Sunday, July 05, 2020

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Here is my sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 7:15-25 

In the passage from Romans that we have come to this morning, St Paul describes the experience of someone who cannot do the good they want to do, but instead find themself doing the very thing they hate. It is one of the most important passages in the letter and one that has far-reaching consequences for all of us here today if we accept its teaching.

It is a passage that divides interpreters into two camps. On the one hand, there are those who think that the experience St Paul describes is that of a believer. On the other, there are those that think it is the experience of those who are not believers, but who want to do good in obedience to God’s Law. All are agreed, however, that St Paul here teaches the impossibility of humans living good lives unless they are in a relationship with God through faith in Christ. The only difference being that some would go further and argue that it is not possible even then! 

Let’s step back and see what’s going on. 

In Romans 1-5, St Paul has explained how all of us who are equally facing the wrath of God as unrighteous sinners can be ‘righteoused’ (the English word is ‘justified’), find peace with God, and enter a relationship with him through Jesus Christ who died for us. This is possible by having faith in Christ. It is not based on any works we may do. It is made possible solely by God’s grace given to us even while we are sinners. 

In Romans chapters 6 and 7, St Paul seeks to answer the questions which he knew would rise from what he has written so far. It is St Paul himself who asks the questions, but they are clearly ones he has had to answer before. While St Paul and the other leaders of the Church were agreed on most things, when it came to the role and place of God’s Law, St Paul found himself taking a different approach to them. 

This had led to much misunderstanding and even to outright opposition to him and his work. St Paul is writing to the Roman Church to seek their support for a mission he is planning to Spain. He has so far been unable to visit the Roman Church in person. Romans is his attempt to explain to the Roman Christians the message he preaches and to clear up any misunderstanding they may have about him and his teaching in the hope they will support him. 

The four questions that he asks in chapters 6 and 7 are central to what he is trying to explain in this letter. Each question leads into the other and builds up to our passage this morning. 

So, what are the four questions? 

Question One: ‘What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?’ (Romans 6:1) 

If it has been the case that the greater has been our sin, the greater has been God’s grace, then why not go on sinning so that we can enjoy more grace? St Paul responds that when we came to faith in Christ, we died with him to sin. Our old self, who we were, has been crucified with Christ, so that we can live a new life. We are no longer under God’s Law, but under grace. 

Question Two: ‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace’ (Romans 6:15) 

If we are not under God’s Law, does that mean we can do what we like? No, says St Paul, we are not free in the sense that we can do what we like. We are either slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness. If we prefer to serve sin, sin will pay us wages for our service and those wages are death, but the free gift of God is eternal life. When we died with Christ to sin, we also died to God’s Law, and we now serve God in a new way and not in the old way of following written commandments. 

Question Three: ‘What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!’ (Romans 7:7)

Does all this mean that the Law is sin? It does sound a bit that way, but again, no, says St Paul, it’s just that God’s Law tells us what sin is, and, without meaning to, in telling us what sin is, it provokes us into sinning. Sin has taken advantage of what God’s Law says to lead us into sin and so has brought death to us. But God’s Law itself, says St Paul, is ‘holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good’ (Romans 7:12). 

Question Four: Did what is good, then, bring death to me? (Romans 7:13) 

If that’s the case, should God’s Law be blamed for the physical and spiritual death that we all now experience? No, says St Paul, but sin has used God’s Law, which is good, to inflict death on us. A chef’s knife in the right hands, for example, can bring life through food, but in the wrong hands it can be an instrument of death. So too with sin and the Law. Notice how sin has become less about individual acts and the things that we do, and now is instead more a power and force to be reckoned with. 

I imagine for many people, then and now, what St Paul writes in answer to these questions just washes over them. We sort of get what he is saying, but we are not emotionally engaged. It doesn’t get to us. It is, however, for St Paul a highly emotional issue, and it should be for us. St Paul is talking about life and death. Our life and death! If we were caught up in what he is saying, what we should be asking by now is where we fit into all this. How does this apply to us personally? 

And what about us? We seem to be rather passive in all this. St Paul has told us that to become believers our old self has had to be crucified. We are now slaves of God, but before this we were slaves of sin. We have had to receive eternal life as a gift and not because we have done anything to deserve it. And without this gift, we are dead and facing eternal death because sin has led us into doing that which is wrong. What is more, sin has managed to do this through something that was good. We seem rather weak and pathetic; helpless and powerless. 

To put it more directly: why don’t we resist sin and why don’t we do what God’s Law tells us to do? Why don’t we love God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength? And why don’t we love our neighbour as ourselves? Why, instead, do we ignore God, hate people, lie, cheat, and desire what belongs to someone else? Because, St Paul writes, although God’s Law is spiritual, we, naturally, are not; we are of the flesh, sold into slavery to sin. 

In answer to the first question, St Paul has said that we have been freed from slavery to sin by the death of Christ. Now he describes what that slavery looks like before going on in Romans 8 to describe what being a slave of Christ looks like. Slaves long to be free. Being a slave doesn’t mean you don’t know you are a slave and that you don’t long for your freedom. An addict knows their habit is bad and that it will kill them, but still they keep on with their habit. They have no choice. We see, in God’s Law, the life of God that could be ours if only we could break our addiction to sin. 

God’s Law shows us what we could be like and what we should be like, and often we do want to be better people. And so, we try to break free and end our habit; we try to do the good we know we should do. And then comes the pain and anguish of finding that we can’t. ‘I can will what is right but I can’t do it’ (Romans 7:18). ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’ (Romans 7:19). No wonder St Paul cries out: 

‘Wretched man that I am!’ (Romans 7:24) 

In my mind, I may want to live the life I know I should. I may want to live the sort of life that I know will bring me peace and happiness, but I simply lack the ability to do so. I am a slave to something which has possessed me, has taken me over, and controls me. No matter how hard I try I just can’t seem to be the person I want to be and do what I want to do. What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me is that I am a sin addict. I not only commit sin, I am addicted to sin. 

It’s a bleak and dark picture of the human condition that St Paul paints in this passage, and it is meant to be. But we try not to look at it. We want the good news of the Gospel, not the bad news about sin. It is, however, when we see clearly the bad news about ourselves that we are in the best position to hear the good news of the Gospel that saves us from both ourselves and our sin. St Paul, having described how wretched our condition is and how unable to help ourselves, in desperation asks, ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?'  He answers his own question, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!' (Romans 7:25). 

But that’s the point: we need to be rescued. Although we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, God in Christ has intervened with a divine rescue programme. There is hope: ‘If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed’ (John 8:36). 

God’s Law could have brought life if only we had the power to obey it. But because we are powerless to keep it, all it can do is condemn us and tell us how wrong we are. 

When did we become slaves of sin? That’s the terrible irony. We always have been. ‘Sin deceived me,’ writes St Paul. Sin has managed to deceive us into thinking we are free in order to lead us deeper and deeper into its service and away from him who alone can set us free. Our pride and our refusal to worship the one true God is sin’s greatest ally. 

We hate this idea that we are useless and weak; unable to help ourselves. And so, we willingly believe sin’s deception. There are degrees of deception, but at the heart of the deception is the idea that we don’t need God, we can not only manage, but thrive on our own. We have turned this into our philosophy of life. Instead of the ‘I’ of this passage which admits its weakness, its enslavement, and its need of God. We have the ‘I’ of today. The ‘I’ of today says: 

‘I can be whoever I want to be, do whatever I want to do, and follow whatever dream I may happen to have. It’s my life, and I am free to make my own decisions and choices. It’s not for anyone else to tell me who I am or what I should do. It’s all about me. I am in control and I am wonderful.’ 

‘The good that I would, I do; and I do it for myself. Any evil that there is exists not in me, but in the unfair systems and unjust structures of the society to which I belong.’ 

This is the lie sin wants us to keep on believing. Anyone who thinks like this is utterly deluded and delusional. But it is a way of thinking we have bought into, and it is constantly reinforced by all the publicity on social media and in society at large. We are absolutely convinced of our own worth and of our own ability. Anyone or anything that suggests otherwise is just a negative influence that needs to be ‘cancelled’ or ignored. 

This great deceit now provides the philosophy that is the basis for our education, legal, and political systems. It is giving rise to a form of totalitarianism which is far more scary to me than any security law. But what is even more scary and worrying is the degree to which the churches have bought into this lie and are changing their message to accommodate it. 

Listening to some church leaders, Jesus is little more than a life coach who is there to help people realize their potential. St Paul in this short passage, however, challenges the very basis of how people increasingly think and of how the Church presents the Gospel. The truth is that we, you and I, are not fundamentally good and need guiding; we are fundamentally bad and need saving. 

‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24

I do not need for my-self to be fulfilled, but for my-self to be crucified with Christ. It’s not society that is at fault, but me. It’s not society that needs changing, but me that needs renewing with the life of Christ. 

This is the good news of the Gospel. It is a message that confronts the deceit of self and shows it for what it is. It exposes the lie that we can live without God and that all will be well whatever we think or do. It isn’t a message that invites us to ‘like it’ if it feels right for us, but which challenges us and warns us of the consequences if we don’t respond to it. We can be a slave of sin or a slave of Christ; there is no alternative, no other way. As St Peter put it: 

‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12) 

For those of us who are being saved, Charles Wesley expresses what we feel in our Offertory hymn this morning: 

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee. 

‘Who will rescue me from this body of death? 

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romans 7:24-25) 


No comments: