“St. Paul and the human condition”
July 6, 2014
An online blog opens its discussion of today’s Romans 7 passage with these words: “If you could ask a dozen New Testament scholars to list the five most difficult passages in the New Testament, most would include Romans 7:14-25 on their list.”
That’s today’s passage, and it was dangled in front of me as sermon bait. Isaac, what have you done?
Scholars are far from agreement as to the meaning of the passage. To get an idea of the problem, some consider that Paul was talking about his own experience with the law, and others think that his use of the first-person “I” pronoun was a way to put a lot of punch into a description of Christians in general.
In today’s passage from Romans, Paul is profoundly introspective, so much so that if he were somehow to come before us and say exactly those words, we would probably be embarrassed listeners. The writing style of the passage raises questions for modern readers. The content of the passage throws up a huge challenge to anyone who believes that every sentence in the Bible can potentially be reconciled to every other.
Luke Timothy Johnson (The Great Courses; The Apostle Paul) says that Chapter 7 reveals Paul’s divided consciousness, and calls our text a diatribe. Elsewhere he says that Paul’s writing style is exactly what people in that time expected to hear to advance a powerful argument…”Paul engaged in rhetorical hardball, using language that is much harder than we are used to today…He has apparent mood swings, and the classic text of Romans 7 seems to reveal a divided, troubled self.” (from the course book, pp 5 and 7)
It is worth a moment to introduce two definitions. Notes from A New Handbook of Christian Theology (Abingdon, 1992)
Evil is the opposite of good. It causes harm, usually to humans. Two broad categories of evil are recognized: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil refers to the things people do to harm other people. Natural evil refers to the acts of nature that cause harm or damage, such as the violent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79 that poured lava and ash on Pompeii so fast that some people were buried in it. A very recent example is the collapse of a mountainside in the state of Washington that caused great destruction to everything in its path. That’s evil.
Sin is any attitude, act, or series of actions that violate the will of God for life in the human community. It is common to think of sin as an individual act with bad consequences for someone else, though it is just as appropriate to think of a group of, for example, thieves, as sinners. It can be a team effort. Crime is an action against the state, whereas sin is an action against the will of God, often with adverse human consequences. Evil is a broader category than sin, and includes sin in moral evil.
Reinhold Niebuhr, famous 20th-century American theologian and ethicist, said the doctrine of original sin is ”the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” [Quoted in Christian Century, 25 June 2014, p. 7]
Permit me to insert into this cheerless topic a moment of levity. Calvin Coolidge, a Vermont native who became the 30th President of the United States, was notoriously tight-lipped. After he had gone to church one Sunday his wife asked him what the preacher had preached on. “Sin,” was the answer. “And what did he say about it?” his wife replied. Coolidge answered “He was against it.”
Now back to the apostle Paul. He says this of himself In Acts 26:5:
“All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.”
So we know that Paul, throughout his early years, was immersed in Jewish law. When he was suddenly confronted by the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus, the result was a more radical transformation than he could have imagined. He suddenly stopped persecuting the young Christians and joined them. We should not be surprised that he makes frequent references to Jewish law. Today’s passage from Romans Ch. 7 almost suggests that he cannot get away from Jewish law. It’s time to examine the passage itself.
Consider these two verses:
7:15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Paul makes almost the same claim twice in the same words, so that his writing appears to be erratic; he seems to be taken captive, at least for the moment, by a furious passion for the subject.
7:16: “Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.”
This is a simple statement that laws set boundaries, which makes them good.
Consider this pair of verses:
7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Paul answers by immediately identifying his rescuer:
7:25a Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So Paul seems to end on a triumphal note. However, the remainder of the 25th verse, carefully excluded from the lectionary passage, reads: “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”
Paul can’t get away from the demands of the law! However, in the previous chapter he writes (6:14): “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” This much calmer statement is out of character with our present passage, as it shows no concern for the intrusion of sin into the believer’s life.
At least in this chapter, Paul takes the view that sin is in us, and is not an alien invader. Here are his words: “Sin that dwells within me” in verses 17 and 20, “nothing good dwells within me” in v. 18, “sin that dwells in my members” in v. 23.
In contrast, Pope Francis has declared that Satan exists in the 21st century, according to an April 11 news release from the Vatican. The Washington Post issue of May 10 declares that “the new pope is locked in an epic battle with the oldest enemy of God and creation: The Devil.”
As a Protestant, I can part company with the Pope at no risk, and here I surely do. To insist that a real Devil or Satan is tempting us from somewhere out in the world is to pretend that we are innately good, and only fall into sin when some external being invades us. That lets us all off too easily, because our sins come from within, assuming we have any free will and do not enter the world pre-programmed in a certain direction.
Recall that we are not under law, but under grace. (Romans 6:14, quoted above) How then are we to live? We must always remember that “God’s grace calls forth human imitation.” (Oxford Essential Guide). Christian believers, acting together, are called to support each other and more specifically to reflect the grace of God toward each other, because we are all sinners. Advancing the grace of God as kindness toward and love for each other is our universal calling. We are all both needy and partners in meeting the need in each other. O Holy Spirit enter in; among these hearts your work begin. Amen.
THOUGHTS ON THE JULY 4 HOLIDAY WEEKEND
We are worshiping at the end of the July 4 weekend, our nation’s most celebrated national holiday. With its public observances, symbolic military operations, patriotic music, and flag displays, observance of the day assumes patriotism. Throughout our history of nearly five hundred years, Mennonites have considered national patriotism as very secondary to our allegiance to Christ and the Christian life. I don’t have numbers, but I would guess that very few Mennonite churches display a flag, either inside or out. Much more is involved than the refusal of many Mennonites to engage in military service; it is at base our insistence that we hold ourselves to a higher loyalty than to the nation. How we express this loyalty has not always been clear; merely saying that we adhere to something higher than the state does not adequately express our convictions. Ten years ago Nelson Krabill and June Alliman Yoder, then both on the faculty of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, wrote a pledge. It is found in the bulletin. If you think it is a good statement of our loyalty to Christ, please join me as we read it aloud together.
I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ and to God’s Kingdom for which he died, one spirit-led people the world over, indivisible, with love and justice for all.