a few ads on the television.

“Even though I desire to do good, I am not able to do it. I don’t do the good I want to do; instead I do the evil I do not want to do. Something is at work in my body that makes me a prisoner. With my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”

“Who will rescue me from this body enslaved to death?” cries Paul, “Thanks be to God who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Interestingly Jesus himself, in our gospel reading, uses a slavery image in describing the path of hope. “Take my yoke upon you.” The yoke is the thing round the neck of a horse or a bullock that enables it to pull the load. When you’ve got the yoke on, someone else is in control. You’re at their service. So perhaps what Jesus is saying is don’t fall for the deception of thinking that there is some kind of absolute freedom – something is going to have a hold of you, so make sure it’s someone whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, someone who is gentle and humble of heart, someone in whom you will find rest for your souls. Because if its not Jesus holding the reigns, there’s plenty of others queuing up to get a hand on them and drive you where they want you to go.

We are delivered from a body of death by being incorporated into a body of life – the body of Christ. If you try to live as a solo lone ranger Christian, you’ll be pretty defenceless. For most of us, the areas in which we are most powerless in dealing with the seductive power of sin are the areas in which we would be most reluctant to make ourselves accountable to one another in the body of Christ. If I proposed that in this church that each year we all submitted to one another an account of our personal expenditure, I’d probably be asked to look for another job, but isn’t that one of the areas in which we are most clearly enslaved to something that’s not Christian. And if I extended that to how we distribute our time and how we handle power within our relationships, I reckon I’d have pretty much summed up the areas in which we are most protective of our privacy and the areas in which we are most susceptible to the power of sin over us.

If we are going to get serious about breaking the power of sin in our lives then sooner or later we are going to have to get fair dinkum about what it means to be the body of Christ. Because if the right hand don’t know what the left hand is doing then the chances are that neither of them is doing what the head would have them do. And sure, that all sounds very intimidating, very scary. But if we could actually see clearly how fully we are being manipulated and controlled by the powers of money and greed, then we would quickly see that Christ’s yoke is indeed easy and his burden is indeed light.


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