Reading Romans 6.12-23
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Rather than speak about our Gospel reading, I’m going to say a few words about the second passage that we heard, the one from Paul’s letter to the Romans. St Paul in his letters has things to say that are wonderfully inspiring. But he can often be pretty obscure and he can sometimes be downright off-putting.
Today’s reading is perhaps a case of Paul’s off-puttingness. For instance the word sin appears no less than eight times and near the end we have that mother of grim sentences: the wages of sin is death.
The image that springs to my mind is that chap who used to walk up and down Oxford Street carrying placards saying things like ‘prepare to meet thy God’ and ‘the end is nigh’. I don’t know if he ever carried one saying ‘the wages of sin is death’ but it would be entirely in character.
My aim this morning, if St Paul does put you off, is to make you just a little less put off by what he has to say.
At the end of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets the poet, on a very early morning walk, meets a shadowy figure on the street – probably meant to be the Italian poet Dante. This figure speaks about the gifts reserved for old age, among them this:
… the rending pain of re-enactment
of all that you have done, and been; the shame
of motives late revealed, and the awareness
of things ill done and done to others’ harm
which once you took for exercise of virtue
Actually, I don’t think you need to be getting on to see that we don’t always do the right thing, that we sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason, that sometimes at least what we thought we did well turns out to have been ill-considered and harmful.
Sometimes we act out of ignorance, probably almost always. None of us know the whole story about anything – even about ourselves. But the worst of it is that we rarely act purely out of love. In most instances we may even be ignorant of what the loving thing to do actually is. I’m not saying that love is always absent but it’s usually mixed in with ignorance and a whole host of other motivations.
That’s why St Paul can come out with that sentence; the wages of sin is death. Paul is using death as an image for the effects on us of a lack of love. We don’t like the word sin much these days. Fine. So let’s say that sin is just a word we use in situations where actions, words or thoughts are not motivated entirely by love.
God’s actions are always motivated entirely by love. Ours are not. It’s lack of love that separates us from God.
In a sense we can never be separated from God because God’s love for us is boundless and endless. At the same time I think it’s our experience that we don’t feel fully in union with God. We don’t fully feel God’s joy and peace and love within our hearts. That’s just a statement of fact. Let’s call it separation for want of a better word and yet God has created us to bring us into union with himself.
Our passage talks about law and grace. It may seem paradoxical – it is paradoxical – but from Paul’s perspective – from the spiritual perspective – the purpose of the law (the moral law) is to make us aware that we are incapable of obeying the moral law.
We do live in a profoundly moral universe. Human beings haven’t invented ethical standards out of thin air. They are inherent in the very nature of the world. So the law is true. It tells us something absolutely valid. We tend to think that the law is just a set of moral precepts like the ten Commandments but it goes much deeper than that.
Jesus goes to the heart of it when he tells us to love God with all our hearts, minds, strength etc and to love our neighbour as ourselves. And he goes on to say: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’. So love is the basis for all moral value. Love has moral value. That which is not love does not have moral value.
But we are seemingly incapable of pure love. In a way bringing an awareness of our inability to love is the role of the Pharisees in the gospel. You can obey every last jot and tittle of the law and it won’t do you the slightest good because without love you’ll then just be ensnared by self-righteousness and pride – the king and queen of all sins.
Don’t forget that Paul had been a Pharisee. As he says himself, as to righteousness under the law he had been blameless. And yet, before his conversion, he became a violent persecutor of Christians. I’m sure that Paul must have wondered countless times how an apparently righteous person – such as himself – could have been at the same time so morally skewed.
Self-righteousness and pride are what always happen when we become unhealthily moralistic and lose our awareness of how morally compromised we ourselves are.
So the point is this: we are not brought into union with God by trying and then trying even harder to obey the moral law. We are incapable of doing that by virtue of our human nature, which has developed over countless millennia in order to cope with life in the universe where we find ourselves. We simply cannot lift ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps. And if we try, we detect self-righteousness and pride welling up inside us.
The good news is that nothing we do or don’t do can make God love us one jot more or one jot less less. God doesn’t love us more if we give stacks of money to charity. He doesn’t love us less if we rob banks for a living. That’s what grace is: God’s infinite, free and totally undeserved love for us all. And it cannot be bought or forfeited.
But, if we are to come into full union with God, we do need a change of spiritual DNA. And only God can do that. More specifically it is the work of the Holy Spirit, released to us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
That, in my view, is the core of what Paul is trying to say.
And the Spirit is ever willing and able to do the job. All we have to do is to see ourselves as we really are, realise our total dependence on God, then let go of ourselves, put ourselves genuinely and deeply into his presence, and let God do the work of transformation. I would say that we do that by means of prayer but we are not so much to pray as to let prayer take place within us.
If we think we’re doing the praying, that becomes just another source of pride.
So it’s easy, isn’t it? Let go of ourselves, put ourselves into God’s presence and let the Spirit transform us.
If only. We’ll never be perfect – certainly not in this life. But, let’s be honest, wanting desperately to be perfect is probably a form of pride anyway. It seems to me that we simply need to enjoy God’s loving presence. If we can allow the love of God to flow into our hearts, that love will flow from us into the world around us. It won’t be our doing. None of it will be down to us.