Sermon on Romans 7:15-25a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on July 6, 2014.
At Quarterman Ranch in Amarillo, our former diocesan camp and conference center, there is a sidewalk covered in names that leads to nowhere. During Quarterman’s final years, each camp session ended with the addition of another slab to the woebegone sidewalk. Campers, counselors, staff, and clergy would sign their names in the wet concrete, leaving a permanent reminder that they had been present in that place. Some campers acted as though they were outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; they would leave their handprints and sign their names with the flourish of budding movie stars. Others would immortalize the romance that they had kindled that week by writing that so and so and what’s his name would be together forever. Still others would correct the professions of eternal love and devotion that they had made in previous years and indicate that what’s his name was, in fact, a jerk. I always loved this moment in the week. In spite of the self-indulgence of some of the contributions to the sidewalk, the act of gathering together and writing our names was an opportunity to recognize that we had been in that place together. As we mixed concrete in the hot panhandle sun, we were reminded for a moment that we were more than individuals floating through life alone, that for the past week or so, we had been a community. Each of those slabs of concrete was a sacramental reminder that we were called to be in each other’s lives, that we were called to love one another.
Today, we heard one of the stranger passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Out of context, this passage looks more like an entry from the diary of a teenager with low self-esteem rather than an excerpt from the letter of a self-possessed apostle who writes letters of advice to people he’s never met. Normally, Paul’s letters are dripping with self-confidence, so much so that one New Testament scholar says that Paul’s most obvious attribute is his “robust conscience.” This is, after all, the same guy who, in the letter to the Philippians, tells his audience that he was “blameless” in regards to righteousness under the law. In other words, this vacillating, uncertain passage from Romans is out of character for its author. It is unusual to see Paul saying things like “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” or “I know that nothing good dwells within me” or “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” What is the reason for this change? Why is it that Paul focuses so thoroughly on his struggles with being a sinful person? On one hand, it could be that Paul is saying that all of us, including him, can fall victim to the power of sin, that we must remain vigilant at all times and not allow sin to exercise dominion in our bodies. On the other hand, there could be something very different happening in this passage. Before we delve directly into that possibility, it would probably be helpful for us to remind ourselves what Paul has been doing so far in this letter to the Romans.
Romans begins with Paul addressing a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles he has never met. Immediately after he dispenses with the traditional pleasantries at the beginning of the letter, Paul apparently lays into the Gentiles, saying that the wrath of God is being revealed against those who disobey the Law of Moses. Rhetorically, this is meant to encourage the Law-abiding, Jewish members of the congregation to think, “You tell ’em Paul! Tell those Gentiles just how sinful they are.” But, just when it seems like Paul is going to say the Gentiles in the Roman church are destined for perdition, Paul turns it around, saying at the beginning of chapter two: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are…because you… are doing the very same things.” Paul explains what he means by this when he comes to the crux of his argument, asserting that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul is saying to this congregation: no matter who you are, Jew or Gentile, all of you have fallen short of God’s commandments.
The good news, however, is that even though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, Jesus Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been justified, or made righteous, apart from the law, in spite of the fact that we have failed to honor God and God’s commandments. Through the redeeming action of God through Jesus Christ, we have been empowered to live a new life of righteousness and peace.
This is Paul’s main purpose in the first chapters of Romans: to tell the congregation that regardless of who they are, they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Paul has another purpose in these first chapters. He wants to explain that while the law is valuable, it is no longer necessary to follow the strictures of the law. One of Paul’s biggest rhetorical challenges in all of his letters is to make this case, the argument that the law, which he believes was ordained by God, is good, but no longer necessary. In the first part of chapter seven, he does this by saying that sin used the law to bring death into the world. But in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God destroyed the power of sin. In other words, the law no longer applies, not because God nullified the law, but because God defeated the power of sin.
All of this brings us to the passage we read today. While it might appear that Paul’s purpose in this passage is to illustrate how difficult it is to be good, there is something much more important happening, something that is informed by where we’ve already been in Romans. Paul has been saying that the power of sin has been destroyed and that the law has been rendered unnecessary, only to launch into this prolonged, self-loathing, legalistic complaint about how hard it is not to be sinful. If this is all this passage is about, it doesn’t to jibe with where we’ve come in Romans (or where we’re going, for that matter). But if we look at the very end of this passage, we see that Paul has a very different purpose. After complaining tediously and self-indulgently about his struggles with sinful behavior, Paul melodramatically writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Without missing a beat, he immediately answers the question by reminding himself of the redeeming work of God that he has been discussing for the last six chapters: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” You’ll notice that Paul’s rhetorical strategy in this passage is pretty similar to what he does at the beginning of the letter: he draws us in to the point that we also begin to wallow in self-loathing until he snaps us out of it, smacking us over the head with the gospel message of redemption and reconciliation. This passage is not a meditation by Paul about his sinful behavior; it is a pointed and powerful reminder that we should not be distracted by our apparent failures, that we should not wallow in our supposed sinfulness. Instead, Paul insists that should live our lives in assurance of the fact that we have been reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Why does this matter? Why would Paul be concerned if people wallow in a sense of their sinfulness? Isn’t there a certain nobility in trying to do everything right? There are two problems with being preoccupied with our sinful behavior. On one level, if we believe that the power of sin has indeed been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then focusing so intensely on our sinfulness devalues what God has done through Jesus Christ. On another, even more significant level, focusing on our sinfulness means that we become completely and destructively self-centered. Paul is trying to build relationships between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church. But if they are totally inwardly focused and completely self-centered about their behavior, there is no way that they are going to be able to recognize themselves in the other members of the community. Did you notice how many times Paul used the word “I” in the passage we read this morning? If we truly wish to be part of the Church, it is impossible to be that “I”-oriented. If we value being part of a community, it is impossible for us to be entirely consumed with our own behavior. If we truly trust that we have been redeemed through Jesus Christ, then we must look outside ourselves and reach out to those around us.
If you walk toward Heavenly Rest on the south side of Sixth Street, you will notice that someone has etched words into one of the paving stones on the sidewalk. Unlike the concrete slabs that comprise the Quarterman sidewalk, however, this block doesn’t include petty recriminations, professions of eternal love, or Hollywood dreams. Instead, written in block letters are two simple words: “Look Up.” When you do, you are greeted by the soaring majesty and beauty of the Heavenly Rest bell tower. I have no idea who carved those words into the concrete, but it might as well have been Saint Paul. Because those words are a pointed sacramental reminder to all of us. Those words remind us to look up from our preoccupation with everything wrong in our lives and pay attention to the reality of beauty and possibility. Those words remind us to look up from our assumption that must go through this life alone and recognize that we are part of a community that has been shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those words remind us to look up from our self-centered, self-indulgent perspective and remember that we worship a God who looked up at the world and redeemed creation through Jesus Christ.