Staunton Mennonite Church
June 29th, 2008
15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
I went out on the golf course the other day to walk with Ron as he played a few holes. I had no intention of playing, but I joined him for the conversation. Now if you have ever been on the Gypsy Hill Golf Course, you know that it differs a lot from Ron’s homeland of Kansas. Kansas is flat and you can see for miles. Gypsy Hill, and much of Staunton for that matter, is quite hilly. As I walked up and down the hills, I noticed something that I wasn’t too happy about; I was out of breath and sweating. And I wasn’t carrying the golf clubs. The only extra weight I was carrying was found around my waist.
It seems as if I have come a long way from the days of my youth when I could run for miles at a time (who am I kidding, I have never been in good shape). I never had problems with walking up a few hills on a summer morning before this experience.
And it isn’t like I don’t know what I should be doing and what I should not be doing. I know very well what I need to do to be in better shape. I need to exercise, do cardiovascular work like running, walking, bicycling, and so forth. And I know the things that I shouldn’t be doing, like hitting the refrigerator for those late night ice cream fixes and going back to the buffet for seconds and thirds. But I do them any way. I know what I want to do in order to get into better shape, but I don’t do it. I know what I shouldn’t do, but I do it anyway.
Well there are a lot of similarities between our physical bodies and our spiritual beings. In fact, I don’t think we can really separate the two. And sometimes, the things that we know we should be doing for our spirituality and for our physical bodies are some of the last things we might actually do. And sometimes the things we know that we should not be doing for our spirituality and our physical bodies are the very things that we do anyway.
This morning I would like to look at the above passage from Romans 7 and see how the Apostle Paul struggled with these things that he should and should not do and I hope to see that even though we often fail, even though it might not be easy, we are called to live a certain way and by a higher ethic. Because we are called to be imitators of Christ.
There is a difference between not knowing any better and knowing between right and wrong, and doing what is wrong anyway. If I didn’t know that chocolate ice cream was bad for my waistline, should I really be criticized for going to Kline’s for the flavor of the week every now and then? If I didn’t know that ice cream was contributing to my declining health, could you really expect me to not eat something that tastes so good?
Now I am not suggesting that God should just turn a blind eye to anyone that doesn’t know any better when it comes to sinning. What I am trying to say is regardless of whether we know it or not, sin has an affect on us. Even if I don’t know how many calories are in ice cream, they still find their way to the hips. And those of us that are Christians should really know better when it comes to living in sin. If someone had grown up in a family where they never went to church or studied scripture in their home, they might not know about the teachings of Jesus, Paul, the prophets, and others in the Bible. And if they don’t know that we are to turn the other cheek, why might they be expected to adhere to Christian ethics?
But when you know that ice cream is not good for you and you continue to eat it in large quantities and frequently like I like to, you have nobody to blame for your health problems but yourself. Likewise, those of us who have read the Bible or been to church or been a part of a small group know better when it comes to living in the pleasures of the flesh. We know that we as Christians are called to live by a higher ethic than those who are not Christians. We know that there are things that we are supposed to do, but yet do not do and that there are things that we should not do, but do anyway.
And this is what Paul is wrestling with in our scripture for this morning. He knows what is right and wrong. He had a divine meeting with Jesus and spent a significant amount of time studying with the disciples after his conversion. You could say that Paul wrote the book on ethics, since he wrote many of our books of the New Testament (or is given credit for writing them). So that is why Paul is kicking himself here. He says that he does not understand his own actions. He can’t explain why he continues to sin, why he continues to live by the flesh rather than living by the Spirit. He doesn’t know why he does not do the things that he wants to do, or why he commits sins of omission. And I am sure that we all can sympathize with our friend Paul.
The first of the year I made the decision to read the Bible through in 2008. Today is the last Sunday of June, we are halfway through the year. But I must admit that I am not halfway through the Bible. And the sad thing is that I know all I need to do is to take 15 minutes a day and I can keep on track to read the entire Bible in a year. But like Paul, I do not do what I know I should be doing.
I think it is safe to say that none of us pray as much as we could or should. I know that we as Christians are called to forgive one another, to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us. But these things are against my nature, so it takes a little more effort to love someone that has persecuted me. And boy am I ever good at holding a grudge. It takes a fair bit of effort to be like Christ. I want to do it. I really want to follow Christ in everything that I do. But I do not do what I want. At least not all of the time.
Paul goes on to say that not only does he not do what he wants, he does the very thing he hates. He is doing the things that he knows he shouldn’t be doing, or committing sins of commission. So it is bad enough to not be doing the good things, but he is still doing bad things as well. He writes in verse 19-20, “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.” But I am not quite sure that I agree with Paul in the last sentence. Paul is claiming that it is not he that sins when he does what he does not want to do, but it is the sin that is within him that makes him do it.
Flip Wilson was a comic that was known for the many characters that he portrayed. One of his famous characters was a woman by the name of Geraldine. Geraldine had a catchphrase that probably most of us have heard before, “The devil made me do it.” Now there is some truth to that statement. I do not doubt the presence of evil in our world, and I know that we are tempted by evil to sin. But the devil didn’t make her do anything, nor did the devil make Paul sin, nor does the devil make us sin today. We have a choice. We can choose to sin or we can choose to not sin.
When we say that the devil made me do it, we are trying to get rid of all responsibility for our own actions. And that just isn’t the case. We do have a say in the things we do and do not do. We are not simply programmable machines that some evil being can tell to do something and we do it. No, we have discerning minds to choose between wrong and right.
