Grace Presbyterian Church
July 16, 2017, Pentecost 6A
Living Right But Getting It Wrong
Even in comparison to some of the dense and thorny stuff that has come before, the seventh chapter of Romans comes off as a curious and confusing piece of writing to biblical scholars and preachers.
For example: how many of you have in your lifetime had the experience of grading papers? I did. 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 simultaneously 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.
Just before today’s reading, in fact, verse 13 refers back to a point made first in verse seven; that the law is not sin (emphasized by that favorite exclamation of Paul’s, “by no means!”), 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.
Remember that 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 speaking of an individual lie we might tell, or an infidelity we might commit. Paul wants us 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 sin. We’re born into it, we are mired in it, and absent the dramatic intervention of God in Jesus Christ, we die in it. However one interprets this kind of sin, as cosmic force or as chronic human disease or whatever metaphor you use, with this understanding of sin in mind, this extended and convoluted passage 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 and flip-flopping of Romans 7.
But also buried in that Philippians passage is the key: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (3:6). 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 most zealously ended up in the power of sin. You can’t keep any law well enough to save yourself.
That is our condition, absent the action of God, the gift of the “easy yoke” as Christ says in the gospel reading.
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 wield 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, or how well we avoid certain sins (while ignoring those that do catch us). 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. God knows we have a lot of religious “leaders” doing exactly that these days.
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 that powerless and that 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 be told 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 don’t want to accept what some 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; often we don’t act 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. Christ’s yoke is easy; Christ’s burden is light.
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 our Lord. No matter how much it pains us, let our prayer always be; Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #42, Your Faithfulness, O Lord, Is Sure; #440, Jesus, Lover of My Soul; #765, May the God of Hope Go With Us