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paul's point

A Sermon preached by Robert Shaw on 9 July 2023;Pr 9.A. Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

This morning I will be speaking about St. Paul, a Greek-speaking Jew who was a Roman citizen, a persecutor of the infant Church who became its most formidable champion—in other words, a complicated man. For the past few Sundays the Lectionary has offered readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the longest of his letters that have come down to us in Scripture, in which he lays out a determined contrast between the law of Moses in which he was raised and the faith in Christ to which he was converted. In thinking of Mosaic law, we think immediately of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. This year we read those each Sunday in Lent. But the law Paul writes of encompasses a great deal more than that one text. The first five books of the Old Testament, which we call the Pentateuch, is for Jews the Torah, and the word “torah” means law. In fact, those five books, besides their narrative sections, contain a great deal of what might be thought of as the fine print attached to the Commandments. In Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, we find a number of lists of directives and prohibitions, providing regulations of most aspects of personal, communal, and religious conduct. There are elaborate liturgical instructions and purity laws for those ministering in the Temple: the so-called Holiness Code. The purpose of the law in its totality was to establish Israel as a holy people—and the word translated as “holy” in relevant places in Scripture means “set apart.” Israel’s identity as a nation was dependent on the centrality of the God-given law, and breaking the law was more than an offense against the state or society: it was an offense against God. And the various lists of statutes itemize a stupefying number of missteps needing to be avoided. Many of the precepts take the form of “If someone does such-and-such, this is the unpleasant thing that will happen to him.” I have sometimes thought that a good alternate title for the Book of Leviticus would be “Crime and Punishment.” These are not passages that show up in our Lectionary on Sundays. When I read through them entirely many years ago for a course I was taking, I found myself feeling overly supervised. I had a vision of biblical Israel as a forbidding landscape filled with legal quicksand and boobytraps, and I wondered what it would have felt like for the people tiptoeing through it. Of course, I realize now that my imagination was, as so often, being melodramatic. Neither ancient Israel nor the Judea of the time of Jesus and Paul was a sort of North Korea on the Jordan. Most people weren’t obsessively reading the regulations because most people couldn’t read. They absorbed guidance from the instruction of rabbis, if they had access to it, and from norms of social behavior. If they worried about what our Prayer Book calls “negligences and offenses,” they probably doubled down on observing the Holidays and took comfort in that on the Day of Atonement sacrifice would be offered on behalf of all of God’s chosen people. That may have been true for the majority, but for Paul and some others, it was different. Paul was a Pharisee. Among the Jewish factions of his time it was the Pharisees who placed the greatest emphasis on complete obedience to the law. Some even applied to themselves the laws of ritual purity intended for those serving in the Temple. A few Pharisees appear as followers of Jesus in the Gospels (Nicodemus, for instance), but most often they are depicted as his antagonists—which is exactly what Paul was until his conversion. Jesus denounces the Pharisees for preaching the law but not practicing it, imposing its burden on others while shirking it themselves. The word “hypocrites” typically comes up in such passages. Whatever Paul as a Pharisee may have been, he was no hypocrite. When in his Letter to the Romans he looks back on his attempts to live strictly by the law, he recalls an agonizing burden that he was subjected to carrying. The burden was not the law itself, demanding though that might have been. Rather, it was a sense of his failure, despite all his efforts, fully to live up to the law that persistently tormented him. Earlier in the chapter from which we have been reading, he goes as far as to say that if it were not for the law he would not have known sin. “I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness.” (Romans 7:7-8). This rings a bell for some of us who are parents. You say to the children, “Don’t climb on the roof.” If you hadn’t said it, they wouldn’t have thought of it. And before you know it, one of them has his arm in a cast. In today’s reading Paul re-enacts the spiritual tug-of-war he had so many times gone through, pulled one way by a desire to observe the law but pulled the other way by the power of sin that afflicts all humans; the result being a mind continually shadowed by guilt. Exacting attempts at being holier than thou (or, certainly, than me) did not bring him peace of mind. The degree of mental pain he experienced would not arise in just anyone. We could say that Paul had an acutely sensitive conscience; shifting terminology, we could say that he had an overactive superego. I think of him as someone who had the rigid, no-shades-of-gray moral sense of an intelligent twelve-year-old, which he brought with him into adulthood, adding to it an uncomfortably