[David holds an ebony staff given to him in West Africa as he begins to speak to those assembled.]

What you see me holding in my hand represents one of the most significant honors given to me in my life AND a reminder of one of the most embarrassing periods in my life. Very few people have seen this ebony staff. I have never told an audience the story it represents.

The years of 1970-72 were difficult years. Joyce and I and our three young children were in a country in West Africa. That country and this country have almost nothing in common. For example, a church cannot exist or function in that country (and many others) unless that church has government registration.

Through an unfortunate misunderstanding, the government had not given the Church of Christ registration. For two years many of the missionaries tried unsuccessfully to resolve the misunderstanding. In the early months of 1972, after a long period and a lot of effort by many people, the government registered the Church of Christ. We were officially permitted to exist and function. When registration was given, there were only three missionary families in that country--one evangelist and two doctors.

The congregations were overjoyed, there were at least fifty at that time. The local congregation arranged a special evening meal with the missionaries. After the meal, they held a celebration ceremony. In that ceremony they dressed me in this lappa and numerous other things and presented me with this ebony walking stick.

It was a surprise. I did as they told me as everyone laughed a lot and celebrated. I thought it was merely the joy of receiving registration for the church. I had not the least idea, absolutely no concept of what was actually occurring when they presented me to the group as Chief Esomba.

  1. Much over a year after that evening several of us were visiting the remote village of Mbonge, the last settlement before the mangrove swamps began.
    1. By coincidence, I was introduced to the paramount chief, a high official in the tribe.
      1. The person introducing me to the chief was present the night I was declared to be Chief Esomba.
      2. He said quite simply, "This is the man you gave us permission to honor as a chief."
    2. Suddenly I realized things I never understood before.
      1. The Christians who honored me as Chief Esomba went to a great deal of difficulty to get permission to do what they did.
        1. The lappa cloth can be possessed and worn only by a chief.
        2. The style of ebony walking stick can be used only by a chief.
      2. In their culture, both are respected symbols of authority.
    3. And I felt very ashamed because I had no idea, no understanding of what they did.

  2. Someone will now read for us Matthew 9:1-7.

  3. Paul wrote Romans 6 to Christians in Rome.
    1. These Christians had a poor understanding of what God did when they trusted Jesus' crucifixion and were baptized into Christ.
      1. Some of these Christians actually suggested that God's grace in Jesus Christ gave them permission to do evil without resisting the evil.
      2. The probability is fairly certain that if you are a member of the Church of Christ you associate Romans 6 with baptism.
        1. Romans 6 uses baptism as a powerful illustration.
        2. That illustration speaks eloquently about Paul's understanding of the nature and purpose of baptism.
        3. Because Paul's understanding was revealed to him by Christ and guided by insights that came from the Holy Spirit, his illustration comes from an understanding of God's will in Jesus Christ.
    2. As powerful and beautiful as that illustration is, Romans 6 is not about baptism.
      1. Romans 6 is about this: the need for Christians to identify sin as their enemy.
        1. The Christians who received Paul's letter had been baptized.
        2. But they had a lot in common with me when I received the ebony staff--they had a very poor understanding.
      2. Romans 6 is about how a Christian should view and react to sin.
        1. In the New American Standard translation, the word "sin" occurs sixteen times just as it does in the King James translation.
        2. In the twenty-three verses of the chapter, "sin" is mentioned sixteen times!
      3. When you seriously consider Paul's emphasis, you are astounded. Paul talked about:
        1. Dying to sin (verse 2)
        2. The death of the body of sin [speaking literally of the control of our physical bodies] (verse 6)
        3. Slavery to sin (verse 6)
        4. Freedom from sin (verse 7)
        5. Christ dying to sin for everyone [once for all] (verse 10)
        6. Looking upon yourself as being dead to sin (verse 11)
        7. Refusing to let sin rule your physical body (verse 12)
        8. Refusing to yield parts of your physical body to sin's purposes (verse 13)
        9. Refusing to let sin be your master (verse 14)
        10. Understanding that God's grace does not license sinful behavior (verse 15)
        11. Understanding that slavery to sin produces death (verse 16).
        12. Understanding slavery to sin is ended by giving heart obedience to God (verse 17).
        13. God frees us from sin's slavery so we can chose to be slaves to righteousness (verse 18).
        14. People who continue to be sin's slaves do no serve righteousness' purposes (verse 19 and 20)
        15. The conscious purpose of being freed from sin is to become enslaved to God (verse 22)
        16. Sin pays wages; God gives a gift. (verse 23)
          1. The wages sin pays is death.
          2. The free gift God gives is eternal life in Jesus Christ.
      4. One of the primary points Paul made in Romans chapter 6 is in the form of a challenge: serve God without restriction and with a dedicated heart just like you served sin without restriction and a dedicated heart.
    3. But today there is a problem; and the problem is enormous; and the problem is very real.
      1. For some of us, the word "sin" communicates a powerful, fearful concept and understanding.
      2. For some of us, the word "sin" is a religious word, but it means almost nothing.
      3. For some of us, the word "sin" means nothing and communicates nothing.
      4. All three of these groups are sitting right here right now.

