What I Want and What I Do
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 6, 2008
Remember the famous quotation of one of our country’s most taciturn presidents, Calvin Coolidge, who often attended church by himself, and, when asked by Mrs. Coolidge what the sermon had been about one Sunday said, “Sin.” When she persisted, asking how the minister had addressed the subject, the president replied, “He’s against it.” 17th century French playwright, Molière could have been writing for modern celebrities and political aspirants when he wrote a line for one of his characters, saying, “It is public scandal that constitutes offense, and to sin in secret is not to sin at all.” Simone Weil said, “All sins are attempts to fill voids,” and poet W.H. Auden said, “All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.”
Paul wrote about sin in the passage we share today. There it is, we have said it, a word that is enormously unpopular in today’s culture, because no one wants to speak of themselves and of sin in the same breath, much less the same circumstance. But, inescapably, the passage is about sin, and even worse, it is about our inability in the face of sin to will ourselves into doing what is right. This may offend our sense of independence, but we can easily see in our own world the truth of what Paul says.
Perhaps it crosses your mind, as it does mine, that it is an especially unhappy thing for our world – not to mention our witness – that nominally Christian people can be observed behaving in such unchristian ways. You know exactly what I mean, I suspect. The Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were at each other’s throats off and on for centuries; in the 1990s our attention was drawn to the Balkan region, where Orthodox Christian Serbians and Roman Catholic Christian Croatians sought an advantage over one another in a struggle begun over 1000 years ago when the Roman pope colonized the Balkans with Catholics in hopes of overrunning the Orthodox. Meantime, Muslim Bosnians and ethnic-Albanian Kosovars – first converted to Islam by the Turks around the 6th century – apparently felt the contempt of both Christian groups, and the feeling appears by all outward measures to have been mutual.
Paul believed evil is far more than bad things we “do” or fail to do. Paul addressed the frightening reality that humanity may be deceived into thinking we are serving God when in fact we are serving evil. We are called to remember this sad truth in our own time, and sadly, illustrations of its truth come readily to mind: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Milosovec, Mugabe all thought themselves to be serving the good when in reality they were used by evil to slaughter thousands, even millions of people.
On Independence Day weekend, it is perhaps good to remember that our nation is de-pendent upon the workability of our cultural diversity. It has been that way from the beginning, we have simply had to get along with people not like ourselves in order to cohere as a nation, there has never been enough of a majority in one single ethnic or religious group to completely dominate the rest. A friend of mine recently reminded me of a line written by an 19th century pundit named Dr. Charles F. Browne, who was better known by his pen name Artemus Ward. He wrote, “The Puritans nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedom, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but could prevent everybody else from enjoying his!” While it is not as prominently recognized in American life as religious liberty, religious intolerance has never been effectively erased, it just lies beneath the surface of the liberties we do enjoy. A healthy goal for our commonweal in this 21st century would be an enhanced effort to end intolerance of all sorts, but especially religious intolerance on the right, left, and in the middle.
Appreciation for diversity is the good that we would do, to think of it in Paul’s terms from Romans. Yet, of course, we have failed miserably at times throughout our own history, as we all know. We need only remember a laundry list of things that people do to each other out of hate for those who are unlike themselves in color or lifestyle. For all our diversity as a nation, we have our own problems with intolerance, despite the fading guidance of a Judeo-Christian moral code in the general culture.
Now, within the culture of any of these groups, we could ask whether they understood Paul’s words:
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. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
If we were to ask if these words were understood, we might hear some say yes, some say no, but chances are good that few would have the capacity for self-examination to recognize their own behavior in regard to their religious or cultural “enemies” as in any way violating the very faith they claim and claim to cherish. This, even though Jesus declared quite plainly and unequivocally that we are to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. Some might want to do this, might even commit themselves to doing this, but in so many tragic circumstances, the very people Christ has called to be his disciples fail miserably in obeying his direct instruction to love enemies. They might even will to do what is right in this regard, but in the end they cannot do it; it is not the good that they want but the evil they do; in the end, it turns out that our wills and our good intentions rarely have the wherewithal to be in control of our behavior. This is what Paul was getting at. The sin we do is part and parcel of something in the universe that will not have things God’s way. The only champion capable of addressing this overpowering enemy – which is sin – is God himself, and he has done so through the blood of Jesus.
This is the place to which Christian people come, in the end, as did Paul. We know we are saved from sin, and yet we are not perfect, we continue to sin. So we find ourselves again and again at the table of the Lord, considering the death of One whose sinlessness has overcome evil ultimately, though the battle is far from finished. It is at this table where we recall the body broken, the blood shed for us, where we remember the power of sin that was overcome not by any herculean human effort, but by the very gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved