July 9, 2017 5th Sunday of Pentecost
Genesis 24:34–38, 42–49,58–67 Romans 7:15–25a Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30
The passage that we read today from Romans is not one of my favorite Bible passages. But it is one of my favorite passages of Paul’s writings because here, Paul, the scholar and philosopher; the disciple to the Gentiles; the former Pharisee – trained in all the intellectual and spiritual disciplines of the day to become a perfect disciple of God – admits with complete frustration that he finds himself doing what he shouldn’t be doing, with the complete knowledge of knowing that he should not be doing it!
How many times has that happened to any of us? Gosh, that chocolate cake looks so good, just one piece won’t hurt my sugar levels. I really shouldn’t be reading this Agatha Christie novel – I should be working on my taxes – just one more chapter. I really should call my aunt about this family problem, but I’ll put it off until tomorrow. One more fill-in-the-blank isn’t really going to hurt me or anyone else.
We all have a list of things that we regret doing; not honest mistakes but things we know we shouldn’t have done. And, like Paul, we do not understand our own actions. We don’t want the chocolate cake because we know that soon after it’s going to make our blood sugar spike and cause us to have a sugar crash later, when we don’t need a sugar crash. We know we are going to hate the fact that we ate the chocolate cake. We don’t want to eat the chocolate cake and be unhealthy, we want to say, “No,” to the chocolate cake and be healthy, but for some reason the chocolate cake beckons and we answer with a plate and a fork and a large glass of milk, so that we can pretend that it is going to be healthy. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
It’s nice to know that Paul gets it.
He gets the fact that we set up our boundaries and our rules, and that those boundaries and rules aren’t arbitrary. They come from years of society trying to figure out how we can best live together, and our own experience, which teaches us how to live with ourselves. Most of us want to be good people. Paul gets that we have a war in ourselves with inner and outer triggers, and that at times we seem to be losing to the temptations that are in us as well as the temptations that surround us. He gets that we sometimes try to will ourselves to do the right thing and that we end up doing the wrong thing.
Paul, like us, struggles everyday to actualize an identity within ourselves that we want to be. It is an identity challenge that was given to us by Christ in Matthew 5:48: That we should be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Every major theologian of our faith has struggled with the fact that we cannot be as perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Paul found himself frustrated because he couldn’t become the perfect Christian and gave us the scripture that we read today. (In fact I think that before he became a Christian he probably tried to be the perfect Pharisee.) James, Jesus’ brother tried to be the perfect Christian and he gave us the book of James. Augustine took up the challenge and in his frustration he wrote the bestseller of his day, Confessions, detailing his struggles. Martin Luther struggled with his imperfection causing him to question buying indulgences for his sins, and gave us the reformation. John Wesley struggled with being a Christian and came up with the Path to Perfection – with the emphasis that we will never reach perfection but our journey as a Christian is to at least give it our best try. And anyone who becomes confirmed in the Christian faith also accepts that they are going to try to meet the challenge.
What is this identity that we’ve wanted so badly to have for the last 2,000 years? What does it mean that we want to be as perfect as our Heavenly Father?
If you look at our three Commandments the operating word for Christians that lead us to perfection is love. First of all we dedicate ourselves to loving God. When you love God you love the infinite possibilities of creation, and the infinite possibilities of the universe. You acknowledge that you are a part of it – not separate from it but that you are a working part of this creation.
The second part is that we love ourselves and our neighbors. We treat them with respect, we care for them when they are hurt, and we try to heal them and provide an environment for us to function as healthy, whole individuals. We try to understand where people are coming from and what they need. And we try to treat everyone with equality and fairness. And that equality and fairness extends to the balance of taking care of ourselves as well as others.
And finally we act in love as Christ acted with us. We will withhold judgment until we understand. We will seek to see the human in someone, no matter what their race, or class, or belief. We will work to bring justice and balance and equal opportunity to our world, looking beyond what has been done before, to what is possible to do now and into the future.
And finally we will use our love to struggle against systemic and spontaneous acts of negativity that get inflicted on people. That means that when we see systemic or spontaneous inflictions of negativity that we will attempt to stop that action as best we can. Whether those acts are being inflicted on ourselves by ourselves, on ourselves by others, on others by us, or on others by others, we try to bring those actions to a stop.
That is the struggle that Paul outlines: the fact that we cannot seem to stop inflicting negativity on ourselves and others. And our discouragement is that even when we try our hardest we often imperfectly apply our actions of love to others. Our very own nature seems to leads us to what we shouldn’t do, and prevents us from doing what we should do. We are all wretched and when we struggle we do think — Who will rescue me from this body of death? Who will rescue me from myself? And the answer is: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Because the assurance of Christ is that we are living in God’s Grace.
But what is God’s Grace? Well the most prominent definition is that God’s Grace is God’s deliverance from our sins. But I looked up the word and found that in it’s ancient Hebrew it can also be used to mean enablement, daily guidance, forgiveness, and preservation.
Grace enables us by giving us our mental and physical capacities to think and work our way out of our difficulties. Have you ever been wrestling with a problem and suddenly the solution comes to you and you realize that you have the physical capacities and resources to solve your problem? That is God’s Grace operating in your life.
Grace gives us daily guidance. The expression When the student is ready the teacher will appear can be expanded to: When you need help someone or something will be sent to guide you through your problem. That is God’s Grace operating in your life
Grace forgives us and enables us to forgive. When we do mess up we can access the process of forgiveness: 1. Acknowledging that we did something wrong; 2. Finding the solution to fix or heal the problem; 3. Experiencing the absolution that comes to us through to process of trying to make things right again. A great deal of forgiveness is someone saying – I accept your apology and now I will accept your efforts and help you if I can to make things right again. And when we do that we operate in Grace.
And finally, Grace preserves us. Grace shows us through the utilization of love how we can keep ourselves from being the worst of ourselves, and Grace also lets us know that maybe we aren’t being perfect but that our efforts to be the best that we can be is something that we can build on to make a better life for ourselves, as well as a better world.
So what on Earth should I do when I find myself, like Paul, despairing that I will never get a handle on my human nature? I need to remember that Christ wants to take over my burden of guilt of never being perfect, and that he is willing to do it – If only I let Him into my life and ask him for help to get over myself.
Sometimes we struggle so hard against our own natures that we forget that we have a relief in the Grace of Christ and God. We forget that Jesus said: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. It is light because although we struggle with our natures and try so hard to be perfect but never are, Christ still loves us and will help us through our struggles by enabling us, guiding us, forgiving us, and preserving us.
So open your hearts to God’s Grace. Let Christ be there during your struggles. He knows what you’re going through. Give him your love and your doubts. Give him your hopes for perfection and your mistakes and difficulties while you try. Let his Grace move in your life and you will find a rest for your soul.