Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thy Will Be Done

Romans 8: 28-39, page 800
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to God’s purpose. For those God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of the Son, that the Son might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those God predestined, God also called; those God called, God also justified; those God justified, God also glorified.
What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?
God who did not spare God’s own Son, but gave him up for us – how will God not also, along with the Son, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who can condemn? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life” is a long awaited study on the Religious beliefs of Christians in this country of ever changing religious trends. The study reported that Americans are “quite accepting of religions other than their own,” to the degree that ““Seventy percent of those with a religious affiliation agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.””
This study gives us all something to think about; and I’ve been reading to find what the great theological minds of our day have to say about this interesting finding. The editors of the Christian Century, a popular religious magazine edited by a well known Presbyterian minister, John M. Buchanan, offers a warning saying:
Tolerance of others is a virtue, but it is a complex one. The Pew report is good news if it means that Americans are learning to know and respect neighbors who espouse a different religion and are coming to have a measure of humility about their own beliefs. It is bad news, however, if it reflects indifference to or ignorance about religion.[1]
The editors of the Christian Century offer a warning, that though tolerance is a virtue that “the virtue of tolerance should not lead us to think that religions are all the same.”
This warning calls us to a different option from the two we are used to choosing from: either believing that we Christians are the ones with the right answers, or that all religions point to the same God. I see the problems in each option, but especially the second, as I realize that while many Christians are not shy about what they believe, Presbyterians often shy away from the parts of our religious heritage that make us unique, not only when compared to the great world religions of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism, but those which makes us unique when compared to Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, or Pentecostals.
Fortunately, we have just read from a passage of scripture that calls us face to face with the word that represents how we stick out from our Christian brothers and sisters of other denominations – that key word that makes us feel like odd-balls in a culture where the theology of Billy Graham is certainly more excepted than that of John Calvin – here we read in our pew Bibles the word our New International Versions have translated as “predestined.”
We view this word as a drawback, as something we have to glance over and confine to the libraries of Seminaries, and so it’s a word many of us don’t understand or appreciate. In the interest of time I’ll make my explanation short and only deal with the purpose of the word. In his commentary on Romans, John Calvin, author of the theological foundation of the Presbyterian Church, says this in regards to predestination:
We indeed know that when salvation is the subject, men are disposed to begin with themselves…[2]
Calvin’s point is this: that salvation, like anything else, is not an issue of human will, purity, aptitude, or worth. Salvation rests in the hands of God, and that though we are predisposed to begin with our will at the center of all things, salvation is not in the hands of men or women. For Calvin, a person choosing God simply didn’t make any sense. The only means of salvation, therefore, is in God choosing us.
Because of this principle we should believe differently from most every other people on earth, for it is abundantly clear through this passage and Calvin’s interpretation of this passage that our destiny, and indeed the destiny of all of God’s creation, rests not in our hands, but in the hands of the one who created.
And maybe we ought to be afraid that the will of the creator would not be for our benefit, but would be set on our destruction. But Paul destroys this idea, calling us to know God through the lens of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. That by the testimony of Jesus Christ we know that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If our destiny rests in the hands of this God, then we above all people have nothing to fear, for nothing can separate us from the love of the creator.
Sounds easy enough. Sounds like something we should all take out into the world, giving us reason to worry less, to trust more.
But I know it’s harder than just that.
About a year ago I broke out in hives around my stomach. I went to the doctor I’d been seeing for 5 years, the doctor who I had seen since before seminary, and he looked at my stomach and said, “These come from stress you know. If you want them to go away you’re going to have to find a way to relax.” I looked at him and nodded my head. He seemed to know I wasn’t doing much more than nodding in agreement, so he said, “you have to find something to relax.” And knowing that I’m a minister he asked me, “Have you ever heard of prayer?”
It is no simply matter trusting that God’s will will be done. In the mind of our society it is our choices, our decisions, our worth that we believe really matters, but Paul truly is calling us to recognize something else at work – that even the wills of the Pharaohs were but tools of the will of God, that even the will of the Emperor was a means for the will of God to be done, and so even the will of me or you is a part of the next great thing God is doing in this creation.
If only we saw this kind of trust lived out, then maybe it would be easier to believe.
