Bob Dylan, the American song-writer and singer, became a born-again Christian in the late 1970s... and then proceeded to win the Grammy Award for his 1979 hit single Gotta Serve Somebody. The lyrics are indeed probing and relentless in their witness. The chorus reminds his listeners:
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord.
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
In a nutshell, this is the very message of the Apostle Paul in the Epistle Lesson before us this morning. You’ve gotta serve somebody! And in hearing and understanding this, we find yet another choice Trinity Season theme!
Verse 19: ...as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.
The word “servant” which St. Paul employs four times in this morning’s lesson is really in the Greek doulas “slave.” A “slave,” we should immediately remind ourselves, is a person who lives under the will and control of another.
Doulas is a popular word in the New Testament, found 127 times!
The Roman centurion, for example, is recorded by St. Matthew as telling Jesus: For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to myservant (doulas), Do this, and he doeth it.
We should not really be surprised at this usage of doulas (slave), because Jesus taught that No man can serve[same Greek term: be a slave to]two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other (St. Matthew 6:24). And in the Letters to the Corinthians God tells them: You are not your own… you were bought with a price.
And we are immediately face-to-face with a huge issue in life... one which Dylan saw and put it so well (even if with improper English) -- You’ve gotta serve somebody!
Some of the biggest names of history were once slaves!
Aesop (of Aesop’s Fables fame) was a slave. According to tradition, he lived on the Greek island of Samos and through his cleverness acquired his freedom -- and became an advisor to kings and city-states.
Spartacus was a slave! Spartacus, from Thrace, served in the Roman army. He became a bandit and was sold as a slave when he was caught. He escaped a gladiatorial school, where he had plotted a revolt with other gladiators, and set up camp on Mount Vesuvius, where he was joined by other runaway slaves and some peasants. With a force of 90,000, he overran most of southern Italy, defeating two Roman armies in what is now termed the “Third Servile War.” And as Jesus taught – he who lives by the sword will die by the sword– so did it happen. Spartacus was betrayed and died on the battlefield.
St. Patrick had been a slave! Born in Scotland, at the age of 16 he was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland to serve as a slave. Six years later, he escaped and by means of a circuitous route through France, finally returned to his home.
Two years after his return home, he had a vision (or a dream). And in his own words he has described for us what happened:
“I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: "The Voice of the Irish". As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: "We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us."
What would you have done? What did St. Patrick do?
He went! But this time, not as their slave… but as the servant – the slave (the doulas) – of God. And he taught them about the Blessed Trinity through the shamrock… and he placed the cross of Jesus Christ over their circular pagan symbol of the sun – yielding the Celtic Cross which we employ here at St. Paul’s 1600 years later!
In the final analysis, all people are in some sense slaves whether or not they believe it – even if to themselves and their appetites. As Dylan rightly perceived... You’ve gotta serve somebody!
In our lesson this morning, St. Paul reminds us how important it is to understand the conflict we face. We either serve sin as slaves in freedom from God… or we serve God as slaves in freedom from sin. One or the other, but not both! We cannot have it both ways!
We either trust God fully and serve Him as our Master – or we delight in sin fully and serve it as our Master!
In the 1950s a Western American city (and quite a business hub) of about 40,000 people discovered a problem. Because of local corruption, people were “picking up” their possessions and moving to other communities. And the effects of this could be seen in their dwindling community.
A new police chief was hired and ordered to “clean up” the city in order to save it! This he did – eliminating gambling... prostitution... and other ugly vices in their midst! But he was promptly fired! “Why?” he asked. He was informed, “We didn’t mean for you to make our community that clean!”
You see, they wanted the appearance of justice for the sake of business... while at one and the same time sacrificing justice in order to preserve the favorite seams of lawlessness.
And when St. Paul speaks of serving sin from iniquity unto iniquity, he is alluding to the fact that lawlessness never stands still. It only grows worse! This is a recurring theme among celebrities who often die young! Their slavery to sin is too strong for them... and destroys them.
Even debt which was a dirty word for my grandparents’ generation (He who goes a borrowing will return a sorrowing) grew to become common in my parents’ generation. And by the third generation (my generation) it has consumed the world! Threatening to take down Western Civilization altogether!
If we are going to serve Jesus Christ as His servants (His slaves... His douloi), the commitment must be total – not as an “appearance only” exercise... but in genuine servanthood! Jesus taught us that the greatest among us will be the servants of all.
And I am sad to say that many sons of Adam and many daughters of Eve try to position themselves halfway in between – not wanting to be to too radical in following the Almighty and yet not wanting to get too close to the vortex of sin. Such worldlings really are attempting to “get the best of both.” And by not making a clean break with sin, they reveal in their own foolishness they are really operatives for sin!
In verse 23, a landmark Bible verse, we are told the eventual outcome of the two types of slavery. Slavery to sin leads to death. Slavery to God leads to eternal life (both in quality and in quantity).
So whose slaves are we? And whom do we serve? You’ve gotta serve somebody!
There is another character in the New Testament who was also once a slave. His name was Onesimus. And a Book of the New Testament deals with him. He ran away from his master (Philemon) and possibly robbed him. He then met St. Paul in Rome and became a Christian. The Apostle wrote a letter to his master (Philemon) and explained that Onesimus was returning to him as more than a slave… as a brother in the faith. He asked for forgiveness s and restoration.
And guess what? He received it. Onesimus became a slave of God! There is a strong tradition that Onesimus became Bishop of Ephesus fifty years later!
Which way are we heading in life? Whose slave are we anyhow? Whom do we serve? Who “calls the shots” as they say?
We are given only one life to live… and we must get it right! Death and eternal life daily open up before us!
Let us yield our members slaves to righteousness in holiness…
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
You’ve gotta serve somebody!
This is the Word of the Lord… World without end. Amen.