Sermon for Pentecost 8
Proper 9 “a”
+ In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
Anyone who has tried to meditate knows how volatile and scattered is our consciousness. Thoughts jumping around and bouncing off each other and screaming for attention. Some Asian guru compared it to a cageful of monkeys. But if you know that, it means you noticed the fact. You were able to stand back from the cage, as it were, and observe: think about it objectively. This is called reflection. It is a level of consciousness slightly higher than what is going on in the cage. It is actually detached from the monkeys in there, otherwise it would not be able to make its observation.
Everybody has had this experience occasionally, I suppose. By talking about it, we are actually reflecting on reflection and going to another level still. (Maybe. Or maybe were just playing a game something like setting up mirrors facing each other, so that they reflect their images into infinity.) I mention it because what Paul is talking about in today’s Epistle does resonate with this common experience. It’s worthwhile spending some time with this passage, because it is so easily misunderstood and misused in a heretical way. I am talking about dualism: spirit/matter dualism. Paul’s language sure sounds like he is saying that the material side of human nature is the problem: where the “law of sin…dwells”. It dwells “in my members,” which is easily (but perhaps wrongly) understood to mean in my physical body I want to do one thing with my mind, but my body leads me astray. Body and Mind are at war. This is pretty close to saying that sin is a matter of our material nature, and that if we could only get out of it we would be ok. That, however, is heresy.
Not that Christian tradition has always taken a very affirmative view of the body. No, physical appetites can lead us astray. They must be controlled and trained, so as to serve us well. There have been plenty of zealous theoreticians and ascetic practitioners who have gone too far. Their teachings and disciplines have sometimes crossed the boundaries of reason into the fanatical darkland of heresy. Our material desires may present difficulties, but they are not – in themselves – the root of our problem. Selfishness is the problem – concentration on the self rather than on God. And that is a problem more subtle than mere physical desire. THAT is what Paul means by flesh. Not meat or our material nature, but the cageful of monkeys, which can be either thoughts or desires. Anything that distracts us from God is the flesh. I think, nowadays it is what many call ego.
Flesh = Ego.
Paul recognizes something he calls his inmost self, to be distinguished from the monkeys. This deep self is what the Collect for today means by our heart. Not a symbol for our emotions, but for our spiritual center, our inmost self. It is where we meet God in stillness. Unfortunately, as a rule Paul says, he does not always act out of that self, even though he wants to. He does not always love God “with his whole heart.” He wastes his conscious hours in distraction. The only end of distraction is death – in the sense that distraction destroys meaningful life. God is the only real meaning, and to forget God is to stop living meaningfully. The monkey-cage is the body of death. Paul complains that there is nothing he can do about it.
I found it useful to re-read the passage, substituting ego for flesh, and heart for mind. I also translated members as the rest of me. OK, it’s an interpretation, but then, that’s what I’m here for. And I DO think it rings truer to Paul’s meaning than the heretical dualism that usually springs to mind when we hear about flesh at war with the soul:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in the rest of me another law at war with the law of my heart, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in the rest of me. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my heart I am a slave to the law of God, but with my ego I am a slave to the law of sin.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the ego, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful ego, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the ego, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the ego but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the ego set their hearts on the things of the ego, but those who live according to the Spirit set their hearts on the things of the Spirit. To set the heart on the ego is death, but to set the heart on the Spirit is life and peace.
Krister Stendahl, the Pauline scholar and World Council of Churches one-time representative for Jewish-Christian dialogue, wrote a very useful book called Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles As a Lutheran, he argues against reading Paul through Luther, as through a lens. Luther had his own problems, and he tended to find them in Paul. We need to be careful about that. Luther was a tomented soul. But was Paul? Stendahl thinks not. This O wretched man, who will deliver me from this body of death? stuff is not the anguished cri de couer of a constipated German, it is a rhetorical device – a Ciceronian diatribe. Once again, Paul is trying to shift the Romans’ paradigm. Sure, I can’t get out of the monkey-cage by myself; all my best efforts will yield only partial success. I CAN get out, but not by my own efforts. I have to think in new terms (to repent) and recognize my own powerlessness. That is what Paul means by faith – the recognition of one’s own powerlessness combined with the will to trust God. Who will deliver me from this body of death? Not me, but Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I can suddenly pray without distraction or renounce all physical desire. The bad news is that with my ego I am still a slave to the law of sin while in my heart I am a slave to the law of God. The good news is that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, that is, for those who have repented and can now think outside the box every so often. There IS an eventual way out of the monkey-cage and into the new and larger life that Paul calls Spirit: the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
Jesus Christ has set us free. Now it is possible for us to walk in the Spirit. To walk outside the monkey cage. We need only make the effort to walk – that is to stop feeding the monkeys, to stop deliberately nurturing our ego – and Christ will do the rest. It doesn’t happen overnight, in the twinkling of an eye, but it does happen, sooner or later, as we accept more and more the grace for which we pray today – to be devoted to God with our whole heart.
COME, LORD JESUS!