... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST Message July 03rd, 2011

Law and Grace: Present Reality; and Future Ideal

Text: Romans 7:15-25

Over the past few weeks we have been guided by the lectionary readings to examine the new relationship God has ordained with humanity since the Creation and what this new relationship means as far as our responses to God and to one another. The stories of creation, the selection of the Patriarchs, the testing of Abraham, the psalms and even the Gospel readings from Matthew all look at the relationship from various aspects of growth into and nurturing of a mature and defining humanity as stewards of creation.

Part of this process is a coming to understand ourselves not only as sentient beings but answering the questions, “Why are we here?” and, “For what purpose is creation?” And while these questions have been touted from earliest Egyptian and Greek times, it was Paul who framed the questions in a Christological framework of God’s establishment of a covenant. Part of that framework had to deal with the concepts of sin and righteousness, law versus grace, and old covenant over against new.

Unlike the Greeks or Egyptians, Paul saw sin as an external power or force equitable with the devil, and not just as a part of created matter. Yet he also understood sin as bearing an inherent impact on human behaviour, such that it could ensnare and enslave people to its purpose. The person on the other hand was powerless once in its grasp and as Flip Wilson the comedian would always say, “The Devil made me do it!”

To understand the lectionary reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans we must first put it in the wider context of the letter and the continuation from last week’s Chapter 6 reading. As we left off last week looking at justification and sanctification as God’s saving actions and our responses respectively, Paul goes on to explain to his audience the relationship between law and sin showing that the law was given to expose the sin which theretofore had been occurring but of which humanity was ignorant. Like children – if you don’t know something is wrong or sinful – you do it, and are blissfully ignorant of its ramification. To further expound on this relationship between sin and the law Paul launches into an analogy between marriage and adultery which, while shocking for his day might be even more so for today’s day and age. However, in essence what he does is to say that death is the end to all prior contractual agreements and that by our baptism we have entered into Christ’s death therefore all prior relationship contracts with sin are now null and void, leaving us open for a new relationship with God. Unfortunately life is not so simplistic and the ideal never seems to carry the day! Indeed sin seems to have a way of reaching out its tentacles even after our rebirth to catch us and draw us back into its clasp such that despite our knowing the difference we usually succumb to its wiles and do the very things we know we shouldn’t. It’s like in the movies where the hero has these two images of himself, one as an angel the other as Satan – one on each shoulder whispering either the pros or cons of the law or the arguments in support for the right or how to get around the law with impunity. And its so often the latter which we choose.

Even though the lectionary reading has Paul using the first person narrative there is great debate as to whether he is in fact giving a confession of his life prior to his conversion, or using it as a way to emphasize the goodness of the law. From a pastoral perspective it would be nice to use this as a way to explain human behaviour in light of confession of sins and weaknesses and no doubt all of us can connect with areas of our lives where we are never able to meet the ideals or expectations we set for ourselves. I know I have a battle with weight issues, and no matter how hard I try to curtail the food intake there’s always some event or celebration which cries out – it’s only a cookie or yeah there may be a few calories but you have to be hospitable and gracious – you can’t hurt the host’s feelings.

However, employing the theological perspective of Paul’s use of the first person as a literary tool to highlight the goodness of the law brings today’s passage in line with the preceding chapters showing that the law as given by God is holy and just having several important functions in the life of a chosen people. First the law defines sin showing humanity what is and what is not acceptable as sentient beings entrusted with the care-taking of creation. Second it shows sin to be a force contrary to the design of God and bent on subverting God’s purposes even to the point of twisting the law to find loop-holes. Thirdly the law demonstrates the inadequacy of human knowledge and human resolution.

Without the law human behaviour was and is entirely egocentric. If someone had something that appealed to you, you simply took it without regard for the other person. In days of old that’s how the nobles and the monarchs first rose to power and treated life. The one with the most strength took what he wanted. Today we call it bullying or stealing. It was only with the institution of the law that humanity saw it as sin and came to implement various boundaries so that concern for another’s rights was recognized. However, even with the law and the various boundaries, our behaviour has not necessarily complied. There is still bullying, still harassment, still stealing and yes!, still all sorts of atrocities which are being committed. And rather than naming it for what it is, we blame social elements, poverty, and poor education. However the law names it point-blankly – sin.

Despite this knowing the wrong for what it is, and the harm it ravages on human life we still embrace it because there are perceived gains and pleasures, as well as those baser cravings in which sin would have us revel. The law thus exposes the sin as an evil force bent on subverting God’s original creative design. The problem now is the dilemma of morality versus spirituality. Morality is a knowledge of the right or wrong whereas the spiritual or theological is the application of that knowledge as it falls into the divine – human covenant. Here the gulf to be bridged is somewhat more demanding and to understand the various parameters is a very slow process and continues to be an ongoing part of God’s work. In fact human understanding of God’s purposes is so inadequate that without Christ humanity would still be in the era of ancient moral codes and justice systems. Notwithstanding God’s salvific hand in the birth and death of Jesus, humanity still has not been able to grasp more than a glimpse of God’s will and so it is we must rely on God for guidance support and opening up what true life can really mean in life under Grace! May we all be blessed with a measure of the Holy Spirit to help us do the good we desire and avoid the evil we abhor!