The readings on which this sermon is based are found at: http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r047.htm
s047e02 Lockleys 7/7/2002 Sunday 14
"nothing good dwells within me" Romans 7.17
When I began this sermon, three weeks ago now, I had just finished a phone conversation with a person who as a child had had a difficult experience with a priest "of the old school". She had come to church all by herself and the priest of the day spent a long time "thumping the pulpit" Sunday by Sunday. Week after week she was made to feel as if she was a miserable sinner. Child that she was, she thought she was the only one in the congregation who felt like this! As I thought about the conversation I thought how often in the past clergy belittled others. I wonder if you had the same reaction I had at the words from last weeks reading from Romans: "I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations." (Rom 6.19) I won't say (from the pulpit) what I would like to respond to St Paul :-) I wonder if "thumping the pulpit" is actually a form of abuse?
I suspect that this particular quotation from St Paul lies behind this. We make an art-form of putting ourselves down - we make it a Christian virtue. And of course it does no harm to put others down also - we are, after all, only speaking the truth in love!!! Of course I won't bring up football umpires :-)
About 20 years ago I vividly recall a person coming to Church for the first time - a triple certificated nursing sister. At the end of the service she said to me: "Do you realise that you put yourself down three times during your sermon?" - and of course I had! And I suppose this is partly human nature, because I am such a shy and retiring person at heart ... And partly it is because so often clergy have been put on pedestals, and I try to climb off them. I suppose the reality is that I am afraid that too much will be asked of me if I remain on the pedestal ...
Having said all this, it will come as no surprise to anyone when I say that this passage from St Paul, his own introspection, is not my favourite passage of scripture. I can cope with most of St Paul - most - not all. Preaching on this passage is a bit of a Lenten discipline for me.
We could conclude that there is absolutely nothing worthwhile we can attempt to do - so we might as well not even try. Initially the words of St Paul come across to me as the depressing ramblings of a "misery guts". I never picture Jesus in this way and certainly see nothing in what is recorded of his words that would commend this attitude as a virtue.
One of the difficulties of this passage is that it's importance can be magnified way beyond what it is meant. Time and again in Holy Scripture God proclaims love for the creation as it is. On the sixth day of creation, God looks at man and woman who had been created and sees them as very good - as the pinnacle of creation.
Jesus was sent to live and to die and to rise again - out of love for the ordinary man and woman of the street - a "friend of tax collectors and sinners" even called a "glutton and a drunkard" himself. I say, time and again, it was precisely because Jesus associated with people other than themselves that the religious authorities had him killed. And time and again I say the fact of the resurrection guarantees that the efforts of the religious authorities to stop Jesus associating with all people are ever doomed to failure.
So if we are going to see in the Bible a doctrine of unremitting human depravity beyond redemption, we have to be exceedingly selective in the passages we choose. This sort of perspective is more like Jesus' opposition would have maintained. There is much in the Bible that speaks of human beings as noble. Whenever someone falls on their face when confronted by the divine, the person is immediately lifted to their feet. Our unique dignity of standing on our own two feet is never to be taken away from us. We are not to grovel like the animal kingdom.
St Paul is talking about the law, and the reality of the law is that we can use the law - which attempts to help us in our relationship between us and others - as a way of ennobling one and despising another. Someone is worse than someone else, because they have been caught out doing something they shouldn't. The woman caught in the very act of adultery immediately springs to mind. Her accusers thought they were so much better than her - and she was despised.
But it is not just law that can be used in this way. Faith also can be used to discriminate against people of other traditions or faiths - so "real" Christians speak in tongues or believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, or in the transubstantiated elements of the Eucharist. If our faith in Christ doesn't actually cross these denominational and faith divides it is no better than any idolatry it supposedly opposes.
Indeed our very relationship with God can be used against others who we perceive to be less related to God. So in the past we prayed that God would go out with our armies - but of course not with those of the enemy.
I sometimes wonder at the rather curt reply Jesus gives his mother when she suggests that he sort out the lack of drinks nearing the end of that marriage feast in Cana. I suspect that Mary wanted Jesus to show a little of his power so that she might be able to bask a little in her son's glory. Jesus accedes to her request, though the shear magnitude of the miracle, I suspect, meant that so many others would have had to be brought in to drink it, any reflected or personal glory would have been lost in the melee.
It really doesn't matter, for in the end, everything can be used as a way of magnifying ourselves at the expense of others.
It is only in Christ - the glutton and the drunkard, the friend of tax collectors and sinners - who shows us that God has no favourites - that any efforts to magnify myself over others is simply a waste of time, certainly in the eyes of Jesus.
Any such pretence is simply a waste of time, because Jesus wishes to be present and ennoble us as we are. We might as well give up and enjoy ourselves in the company of others and of Jesus.
If I put myself down while I am in the pulpit, it is not to suggest that grovelling before the Almighty is a good, right and christian thing to do. It is to say that I am not perfect and that I struggle with my faith just like everyone else. It is to affirm that for all my "assurance" standing up here with all the answers, I am no better than anyone else, and any answers I put forward are indeed provisional.
Whatever method is used, if you feel ennobled rather than belittled when you come to this place, I will be content. Perhaps more importantly if you are enabled and motivated to ennoble others rather than belittle them, I will be even more content.
But to be fair to St Paul, of course, he doesn't remain in his introspection. He moves on and finds relief. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" he exclaims - though he does not explain why.
This is not some mystical union with Christ, which some elite spiritual people alone enjoy - those who have travelled through the valley of the shadow of death and come through transfigured - as the wizard Gandalf was changed by his experiences fighting the Balrog as they both fell into the abyss under the bridge of Khazad-Düm (Lord of the Rings p348 & p516 "The White Rider").
Nor is this some sacramental transformation brought about in baptism. Baptism, like birth, has no great effect on the baby itself. It begins a life where there is infinitely vaster horizons than ever were possible remaining in the womb.
The body of death is precisely the body of introspection, of uncertainty, indeed of despair. The body of death is to remain in the womb of religious cotton wool.
Jesus, the glutton and drunkard, the friend of tax collectors and sinners, bids us leave that morbid state and rejoice with all who Jesus has befriended. Perhaps St Paul realises that if God loves others enough for God to send Jesus to live and to die and to rise again for them, whatever worthiness he may or may not have is immaterial. God loves him too.
One of the lovely parables of Jesus is that of the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the one that is lost. And we assume that we are in the 99 and those who don't come to Church are the one or two that are lost. The mission field is "out there" getting the individuals in the world to join the 99 here in church. But the mathematics is all wrong for a start. It is much more likely that the Church is the one percent and the world is the 99 percent. The ministry of Jesus finds us and gently leads us back to the world whom he loves. It was precisely this that caused such chagrin to the religious authorities in Jesus' day.
So perhaps there is not much good that dwells within me, but Jesus loves me just like that, and he loves the world just like that too. There is no necessity to put a brave face on it, or to pretend to be better than we are. Keeping up facades consumes just so much energy, when that energy could be much better channelled elsewhere, like accepting ourselves and others, and helping where we are able.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.