I do not understand my actions.

A sermon on Romans 7:15-25a

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ver the next month and a half, the lectionary cycle of readings will take us into the Letter of Paul to the Romans. I’m not sure why the lectionary designers thought it a good idea to explore such a theologically heavy material during the summer months, but I’m going to at least attempt to rise to the challenge, and to offer something that will hopefully cut through the heat of these Sunday nights.

I want to begin tonight by saying some very general things about Paul and about how I think we need to hear his writings. When I was in theological college, one of my New Testament professors went to great lengths to hammer home a very important point. He wanted us to become deeply aware that Paul did not set out to write a systematic theology, but rather was writing occasional pieces—letters—directed to specific communities dealing with specific issues. This professor wanted us to be clear that it isn’t entirely fair to say, “according to Paul…” or “Paul says…” but rather, “in his letter to the Romans, Paul says…”

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And that brings with it a very particular challenge, as well as a very crucial insight. The challenge is to simultaneously read Paul in two different ways; on the one hand, to stand with the Roman Christians to whom Paul originally wrote his letter, and to try to hear what they heard; on the other, to listen as a church community called to live its faith in Winnipeg in the year 2011.

It means, in fact, to hear these writings as both contextual letters and as authoritative scripture. Let me give you a bit of an obvious example here. Over the course of the last half of the 20th century, Paul was often accused of being sexist, and in fact of being a major source of sexist ideology in Western civilization. That material in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians about women having to cover their heads or having to remain silent in church… hasn’t that been fuel for the justification of discrimination against women? But if that is the case what do we make of his proclamation that in Christ there is no longer male nor female (Galatians 3:28), of his referring to women as “co-workers” (Philippians 4:3), and of his insistence that in marriage a husband and wife have equal claim on the other in matters of sexual intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:3)? And what of his insistence that husband and wife, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), to which he adds the challenge that husbands love their wives (Ephesians 5:25)?

For Paul to have given women the status of equals, co-workers, and beloved is staggering, given the cultural norms of the world in which he lived. His intellectual peers would have wondered at his sanity for holding to such views. But we can easily miss that, if we read him only with the ears and eyes of the 21st century. Stand in the Rome or Corinth or Ephesus of the ancient world, and you’ll hear Paul as a challenging and subversive shaper of a whole new reality.

And remember, too, that he doesn’t tell us much about what Jesus said; the gospels will do that. Paul is the first and most significant interpreter of the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And he is convinced that this has meaning for all of time, all of history, all of humanity, and all of creation.

And so, to the Epistle to the Romans. This is a letter written in the closing years of Paul’s life (the late 50s or early 60s), to a Christian community that he’d neither personally planted, nor even visited.  He clearly knows some of the people in the community, including Prisca and Aquila, who according to Acts 18:2 he had met years before in Corinth. Rome is the political centre of the known world, so presumably others whom he’d met in his travels had ended up there. And Paul knows that one way or the other he too will end up in Rome, so in a sense this letter is his calling card. And what a calling card it is. Whereas some of his other letters are written in response to specific problems or even divisions in the local churches, this one is a blazing rehearsal of salvation history and grace.

And so we plunge in, midway into chapter 7, to find Paul writing about his own internal struggles. “I do not understand my own actions,” he writes, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” It is an echo of what I say each Sunday, as I invite us to enter into that time of confession: to set out before God “things done better left undone; and the things we’ve failed to do.” Paul here is naming a reality that we all know in one way or another; that regardless of how we situate our wills or how ardently we determine to reshape our lives, we still manage to mess up. Tempers are lost, promises broken, resolutions fail, and selfish hearts win out. “Lord, make me the person my dog thinks I am,” as the bumper sticker prayer goes. And Paul knows what is behind that bumper sticker prayer… “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,” he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Part of what he is working out as he writes has to do with the Law, the torah; the way of life given to the Israelites to shape and guide both the personal and the communal life. In a sense, Paul finds himself needing to work both sides of the street here. The law is good—and he names it as a source of delight—but part of what the law has offered him is an insight that of his own will he simply can’t keep the law. Do you see that? The torah in which Paul has been immersed, and which he says in his old life he had kept “blamelessly,” making him “righteousness under the law” (Philippians 3:6), just wasn’t enough. Ultimately, he needs to say that one of the things the law taught him was that in the name of doing good, he could still do great evil.  He had been so very sure that his blameless and righteous observance of the Law was right that earlier in his life he had persecuted the followers of Jesus; he had become an enemy of the Christ he eventually came to follow and serve.

Now, one of the trickier things about English translations of Paul’s original Greek is the word “flesh.” So often we hear the word “flesh” and put it right alongside of the word “body,” imagining Paul to be some sort of a body-denying crusader, who wants nothing more than to see our spirits freed from this debased body. But that isn’t what is going on here. The word we see translated as “body” is the Greek word soma, which is quite frankly a morally and ethically neutral word… maybe even a morally positive one, in that God is the body’s ultimate creator. “Flesh,” on the other hand, is the Greek word sarx, which is used here in a way that is not morally neutral. We’re going to delve more deeply into this territory over the coming weeks, but for now I’ll offer this from Paul Achtemeier:

Paul uses the words “flesh” and “spirit” not to designate two parts of human nature but rather to represent two ways of living. Life pursued according to flesh is the life influenced by rebellion and idolatry, in which the entire perspective of the human being is turned in on himself or herself and the person becomes the center of all values… It is a life of self-idolatry.

We so easily hear issues of the sexual body when Paul uses the language of the flesh, and yet all you have to do is to look at his list of the “works of the flesh” in the letter to the Galatians to see that it is not focused narrowly on matters sexual. Yes, misplaced or misshapen sexual desire is acknowledged as a problem, but so are things like jealousy and envy, anger and dissension, even drunkenness… anything, in short, that turns us in on ourselves, and makes us the sole arbiters of our own lives, ethics, and way of being.

Not that it doesn’t also have real implications for our bodies, as well as for our minds, hearts and souls.  “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul writes. And yet, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” There is a tomorrow; I am not trapped in my brokenness, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. In Karl Barth’s paraphrase, “Thanks be to God: through Jesus Christ our Lord I am not the wretched man that I am.”

For Paul—as for his original readership, as well as for us—a stubbornly truthful self-awareness of this truth is what keeps turning the key and freeing us from being merely self-centered, self-serving, and blind. And that begins with that insight with which today’s passage opened: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Which is precisely why, Sunday by Sunday, we lay at the foot of the cross those things in our lives born of our sin, our fears and our wounds. Lord, make me the person you know me to be.

That is more than enough for a July long weekend. We’ll pick up on more of this material from Paul’s Letter to those ancient Roman Christians next Sunday, and see what it might have to say to us about our lives and our realities these 2000 years later.

Jamie Howison

4 Responses to I do not understand my actions.

  1. Byron says:

    Two thousand years later this resonates with an intensity born of pure truth. A parallel could easily be drawn with todays’ society and the vast array of modern Christian churches wtih their distinct definitions of righteousness… definitions fueled by the exigencies of the moment… increased financing, increased membership, emotional pandering to youth or the elderly each in turn. Is the present day follower of Christ any less troubled than Paul was, even with all the theological insight of so many great scholars? I think not. The human condition and its inherent weaknesses are pervasive and present in us all.

  2. Byron says:

    Paul’s words so far are all about my life and times, Jamie. I will read and re-read this sermon for a long time, it hit home like you would probably believe.

  3. Bryan says:

    You appear to be assuming in this that Saint Paul is speaking of himself in his present condition. Would I be correct in understanding that you don’t think Romans 7 focuses on the Jewish experience up until Christ?

    • Jamie says:

      Hi Bryan,
      I think Paul is probably speaking at both levels here. Yes, I think Romans 7 has the experience of Israel prior to Christ in view, but he is best able to account for that by looking at his own experience. Prior to his calling as an apostle, he actually does some pretty dreadful (evil) things in the name of doing good (or following the law as a path to righteousness). However, I do see him as being faced with the reality of living in the “time between the times,” in which he both stands under the life, death and resurrection of Christ (and so is justified by grace), and yet still struggles with the fact of being a fallen human prone to collapsing in on himself. The good news he ultimately proclaims is that he’s not trapped in his brokenness, but has been freed. I really like the starkness of Barth’s summary paraphrase of 7:24-25: “Thanks be to God: through Jesus Christ our Lord I am not the wretched man that I am.” Like all of us, he now has to find a way to keep living into the new reality.

      And for what it is worth, I think it is really important to hear a fairly personal and human voice in the writings of Paul.

      Jamie

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