Now I understand that some of us might be more likely to fall victim to sinful urges than others might be. Some people are genetically predisposed to fall into certain sinful actions. Other people are more likely to commit sins because of the things that have happened to them in the past. They say that people who were abused as children are more likely to abuse their children. But just because we are predisposed to sinful nature doesn’t mean that it is okay to sin. That is not a good excuse.
I have family history of alcoholism. A close family member died of alcoholism at a young age because his coping mechanism for a painful experience included emptying a bottle of whisky on a regular basis. And they say that alcoholism has a genetic predisposition. That means if your father or mother or another relative is an alcoholic, you may have inherited a gene or genetic combination that makes it more likely that you could become an alcoholic.
So what does this mean for me? If I am predisposed to be an alcoholic should I just give in and become an alcoholic? If my genes are working against me, maybe I should just give in! Who am I to fight genetics? No, I have a choice in how I live my life. And I refuse to give in to the sin of alcoholism just because I might be predisposed to the disease. We need to take responsibility for our own lives and the lives of others. The devil might tempt you to do something, but ultimately the choice to live a sinful life or not is ours to make.
So Paul is making a confession in our scripture for this morning. He doesn’t do what he wants to do, and he does do the things he doesn’t want to do. He commits sins of omission and sins of commission. Even the great Paul is not perfect. But I think it should be obvious that Paul is trying to make a point here that he is not without fault, he is not trying to say that he never does the right thing or that he never avoids doing what is wrong. He is saying he makes mistakes like everyone else. But he is not happy with his mistakes. He still must strive for the (unattainable?) perfection modeled for us by Jesus himself.
As I was preparing for this message, I had to think about my wife’s line of work. Sonya works for Woodrow Wilson Rehab Center in Fishersville. She is an occupational therapist and she works a lot with people who are confined to wheelchairs. Many of these people are victims of paralyzing spinal cord injuries, automobile accidents, sports accidents, brain injuries, a few strokes, and things of that nature. The people that Sonya works with do not have full control over their own bodies, and probably many of them never will.
If I walk into Woodrow Wilson Rehab while Sonya is working, I find her helping people that cannot open their hands try to write and tie their shoes. They might be trying to make their own meals or do their own laundry. Some are trying to walk the few steps needed to get from their wheelchairs to their beds at night. And though they may never achieve perfection, though they may never regain the full use of their arms and legs, though they may never walk again, these people are trying.
Now it would be easy for those with physical disabilities to read these words of Paul and connect at a different level than most of us might. Sonya’s patients want to make their bodies do certain things, but they cannot. They want to not do other things, but they seem to have no choice. But then there are those examples of people that have not let their disabilities keep them from their goals and their dreams.
There is a man by the name of Oscar Pistorius who is a double amputee. Both of his legs had to be removed below his knees when he was quite young. For many people, I would think this would be something that would cause a great deal of anger and depression. Anger and depression because of the things that they want to do but cannot. But Pistorius has not allowed his disability to keep him from being a world-class sprinter.
Known as the blade runner and the fastest man on no legs, Pistorius holds the world double-amputee records for the 400, 200, and 100 meter dash. And in 2007 he competed in his first international race with non-amputees after beating many others in his home country of South Africa. His next goal: to compete in the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing China as a sprinter against non-amputees. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moIkCxXrobk
A search of the internet can find many people that have endured body altering accidents or birth defects competing at a high level in spite of their disabilities. In 2005 there was a documentary released called Murder Ball which followed the US paralympic wheelchair rugby team in their 2004 quest for gold http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii-JRUkG_6w. Wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, and many other sports have been adapted for people with disabilities that refuse to give up on their bodies. So while these people are at a great disadvantage, while they want their bodies to do certain things but fail time and time again, they do not give up. Nor should a Christian give up trying to follow Christ when they find themselves not able to do the things they know they should. A Christian like Paul, like you, and like me that does things that they do not want to do must not give up. A Christian like Paul, like you, and like me that does not do the things that we know we should do should not give up. Oscar Pistorius, after all of his struggles, learning to walk and then run on prosthetic legs didn’t give up. And when a governing body told him that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage in running against “able bodied” runners and that therefore he could not compete in the Olympics, he appealed the decision and won. Now he will have the opportunity to qualify just like everyone else. Imagine if Christians would put as much effort into following Christ as Oscar Pistorius has put into becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic Games.
But we also need to be realistic here. There is a reason we have therapists like Sonya and others that work at rehabilitation centers. That is because it takes work to overcome these injuries. Oscar Pistorius did not get where he is without a lot of work and he surely didn’t get where he is on his own. The people that are able to care for themselves after a spinal cord accident don’t get to that point without pushing themselves. It takes work and it takes help.
As Paul closes this piece of scripture, he mentions one more time his struggles. He says in verse 24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul is not saying that he wants to die, but that he wants to live! He wants to live for Christ. But he needs to be rescued from the things that continue to cause him to sin, the things that continue to keep him from the perfection of Christ. And he knows that the one who is able to help him achieve his goals is Jesus.
We all have obstacles to achieving the perfection of Christ. Our first obstacle is our humanity. For the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. But we cannot make excuses for failing time and time again when we do not do the things we want and we do the things we don’t want to do. We have heard the Gospel. We know that Jesus has called us to a higher ethic. With the help of Christ and the help of others, let us continue to strive for perfection. Don’t let a genetic predisposition, a physical deformity or handicap, or the temptations that surround us keep us from achieving our goal of a life in Jesus. Just as I have identified not exercising and eating too much ice cream as the reason I could not walk the hills at the golf course, we must identify the obstacles that keep us from living for Christ and overcome them. If a man with no legs can run in the Olympics, who knows what we can do?