Sunday, May 4, 2014

May 4, 2014

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC

THE REST OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH

Romans 7:14-24a

 

There was a young county extension agent who had just graduated from college.  His degree was in agriculture.  But his heart wasn’t so much in doing the farming himself.  He wanted to help farmers learn how to be better farmers.  He had learned so much in the classroom.  He couldn’t wait to share all this knowledge with those who could put it to good use.

So he spend an afternoon with an old farmer.  This farmer had farmed his entire life.  It’s all he knew.  But he was doing a lot of things wrong.  This young extension agent was rather appalled, but he was careful to keep that to himself.  Gently and patiently he explained to this old man some of the newer farming techniques and how they could save time, money, and effort.

The farmer didn’t argue.  He agreed that these new ways of doing things made a lot of sense.  But he said he didn’t plan on changing a single thing.  Why not?  The farmer said, “I’m already farming only half as well as I know how.”

Some of you are living about half as well as you know how.  And some of you, like that old farmer, are perfectly content to keep it that way.  Others of you are also living about half as well as you know how.  And it’s driving you crazy.

I listen to Colin Cowherd.  He does sports talk. He has a unique gift for relating sports to life.  He was talking about Tom Izzo, the highly successful basketball coach at MichiganState who is rumored as a possible choice for the Minnesota Timberwolves on the professional level. Colin Cowherd said there is a fine line of difference between content and lazy.  Maybe Coach Izzo is content with his life as it is.  That’s fine.  Nothing wrong with that.  But maybe he’s become lazy.  It’s good to be content with our lives and not beat ourselves up over what we are not, but it’s not good to be lazy and afraid of improving ourselves and taking on new challenges.

It’s a good question to ask ourselves.  Am I content or am I lazy?  Paul was neither.  He saw the person he was and he saw the person God wanted him to be.  He saw how far the two were apart. And he couldn’t stand it.  It tormented him.  It kept him up at night.  Nowhere else in all of Paul’s writings do we find so honest and revealing a glimpse into Paul’s inner soul.  “I do not understand my actions.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I don’t want to do I do . . . I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:15,18).

We can relate to that.  We know what we should do.  We know what we shouldn’t do.  We also know that what we know and what we do are often two different things.  We’re living half as well as we know how.  Some of us are OK with that.  Others of us aren’t.  The ones who aren’t are the ones who are like Paul.  They are the ones who can relate to that last verse we read today where Paul says, “What a wretched man I am!”

It may have started early.  It may be among the first words you remember spoken to you.  “Shame on you!” You probably didn’t know you did anything wrong.  You didn’t know what wrong was.  But you were introduced at an early age to this concept of shame.  As you got older you learned to take on that shame.  You felt it.  You owned it.  Pretty soon, no one had to even say the words.  You heard them in your head.  “Shame on you!”  You felt ashamed.  You felt judged.  You felt condemned.

Some people read the Bible and the only message they get is, “Shame on you!”  Judgment and condemnation.  Hellfire and damnation.  They read the Bible and they find that the voice they hear in their heads is confirmed by the voice of God:  “The way you are is not good enough.”

That’s not the only message in the Bible.  But that message is there.  We aren’t good enough.  We don’t measure up.  We are sinners.  That’s there.  But that’s not all that’s there.  There is a second message.  There is a second voice.  Not just, “The way you are is not good enough”, but also, “You don’t have to stay the way you are.”

I’m something of a C.S. Lewis buff.  I own just about every book he ever wrote.  They take up a whole bookshelf.  But what I don’t have is a paper he wrote back in 1943.  I couldn’t even find it on the internet.  All I know is the title.  “If We Have Christ’s Ethics Does the Rest of the Christian Faith Matter?”  I haven’t read that paper, but I have read what others have said about it.

C.S. Lewis makes the point that all the great religions of the world pretty much agree about right and wrong.  There are minor differences here and there, but they are relatively minor.  Even great teachers through the ages who profess no faith hold to pretty much these same moral principles.  Treat others the way you would want to be treated.  Honor your parents.  Care for your children.  Care for widows and orphans.  Feed the hungry.  Be honest.  Don’t take it if it’s not yours.  Don’t kill.  Work for peace.  Work for justice.  (See C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pages 95-121 for a fuller list.)

So we know what we are supposed to do.  We know how we are supposed to live.  We know what God requires of us.  Or nature, whatever we say is the source of this moral code.

Jesus taught all this.  Everyone agrees that Jesus was a great moral teacher, maybe the greatest ever.  But the point C.S. Lewis makes in this paper is that if Christianity is just about the moral teachings of Jesus, Christianity is just one religion among many.  It teaches pretty much what all the others teach.  And Christians are no different from conscientious people down through the ages who have been bothered by their failure to live up to their ideals.  “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”  Good people, people who want to be good, have always been saying that.