  4. So what are we to do? If the word does not mean anything to you, Paul teaches you nothing.
    1. Every one of us who considers himself or herself a Christian must reach a common understanding.
      1. God gives life a focus and set of purposes.
        1. God's focus and purposes run much, much deeper than a set of rules and regulations or a list of do's and don'ts.
        2. We understand God's focus and purposes by belonging to Jesus Christ and letting Jesus Christ teach us.
        3. The better we understand God's focus and purposes the more we are pulled toward God.
        4. Understanding God means allowing God to guide our lives toward its purpose: being upright by God's definition.
      2. Evil also gives life a focus and set of purposes.
        1. Evil's focus and God's focus are exact opposites.
        2. Evil's purposes and God's purposes are exact opposites.
        3. The objective of evil is to distance you as far as possible from your God, your Creator.
        4. That basically is what sin is and what sin does.
        5. Concepts that separate you from God; understandings that build walls between you and God; behaviors that move you further and further from God are expressions of evil, are sin.
        6. They cause any person to miss God's purpose for life.
    2. Paul made several facts very obvious in Romans 6.
      1. God's objective in Jesus Christ was to sanctify (set apart from evil for God's own purposes) the person who comes to God through Jesus Christ.
        1. God does not sanctify us through our own worthiness and behavior--we have evil in us, and we always will have evil in us.
        2. God sanctifies us when we trust what God did in Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection and make that trust the foundation of our obedience.
      2. None of us are capable of destroying all the evil that exists in us.
        1. But we are capable of refusing to give evil control of our lives.
        2. We cannot eliminate every form of sin in our lives, but we can be forgiven.
        3. By God's forgiveness, we have a new life.
        4. By God's forgiveness, He destroys our slavery to sin and frees us from the rule of sin.
    3. Allow me to focus each of us on a growing problem among Christians.
      1. Too many Christians do not want to be dead to evil.
        1. Too many have been baptized, but they do not want to die to evil.
        2. Too many have been baptized, but in certain circumstances they want sin to rule them and be their masters.
      2. We too often convince people to be baptized who have no desire to die to sin.
        1. The act of baptism within itself has no power.
        2. Baptism becomes a powerful act when two things are true.
          1. The act of baptism is powerful when God in His power forgives by using the blood of Jesus.
          2. The act of baptism is powerful when a person who places his or her trust in Jesus Christ wants to die to sin.
      3. Christians are people who want to be alive to God and dead to sin.

When those four men climbed up on a roof, strained to tear that roof up, strained to make a hole big enough to lower a litter with a paralyzed man on it through it, strained to get the paralyzed man on the roof, and labored to lower that man down to Jesus, I can feel the disappointment when Jesus said to the man, "Take courage, son, your sins are forgiven."

"My sins are forgiven? Give me something I need! Give me the use of my body again! Forgiveness of sins--what is that?" I seriously doubt that the man or the four men who brought him comprehended the gift Jesus gave the man.

Do you realize, do you understand what God did for you when you were buried in baptism into Jesus' death and resurrected to newness of life? When you were baptized, were you placing your trust in Jesus in your desire to die to sin?

Never forget this: evil pays wages; God gives gifts. The only wages evil can pay are death. The free gift of God is eternal life.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 3 February 2002

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