The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      27th January 2019
Called to be a Slave?
Jeremy Fletcher

I Corinthians 7: 17-24
I Corinthians is a letter which lifts me to the heights and plunges me to the depths, in almost equal measure. We are reading it through at morning prayer at the moment, as the lectionary requires. The early and late chapters have landmark passages about the message of the cross, the institution of Communion, the life of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit and our resurrection hope. But the middle chapters are full of things which are pretty taxing first thing in the morning – those bits about women being silent in church, Paul’s rather strict view of sex and marriage, and the passage which was our New Testament reading today, about slaves and slavery.
In my role at York Minster a key task was to decide how many orders of service to print. We numbered these in the thousands for major events, and I got it right every time but one. That was for a service commemorating the role of William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, and then for all of Yorkshire, in banning the trade in slaves. It was the two hundredth anniversary, and we had an African born Archbishop to preach, but I just didn’t know who would come on a cold February Sunday. The answer was a thousand, twice as many as I’d planned for.  They came to celebrate the many who fought to abolish what to us is a repellent state, and consider how millions in the world may well be in just such a state today. Who makes your clothes? Who is a slave in this very city? That's a question asked by our Diocesan Lent appeal this year. The very word "slave" says it all. 
So were you shocked when St Paul said:
'Let each of you lead the life to which God has called you…Were you a slave when you were called? Do not be concerned about it’ ?

Verses like this were used down the years as a justification for slavery, and enabled churches to ring their bells in celebration when a previous bill abolishing slavery was defeated in the late 1700s. It seems to justify slavery as part of someone’s calling, their vocation, their place in the world.
There are many reasons why this cannot, must not, be so. Most obviously the institution of slavery in the ancient near east was not like the enslavement and transportation of Africans to the Indies and Americas. There was the distinct possibility of individual emancipation, and it would seem to have been less harsh for some. That said, slaves were constrained by definition, and however built into the social and economic life of the ancient world it is still hard to justify. Could St Paul really do so?

The verses here might be better understood as saying: ‘do you find yourself as a slave’, rather than ‘have you been called’ to be a slave. Paul here takes both a practical and a spiritual view of our present condition. The practical view is that, in whatever state we are, we have an opportunity to proclaim Christ and witness to the Gospel. The spiritual view is that the distinctions of class and society are actually washed away when we see other people as our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is no longer slave or free, says Paul. All are one together. In a church like Corinth, full of slaves and their masters, that turns society upside down: there is no room for the hierarchy of human society in the church. He even plays with the theme a little: let the slave remember that they are free in Christ, and let the free person remember that they have been enslaved to Christ (just as a slave who had been emancipated owed their free life to their patron for ever).
This passage does not answer the question about whether slavery was a good or bad thing: Paul here takes it as a fact of life, and invites his hearers to make what they can of their lives now. But his assertion that underneath it all is a radically different way of viewing society lays the foundations of the radical social action which inspired Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano, and all their supporters. If we are all one, if there is no distinction between slave and free, then how can one person buy and sell another? How can one society make its wealth on the poverty and oppression of another? How can the kingdom of God tolerate the dehumanising of people?
The underlying truth about humans is that all of us have been ‘bought with a price’. All have been offered the love of God in Jesus Christ. That means that, wherever we find ourselves, we must witness to that. Wherever we are we can know that no one is closer to God than us. And if the situation of others is desperate and awful because of the actions of others, then we should fight with everything we have to change that. Thank God that Wilberforce did. And pray to God that we can right the wrongs of our own day. Our brothers and sisters in Christ deserve it.

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