Sermon Text: Romans 7:14-25a
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
So I went on a cruise last week. Have you ever been on a cruise? Did you like it? What was your favorite part? I went on the cruise with Lisa’s family—her father-in-law paid for most of it. I don’t know if it’s something that I would do on my own. But I asked people before I left to tell me what they liked about the cruise, and to a person, everyone said that they liked the food… Specifically, they liked the fact that they could eat as much as they wanted, whenever they wanted, and without paying extra for it. Right? Can’t decide between the shrimp cocktail appetizer and the crab cakes? Now you don’t have to decide! Get both! The waiter just brings it to you! No questions asked. Can’t decide between the warm chocolate lava cake and the cheesecake? There’s no deciding… Get both!
And that’s only in the dining room! On the Lido deck—all day long—you can eat as many cheeseburgers and chicken fingers and nachos and french fries and have as many servings of soft-serve ice cream as you want! And there are also these nice people who walk around with these trays of umbrella drinks—you know what I’m talking about? And, let’s face it, men… I’m speaking to us guys now. We always secretly want to drink the umbrella drinks that our wives order, because they taste like Hawaiian Punch, and Hawaiian Punch is really good, even though we wouldn’t be caught drinking it now. But it’s really not cool for guys to drink the drinks with umbrellas in them. Except when you’re on the Love Boat—you know? Then all bets are off. So these umbrella drinks are great, and they’re like 5,000 calories a piece—and that’s in addition to the chicken fingers and cheeseburgers and french fries and soft-serve ice cream that you just ate as a mid-afternoon snack…
“It’s O.K.,” we tell ourselves, “I’m going to go walk it off on the ‘olympic track’ track’ on the upper deck.” Yeah, right! You could be walking from here to Alaska and back and you would not have burned off the calories you consumed just at lunch! But you tell yourself you’re going to work out, and maybe you do the first day. But by the second or third day, you know, exercise time interferes with nap time or bingo on the Promenade deck… Or maybe that’s just me?
The point is I went on the cruise with the best of intentions, you know? Eat right. Stay in shape. Not be a glutton. Not overindulge. I knew that that was the right thing, but I couldn’t do it. Why did I need to eat three lunches in one afternoon. It wasn’t because I was hungry.
And I know that this is a very trivial example, but all of us, I hope, can relate to Paul’s words here: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Very smart Christian thinkers over the centuries have not agreed on who exactly Paul is talking about when he uses first person here, and I’m not going to settle the debate to anyone’s satisfaction this morning. One very popular way of reading this passage is to say that Paul is speaking autobiographically of his life right now, describing his present struggle with sin—a struggle that all of us Christians face in trying to live out the Christian life. We desperately want to do the right thing, but we are trapped in this cycle of sin from which there is no escape on this side of heaven.
I understand the appeal of that argument. If no less a saint than the Apostle Paul himself struggled so mightily to overcome sin in his life, well… Whew! Kind of lets me off the hook. Sure, all those pretty words in Romans chapter 6 about how, through baptism, we die to our old life of sin and death, and we’re raised to walk in newness of life now—that we’re no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to God—sound good on paper, but even Paul couldn’t live it out in his own life. And if Paul couldn’t do it, why should I sweat it? I’m not Paul, after all. I’ll just wait until heaven for God to sort it all out!
As you can probably tell, I strongly disagree with this interpretation. Seriously, a pastor friend of mine interpreted Paul’s words in this way in a recent sermon, and I wanted to stand up and say, “Friend, this will not do.” It’s wishful thinking. It’s setting the bar very low—as if Jesus never preached the Sermon on the Mount, which raised the bar on how we’re supposed to live. And it doesn’t do justice to the work of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t do justice to grace. [Read through texts related to the question, “What makes a Methodist a Methodist?”] An emphasis on grace is mentioned a lot as a defining characteristic of what it means to be Methodist, but as I’ve said before, grace isn’t God telling us, “Hey, your sins are no big deal after all.” Grace means forgiveness of sin, that’s true, but it also means that God gives us the power to change our lives now. I would argue that this, even more than simply “grace,” is what makes a Methodist a Methodist. This kind of grace is called sanctification, and we Methodists articulate this better, in my opinion, than the rest of the universal Church.
The bottom line is that it would be less than loving on God’s part to simply forgive us for sin without also giving us the power through the Holy Spirit to change our lives. God wants to save us from sin. Why? Because sin is destructive to us.
I’ve told you about my puppy Neko, who turned one year old last week. She’s the one who chewed up my passport a couple of weeks before I went on my trip to the Holy Land, which cost me a lot of stress and money to replace in time for the trip. When we got her as a puppy, she was a disaster! She couldn’t live in our household as she was. She would have destroyed the furniture. She would have chewed up many valuable things. She would have never been housebroken. She would have bothered the neighbors. She would have never learned to walk on a leash. She would have hurt herself and others, and we would have hurt her.
So we, as her masters, had to take charge, and through discipline, pain, and coercion, change her. From her perspective (if she were able to process it this way), feeling the sting of her pinch collar when we yanked it, for instance, or feeling shame and turning her ears back when we scolded her, or confining her to her crate while the rest of us roamed freely around the house, must have seemed needlessly harsh; it must have seemed to her as if we didn’t love her. But we did these things out of love—whether she understood it that way or not. And now, I’m happy to report, Neko is finally becoming a good doggy. And she gets to enjoy her freedom outside of the crate—not freedom to be destructive to herself and others, but freedom to be the well-behaved dog that we insisted that she become.
