As I put it in Sunday's sermon, we're rounding third in Lent, and the ambitious plans of reform have been tempered (at least for me) by reality.
So it's a comfort to reach this in the appointed Epistle for today:
or I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, 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.Note that this passage is very much in the present tense. You don't have to find Paul's distancing of himself from his body persuasive; it's enough to know that even at his height as the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul knew the struggle against temptation, and knew what it was to lose that struggle. He knew what it was to to want the good, but to fail, and to respond to temptation with an instinctual, almost unthinking "yes!" only to then be wracked with guilt. But also to know that his failings, and our own, do not have the last word.
I'm not trying to say that, hey, if Paul can give in, who really cares? No, it's just that our own flaws, our errors, our misdeeds are included in Paul's most reassuring passage:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans gets a bum rap, in my opinion, from many who misunderstand its talk of predestination, or view its theological rigor as logic chopping (Paul's occasional rhetorical flourishes sometimes play into this misperception). Charles Gore's St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Practical Exposition (volume 2, which addresses both today's reading and Romans 8, here), is both what it says and a great decoding and teasing out of Paul's meanings by a great theologian who wrote for the intelligent lay reader.
The point is, as I summarized Nadia Bolz-Weber's workshop in 2015:
We want the law to save us us, but it convicts us. We want to justify ourselves by the law but nobody can live up to the law. But Law drives us to the foot of the Cross where we cry out, My Lord and My God. Every time Jesus was confronted by someone who sought affirmation of their goodness through obedience to the Law, Jesus pointed out that the Law demanded yet more of them. A young man is able to affirm he hasn't committed adultery--Jesus asks: Have you lusted after other? And, of course, he has. The Law is a lover that will never love us back.So, and I really mean this, don't suppose your Lent is a heroic journey. It's an offering, imperfect and flawed, to a gift in which we safely trust.
Only grace saves us. But here's the problem; Grace is not comfortable--it's out of our control, it's that free, unearned gift. But it means that we can't earn salvation. Right relationship with God is't not having to bother him because we have achieved sinlessness. Christianity isn't a sin management program--it's accepting our need for God and accepting to that he wants to restore, redeem and forgive us, out of love.
She quoted Martin Luther: "Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly" in explicating this notion, and its corollary Christian freedom--a phrase not heard often enough, she suggested. Nadia urged us to consider that what people loved about was not, as they said, its creativity, but rather its exercise of Christian freedom--the freedom of a people who know that they are forgiven, ransomed, and that they don't have to earn that forgiveness, just to live in response to it.
As a lawyer who discovered the limits of the Law in my own life, all of this strikes a deep chord with me. As did Luther's line--I think it was Robertson Davies who memorably said "Dare nobly, sin greatly" (in The Manticore, if I remember correctly.)
And the flaws? As the great man wrote, "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."