Monday, July 4

Sermon July 3

As we begin to reflect on Romans 7 this evening I wish to first direct our attention to the difficulty of Paul and the ruling of the Supreme court concerning the displaying of the 10 commandments in Public spaces. Paul is difficult and I think for many of us myself included, as often as not we’d like to avoid Paul if at all possible. When I set out to prepare this sermon I first tried to preach from the other two texts in the lectionary. I am a bit nervous preaching to us, for I believe that our attitudes towards Paul make it difficult for us to hear the Word of God in Paul. I ask that you set aside for this time your suspicion of Paul. I ask this because I think our difficulty with Paul has in part to do with a truth that Paul does not waver from. This truth is two fold, our human condition and God’s extravagant grace. Paul is unflinching, perhaps even brutal, in his insistence that we, as members of the Body of Christ, face the true depths of the human predicament. Paul does not allow us to keep the delusion that we possess some kernel of goodness apart from God. Simultaneously Paul is extravagant even ecstatic in his proclamation of the glory of God’s work in Jesus Christ and Christ’s death on the Cross. What I would like you to consider as I preach tonight is that we must hold to these two things if we are to have true faith in Christ.
This past Monday The Supreme Court ruled on government displays of the Ten Commandments. It is a contentious issue, and much effort have gone into defending and opposing various displays of the Ten Commandments in public spaces, especially court houses around the country. I do not wish to comment here on the constitutionality of such displays. But I wonder what Paul would think of such a thing: not only that there would be such displays, but of how the 10 Commandments are being contextual zed in this debate. My suspicion is that Paul would be a bit puzzled and probably furious over the clear misunderstanding of the function and effect of the Law and its encapsulation in the 10 commandments.
Essentially the Supreme Court decisions basically allow for the display of the 10 Commandments if they do not serve a religious purpose or have a religious intent. From my reading of the report it appears that the Supreme Court sees the 10 Commandments as an artifact of our past, as such the 10 commandments are not religious but can be put to a secular purpose. If however, the display attempts to make some normative statement about the role of the 10 commandments in the current state of affairs in this country then there is a clear religious purpose and such a display is prohibited. Those who advocate for such displays were in part satisfied for they wish to claim the American heritage and history as Judeo-Christian, but they were disappointed in that the court did not uphold the on-going normative use of the 10 commandments in the public sphere. Opponents as I understand them were satisfied in that there was the affirmation of the separation of church and state and yet disappointed because the two rulings create an ambiguity, current religious intent is prohibited but monuments to our religious past are allowed. Therefore one could take the Supreme courts rulings as saying that separation of Church and State has existed in our past when the public use of the 10 commandments was a common aspect of American public discourse, but that is no longer true. This of course begs the question of what has changed and if that change is good or bad. In the end the Supreme Court did not answer the contentious debate but has only recontextualized it by saying what is permitted and isn’t. .
So what does this all have to do with Paul’s account of the Law and Sin and Christ’s death in Romans 7? First for Paul the Law functions very differently than any of the functions of the Law as presented in this debate. The Law does not function as some monument, and it cannot so function, it is not, nor has it ever been, the ethical underpinning of life, nor is the Law the property of a particular religious group and thus a private matter. The 10 commandments are both more radical and less useful than the Supreme Court and proponents and opponents of the display of the 10 commandments recognize.
It would seem that for many Christians in this country that the 10 commandments are a set of ethical principles that teach one how to be a good person: an upstanding law abiding citizen. But Paul depicts a very different scenario. The 10 commandments not only don’t make one a better person but they stir up the very deeds they seek to prohibit. Paul says that through the command “You shall not covet” he both learns what it means to covet and it stirs up covetousness within him. The Law does not make us better people. In fact, and this is essential for what Paul is seeking to address in our text, the appearance is that the Law actually causes sin.
As a history major we were taught that we could learn much about a society and past culture from its laws. There are two things we could learn: The culture or past societies ideals and how those ideals were not followed. Laws are written only if people are doing what is prohibited: law is after the fact. As long as an ideal is followed there is not a law against its violation. Thus, through the legal code an historian can get a glimpse of the ways in which the culture in fact deviates from its own ideals.
Laws do not tell us how we should live but they tell us how we live poorly, they tell us what we need to prevent ourselves from doing. When the 10 Commandments says, “do not covet”, that tells us that we as human beings are covetous, not how to live without coveting. As lessons in how to be the Law is powerless.
