I went back and forth a bit about posting this sermon. It is a bit "wonky" theologically in spots, and I feel like part of it goes out on a limb a bit as well. But it seemed to connect with the congregation, and then today has felt as if I've seen or heard about fifteen news stories or anecdotes in which people or groups do the very thing identified in the latter half of the sermon as a rather poor tendency for Christians to fall into. So, here it is, for what it's worth.
Meherren Presbyterian Church
July 6, 2014 Ordinary 14A
Charles S. Freeman
Living Right But Getting It Wrong
For many years scholars, pastors, and all manner of Christians have agreed that one of the most difficult books of the New Testament (aside from Revelation, perhaps) is Paul’s extensive, complicated, and downright thorny letter to the church at Rome. The last letter Paul wrote, Romans is set apart from its fellow Pauline letters by its lateness and by the fact that unlike the other letters that can be attributed to Paul with certainty, Romans is not written to a church that Paul had founded; in fact, aside from a few individuals mostly mentioned in the book’s last chapter, Paul did not even know most of those who belonged to the community of Christ-followers in Rome.
As a result, while Paul’s other letters speak to a specific condition or event in the churches to which Paul wrote, Romans has no such focus; rather, it is a theological résumé in letter form. Because of Paul’s ambitious plans to travel even further west, and because of his desire to stop in Rome on the way to Spain (a journey he was never able to make) and to be supported by the Romans on that journey, Paul needed to introduce himself to the community there. Just because Paul had never been to Rome, however, did not mean that his reputation did not precede him; therefore, it was also necessary to provide a context and a summary for the ministry and teaching he had carried out thus far. For once, Paul needed to put forth at least a somewhat coherent explanation of his theology, instead of responding to particular problems in Corinth or explaining points to the church in Philippi. Romans is, in the end, the closest thing we have to a complete or even mostly complete summation of Paul’s theology, his understanding of such things as the nature of Christ or of sin or other things we would call “doctrine.”
The letter to the Romans is quite wide-ranging, walking his readers through no less than the nature of sin, the goodness and yet insufficiency of the law in the face of sin, the necessity of salvation from God through grace, and the role of the Hebrew or Jewish people in this everlasting and ongoing process. It is as if John Calvin had written something like his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion as a means of introducing himself to a church in a city he had not visited yet.
A pastor does not ordinarily want to start a sermon with such a long background passage, but in this case it is vitally important to understand where this letter is coming from before delving into the passage before us today. In dropping into the seventh chapter of Romans we are entering into the book at the very heart of Paul’s argument, the core of his theological understanding. And it is extremely important to remember this as we begin to unfold this understanding, as Paul seeks to explain no less than the nature and relationship of sin, law, and grace.
The seventh chapter of Romans comes off as a curious piece of writing to biblical scholars and preachers. Had Paul submitted it as a writing assignment in a composition class, I fear that it would have been returned with numerous red marks, questions, and corrections about carelessly changing the tense and person of his account. Nonetheless, as twisty a piece of writing as the chapter offers, it marks a key moment in revealing how Paul understood the whole business of sin and redemption, while also both upholding the Torah, or Jewish law (we know it as the first five books of the Old Testament) and insisting on its inability to bring salvation to humanity.
Our beginning point today is the thirteenth verse, which serves both as the end of one part of Paul’s argument and the beginning of the next part. In fact verse 13 refers back to a point made first in verse seven; that the law is not sin (emphasized by a favorite exclamation of Paul’s, translated here “by no means!” which today might be expressed as “no way!” or possibly something stronger), but the law is the means by which sin is made known to us. In verse 13 Paul strengthens the argument by observing that the power of sin actually made use of the law – and the law is a good thing, remember – in order to bind the individual to sin.
Now we need to talk about sin for a moment here, which is not a popular thing to do, I realize. But what we modern Christians tend to think of when we speak of “sin” is often quite a different thing from what Paul is talking about. We might speak of “sins,” or perhaps of “a sin” as being the problem. Paul is not particularly speaking of an individual lie we might tell, or an infidelity we might commit. These may well be symptoms or even consequences of what Paul describes, but the apostle has in mind something much larger. Paul wants his Roman readers to understand sin, in the words of Ted A. Smith of Vanderbilt Divinity School, as “an active, aggressive power that seizes hold of God’s good gifts – like the law – and bends them towards death.” John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity” – the utter inability of the human to transcend sin on his or her own – comes close to expressing this idea. Sin certainly causes us to commit sins, but it is a far more powerful and oppressive thing than any individual act. We are born into it, we are mired in it, and absent the dramatic intervention of God in Jesus Christ, we die in it.