And here’s the thing: the life that she enjoys now—as a well-behaved dog who is free not to live her life on her terms but on our terms—is a much happier life than the destructive life she would have chosen for herself, left to her own devices. If we could have gotten through to her when she was younger, and reasoned with her, we would have said, “Neko, you’ve got to trust us that we know what’s best for you. You think you know what’s best, but you don’t. We love you, but you’re pretty dumb.”
And some of you might be thinking, “Well, that’s not fair to compare people’s relationship to God to a dog’s relationship to its human master.” Well, you’re right! That’s giving people way too much credit! We humans are much dumber in relationship to God than a dog is in relationship to us humans. And yet, unlike with a dog like Neko, who didn’t really have a choice whether to obey us, God has given us humans this freedom to say no to God. We can choose our own way. We can freely thumb our nose at God and say, “Forget it, God. What you’re asking of me is more than I’m willing to give you. I’m not willing to trust you that your way is best, that you know what’s best for me. I believe that I know what’s best for me.” This is the kind of rebellion that Paul describes in such bleak terms in today’s scripture as Sin. Not primarily little sins—the small choices we make here and there to disobey God—but capital-S Sin.
Sin is powerful. Sin is insidious. Sin is pervasive. Sin is something we do ourselves and something that is done to us. Sin affects individuals, groups, institutions, corporations, governments, countries. Sin is a force that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Sin, the way Paul describes it, has a life of its own, a will of its own. It is bent on our destruction. We are at war with it. In fact, nowhere here does Paul use the word Satan or the devil, but who can doubt that he’s describing sin as practically a synonym for the demonic?
Sin is not a popular topic, even in church sometimes, but—good heavens!—doesn’t it ring true? When we hear about this guy in Norway bombing and killing 100 people this weekend, tell me that Paul isn’t onto something—that the word sin doesn’t fit better than any other word for this great evil? When we heard, as many of us did, about a talented young, GrammyAward-winning singer, Amy Winehouse, who died at 27 of the very problem that she sang about having, doesn’t the word “sin” seem to fit? Here is a woman who has been dying in slow-motion right before our eyes—and don’t you know that there were many people who tried desperately to save her, to get her the help she needs. In spite of the fact that she had everything going for her, every advantage of money, talent, freedom, power, and fame, she still died. Whatever got hold of her life sounds exactly like the kind of powerfully destructive force that Paul is describing here.
Those of you who’ve felt the destructive force of drug or alcohol addiction, either in yourself or your family, you know first-hand that Paul’s words ring true. And when it comes to sin, it doesn’t just have to be those things that kill us that are the problem. All of us have felt the force of Sin’s addictive power in other ways. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Sin is powerful, but it doesn’t just mean we’re stuck in the middle of it without hope of change. In today’s scripture, Paul is describing the plight of someone who hasn’t known the liberating power of God’s saving grace. Our lives apart from Christ are ones in which capital-S Sin reigns—not because we’re bad people, not because we don’t have the best of intentions, but because sin has the power to take charge of our lives in this way. But through Christ it no longer has to be that way. We have friends and neighbors who need to hear this message—and they’re waiting, whether they know it or not, for you to invite them to hear this message.
And we can communicate this message in a non-judgmental, non-threatening, non-self-righteous way because we believe Paul’s words in Romans 7. We Christians have a unique appreciation for the power of sin. Does this good news mean that we Christians no longer struggle with sin? Of course not! Paul did not write Romans 7 to describe us, but unfortunately, Romans 7 can describe us. Paul often writes for the benefit of Christians who struggle with sin. Practically the entire letter of 1 Corinthians is about this. But the struggle is different now.
I have three recurring nightmares, and they’re all about going back to school. I’ve had the dream where I’m in college, and I sign up for a class. But I blow off the class all semester long, don’t go to lecture, don’t do homework… I’ve even forgotten where the class is. And suddenly it’s final exam time, and I’m in trouble. I’ve also had the dream in which I’m back in college, and for some reason I’m taking a class I already took and passed years ago… Only this time, I find it very difficult to understand and the workload is overwhelming, and the whole time I’m thinking, “I’ve already taken this class! Why am I taking it again? Why am I going through all the stress?” The third and final dream is about some administrator from my high school calling me up—in present day, now that I’m 41—and telling me that a mistake was made in my high school transcript, and as it turns out, I didn’t really get all the credits that I needed to graduate high school, and I need to come back and finish high school. And I’m like, “But I have three college degrees now? Does it really matter?” But, no… I have to go back to high school.
And here’s something else all three of these dreams have in common: When I wake up from them, I feel a sense of relief. I realize that that college class or that professor or that high school administrator has no authority over me whatsoever. Georgia Tech or Emory or Henderson High School no longer get to tell me what I have to do. They are not in charge. I don’t have to answer to them. I mean, I could choose to re-enroll for some stupid reason. And Lisa’s thinking, “Oh, please… We don’t need any more student debt!” But I don’t have to anymore.
Our relationship to sin is like that: As Christians, sin is no longer our master. [Share blog-related story? Point out that while my consciousness of my own sin has increased, I am getting better; I’m being healed.] It’s true we may still be in a prison cell, but the cell door is standing wide open. Walk through it. By power of the Holy Spirit, may we find the courage to walk through it. May we find the strength to change. Amen.