Proper 9, Year A
9 July AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:8-15; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
✠ ✠ ✠
Bill Cosby told the story about one of his children who, when she was a toddler, kept trying to drink from his bottle of Coke. And since he didn’t want to end up with slobber and snot on it, he drilled her on not drinking from it. Then he put it down on the table to go do something, and when he came back, lo and behold, she was drinking his Coke. “What did I tell you?” he asked her. “You said not to drink your drink,” she answered. By this time he’s getting angry, and she’s getting scared. And he said, “Then why did you do it?” Half crying, she said, “I don’t knoooowwww!” (Bill Cosby, Himself, 1983).
Well that seems to be St Paul’s conundrum at the start of today’s second lesson. “I don’t understand my own actions,” he says, “I just don’t get it. Instead of doing what I want to do, I do the very thing I hate, the thing I don’t want to do.” And then he talks about sin as if it’s something like a brain tumor, or an evil alien inside his head, that forces his body to do things against his will, like how Lord Voldemort got inside Professor Quirrel (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). And that’s actually kind of what sin is.
There’s a school of thought among some Christians that teaches something called “the total depravity of man.” It says that human nature is thoroughly corrupt and sinful ever since Adam and Eve committed the first sin. But that idea is in serious disagreement with what the Church has taught from the beginning. In the very first chapter of the Bible, it says that God looked on all that he had made, including humans, and saw that it was all very good (Gen 1:31). So it’s really quite wrong to say that human nature is totally depraved, sinful to the core, for God is not the creator of evil. Simply put, evil is rebellion against God, freely chosen and engaged in by his creatures. Now I realize that that last statement seems contradictory to what St Paul is saying in today’s reading, and especially to what we heard from him last week about how we’re all the slaves of sin before being redeemed by the blood of Christ, and becoming slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:15-23).
In today’s reading he says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” And there’s the qualifier– “…in the flesh.” We’re not just flesh-and-blood beings, though; we’re spiritual too. And those two sides of us are equal parts of one whole person. And Paul seems to imply that if there weren’t that spiritual side to us, or more to the point, when our spiritual side is not nurtured in the right way, and nourished on the right things, our physical side can become totally consumed by base desires, what he and St John both call “the desires/lusts of the flesh” (e.g. Eph 2:3, 1Jn 2:16).
At every baptism, the celebrant asks that set of six questions of the candidates, the first three of which are called the Renunciations. Historically, they face the door of the church, symbolizing the spiritual darkness from which they’ve come– their separation from God, their rebellion against God, which they’re now turning away from. Then the baptist (= the one doing the baptizing) says,
Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world
which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.
And then turning toward the front of the church where Christ is waiting to fill them with his life at the altar, they answer the second set of three questions called the Promises:
Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer I do.
Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer I do.
Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer I do.
What St Paul is saying is that there is an ongoing struggle within every one of us between our innate goodness, the goodness that God built into us when he created us, and that deeply ingrained sinfulness, that original sin with which the human race has been infected ever since Adam and Eve. That struggle is ramped up every time we begin to move toward God. And so what the person being baptized is doing in answering those questions is committing himself to the struggle.
Paul puts it this way, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil is close by.” And Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, puts it this way: “Wherever God erects a house of prayer, the devil always builds a chapel there.” Noting, as St Paul does, that more people will give up the struggle than stick with it, that whole verse of Defoe’s poem reads like this:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there;
And ‘twill be found, upon examination,
The Latter [the devil] has the largest congregation.
The True-Born Englishman, 1701
So it stands to reason that every follower of Jesus is always going to be confronted by the temptation to sin, and is always going to experience that internal spiritual struggle between good and evil. And the more active God is in a person’s life, the busier the devil will be trying to undo the good that God is doing. And often there’s that lurking temptation to despair, to want to give up, because the struggle seems unwinnable. “For I have the desire to do what’s right,” Paul says, “but not the ability to carry it out”– I want to do it, but I can’t. Or as Jesus said on Maundy Thursday night as he waited to be arrested, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).
But here’s the good news– the struggle is not yours alone, or mine! Near the end of today’s reading Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” this corrupt human condition. He’s not wondering whether he’s really going to be delivered, or having a momentary doubt about his salvation. He knows the answer, which is why in the very next sentence he declares, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” or as he puts it in 1 Corinthians, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1Cor 15:57). It’s by Christ’s victory over death on the cross that Paul and the rest of us are delivered from the corruption of sin. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re immune or impervious to sin. It means that by the grace of God, first given in baptism, and then renewed every trip to the communion rail, we’re able to rise above it. “This is not your own doing,” Paul says in Ephesians, “it’s the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). It’s not something we can possibly earn by doing all the right things, which is a common trap that a lot of Christians fall into. It’s pure gift. And all we have to do to receive it is to accept it in humility and repentance. You should all read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, if you haven’t already. It’s not a very long read, and it’s a lot of fun. And it deals directly with this issue of the internal struggle against sin that we’re all engaged in. And it comes at it from the devil’s perspective, which is what makes it a fun read.
The Holy Spirit who makes his dwelling in us when we’re baptized is the One who takes up that internal struggle against sin. If we’re serious about being followers of Jesus, he leads us every day in renouncing evil, and in turning to Christ our Savior, in putting our whole trust in his grace and love, in following and obeying him as our Lord. It’s not our own doing. So when we find that we’re confronted with the temptation to do the thing we know we ought not to do, or the temptation not to do what we know we ought to be doing (like dragging our butts out of bed on a beautiful summer Sunday morning), the thing to do is not to try to power through it on our own, come what may, but simply to turn to God and ask for help. And the simple, three-word prayer for help that Christians have always prayed is Κυριε ελεισον, “Lord, have mercy.”
That’s where the notion of the total depravity of man falls apart. It insists that we’re so far gone that we’re totally incapable of crying out to the Lord for mercy. But in fact there will always be enough of that impulse toward goodness in us that God built into us at creation, along with all the other gifts of his grace, that we’ll always be able to call out to him in time of need. And even if we’re sunk so deeply in sin that we’re not inclined to cry out, he’s still going to surround us with his grace. He’s still going put reminders in our way. He’s still going to throw countless lifelines out for us to grab onto. That’s precisely what he did in sending his Son into the world. “God shows his love for us,” Paul says, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Before we even knew that we needed saving, God sent his Son to be our Savior. So don’t ever think that you struggle against sin all on your own. God is your champion, the cross is his weapon, and the Church is your support group. And that’s the good news from St Paul today. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+