With this understanding of sin in mind, the extended and convoluted passage from verses 14-20 unfolds differently, or perhaps more expansively, than we are perhaps accustomed to understanding. Paul’s slip into first-person – “I do what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to do what I do” – tends to nudge us into reading the passage as a lament on Paul’s inability to live up to the law, always falling short and doing in the end what he hates.
This is a strange reading, though when one remembers the other letters Paul has written before. In both the letters to the Galatians and the Philippians, Paul is quite insistent on his success in keeping the law. Galatians 1:14 finds him claiming that “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Philippians 3:4-6 finds even more striking claims Paul makes on his own behalf: “If anyone else has reason to be confident … I have more …. As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” This doesn’t sound a lot like the stammering of Romans 7.
But also buried in that Philippians passage is the key: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Remember how we are first introduced to Paul in the New Testament? Back in the book of Acts we meet him, still called by his birth name Saul, at the stoning of Stephen, holding the coats of those doing the stoning and approving of the deed. We catch up with him again “breathing threats and murder against the disciples” and zealously persecuting those who had taken up with the new sect. Saul didn’t do these things because he was a wild man bent on violence and destruction; he persecuted Christians because of his zeal to follow the Law. Paul, writing to the Romans, no doubt remembered Saul the zealous and blameless follower of the law and what came of his rigorous adherence to the law. Paul knew that even the one who followed the law ended up in the power of sin.
That is our condition, absent the action of God.
Even as much as Paul describes his “delight” in the law, he knows sin is close at hand ready to twist and distort that love of the law into something evil. If even the law can be twisted and misused so powerfully, we indeed can understand Paul’s lament in verse 24 – who can rescue us, indeed? And yet the very next words from Paul’s pen point to the answer – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
We cannot deliver ourselves from sin. This is done for us. We are delivered from that bondage to sin in the dramatic cosmic intervention that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Ted Smith of Vanderbilt puts it, “God does not just give us individual humans the willpower to live our best lives now, or say that it does not matter if we do not. In Jesus Christ, God sets the cosmos free from bondage, redeeming the law and opening the way to life, and life abundant.”
And yet, we humans – particularly we Christians – are prone, and even eager, to bind ourselves and others to some kind of law again. Perhaps it is biblical law. Maybe we are prone to pull out the Torah – or particular, individual verses from the Torah – to use as weapons against those we want to keep out, while conveniently ignoring those individual verses from the Torah that might indict or inconvenience us more directly. Or perhaps it is more a law of our own making that appeals to us. Maybe we want to judge our own righteousness by how often we’re at church, or how much scripture we have memorized. As we come to the end of a full weekend’s worth of Independence Day celebration, maybe we might recognize that we sometimes let the law of the land, or the rules of “patriotism,” or some other kind of secular guidelines infiltrate our thought and become a law that we use to promote our own righteousness and diminish others who are not like us.
All of those “laws,” wherever they may originate or however they may infiltrate our minds, are as powerless against sin, and every bit as twistable by sin, as the good Torah that Paul describes. Anything less than whole-hearted, abject surrender to the grace of God is so powerless and twistable.
We are powerless to resist sin on our own. We don’t like to hear this; we who have been raised in a culture of independence and “rugged individualism” aren’t keen to hear that we can’t do … well, anything. We are confident in our own power to “get out of” whatever condition might bind us. We are not unlike the mathematician John Nash, as portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind, who claims he can use his own analytical skills to set himself free from his mental illness, even though his doctor warns him that the mind on which he relies for analysis is the very source of his illness. We are so often incapable of accepting what some preacher (or worse yet, some guy who’s still trying to become a preacher) says when we know we can “do better” on our own.
And yet Paul is laying before us here the utter futility of any such claim. Our own efforts to live up to any standard – be it the Torah or anything of our own devising – will not deliver us from the sinful state in which we are all mired except for God’s divine rescue.
We have trouble understanding this because, well, when we look around the world doesn’t really look redeemed. Maybe we don’t really feel redeemed. And certainly we are not yet at that point where we will fully know what it is to be redeemed by the action of Jesus Christ. But that is our place; that is the door that has been opened to us. Even so, even though we don’t really feel it, the promise that follows directly after this passage – “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” is our hope, not just for the future but even for the present. The way to life is open.
It is a radical thing to trust, especially in that which we cannot see. It’s a lot easier to rely on “law” or “rules” than to live relying only on the redemptive love of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And yet this is our only “escape”; only in this redemption done for us by God through Jesus Christ does our life here on earth have any chance to be anything other than the same old quagmire of sin and despair that we were born into.
Wretched people that we are, who will rescue us from this mire of sin? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ. No matter how much it pains us, let our prayer always be; Thanks be to God.
Hymns (all from PH ’90): Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing (356), Jesus, Lover of My Soul (303), Just As I Am, Without One Plea (370)