Often the church is the worst at trusting in the will of God, believing that some acts deviate from God’s will, while it is not completely clear that Paul believes such a thing is even possible. I read an interview with Bishop Gene Robinson recently when he spoke about divorce. He said that for his ex-wife and himself:
We both felt that if the church was going to bless marriages, it ought to be around in some liturgical way to bless divorces, too. It’s easy to be there when it’s all happy and there’s a big party. But it’s more important for the church to be there when it’s painful. There’s a lack of integrity about this…One thing I say to couples in premarital counseling is that the church isn’t kidding when they say this is forever. Even if you’re divorced in less than a year and you don’t see them for the rest of your life, you’ll always be emotionally connected to this person. I say this because I know. [My ex-wife] and I divorced in 1986, and I still love her.[3]
As though marriage were a part of God’s plan and divorce deviated from it, the church is present fully in one aspect of human life but not the other, but does this partiality do justice to the constancy of God’s love, and the unbreakable nature of God’s will?
Everyday of our lives, choices are made – we choose to marry, we choose to end marriage, but love is not so simple, especially God’s love. It is not as though we can decide to stop loving, or assume that God would ever stop loving us.
We Presbyterians must hear Calvin’s words again, taking the emphasis away from ourselves and our decisions, bringing it back to the God whose purposes and whose love will not be stifled.
Considering our denomination, just after its most recent General Assembly, divorce seems looming. Ministers and Elders have aligned with likeminded allies around the denomination, and in the words of the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, “we’ve talked with our friends and withdrawn from our opponents”[4] ending communication as though the marriage were already over.
In reading the minutes from our last General Assembly I am worried about what’s at stake. What concerns me the most is not what changes, or even if the denomination splits in a sort of divorce, but what is at stake for me is whether or not we will honor the words of Saint Paul and John Calvin. Will we show the world that the love of the church is contingent on likeminded ideologies, or is the love of the church truly like the love of God: unstoppable, undividable, constant and everlasting?
My worry is not that things will change, as life, and even the will of God is all about change. My worry is that in our changes and conflicts we do not honor the God who I know.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

[1] Christian Century, July 29, 2008. 7.
[2] John Calvin, Rev John Owen, trans., edu., Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1947) 315.
[3] Andrew Corsello, Let God Love Gene Robinson, GQ, July 2008, 116.
[4] Jack Haberer, Presbyterian Outlook, July 21, 2008. 5.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What New Thing is God Doing?

Romans 8: 18-25, page 800.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from the bondage of decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what one already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Celebrities are a big deal in the developed world today; this tendency is something I don’t completely understand, but am captivated by. I don’t know how newsworthy this kind of thing is, but it was certainly all over the news this past week: that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have new twins., always with up to the minute celebrity gossip reported yesterday that the labor and delivery were relatively painless, that:
During the labor and delivery, the couple "were talking, they were together," "It was an epidural, so [Angelina] was awake and speaking and laughing. They were happy."
By Pete Norman and Peter Mikelbank
Originally posted Sunday July 13, 2008 02:35 PM EDT
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt Photo by: Kevin Winter / Getty

Though we inhabit the same world, I won’t assume that all mothers who give birth can relate to Jolie’s experience. This inability to relate, I assume, is not confined to this particular birth experience, but, for many of us today, Jolie and Pitt don’t represent what is normal, but what is abnormal. They don’t look like us, they don’t dress like us, they don’t act like us, and they don’t deliver babies the way we did, do, or can expect to. Their relationship is different in that they now have several children but they are not married. They are beyond rich, beyond famous, beyond what we would call normal, and the birth of their new twins highlights their abnormality more than ever.
Birth, as Paul knew it, was something very different from Jolie and Pitt’s experience this past week as well. He was a Roman Citizen, though was not “Roman” in the sense that the congregation he addresses in his letter was “Roman,” but the experience of giving birth was relatively universal at that time. Private hospitals on the coast of France and epidurals were not reserved for the rich, but were unavailable to everyone as mothers gave birth naturally in the home with midwives and not doctors. We can assume that in Rome, as in all ancient cultures and still many cultures today, the rate of infant mortality was high, as was the chance of a mother dying in labor without the benefit of modern medicine. But the variable we do not take into account was the excepted practice in Romans society of exposure, as the choice to raise a child lay not in the hands of the mother, but in the hands of the father who would examine the newborn and choose whether to raise it or leave it to die, often on the street. The Romans thought it was strange that some nations subsumed by their empire would raise all healthy children, that Egyptians, Germans, and Jews exposed none of their children but raised them all.[1]
Paul must have seemed foreign to them, indeed, as he also seems foreign to us, but his words in Romans chapter 8 must have seemed strange; he writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
We can assume that the women in his congregation would have known exactly what he was talking about, that childbirth is not a time for laughter and conversation as it was for Jolie, but is a time of fearful suffering, great pain, and worry.