detailed knowledge of the full range of Mosaic law—all of which set him up to be hard on himself. He is remarkably unsparing in his self-analysis. Following his thought in today’s passage can be like following someone pacing in a tight circle in a windowless room, going nowhere, coming back to the same place. “For 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.” If this were one of the term papers I used to grade, I would probably write something in the margin like “This could be clearer.” (My comments were always too nice.) Maybe it could be stated more clearly, but its restless circling is actually a good way of mirroring the moral confusion, the blind alleys of reasoning he found himself trapped in. The end of the reading is also somewhat convoluted, and part of what slows us down there is vocabulary. Paul uses the word “law” in three or, arguably, four different ways in the space of two sentences. “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” Here “law” means a rule describing an absolutely invariable situation, something that can be counted on, like water freezing at 32 ℉. “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self”—the word here means the law Paul was raised to hold in reverence. “But I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Here “another law” and “the law of sin” mean the invading power of evil, a kind of infernal parody of God’s law, which seems to be getting the better of “the law of my mind,” that is, the mind’s virtuous defenses, its internalization of the law of God. Again, the risk of confusion in the writing may be put down to the absolute havoc and disorder of such a mental and spiritual struggle. There is nothing to do but to cry out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul at this point is excited enough to lurch into some awkwardly spliced phrasing, but we can easily supply the missing words of the final sentence: “Thanks be to God, [I am saved] through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And we feel his sense of release in this exclamation. It is the shout of one who has made his way out of a maze. In writing so autobiographically, Paul was not being self-indulgent. He was not “oversharing,” as people say nowadays. In fact, he was bringing his experience to bear on issues that were troubling the Christians he was writing to. In Rome, as in some other early churches, the first members were mostly Jewish Christians who still maintained some of their earlier rules and practices. As they were being joined by Gentile converts, disputes arose about whether those rules carried over from Judaism should apply to those members who came from non-Jewish backgrounds. For instance, there were suggestions that male Gentile converts should undergo circumcision, and such suggestions were not met with enthusiasm among the Gentiles. Paul’s past as a Pharisee and the circumstances of his own conversion gave him credibility to pronounce on these matters. It was in this context that he insisted on faith as the Church’s foundation. It is not through adherence to the law, or performance of good works, but only through faith in Christ that we can obtain what he calls “justification”—the state of being made righteous by God’s grace rather than our own merits or efforts. This is the primary insight that Paul in his writings is constantly hammering home. (We might remember that his trade was that of a tentmaker: he liked to get things thoroughly pinned down.) For Paul the achievement of faith meant that a great burden was lifted from him. He was one of those who received the relief offered by Christ in today’s Gospel: “Come to me, all of 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.” Some may not be charmed to be compared with farm animals, beasts of burden, but in order to make a point Christ often uses what Robert Frost called “downward comparisons,” and if I had to choose, I would rather be likened to an ox than to a sheep. In any case, it isn’t too hard to unpack the metaphor of the yoke. The metaphor assumes that everyone wears a yoke, and there is no such thing as a yoke that is worn alone. The question, then, is: who is beside me; who am I yoked together with? We notice that Christ does not say “your yoke will be easy,” but “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” If I am part of a team pulling a load, I am yoked to the one who walks on the ground beside me. My burden will be lightened because he is taking some of the weight off of me. And any such effort will be light for him, because walking beside his people and sharing their burdens is what it delights him to do. The meaning of the yoke is the meaning of the name Immanuel: God with us. And the end in store for this shared journey is our souls’ rest. That is what Paul and those he wrote his letters to found peace in believing. Looking back over what I have said about Paul, I see that I have complained about his vocabulary, corrected his sentence structure, and even subjected him to a bit of drive-by psychoanalysis. I have done this to the last of the Apostles, the author of a goodly portion of the New Testament, a planter of churches in Asia and in Europe, very probably a martyr, and most certainly a saint. God forgive me. My expectation is that God will do just that, for as Paul discovered and proclaimed, forgiveness is what God in Christ has been offering throughout the ages—to Paul, to the first readers of his letter in Rome, and to us here today, two millennia later. Amen.

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