July 5, 2020
With yesterday being the fourth of July, we are hearing the words “independence” and “freedom” left and right. Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, keeps us mindful that the meaning of these words depends on what we do with them… with how we live out our highest ideals. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you from Romans chapter 7.
READ Romans 7: 15-25
Let’s do our theological work first… because as Christians our theological ideals are the first lens through which we are to understand everything else. Although, in practice, we often let our other ideals through our other shared identities define our theology… we cannot escape being American Christians, for example… we cannot escape our generational or economic identities… and these will color how we understand… or what we like to lift up as the highest ideals of our theology. We are people of our own time… of our own limitations. Wretched people that we are... we can will what we know is right, but we cannot seem to do it. But the mark of a truly great ideal is that it is able to transcend our limitations. It is able to withstand our failures as we painfully and incrementally move towards it realization.
Paul was a man of his time and place. Imperfect. Limited. Visionary to be true… but not always perfectly aligned with his theological vision. We tend to forget that as we make these words of his into “holy scripture”… we need to remember how these were first words of Paul’s faith… his experiences and his wrestling to understand Christ in his time and place. Yet, in our reading from Paul, we are not strict originalists… meaning these words can only mean or speak to that same time and place in history. The ideals in Paul’s writing expand and grow to speak to very different and ever changing contexts… so that even in our time and place… very different from Paul’s… very very different from Paul’s… we can still find inspiration and meaning… and challenge to look beyond… to have his theology expand our own horizons and help us to unstick ourselves from where we have become too entrenched in sin… to see how the ideals of his theology still sit before us challenging us to move that ball down the field… even if it’s just one more inch toward the goal.
So let’s start with Paul… putting him once again squarely in his time and place. As a Pharisee… as a Jew’s Jew, as he describes himself… Paul was very content with his Jewish faith. He was well educated in it. He knew his religion backwards and forwards… inside and out. He wore it well, like a fine tailored suit. And then… Christ happened to him and his comfort disappeared. His comfortable Jewish faith became ill fitting. His whole life changed and he endured incredible personal hardship… he endured emotional turmoil… he endured the suffering that came with having his theological mind reshaped. His vision for living was altered… the words and ideals of his understanding expanding and changing to reveal to him unconsidered truths behind those words of his tradition that had been handed down to him through generations.
We read these letters of Paul’s and the words and ideals from his Pharisaic upbringing are the same… but the meaning is not as it was before his experience of Christ. Nowhere is this better seen than with Paul’s struggle with the Law… the foundation of his life as a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, the Law revealed God. The Law gave insight into the mind of God and the will of God for all creation. To follow the Law… to adhere to its tenets… to find ways to take the Law and to fit it into the habits of one’s daily life… was to live faithfully in a way that could be easily measured. Following the Law gave a certain sense of order to Paul’s life. Then came the Damascus road… and the scales fell away not only from the eyes in his head… but he eyes of his mind… and his heart. Then came the gospel of Christ crucified. Then came the call to take that gospel to the Gentiles… to those whom the Law separated out… those whom the Law had put outside of God’s purview… except to judge and condemn. Then came rejection for Paul by others of the same newly developing Christian faith who feared that Paul had gone too far… that he had strayed too far from the parameters of Judaism and the Law… even as they pertained to this new movement within the Jewish faith. Missionary colleagues… with the blessing from the Jerusalem church and its leaders James and Peter… would travel behind Paul and unravel his work with the Gentiles… telling them they too had to follow a certain modicum of the Law if they were to be accepted. They taught that grace… for them… was conditional.
Truly, sometimes I’m amazed that Paul didn’t just throw up his hands in disgust and go off to live a faithful and unchallenged life alone in some cave somewhere.
In Paul we see the orderly and the accepted ways of the Law replaced by the chaos of Christ… because Christ always seems to be pointing to something beyond… something there on the horizon of the Law… an ideal that had always been there… but not fully realized.