As they struggled for hours, risking their own lives and the life of that child who would be born, they, unlike Jolie had with them also a great worry – that all this work, all this pain, could be for nothing should the father choose not to raise this child.
As Paul elevates this image of the mother, using it as a divine image to explain the pain felt by all people, all of creation, we can assume that he not only sought to give an adequate metaphor for the new Kingdom that is coming, but sought to challenge the patriarchal assumptions of Ancient Rome – that the choice or decision made by a father was not akin to the divine working of God in creation, but the delivery of a new child by a mother, this glorious and unavoidable act was.
In this passage for today Paul elevates an image that we shy away from or try to avoid through the miracles of modern medicine. He lifts up an act that so many want to make less tedious, more convenient, and less painful – but Paul claims that the length of time, inconvenience, and even the pain of childbirth all appropriately describe the way God is working in our world.
I have no personal experience with childbirth, so for some perspective I called up my Mom to ask her for some help. She told me that childbirth is painful, but that is in the moment necessary and unavoidable. That if the mother stops pushing, if out of a fear of the pain the mother stops and tries to go backward, both the mother and the child will die. That it takes courage to face that pain, that it’s scary because you are in that moment completely and there is no going back. So you do it, and in the moment when you hold that child in your arms you know exactly why you do it.
I, like many in this congregation, will never have the privilege of giving birth, but we all can relate as we all live in the midst of a changing world, and for the most part, we don’t like or understand it.
We don’t like it when people stop going to church.
We don’t like it when people argue with us, challenge our beliefs, or try to change who we are or the way things are.
We don’t like it when our neighborhoods change. When people from other countries choose to move into a country we consider “ours”, and then seem to choose not to assimilate into our culture but choose to speak their own language and worship their own gods.
We don’t like it when people choose drugs, attempting to escape pain or boredom. We worry about the young and adults who turn to drugs and face addiction, not growing up into maturity, but running from it.
It seems as though the world has chosen the wrong path, and as a result of sin and bad decisions we feel pain. But Paul does not present the new creation as though it were a matter of choice, Paul does not portray creation as a Roman father who makes a decision to choose or not choose a newborn child, but as an expectant mother, giving birth to the new creation whether she chooses to or not.
We are used to choice. But the choice between obedience and disobedience does not paint the picture of creation in Romans. Paul does not liken the pain creation suffers to a Roman father who faces a choice, but a “creation” who like a pregnant mother, “waits in eager expectation” for the joy that is to come.
From this perspective Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” that though we experience pain, we do not suffer needlessly, but suffer knowing that our hardships are a part of the glory God is doing even now.
It is God who governs our existence, and it is hope and not disappointment that defines who we are as the people of God.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” and as we feel the pain of this childbirth what do we expect?
Out of sadness, regret, depression, disappointment we may expect the worse. Thinking that all pain and discomfort is to be avoided, we assume we have done something wrong to deserve this hardship.
But we are the resurrection people, who believe that out of the grave comes new life, and so we encounter hardship, not as pain to be avoided, but like birth pains, leading the way to new life.
We are the resurrection people, and so we encounter our mistakes, not as lost opportunities, not as wrong turns that have lead us off course, but as a part of an unavoidable process God is working in us and in the world.
We are the resurrection people, and so we look out into the world, not as disappointed judges of the failings of society, but as the hopeful trusting people of the God whose plans will not be thwarted.
We are the resurrection people, who like an expectant mother know that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us, because we are a people with a reason to hope.
[1] Paul Veyne edu A History of Private Life, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 9

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Where is the Good Soil?

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Let anyone with ears Listen!
Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in the heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the one who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since there is no root, this one lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, this one quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the one who hears the world, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the one who hears the word and understands it. This one produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
In this passage Jesus is having a problem that I would love to have – that when I come here to preach on Sunday morning the crowds would be so great that I would have to sit out on a boat to avoid being consumed by the growing crowd on the shore.
But while I know that is not our problem this Sunday morning, in this church, like many churches, there was once a problem of space – the congregation outgrew the old worship space that is now the fellowship hall and so this new sanctuary was built to facilitate the growing congregation.
As a seminary student I learned that church growth is a slippery concept, that it’s elusive, and can’t be simply tracked back to one reason or cause. We want facts though, things that we can do or change, forces that we can control. We see that some churches prosper when led by certain pastors, while others don’t. Or that those churches with a certain theology or worship style attract people, packing worship services with excited people, and we begin to wonder what we’re doing wrong.
