Sermon: Jesus is not a life coach

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
The Fifth Sunday of Pentecost, 9th of July 2017

Romans 7:15-25a

Sometimes I read the writings of the Apostle Paul and all I can say in response to them is: ‘Yes!’ Sometimes Paul just seems to get it – and today is one of those days. When Paul writes: ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,’ and ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,’ all I can do is nod my head in sad agreement. Paul is absolutely right. And he wasn’t alone in saying this. In this part of his letter to the Romans Paul is echoing something that was a commonplace in the ancient world. The Roman poet Ovid wrote the most famous version of it: ‘I see the better way and I approve it; but I follow the worse.’ It’s apparently part of what it means to be human. We know what we should do; but we don’t do it. We want to be good and obey God’s law, but we find that we can’t. It’s a universal problem.

It’s almost impossible not to wonder whether in writing this Paul was talking about himself. The ‘I’ is very strong in this reading: ‘I do not understand my own actions … I do not do what I want … I do the very thing I hate … I do what I do not want … I know that nothing good dwells within me … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it … I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’. It sounds as though it must be autobiographical, and so people down the centuries have wondered what particular sin it was to which Paul was prone. But we know that in his other letters Paul claimed that ‘as to righteousness under the law, [he was] blameless.’[1] This isn’t Paul the individual sinner who’s writing, but Paul the human being among other human beings, Paul the representative of all fallen humanity. Paul isn’t giving us a piece of his own autobiography; instead he’s trying to convey to us in the strongest way possible how impossible it is for anyone to live a good life under the law.

It’s impossible for any of us to live a good life under the law because of sin. It’s all about sin, and we need to remember what Paul means by that word. As we were reminded last week, for Paul Sin with a capital ‘S’ is the force that opposes God. The world is not in that state of glory for which God created it because of Sin. When Paul talks about the ‘sin that dwells within me’ he’s talking about the fact that we are all part of a world that is not the way it should be. Anytime we talk about ‘bad things happening to good people’ we’re recognising that the world isn’t as it was when the Creator looked at it and saw that it was good. When we see the devastation caused by floods and cyclones and earthquakes and tsunamis we know that something’s not right. When children and adults die untimely deaths we see that something has gone wrong. This is what it means for us to live in a state of Sin; we’re living in a world that is not the way God made it.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t play a part in this state of Sin with our individual sins. Paul isn’t trying to suggest that because the problem is ‘Sin’ that we’re somehow innocent – that it’s ‘Sin’ that does the bad stuff and not us. It’s still the ‘I’ that does these things. It’s just that by ourselves and in our own strength we have no choice; we’re trapped. There are two forces in our lives, in conflict with each other: the law of God, seen in the law given to Moses, and the ‘other law’, the ‘law of Sin’. And we can’t defeat the ‘law of Sin’ by ourselves, by simply trying to follow the law of God.

What Paul is saying is that it’s impossible for us to try to change our moral failings by ourselves. It’s no use trying to fix ourselves by attempting to live up to an external code, trying to obey the law of God when the law of Sin is within us. In that case, the law just adds to the problem, because it tempts us into believing that we can go it alone, that we can fix ourselves through our own energy and strength.

Paul is being completely counter-cultural here. By talking about us as ‘captive to the law of sin’ he offends against our sense of ourselves as free and autonomous human beings. By suggesting that there is some evil power in creation he offends against our idea of a rational universe. By talking about a divided self unable to do the good it wants to do he offends against our belief in self-determination. Paul is telling us that we can’t save ourselves and in our self-help society that’s blasphemy.

Paul’s message initially sounds incredibly depressing. He tells us that if, in our ethical struggles, we try to go it alone we will fail. We will not do the good we want, but the evil we do not want is what we will do. It doesn’t matter how hard we try. We will fail. If that was where Paul’s message ended it would be bad news. But of course Paul doesn’t leave us there; Paul is sharing the gospel – good news. And the good news is that we’re not left alone working desperately to obey God’s law by ourselves. We don’t need to try to be good by obeying commandments, not even the otherwise good commandments of the Law of Moses. ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ Paul asks. And he answers himself: ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ One commentator on this passage writes: ‘When Paul could do nothing, God did everything for him, and all that was left for him to do was to give thanks’.[2]

Paul reminds us that Christianity is not about positive thinking. Jesus is not a life coach. We do not come to church because it will help us to be our best selves. We gather here to worship God. And in Jesus Christ, God has intervened: to rescue us; to set the cosmos free from bondage; to defeat the powers of sin and death; to give us life in abundance. We’re not Christians because our lives are perfect and we’re admirable people and examples to our neighbours. We’re Christians because our lives are a mess and we can’t fix ourselves. And that’s okay. We don’t have to. God loves us, and in Jesus Christ God’s love has set us free from the sin that dwells within us and from the body of death.

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Before I finish I want to quote to you from one of my favourite fantasy novels, because, unsurprisingly, I’ve found in fantasy one of the best descriptions of what Paul’s theological point feels like. It’s from a book called The Darkest Road by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay, and it describes the moment after the evil power, Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller, has been defeated by self-sacrifice and love:

Dave heard the last scream of Rakoth Maugrim, and then he heard the screaming stop. There was a moment of silence, of waiting, and then a great rumbling avalanche of sound rolled down upon them from far in the north. He knew what that was. They all did. There were tears of joy in his eyes, they were pouring down his face, he couldn’t stop them. He didn’t want to stop them.

And suddenly it was easy. He felt as if a weight had been stripped away from him, a weight he hadn’t even know he was bearing – a burden he seemed to have carried from the moment he’d been born into time. He, and everyone else, cast forth into worlds that lay under the shadow of the Dark.[3]

In our world, the Dark was defeated by Jesus. And that meant the lifting of our burdens.  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.’ As Paul rejoices: ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ Amen.

[1] Philippians 3:6.

[2] C. H. Dodd quoted in Feasting on the Word, p. 209.

[3] Guy Gavriel Kay, The Darkest Road (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1986), p. 368.

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