Despite all of his struggles… Paul never lets go of the Law but turns and questions it further… looks deeper into its heart. What is the Law… what does it mean… where does the Law fit into my life now that I have had this experience of Christ. As I read this passage from Romans, while it is a part of a larger well-crafted argument, it is also very personal. “I do not understand my own action. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” The failing of the Pharisees… and by extension Paul’s old life… was the belief that they could come to fully embody the Law… which meant that the Law had but one interpretation because if the Law had different interpretive applications then how could we know that the letter of the Law was being fully lived out and sin was not creeping into the interpretations. One Law… one application was supposed to be a safeguard from the doubt of sin… but it also made little room for grace. Paul is honest in his experience… “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.” It is little wonder then that Paul was quick to point out that those who live by the Law will die by the Law because none of us can fully measure up to the Law. It is the self-deception that we can be an absolute master of the Law that keeps us at war with ourselves. Our will alone is simply not strong enough to defeat the sin that dwells within us. We cannot will ourselves out of our total depravity. One Law, one application, one holiness… is self-deceiving because it presumes an ability to defeat sin. It presumes our ability to defeat our own sinful nature… a presumption that Paul’s chaotic experience of grace completely unwound.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” While the Law is good… and the Law is spiritual… and the Law reveals the heart, mind and will of God for all creation… while the Law had helped to form and to guide and to maintain the faith of Jewish people for centuries… the Law nevertheless put our rescue from sin into our own sinful hands. And so we will fail every time… no matter what form the Law takes. This is Paul’s main point with our reading this morning. The Law is a great gift given to our fathers and mothers who came before us. It guides us. It corrects us. It inspires us to look deeply into its truths and to search the horizons that are yet to be discovered. But the Law can’t save us from sin because we ourselves cannot save ourselves from sin. For that we must rely solely upon the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Only in Christ do we find that perfect freedom from sin.
So what does all that mean for us on this weekend celebrating independence and freedom?
On the 4th of July, we celebrated the ideas and the ideals that frame our independence. Yet, what is in the actual document behind our celebrations on the 4th of July… Thomas Jefferson’s masterful Declaration of Independence.
Most of the Declaration of Independence is specific to its purpose of declaring why the colonies at that point in time were breaking away from British rule. In fact, most of the document is a list of grievances. The first paragraph says it all… “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation.” Now that is a thesis statement if I’ve ever heard one.
But, the one line that everyone knows from the Declaration of Independence is the first sentence in the next paragraph… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Today this sentence is considered to be the heart of the document… the ideal that has transcended the document’s real place in history. The rest of the Declaration of Independence… while fiery and bold… has not entered so much into our consciousness as American scripture.
Let’s look closer at those ideals… “that all men are created equal”. Jefferson, when he wrote those words, had a limited understanding to what he was saying. Maybe “limited” isn’t the right word… that carries with it some unnecessary judgement. Let’s put it this way instead… Jefferson was very much a man of his time… so that phrase about equality had a meaning or interpretation for that time and place… but the ideal behind it would expand beyond. Jefferson, an owner of slaves, was clearly not considering all human males being created equal… but he and the other men who signed the document were making a statement concerning the position of royalty and… for lack of a better word… commoners. The statement about equality works as a means to level the field between the divinely endowed rights of royalty and the common man. Although not the equality we care much about today… Jefferson’s statement was a very bold concept in its time… challenging what had been the social and cultural norm for centuries.
It was Abraham Lincoln’s use of the same phrase in the Gettysburg address that illustrates how the ideal behind “all men are created equal” grew in scope over time… how it has gone beyond Jefferson’s original intention. As Lincoln looked at this phrase and at the monumental struggle he was facing… he saw an ideal that went beyond the original intent… an ideal that pointed to something greater. Lincoln not only helped to open the horizon… but he moved us so that it is hard for us to go back to that original intent. He saw a statement that did indeed include all human males no matter race or position. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” I believe part of the greatness we give to Lincoln is because he saw these words and were challenged by them in a way that didn’t challenge many of his contemporaries. Lincoln… in his time and place… couldn’t remain in the comfortable understanding of all men being created equal… an understanding that didn’t truly include all men.
So, today we have followed Lincoln’s lead and this concept… this ideal… is one we come back to time and again as we struggle to define human rights for different groups in our society. Now we ask and strive to answer questions concerning human equality… rarely stopping to wonder why that is a value that we feel we must now uphold… even to the death.
As Americans we might say that God spoke through Jefferson… that the Spirit guided his hand to write the words… “all men are created equal”. But Jefferson… wretched man that he was… was still blinded by sin and could only see the truth in part. Lincoln… wretched man that he was… recognized that behind those familiar words was a larger ideal. But even Lincoln could only see the truth in part… bound as he was to the limitations of his time and place. Today we hold up the same words… we espouse the same ideal… but our sinful hands, hearts and minds still cannot achieve the fullness of these words. Equality eludes us still. Yet, we never stop seeking equality… we never stop living into the Law… we never stop in our pursuit to be more Christ-like… because the freedom we have been given is the freedom to embrace the ever present indwelling Spirit of God. And we come to that presence through grace. For us Christians, that is the something beyond that has been so freely given… grace… the knowledge of grace… the experience of grace… broadens all our horizons… just as it had Paul’s. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.