I grew up in a church that grew dramatically, especially under the care of one particular senior pastor. While this man was the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, membership increased in ways you wouldn’t believe, to the point that the occupancy of the sanctuary had to hold much more than twice what the old sanctuary did, as membership had increased into the thousands.
In so many ways I was intimidated when my former pastor asked me to lunch after graduating seminary. For me, as a child who had witnessed the church grow and expand, this man was larger than life, surely the most intimidating model for ministry I could imagine. After lunch I asked him what words of advice he had for a young man seeking a call to a church. I asked something like, “as far as having a successful ministry goes, your time at First Presbyterian can’t really be beat. What’s your secret?” His answer surprised me, and really, the fact that he would have lunch with me at all surprised me, considering how most senior pastors rarely take the time to meet with anyone, much less a young aspiring minister. He said, as he looked me in dead in the eye with a gaze I had to look away from, “Joe, you have to know what is in your control and what isn’t, and when it comes to being a minister, there isn’t really that much that is in your control.”
In him I saw a man who had earned the right to pat himself on the back, but I then realized I was face to face with a man who knows the wisdom of the parable of the sower.
In this parable we hear about a farmer who has gone out to sow seed. The farmer seems careless, sowing seed along the path where birds would eat it up, on rocky places where the plants would sprout quickly, but with shallow roots that the sun would scorch, other seed scattered among thorns that would out grow the plants and choke them out – seed going all these places besides its intended destination, among the good soil.
This parable describes a farmer, but surely not a farmer who knows what he’s doing. There is no mention of plowing the field, irrigating or fertilizing it. The farmer seems to carelessly sow seed without thinking much about the maximum yield of his field, depending on a miracle for any kind of harvest at all.
Modern farmers don’t depend on miracles, but plan ahead, plowing, irrigating, and fertilizing – minimizing waste by sowing with some precision, recognizing that minimizing waste means maximizing profit.
But Jesus admires this less economical farmer, and he interprets his parable far away from the crowds so that only the disciples hear; the disciples, who, in a way, are like sowers, sowing the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
We know that they found good soil, as the church that began with 12 disciples has today grown to billions, spreading the Good News over the whole world. We assume that they must have been skillful in casting their seed out over the earth, finding that good soil.
But Jesus doesn’t offer us a parable about a farmer who tended a field with precision, who counted the seeds he had wasted among the path, the rocky soil, and the thorns. Jesus offers a parable about a farmer who sows his seed and leaves the rest up to God.
My pastor knew that First Presbyterian Church grew not because of him, but because the seed he sowed fell on good soil, in a city booming with young families looking to the suburbs for a place to raise their kids. That the church he served grew because the city the church served grew, and though he and the church did their job of casting out seed, the harvest was plentiful because of many factors that were completely out of their control.
Like modern farmers we are used to believing that we can control every aspect of production. We can maximize the soil’s fertility, adding in Miracle Grow ourselves, not leaving any part of the process up to chance or up to God.
When we seem to be successful, the temptation is to take the credit for a job well done; and when we seem to struggle, we assume we have done something wrong, we haven’t planned enough. We want to maximize our yields, minimize our waste, and with the opportunity to control more and more, to know more and more, we run the risk of forgetting that ours is a vital, but ultimately small part of the great miracle God has been doing in our world since the dawn of creation.
Our seed must be sown or there will never be a crop, but by no means is the harvest all up to us. We must sow the seeds, but we must also trust that what will grow will grow, and what doesn’t is out of our control.
Likewise, parents have no choice but to sow seeds of love and guidance to their children, but at some point parents are also called to trust, not attempting to control something that is no longer, and maybe never has been in their hands to control.
Jesus entrusted 12 people with the future of the church, 12 people who launched a campaign of evangelism that changed the whole world. The mainline church in the United States worries over losing members, but even if we get back down to just a dozen we may be in the exact position God wants us to be.
We are not in control of the harvest, so go throw out your seeds with joy, giving thanks to God.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Struggle for Freedom

Romans 7: 15-25a page 800
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The 4th of July is a pretty great holiday. It gives us an excuse to wear clothes that we don’t usually wear, to light fireworks, to cook out, and to be proud of our country at a time when so many people are uncomfortable doing so.
My Mom used to wake us up early on the 4th of July, drive us out to the square where the parade would march by, hours before the parade would actually march by.
She wanted to get a good seat so we could all see the marching bands, fire trucks, politicians, and veterans, all celebrating the birth of our country, only leaving at the sad moment when the men with the trash cans walked through picking up all the garbage the parade had left.
