Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXTS: Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 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!
‘For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
How many of you remember the comedian, Flip Wilson? Only the “boomers” amongst you, probably. Alas.
During the early 1970s, Flip Wilson had television audiences in the palm of his hand. He embodied some memorable characters. There was the money-laundering Reverend Leroy. And Freddy the Playboy. And Sonny the White House janitor. But surely his most popular character was Geraldine Jones.
Yes. Geraldine. “She” wore designer clothes along with chartreuse stockings; her hair was always perfect, and she demanded respect from her listeners.
The one-liners Flip put in her mouth became North American household sayings. As Geraldine would explain: “When you’re hot, you’re hot!” Or “What you see is what you get.” The favorite Wilson quip, however, was one used when Geraldine was rationalizing bad things she’d done. Suddenly demure, she would explain, “The devil made me do it.”
“The devil made me buy this dress!”
Consider the apostle Paul: “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” (Rom. 7:25b).
On the surface, one might think that the apostle Paul was the Geraldine of his day. He could blame the devil (that is, sin) for all his problems. Now, Paul was trained to obey the law. The law was not sin. The law was holy, righteous, good and spiritual. But he had to confess that he was unspiritual and sold as a slave to sin.
Paul’s own words reflect the problem: “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?” (Rom. 7:22-24)
How often have we felt like Paul did in his letter to the Romans? No matter how hard we try to live according to the great commandments—to love God and love our neighbour—it doesn’t always turn out that way.
This is not because we are horrible, wretched creatures, but because there is sin in the world. And sin is powerful. It is so powerful that sometimes we just withdraw from action and words, and we allow whatever is happening to happen. Then, our inaction itself becomes the sin.
In today’s Epistle reading, Paul sounds like he is exhausted—and, in his desperation, is unable to do any more to free himself from sin. His words suggest that sin is lurking like a monster hiding under the bed, just waiting to take us over.
As I’m sure you well know, scripture needs to be considered in context. We must balance not only the words the apostle spoke, but also take into account the way he lived his life. Only then can we come to some conclusions that might help make sense out of what Paul said about not understanding himself.
One conclusion is that Paul was a realist. He knew, as well as you and I do, that lurking deep within us—deep within that person whom other people see—lies the hidden side of us: what psychologists call our “shadow selves.”
Even for those of us who tend to look at ourselves with rose-colored glasses there comes that day when the glasses crack or break and we come face-to-face with who we really are: sinners standing in need of God’s divine grace.
Perhaps that’s what Martin Luther meant when he advised us to “sin boldly.” He was simply acknowledging the fact that each one of us will sin. As surely as we get up in the morning, we will sin. It is good when that moment does come—that moment when we are able honestly to face the nature of our sin. And it’s better when that moment comes sooner rather than later.
Paul looked at life realistically, and seeing that we are all sinners, he was more than willing to bare his own sinful soul: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do … Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
There’s that phrase again: “this body of death.” That’s rather gruesome language, isn’t it?
But the apostle likely had something quite gruesome in mind. Leslie Weatherhead, the famous British Methodist of the last century, suggests what Paul might have been thinking of:
In those days, if the Romans determined a person had committed a crime, but it was not a crime deserving the death penalty (and they were pretty quick to invoke capital punishment, let me tell you), a different form of punishment was often used. They would strap the corpse of a criminal who had been executed to the back of the other law-breaker, so that he had to carry it around with him everywhere he went. He could not remove it. He had to lie down with it at night. He got up with it in the morning. Imagine what that must have been like. The stench would be unbearable. Even when he sat down to eat he could not escape it. The burden of such a punishment surely would have been intolerable.*
Paul was thinking both literally and figuratively. He felt as if he was carrying his own carcass around with him, his own body of death. He carried his sinful self around with him like a criminal was forced to carry a corpse.
“What a terrible burden sin can be,” Paul is saying, “what an intolerable burden.” The apostle cannot be accused of looking at life through rose-colored glasses. He viewed human life realistically. And in doing so, he saw that we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
That’s true even of the best of us. In our gospel reading, Jesus reminds the crowd that some thought John was possessed with a demon, even though he lived a life of denial and simplicity.
Jesus lived to overturn injustices and expose the many ways that his society’s attitudes and laws actually promoted sinfulness rather than love for God and one’s neighbours. By pointing out these things, he also pointed the way to freedom—and salvation—for all of us.
The apostle Paul knew this, and so his cry of desperation was quickly calmed by his own acknowledgement that sin is defeated by God through life in and with Christ.
“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Mark that: Paul doesn’t ask what will save him, but who! The good news is not a program, but a person. What we cannot accomplish through our own best efforts and noble actions, Jesus Christ has done through his death and resurrection. The dilemma that was humanly impossible to solve by us has been solved by grace. Gone is the frustration of not being able to do the right thing. Gone is the shame of giving in to sin. God has spoken. The problem has been solved, once and for all time.
This is the gospel we preach. Thanks be to God for it. Amen.
* Leslie Weatherhead, The Significance of Silence (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1954), p. 119.