Ordinary time: Romans 6:1-11

“Do you not know?” Paul asks the Romans, and then twice firmly announces, “we know,” “we know.” The language hints that something has been misplaced.

We know—unless we have forgotten. We know—unless we assume it didn’t apply in this case or under these particular circumstances. We know—unless we haven’t calculated the fullest consequences of what we have come to know. We know—unless, of course, we don’t know at all.

We know and don’t know, which is an interesting situation in which to find ourselves on the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, which in 2005 happens to fall on June 19th.

African-American readers may already be smiling at the irony of knowing and not knowing on June 19th, but other readers may require more explanation. June 19th, known as “Juneteenth,” is a day for celebrating freedom. Celebrations of Juneteenth have increased recently, as The New York Times observed last year in a feature article with the headline, “An Obscure Texas Celebration Makes Its Way Across the U.S.” (Friends, as a Texan I can assure you: Texans in no way engage in “obscure celebrations!”)

Juneteenth celebrates the declaration of freedom on June 19th, 1865, when a troop of Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, under the command of Major General Gordon Granger. He announced the end of the Civil War, and the enforcement of The Emancipation Proclamation with the words of General Order Number Three: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.

The Emancipation Proclamation had become the law of the land two and a half years before, on January 1, 1863, but news had not yet reached Texas, where the last battles of the Civil War were fought after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Texas was still at war—or thought it was—a situation similar to the scores of Japanese soldiers who well into the early 1960’s hid on tiny Pacific atolls unaware of their nation’s surrender on August 15, 1945. Peace had been declared, but they did not know and thus they continued to live in enmity and fear. In 1863 freedom has been announced in faraway Washington, D. C., but they did not know, could not know, and for two and a half years continued to live as slaves.

Writing the church at Rome, Paul addresses people who know but who do not know, who know but have forgotten, who know but do not recognize fully the breadth and depth of what they have come to know. His concluding exhortation, “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” hints that the repeated “we know,” “we know” bespeaks a knowledge not yet fully appropriated and “enfleshed.” We know but we have not yet fully lived into what we know.

This should be no surprise. It is a commonplace observance that all of us, not just preachers, do not “practice what we preach.” We know but we don’t know how to live it, or we know but have not yet found the faith to surrender to what we know. It is one thing to hear a proclamation of freedom and quite another to live as a free person. After the giddy days of celebrating freedom in 1865 came long hard years of struggling to live free amidst racial prejudice, violence and economic hardship. Freed slaves wandered the country looking for jobs; at least in slavery the work was steady. Small wonder the Israelites freed from bondage in Egypt waxed nostalgic about the dependable fleshpots and abundant bread of slavery (Ex 16:3). Brutal as a slave system could be, it also operated with brute self-interest that recognized slaves as a valuable economic resource that must be fed, sheltered and minimally maintained; the wilderness, on the other hand, be it the wilderness between Horeb and the Jordan or the wilderness of 19th century North America, offers not even that shred of solicitude. The wilderness quite simply does not care.

Paul announces we are freed from the slavery of sin, but the slavery of sin is more familiar and less filled with anxiety than the unpredictable freedom that stretches before us like a wilderness. Sin, for Paul, is not merely “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,” but an enormously complex system like slavery. Under slavery life was organized and ordered by laws that told slaves what they could wear, where they could go, what they could do during daylight and dark, with whom they might associate, what they could own, when they could worship and who could preach, and such laws went on and on. Just as slavery provides a systematic way of life, so also sin. We know how to work the sin system—“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”—Paul phrases his listeners’ question for them.

Paul offers another way of life, one “we know,” because we were baptized into it. He addresses as “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus.” Baptized into Christ’s death, our former way of life has died and has no more life to give us. There can be no turning back to live in the slavery of sin, the only way forward is to live to God as Christ “lives to God.”

Slavery characterizes the human condition for Paul. We are either enslaved to Egypt or to wilderness fears or to sin or to ourselves. Slavery to self can be brutal, as the anxiety of our selfseeking, self-satisfying society demonstrates. Being required to make something of your self is an expensive idolatry that places us at war with each other and demands desperate servitude. But the war is over; freedom is announced. Paul’s joyful announcement is: “you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God,” (Rom 6:22) in whose service, said Augustine, we find perfect freedom.

PATRICK J. WILLSON is pastor of Williamsburg Church in Williamsburg, Va., and a native Texan.

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