As the veterans would march or ride by, we would all get a face to put on dates and events that can be hard to relate to through only the lens of our history books. In the 4th of July parade we look and see a real face, a vivid picture of heroes to think about for our image of the good guys, leaving our image of the bad guys who they fought against to our own imaginations.
We look to the veterans of WWI and WWII, Korea, Panama, the first and now the second war in Iraq, we imagine their hardship, their sacrifice, and maybe we even imagine what could have happened if they would have lost.
On the 4th of July we celebrate who the wars of our history have made us, honor the people who through their military service got us to where we are in their fight against the forces that this country has stood against.
It is easy to think about the 4th of July with a kind of duality, though, and maybe that is the way it should be – that on this one day we can lift our hats to the men and women who make this country great – though Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to call us to recognize something else.
Just a few days after the 4th of July, just a few days after celebrating all that is great about America, the good of our veterans and the evil of those forces they fought against, Paul calls us not to celebrate all the good we have defended and the evil we have fought against, but the good and the evil that exists within us all.
From the words of the psalmist we know that both good and evil are at work in the world, and that “with a scepter of justice our God reigns over all the earth.” That our God who reigns loves justices and righteousness, and so cannot help but hate tyranny and injustice.
To simplify our humanity is to believe that because God loves us because we are just and righteous, and that those forces that God hates - tyranny and injustice - must be altogether separate from who we are. But Paul’s words stand in the face of this kind of duality, forcing us to see that even within Paul, even within this hero of the faith exists an inner struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, a struggle that may have forced Paul to ask himself how our God, a lover of justice and a hater of sin could go on loving him given the existence of both good and evil within his very body.
On the 4th of July we rightly celebrate our inclination to justice and freedom, our stand against the sins of the world with parades, cook-outs, and fireworks – but Paul calls us to see that all the pomp and circumstance does not represent all sides of our existence – and so he asks us to consider the parts of our lives that don’t deserve the parade, those parts that we would rather turn our backs to.
Revealing a part of himself, showing his weaknesses with an honesty that in no way resembles the politicians of our time, Paul writes, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”
In a society where leaders admit that “mistakes were made,” but are reluctant to take responsibility for making them, Paul’s honesty is shocking. If he were running for office he models a losing campaign according to the standards of today. We don’t want a leader who shows this kind of weakness, this kind of regret, admitting to a war raging in his own mind making him a prisoner to the law of sin. How could such a person lead us, we might ask? How could a human like this lead our country where we need to go, epitomizing all that is good about us, minimizing what is bad rather than calling attention to it, sweeping the sins under the rug or leaving them on the street for someone else to pick up.
In some ways it’s not really what we would call the patriotic thing to do, certainly not the normal thing for a leader to do. We have to wonder, if this is who Paul is, how could he ever be the person who God has chosen to take us where we are supposed to go – how could this broken man be the one who God has called to lead us onward to the Promised Land?
Paul rightly knows his own limitations, and knows also his role to play. He is not independent, not secure in his own means; he does not even stand on his own feet but asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
A temptation Paul does not fall prey to is one that seems entrenched in our own society. We want to celebrate what is good, reluctant to draw attention to what isn’t. We want the history of our country to be like one long 4th of July parade, highlighting the evil forces we have defeated, though we know that our history is not only one of evil abroad, as it is also a history of sin within.
But we hide this side of ourselves, assuming hiding our sins from God and each other is the only way to deal with the fact that though our values and intentions are good, “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
I have to believe that this reality Paul describes is not only his own, but all of ours, that we are all asking, “who will rescue me from this body of death?”
This is our reality, the truth that we cannot lead ourselves, cannot save ourselves from the prison that sin holds us to, and so we fear that if God knew how sinful we truly are God would surely hate us, that if we admitted to ourselves our selfishness and foolishness we could not go on. Shortsightedly we assume that the only solution must be to celebrate what is good and turn our backs to the reality that we are in fact both good and sinful.
But Paul, though he surely was kissing his political career goodbye, is brave enough to admit to the sin within him.
Through Jesus Christ Paul learned something that so many have forgotten, that God’s love did not depend on the people of God, that God will not stop loving humanity when our sinfulness comes to attention. Paul saw that the love of God continued on, that even as the people of God called for Jesus to be crucified God still went on loving.
And so, this radical love set Paul free from his prison, and he could claim all of himself, not just the parade of great accomplishments, but the trash he left behind.
He was set free, not because he deserved it, but because of the love of God made real to him through Jesus Christ our Lord.