I have fallen down a hole of BBC television programming this summer. My usual shows are over and so I started with Call the Midwife, which is a refreshingly good natured show after six months of Scandal and House of Cards! One of the actresses in that show is a comedienne and writer that has her own half hour sitcom called Miranda. Miranda is hysterical. She is an at least six foot tall woman who is as agile at slapstick as Lucille Ball. Her character owns a joke shop, much to the displeasure of her traditional mother, and has a big crush on the chef next door. One of Miranda’s problems is that every time she gets cornered or nervous she starts to lie. Crazy, elaborate lies that invent dead husbands and children, and fictive jobs that start out in retail and end up in the secret service. In the show, in the middle of one of these elaborate lies she’ll stop and look at the camera with an expression of utter confusion. As if she means to say, “Why am I doing this? How did I end up here?”
She might join the Apostle Paul in crying out, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” This is one of the most relatable passages in all Scripture, right? There is nothing that will get me to bake chocolate chip cookies faster than a vow that I’m going to eat healthier. Why are our brains such contrarians? We read this passage and wander down a road of psychological examination. But is that what Paul intended?
In Romans 5-8, Paul takes on the problem of human sin. He understands sin not only as the bad things we do, but also as a power that Christ has come to defeat. When we read Romans we think of ourselves as human beings as the main subject here, the star of the show who dramatically battle with sin. But to Paul, human beings are almost on the sidelines. We have found it impossible to battle sin alone! We need help! The real battle is between sin and God.
A very attractive and wise New Testament scholar, Beverly Gaventa, who also happens to be my mother-in-law, argues that all these “I” statements in Romans 7 aren’t meant to be Paul’s confession of weakness. She believes he is using the “I” in the same way the Psalmists, did, as a way for each person who read or heard Paul’s letters to the Romans identify with this very specific, but universal human condition. After all, the Romans were not hearing this letter from Paul’s mouth. Phoebe, who delivered the letter to them, read it to them, and as it got passed around from community to community, different voices spoke those plaintive sentences. And more specifically, Paul is describing here how the power of sin even corrupts the laws that are supposed to keep us from sinning! Here he is speaking specifically of the Mosaic law—the commandments God gave the Israelites. He is careful to make clear that it is not the law that is sinful. After all, the law is designed to guide us into holy living. But the power of sin is so pervasive that it can even make our relationship to the law broken.
In Immortal Diamond, the book we have been studying this summer, Richard Rohr writes,
[Religion] is not doing its job if it only reminds you of your distance, your unworthiness, your sinfulness, your inadequacy before God’s greatness. Whenever religion actually increases the gap, it becomes antireligion instead. I am afraid we have lots of antireligion in all denominations.
Now, as educated and liberated Episcopalians, it’s easy for us to point fingers and say, “Oh yes, I see how this principle has corrupted the Catholic Church, which is rife with abuse and cover ups!” Or we might look over to our fundamentalist brothers and sisters and see how rigid rule following has led to powerfully corrupt leaders and wounded followers. We even take some pleasure when some particularly vitriolic pastor ends up falling in a national scandal. But guess what, friends? We are just as likely to get entangled by sin as anyone else. As I was talking about the ideas in this passage with my husband he asked, “Well, for you Episcopalians, your law would be your liturgy, wouldn’t it? How does sin creep up there?” I literally gasped, you guys.
It never would occur to me that our liturgy could become an avenue for sin. For one thing, it’s kind of boring. I mean, when I think about Episcopalians and sin the first thing that comes to mind is alcohol, not Cranmer. We’ve got a lot of money and a lot of creative ways to break the commandments. If I were to write a novel about sin and Episcopalians, it would take place on a yacht or on the Upper East Side and there would be some private school back story that would lead to an affair or murder that took place after drinking way too much expensive Scotch. But you know what would not appear in this novel? Our liturgy! I mean, even in Call the Midwife, which takes place in an Anglican Convent, our Anglican service music is used for its comfort and beauty, for solace in the midst of poverty and suffering.
For me, our liturgy is a place of comfort and safety. Its timeless words remind us of eternal truths that comfort and challenge us. But is it possible that sin can creep in around the corners of our creed and service music? If we are to believe the Apostle Paul, then yes, it certainly can. Perhaps, as liturgy loving people, where we sin is an unwillingness to let the Holy Spirit change us. Perhaps we sin in fearing the new, in being too wedded to our books, pews and bricks and not open enough to the world around us. I don’t know, frankly, I’m too close to it! I love our liturgy and pews and bricks! But next time I, or one of you, get worked up about some change, or some imperfection in the bulletin or some misplaced note in the choral singing, we’ll have a moment of recognition. Ah, sin got me, too!
Sin is so pervasive to the human condition, that we cannot escape it. Sin will creep in to every relationship we have, whether it is with our liturgy or our law. Sin creeps in under the doors of our offices, inside our cars, gets between us and the people we love. Sin separates us from our own will, our own bodies, our own desires. Sin tries to ruin everything good in our lives. Sin tries to ruin us.
We are baptizing Jackson Rector today. His parents and godparents will renounce three things: Satan, evil, and sin. Now, renouncing Satan isn’t that challenging. I’m pretty sure not many of you have ever participated in a Satanic ritual. And if you are gathering at midnight in the cemetery to call upon the name of the dark lord, QUIT IT RIGHT NOW. Renouncing the evil powers of the world is a little trickier, after all you have to sort out what is evil and what isn’t! Are we allowed to wear clothes made my child labor? Should we drive a car if it is going to destroy the planet? Should we speak out about unethical practices at work if it means we’ll lose our job? And renouncing sin? Oh boy. We’ve just discussed how sin is everywhere and after us and how it is impossible to not sin! What is the point of renouncing something that is impossible to avoid?
There’s one little detail we haven’t mentioned yet. Christ has already won the battle with sin. It may not feel like it, since we still struggle with sin, but in theological terms, the battle is OVER. Christ’s death and resurrection means sin only has power over us in this world, and even in this world sin never affects our identity as saved, loved people. Once we die, or when the kingdom of God comes to pass, whichever comes first, the power of sin falls away like dust. So, when we renounce Satan, evil and sin, we are acknowledging Christ’s victory. We aren’t saying, “Now that Jackson is a Christian, he is never going to screw up!” We’re saying, “Now that Jackson is a Christian, nothing can stand between him and God.” We’ll get to more of that next week in Romans 8, but in the meantime, next time you feel sin creeping around the door, ready to come after you, you can look it in the eye and say, “Sorry buddy, I belong to Christ, you have no power here.” Thanks be to God.