June 2, 2018
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Romans 7.1-10, at Mattins on Sunday 3rd June 2018 the First Sunday after Trinity.
Last Tuesday, the Old Testament reading at Evensong was 2 Chronicles 28, which the Dean very kindly delegated to me. Having a whole chapter to read almost always means a verbal marathon, which can be a trial for both reader and congregation, but especially if one includes, as in this case, names such as Meshillemoth and Tilgath-pilneser of Assyria (of Assyria, I suppose, to distinguish him from all the other Tilgath-pilnesers one might meet).
2A visitor complained afterwards that the passage had been read at all. The length was one thing, but the content was quite another: it was an unremitting catalogue of the sins of one of the kings of Judah, King Ahaz. He reigned in Jerusalem from the age of twenty for sixteen years and, as it says, ‘he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord’. He therefore brought punishment on his people – many being taken into captivity by their northern neighbours Israel. Worst of all, the more desperate Ahaz got, the more faithless he became. He left the nation and its worship in a right old mess.
There were many things we could have said to this visitor, one of which was to agree that it was indeed a pretty horrid reading and not very edifying, which begs the question of why we read them? The main reason is that they are part of a bigger story, which sometimes doesn’t have an immediate and inspirational pay-off: in the case of King Ahaz, his son Hezekiah reversed the damage his father had caused and, through his faithfulness to God, brought a measure of security to the land. The Book of Chronicles stresses the vital important of faithful practice – the good and bad characters in the book both help to define what right conduct means in practice.
Please excuse the lengthy digression about a bygone lesson. We could, however, say exactly the same about today’s New Testament lesson. It is not immediately edifying; it is part of a bigger story, which takes a lot of squeezing to yield its lesson.
St Paul is giving a painful but realistic lesson about the human condition. All is not well with us. If you lift the lid on our lives you find a complex inner struggle and unexpected challenge.
Let’s me illustrate the challenge by taking you to a calm summer’s scene involving a tourist getting off a boat onto a jetty. There’s nothing at all wrong with the jetty, but as the tourist pushes onto the jetty from too great a distance, the force that he applies pushes him away from the land. With one foot in the boat and another on the jetty the result is not good. The jetty, though good in itself and expressly designed to prevent people from getting wet, causes him to do the splits and end up in the water.
Paul is saying something similar here about the Jewish Law. Though good in itself and meant to point to sin and to keep people from it, the Law has ended up having a destructive effect, causing people to sin by revealing the possibility of disobedience. The Law in the hands of sinners spells disaster.
What’s hard to swallow here is the estimation of our natural condition. Paul thinks we are enslaved not only by sin, but by death. For Paul, death is not a friendly fact of our existence; it is something that causes us to want to rebel against our Creator, just like the first Man and Woman in Eden, who grabbed the chance to avoid death and be like God and so fell into disobedience.
Sinning is the game people play to try to avoid death – the distractions, the illusions and ambitions which help us to believe that we will grow and enlarge ourselves indefinitely. Worse still, Paul says, these battles become even more apparent when one tries to do what’s right – live by a standard. As soon as you do, you really get in touch with your own impotence. Your goals, values and beliefs end up only serving to illustrate your abject hypocrisy. It’s a horrid, dispiriting truth.
And yet this is not the whole story. So far we have been thinking only of one body – our familiar, mortal, corruptible body. But the story in the lesson we heard was not just about one but two bodies. There is our body – the grasping or struggling self we know, living in the grip of death – and there is also the body of Jesus Christ risen from the dead; and connecting them lies the marvel of Pentecost.
We are in the season in which we think of the work and ministry of God’s Holy Spirit. This Spirit pervaded the body of Jesus and enabled Him to stand and act against death, not only externally with his healings and exorcisms, which rescued others from the grip of death, but also internally, in his own undefended, undefeated life. At no point in Christ’s life do we have any sense of him ducking out of conflict or challenge in order to protect himself, even on the cross.
The bodily life of Jesus sprung from a different place, not ruled by death, which is why we claim that Jesus was without sin, however tempted and tested he may have been.
You may think: well, that’s all very nice for Jesus, but I’m stuck with my mortal body. And Paul says, yes, you are stuck with it, as I was with mine, and it’s wretched, I confess. There is no end in this life to the struggle of being a believer – in some ways it would have been better if we’d never become aware of the demands of righteousness. Then we could seem blameless before God and remain in blissful ignorance of our plight.
Nonetheless, there is a way of dying to this death, even while we remain in the body, and of finding a new pulse – to be dead to sin, but alive to righteousness. And that is by living our mortal lives in and through the risen body of Jesus Christ, by clothing ourselves with Christ’s risen life.
This is part of a much bigger story, and I sincerely hope you go home and read Chapter 8 about the victory that can come out of the struggle. For now, I simply want to illustrate this victory, to show us what it is like to live in union with Christ, to have our bodily instincts, drives and desires recast in the fire of God’s Spirit, so that they are able more and more to accommodate the righteous and risen, bodily life of Christ.
So here’s the heart a holy man who lived in the Sahara Desert about a hundred years ago, whose name was Charles de Foucault. He prayed:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you do, I will thank you.
I am ready for all; I accept all.
Let your will be done in me
And in all your creatures.
This only I ask, Lord.
Father, I offer myself to you
With all the love of my heart;
For I love you, Lord,
And therefore need to give myself to you,
To surrender myself into your hands
Without reserve and with boundless confidence,
For you are my Father.
If this reminds you of Jesus speaking in the Garden of Gethsemane, it’s an indication of the measure to which Charles de Foucault’s life was conformed to the life of Christ, crucified and risen.
His only struggle now was how to stretch further and dive deeper into a union without limit or end. That’s what bodily life looks like when lived in union with Christ. Our bodies become instruments of joy and, even as mortal, we breathe resurrection.