Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a behemoth of a new game that dropped, and I am barely chipping away at the surface. Still, I can’t just NOT talk about this game being fronted by the main character, which is essentially… clergy? Noah is an off-seer tasked with the responsibility to see someone off when they pass on from this life.
Except - something is wrong in the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. But, like any good manipulation story, none of our main characters know it. Noah is the first to start sniffing that something strange is happening. What happens when death looks less like passing on and more like a power grab? Let’s talk about it.
Welcome to Checkpoint Church - where nerds, geeks, and gamers come together to talk about faith, games, and hearing ‘that’s a rare doodah right there’ a million times. I’m your Nerd Pastor Nate. If you like these weekly deep-dives, be sure to sub and hit that bell to find out when our next one drops.
Romans 16:15-23 (NRSVue)
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that, if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you who were slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted and that you, having been set free from sin, have become enslaved to righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness, leading to even more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, leading to sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what fruit did you then gain from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the fruit you have leads to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let’s start with the usual question - what exactly is Xenoblade Chronicles 3?
The latest entry to the franchise, Xenoblade, is an ARPG with the precedentially gigantic open world to explore and real-time combat experience, but this time with way too many moving parts maxxing at seven possible party members.
The story takes place after the event of the first and second Chronicles entries, where the world is seemingly divided by two warring nations of Keves and Agnus, who are in a constant back-and-forth battle.
The wars are fought by engineered soldiers that are given artificially limited lifespans of ten years, which are referred to as Terms in-game.
All ten of these years are to be spent fighting for the colony they were born into to fill the respective colonies' Flame Clock.
Our two lead protagonists, Noah and Mio, are off-seers who are soldiers equipped with unique flutes that allow them to send off the dead in a short funeral.
Now I’m doing my best to keep this sermon utterly devoid of spoilers because if you’re anything like me, you’ve barely started to chip away at the 100+ hour gameplay in this epic of a game.
But it’s clear from the get-go that something isn’t quite adding up here.
Weirdly, their lives are limited to ten years.
They have this like sending off their life essence into the Queen-like figure for those who survive the ten years of constant combat to even partake in the ceremony.
But if you DO die before the ten-year lifespan is up, that essence goes into each colony's mysterious flame clock, like a literal war scoreboard.
The Flame CLock is essentially the engine for Ferronis, which are kind of Zoids meets Howl’s Moving Castle. Although the moving castle is mechanical… is Howl’s Moving Castle a Zoid?
The flame clock links the engineered soldiers, combining their lives with the Ferronis.
So the objective of these wars is a constant build-up of this life energy within a flame clock to continue the fires burning of the colonies Ferronis. If the flame goes out, the people of that Ferronis colony will die.
However, as we will discover through playing the game, the way to free the people from their death by the flame running out, someone must destroy the flame clock.
But again - this is weird, right? There is a fine line between service and obedience. How much of that the soldiers do is to stay alive rather than offering themselves to a more significant cause?
This is where the tension with our scripture for today comes to the forefront. After all - it is Paul who says that we should become slaves of righteousness rather than slaves of sin. The idea of slavery to anything can raise the hackles of anyone, right? So what can we actually gain from the scathing take of service from Xenoblade?
In the passage just before this one in Romans, Paul has just declared that followers of Jesus are not held under the expectations of the law and prophets. It’s not about a litigious adherence to good works, but instead a grace beyond understanding from Jesus.
But, just because of this, Paul still feels the need to explain that we aren’t free to just go about sinning willy-nilly because of this freedom from the law.
To Paul, then, there is an understanding that slavery to something is unavoidable. There are only two real options at the end of the day. There is a place where you are a slave to sin and where you are not. There is a place where you are before knowing the grace of Jesus and the place where you are where you do not see the grace of Jesus.
But, this place where you are not doesn’t make you free to do whatever you want. A certain standard and ideal still hold you - Paul calls it righteousness.
As a Methodist, I prefer the term holiness, but the idea remains mostly the same.
For Paul, the state of total freedom doesn’t exist - the life of sin or no sin is a binary. There is only life with Christ or without. If you are with Christ, you are righteous, and sin cannot exist. But if evil can live, they are not in a state of righteousness. Not only is it a binary, but it’s also a defined one without nuance.
But do we have to use such problematic terminology?
For this passage, the usage of the term enslavement is intentional as a clear parallel that people could understand.
The truth of the enslavement for Paul in both instances is - ironically - freedom.
For Paul, enslavement to sin is freedom from holiness. And vice versa, enslavement to righteousness is freedom from sin.
So maybe it would be beneficial to define sin?
As a Methodist, we understand and define sin as a state of being separated from God.
Once we consider this, it kind of all clicks into place.
If sin is a separation from God, it is a freedom from God. It’s being free of the holiness present in a relationship with God.
But if we are in a relationship with God, then there cannot be any sin unequivocally. It doesn’t mean that we cannot sin or give into some kind of temptation that separates us from God, but the very act of being WITH God is the antithesis of sin (which is separation).
In this conceptualization, sin and holiness aren’t things we do or actions we take; instead, they are places of being - they are a state where we find ourselves.
Consider the soldiers again from Xenoblade Chronicles 3.
Whenever Noah and the others are connected to the Flame Clock, they are free from the possibilities outside their colony. They are in a state of enslavement to the Ferronis and the Flame Clock.
But when they are free from the Clock, they don’t enter into rampant freedom; instead, they are free from the Flame Clock but then enslaved to a new state of being. Their state of being changes. The same rite of freedom is a state change from one to another.
Even the argument that they could just serve themselves is still a form of enslavement to the self. For Paul, just as for these characters and arguably everyone, there is no actual state of freedom from everything; it’s all a question of who or what we choose to serve and what boundaries are set from other things.
So with this bizarrely metaphysical concept in mind, what does this mean for us today?
As hard as it may be to wrap our minds around and semantics aside, it’s helpful to consider whether we are doing something that is helping or hurting our relationship with God. That’s why we put together these weekly nerdy sermons - these are an attempt to discern the best bits of our favorite media pieces in an effort to use them to build our relationship with God.
These are literally an attempt at pursuing the opposite of sin - we are pursuing holiness - or righteousness - by playing games and watching shows in a way that helps us.
So consider alongside or in your playthroughs how the things you’re consuming are drawing you closer to God, not farther apart. If we must truly choose between two masters, I am always going to choose the one that allows me to pursue playing games in a way that I might be able to love people better. Do good- do no harm, strive to grow.
So whether you’re Agnian, an engineered soldier from Keves, or an adorable leel nopon, know you’re always welcome here at Checkpoint Church.
God love you.
We love you.