Here’s the difference.  Here’s what C.S. Lewis calls “the rest of the Christian faith”.  Christianity teaches not only, “The way you are is not good enough.”  It also teaches, “You don’t have to stay the way you are.”  In other words, Christianity is not just a bunch of rules, pretty much the same rules good people have always tried to obey.  Christianity also offers a way to obey these rules.  A way to be better people.  Christianity is not just about the what.  It is also about the how.  Not just what we are supposed to do, but how we are supposed to do it.

The rest of the Christian faith is summarized in another place by this same Apostle Paul in a single verse.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  There is a source of strength, a source of power, a source of help beyond ourselves that makes possible for us to become changed people.  And this same Apostle Paul wrote about this too.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17).

That’s the rest of the Christian faith.  Not just the what, but the how.  Not just the shame of knowing that we aren’t good enough, but the hope of not staying the way we are.  Another verse from the Apostle Paul comes to mind.  “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

At this point, you may be puzzled about something.  The Apostle Paul obviously knows “the rest of the Christian faith”.  He is the one who wrote about it so eloquently in so many places in the Bible.  We’ve just been noting a few of those places.  Clearly Paul “gets it” when it comes to the “how” of Christianity.  How we can actually do what Christ commanded us to do.  How we can escape the frustration of living in this gap between knowing and doing.  How we can escape the shame of never feeling that we are good enough.  But here’s the puzzle.  We read Romans chapter 7 and it sure sounds like Paul was trapped in that same cycle of shame and guilt.  He knew the way out.  He knew Christ was the way out.  But apparently he couldn’t find the way out himself.  “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out . . . What a wretched man I am!”

So Paul would seem to be kind of like the marriage counselor who is in his seventh marriage.  He knows how it’s supposed to be done, but he can’t seem to do it himself.

Actually, there has been some lively debate on this very question.  Was Paul really baring his soul when he wrote about his own inability to live a Christian life?  Or was he reminiscing about the way his life used to be before he met Jesus?  In fact, I wrote a paper on this question when I was in seminary.  And I took the side that Paul really was baring his soul.

I don’t remember why I reached that conclusion back then.  But here’s why I would reach that conclusion today:  Even Christians experience the frustration of not being the people we know we ought to be.  At least that has been my experience.  Christ has changed my life.  Without Christ, my life would be a whole lot different, a whole lot worse.   But even with Christ, I am still far from where I know I need to be.  Very far.  I may be “a new creation”, but the creating process is still underway.

That’s how I have experienced life as a Christian.  And Romans 7 encourages me that even as great a Christian as Paul had a similar experience.  He sometimes was living only half as well as he knew how.  And sometimes he felt shame and guilt and he even said, “What a wretched man I am!”

That’s where we stopped reading today.  “What a wretched man I am!”  I think he really felt that.  I know I’ve felt that.  I suspect you have felt that.  But there is more.  That’s part “a” of the verse.  That’s the first part.  The second part, part “b”, poses a question:  “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?”  And then he answers his own question.  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Jesus is our deliverer!  That’s what we’ve already been saying.  Jesus is the “how” who makes it possible for us to do the “what” of the Christian faith.  Jesus delivers us from our failure to live up to the moral teachings of Jesus.  But there’s more here than that.  Jesus also delivers us from the shame that comes from falling short even after we’ve given our lives to Jesus.

Did you get that?  I think that is really important.  You don’t have to beat up on yourself.  You don’t have to hang your head in shame.  You don’t have to play all these silly games of pretending you’re a better person than you really are.  It is all right for Christians to fall short, to fall down, to get up and dust themselves off and try again.  There’s an old saying that says it pretty well.  “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

That’s not an excuse to stay as imperfect as you are.  You can be content but you shouldn’t be lazy.  The way we are is not good enough.  And Christ in us means we don’t have to stay the way we are.  But Christ in us also means that we are delivered from that cycle of self-condemnation in which it is so easy to get caught.

I love the way Paul begins Romans chapter 8, the very next chapter after the chapter in which he bares his soul about his own self-condemnation.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

No condemnation.  No more “shame on you”.  You are forgiven.  Not forgiven to be lazy and accepting of sin.  Forgiven to be content with the person you are right now and eager to be the person you are becoming in Jesus Christ.

“There is therefore now no condemnation.”  Remember what Jesus said to that woman was about to be stoned for the sin of adultery.  “Has no one condemned you?  Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again” (John 8:10-11).

 

Dear God, as Paul bared his soul to us, so we bare our souls to you.  We are not the people you want us to be.  We do the things we know we shouldn’t.  We fail to do the things we know we should.  We are not good enough.  But having made that confession, we thank you from the depths of our hearts for the good news in Jesus Christ that we don’t have to stay the way we are.  Jesus saves us from sin.  Jesus saves us from condemnation.  Jesus delivers us from the cycle of shame and guilt.  In Jesus we can not only know what we are supposed to do.  In Jesus we can receive the power to do it.  As Paul said, so say we:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!”  Amen.