Sermon, July 9, 2017


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45.11-18; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30


The Depth of Our Struggles


Last Sunday we heard Paul’s Call to Holy Living. He instructed the Roman Church to no longer let sin rule in their mortal bodies; the members of their bodies were no longer to be used as weapons of wickedness but were to, henceforth, be used as the arms of righteousness. He closes his Call to Holy Living by saying, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6.14; NRSV).

We also noted Paul’s assurance that, having been baptized into the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are now dead to sin and are slaves to righteousness. Given our natural limitations, the weakness of our flesh, Paul says we are now to present our members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.  We are to remember our baptism and live into it.

Yet, in today’s reading, Paul begins by saying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7.15; NRSV). Say what? What’s going on here? Is Paul confessing his own weaknesses? If honest, we confess our struggle with sin. Don’t many Christians use the expression, “I do not do what I would do,” as a defense of their own failure to fully live a Christian life?

A very thorough and careful study of the structure of Romans chapter 7 reveals it to be an interlude in which Paul is more fully setting forth the nature and the function of the Law handed down at Mt. Sinai. In several instances in the letter, Paul has previously alluded to the Law. In Romans 3.20, Paul points out that no one is justified through obedience to the law; “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (NRSV). In Romans 3.21-27, Paul says we are “justified by faith apart from the works prescribed by the law” (NRSV). In Romans 4.13-15, Paul reminds us that the promise to Abraham came through the righteousness of faith as opposed to the law. In Romans 5.13-14, Paul notes that sin entered the world before the law, that “sin is not reckoned where there is no law” (NRSV). In Romans 5.20, Paul observes that once the law came into force, trespass multiplied, yet “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (NRSV). And last, in Romans 6.14-15, we are told “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law, but under grace” (NRSV).

I previously suggested that Romans 7 is an interlude. Note the opening: “Do you not know brothers and sisters – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime” (Romans 7.1; NRSV). As he is speaking to those who know the law, i.e., the law of Moses, Paul is addressing the Jewish Christians of the Church of Rome.

Having noted the law is binding on a person only during his or her lifetime, Paul reminds the Jewish Christians, “You have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7. 4; NRSV). Paul further notes, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Romans 7.5; NRSV). But, having been baptized, we have died to the old life; as Paul notes, “Now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7.6; NRSV).

Having noted the law serves to arouse our sinful passions, Paul next asks, “What then should we say? That the law is sin” (Romans 7.7; NRSV)? He replies, “By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Paul then provides a concrete illustration: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead” (Romans 7.7-8: NRSV).

We should note two things. First, people certainly experienced covetous desires prior to the commandment but the desires did not then count as sin. With the commandment comes an awareness of sin, and with the awareness of sin, our covetous desires are multiplied. Some of you may have previously thought of the pink elephant present in the nave, but if I give you a moral imperative, “Do not think of the pink elephant in the nave,” you now have an awareness that it is wrong to think of the pink elephant. Second, when an action is prohibited, it becomes even more attractive!

Paul continues, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans 7.9-12; NRSV).

Wait a minute! Was Paul ever alive apart from the law? No, Paul was born under the Mosaic law. Paul may not literally be referring to himself. The intent of the passage becomes clearer if we think of Paul as setting forth the history of Israel. The “I” may refer to God’s Old Covenant people who once lived apart from the law. They received the law at Mt. Sinai, and as Psalm 119 reveals, the law was cause for rejoicing: “At last, God has told us what we must do if we are to live in right relationship with God.”

But even with the knowledge of the law, they found they could not keep the law. Their mind and their flesh were at war. Listen to the verse preceding today’s reading: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I (the People of the Old Covenant) am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” (Romans 714; NRSV).

Listen to this passage again, but think of it as a reflection of the pain of one who would love God, who knows the law (as the Jewish Christians did), and even loves the law, yet cannot meet the demands of the law:

Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

“Wretched man that I am!” reflects the state of one who is suffering an existential crisis. Permit me to analyze this in Kierkegaardian terms.

Kierkegaard holds that there are three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Some never achieve all three stages, and the transition from one stage to another stage always takes place through a crisis of despair. In the aesthetic stage, one searches for meaning through the pleasures of this life – wine, women/men and song in abundance. But alas, as Solomon discovered, this is vanity; such a life leads only to despair. Amidst this despair, one may choose to leap to the ethical stage where one strives to live an ethical existence. As Paul tells us, we have the law, we know the law, even delight in the law, but we find we cannot adhere to the demands of the law. Our inability to live an ethical existence once again leads to despair – “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” If one is to escape this existential crisis, one must make the leap of faith into the religious life. We glimpse this leap of faith in Pauls’ answer to the question, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

It is important to note that one does not entirely abandon the previous stage of existence; the previous stage is transformed in light of one’s new life and experience. For example, when one moves from the aesthetic to the ethical, aesthetic pleasures are still to be enjoyed, but enjoyed ethically, and ultimately, religiously.

Next week, we will move beyond the chapter 7 interlude, into the beauty of chapter 8. We will move more fully into the religious stage of existence and again pick up Paul’s theme of sanctification. Stay tuned for further developments!  Amen!

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