A sermon for July 9/17 on Romans 7:15-25a
“I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes—laments, really. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” There really is the quality of lament in this section of his letter to the Romans, and it brings me a strange sort of comfort. I’m with Martin Luther on this, when he writes,
Indeed, it is a great consolation to us to learn that such a great apostle was involved in the same grievings and afflictions in which we find ourselves when we wish to be obedient to God.
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“I can will what is right,” Paul laments, “but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” No perfect, pious, plaster saint here, but rather someone utterly realistic about the failings and foibles of his own very human life.
Biblical scholars have spilled rivers of ink trying square these words with other teachings of Paul where he writes of having been made wholly new. “I have been crucified with Christ;” he writes in his letter to the Galatians, “and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” That being the case, how is it that here in Romans he can write of his inability to do the good, the right?
Some suggest he’s talking about his life before becoming a follower of Jesus, others contend that he’s using the word “I” in a more universal sense; that he’s saying that humanity in general lives with this struggle, and can only be freed from it by being baptized into Christ’s death, just as he has been.
But to me, those sorts of theories feel like attempts at making Paul just a bit too above it all, as if his Damascus road conversion had lifted him right out of the mire and muck of actual human life. Frankly, that doesn’t wash. Read his epistles, and you’ll see that he can get cranky and lose his temper. In the letter to the Galatians, he takes a serious verbal swing at Peter. In the book of Acts, he has real falling out with Barnabas, such that those two friends end up parting ways and going in different directions. No, Paul isn’t above it all, and he knows it.
Here’s the basic thrust of his position. Paul is deeply aware that the Law—the torah—is meant to shape lives in goodness and righteousness, both for individuals and for the community. Yet he also knows that of his own volition, he can never quite fulfill the requirements and challenges of the law, because he is always contending with the reality of sin. Here he’s not thinking of sin narrowly in terms of a set of transgressions, but of something much deeper in the human condition. As Marion Sourds puts it, for Paul, “Sin is more than the sum of human misdeeds. Sin for Paul is a force to be reckoned with, a force set against humanity and God alike.” Paul is not, in other words, thinking in terms of a set of naughty things that we really should avoid doing, but instead in terms of the reality of the human condition.
I particularly appreciate how the literary critic Terry Eagleton frames the problem. Eagleton begins with the idea of original sin, which he believes is a very important belief so long as we get it right. Rejecting any suggestion that original sin is a sort of “genetic stain,” Eagleton presses for an understanding that insists it,
…is not about being born either saintly of wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place. Birth is the moment when, without anyone having had the decency to consult us on the matter, we enter into a pre-existent web of needs, interests, and desires—an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of our existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core.
Original sin is not the legacy of our first parents, but of our parents, who in turn inherited it from their own. The past is what we are made of. (Eagleton, On Evil)
The past is what we are made of. I think that is a very realistic way to approach the doctrine of original sin, and one really quite close to the view of Eastern Orthodoxy. As any parent knows, we raise our kids both in a social and cultural context quite completely beyond our control, and in one that also includes our own failings, mistakes, and miscalculations
And yet, you might say, what about Paul’s talk of the flesh? “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.” Doesn’t that suggest that there is something essentially debased or broken about our very physical, bodily selves?
That’s where it becomes important to have just a little biblical Greek. The word translated as “flesh” is sarx, while the word we translate as body is soma. The two are quite different, and as Walter F. Taylor, Jr. points out, “Paul’s normative use of body is positive. The body is a gift of God, and it is in the body that the believer is called to glorify God. Flesh, on the other hand, is the shorthand term Paul uses when he wants to designate a body or life that is being misused, that is, a body that is controlled by Sin. The positive body in that case has become the negative flesh.” And that word “flesh” isn’t narrowly about the trouble that our bodies can get us into, for the list in Galatians of what Paul calls the “works of the flesh” includes such things as envy, jealousy, anger, and quarrels (Gal 5:19-21).
So basically Paul is looking at these Christians in Rome and he’s saying to them, “I know you get derailed, sometimes even in your best intentions. And I know you can be self-centered and self-absorbed and end up walking with all sorts of jealousy and envy and anger. I know that you can so easily miss the mark, because I’m just the same. No matter how hard I try to will to do better, I still fail. “Wretched man that I am!” he writes. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And when he talks about this body of death, he means the self that has become in a sense negative flesh; a self that just can’t help but miss the mark. And then at the heart of his lament comes this: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In almost psalm-like fashion, his self-searching words of agonizing honesty and sorrow suddenly explode into hope. Who will save me? God will, through Jesus Christ the Lord. Or better—and ultimately more Pauline—God already has.
The very next line in his letter after tonight’s passage ends is this: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Done. I may still be a wretched man trying madly to do what I know I should, yet still managing mostly to do the things I most hate or resent or whatever, but it isn’t all about me and what I can do but is instead about what God has already done. For Paul it is important that we still do all we can to live into God’s gift of grace and acceptance, and to do all we can to choose better, live with integrity, resist the garbage that keeps pulling us off the mark, but he’s just so profoundly realistic about the chances of us ever getting all of those ducks lined up in a nice neat row. In a sense there is no better summary of this part of Paul’s theology than a quote from the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. Strangely, that’s pure gospel.