However, if we are tempted to see laws or the Law as an evil Paul stops us from such conclusion. As I have mentioned Laws do reflect ideals or the ideal of a society that is what is considered to be the good. Similarly to Paul the Law reveals not only our sinfulness but also the Good, or more precisely the goodness of God. The Law tells us what is good by God’s definition. As such the Law is not sin, nor does it cause sin but is spiritual.
This leads us to a problem and the reason Christ had to die and we must die with Christ. The problem is that in the face of the good articulated in the Law we not only confront our own sin, but we in fact find that sin is effected in us through encounter with the Law. When the 10 commandments tells me not to covet not only do I then know that I am covetous but I find myself in fact coveting more in the face of the Law. The Law, which is good, causes sin to have a greater hold on me than it did before. How is this possible?
This is possible for two reasons: One, The Law does not (is not meant to) effect the Good in us, and is incapable of doing so, and two we are already bound to sin prior to the Law. The Law reveals to ourselves the reality of our fleshly nature as sinful beings, and ultimately by revealing God’s goodness reveals our incapability of doing the Good, even the good we may desire to do, and in fact the desire for the Good that the Law encourages in us.
The reality Paul wants us to face is on the one hand the inability of the Law to make us good and that although we human beings do not do the good we do desire the good. We are both spiritual and fleshly, yet our spirit is bound to sin and death, and the 10 commandments only heighten the reality of that servitude by stirring up in us not only the desire for the good but also actuality of doing evil. In the face of “you shall not covet” I find my self coveting all the more. This Paul says is the predicament of every human being including himself.
The actuality of the effects of the Law is this: that I do what I don’t want to do and what I wish to do I fail to do. In my mind and spirit I will the good, but in my actions and my passions I do not do the good, but its opposite. I will to not covet but find myself coveting. In the face of the Law I am helpless knowing what I should do and finding that the Law stirs up in me competing desires one of the will and one of my actions. What I do is sin even as I am willing the good, all the while knowing I am doing the opposite of what I will.
Do we not see this fact all around us? Is not the very history of this country testament to this reality of the ultimate effect of the Law upon us and the domination of Sin and Death over humanity? The founders of this country willed to be free, and at the same time as they sought freedom bound themselves and others to the institution of slavery, which eventually lead to what most historians consider the firs Modern war, the American Civil War, the deadliest war this country has experienced. The Great Society envisioned the end of poverty, out of the desire for the good ending poverty, through welfare and housing projects. However in the end these things perpetuated in differing forms the poverty they were created to eliminate. Recognizing this mistake we now begin to dismantle both and then poor find themselves without any support structures and poverty deepens. Or we see a blighted neighborhood, empty storefronts high crime rates etc. So we seek to revitalize the neighborhood, and in the process as the money comes in and more shops open as condos go up and buildings are rehabbed the former residents are forced out by high rents and rising property taxes. We seek to do the Good and evil and sin multiply. What we will is not accomplished, what is accomplished is more sin and death.
This should lead us to the point of despair; it is where we stop Paul today, “Oh who will deliver me from this body of death. Jesus Christ!” For all our willing of the Good, the 10 commandments could be plastered on every school courthouse city and county building in every legislature and things at best would be exactly the same, this country would be no better off in fact if Paul is right they could very well be worse, as the Law would do its work of revealing our depths of our human condition.
In the end the only solution to our human condition the only way that our will and our deeds will coincide is in union with Christ, in being joined with Christ in Christ’s death. That is through faith and baptism. Meaning it is only by submitting to the work of God in Christ that we ever see even the possibility that our willing the good will find its way into the actuality of our deeds. Only Christ can make us truly good. The Law the Ten Commandments, Worlds Religions Christianity apart for the death and resurrection of Christ only reveal our failure, our ability to envision the good but never see it accomplished and actualized. A Christianity that sets its hope on anything other than the grace of God in Jesus Christ will only reveal humanity’s failure never God’s work of salvation in Christ. This is why the great mystics and ascetics of the Church never cease praying “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God Savior have mercy on me a Sinner.” The greatest Saint, the most perfected by the grace of God never escapes this fact: God’s goodness and grace and human failure to accomplish the Good. On Jesus Christ save us from this body of death that is the human condition. Praise be to God!