|Rembrandt's St. Paul|
"For I know that good does not dwell in me,
that is, in my flesh.
The willing is ready at hand,
but the doing the good is not.
For I do not do the good I want,
but I do the evil I do not want.
Now if I do what I do not want,
it is no longer I who do it,
but sin that dwells in me.
So, then, I discover the principle
that when I want to do right,
evil is at hand."
I think that next to his hymn on love (1 Cor. 13), this passage from Romans, along with the verses that follow it, completing chapter seven, are some of the most moving words St. Paul ever composed, and some of the most important in all of scripture. The lectionary has the reading end at verse 25a, but 25b is equally important, though it's a low note: "Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin." This line is the summary of what came before, and it's an astounding confession to hear from the great apostle.
This confession could not come at a better time, liturgically. All week Jesus and Paul have been given us a hard time, challenging us to practice what we say we believe. In today's gospel reading (Luke 12:54-59), we are told to read the signs of the times and to "judge for [our]selves what is right" (v.57). There is a great pressure to just choose to be good, as if it were that simple.
I know even my recent postings have made it seem as if I believed if were that simple. But it isn't. We all know it isn't. Despite the grace of God that comes through the sacraments, the scripture, the Christian community, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the intercession of Jesus the one mediator between God and humanity, we still find ourselves overwhelmed with the inability to always do what we know we ought to do, even if we seem to want it.
St. Paul does not pose the question I am about to, but I think the situation seems to beg it. Did the Christ event, as his life, death, resurrection, and ascension are called, really change anything? If, indeed, the flesh still serves "the law of sin", what is different? After all, St. John writes in his first letter "no one who remains in him sins; no one who sins has seen him or known him" (3:6). He further says, "In this way, the children of God and the children of the devil are made plain; no one who fails to act in righteousness belongs to God..." (3:10). By this measurement, it would seem that St. Paul was a child of the devil...and me...and most, if not all, of the people I know.
But we know that St. John was preaching through his letter, knowing that his audience of Christians were struggling in just the way that St. Paul was, and he wanted to impress upon them the importance of resisting sin. His exaggerated claims serve to create a sense of absoluteness about his instruction. Perhaps that method would scare some of his congregation into righteousness, in either the good or bad sense that that can happen. "The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7), after all. And next to that is the hatred of sin, which is what St. Paul and St. John are both talking about. It is only when we confess our sins and learn to hate them (not ourselves) that we begin to understand ourselves and what is actually for our own good and what contributes most fully to our happiness. We can begin to choose wisely, like a son or daughter of God ought to choose.
Something did really happen with the Jesus event, but it was not an easy fix or a reset button. We Christians struggle with living out our faith--loving our God and neighbor--as much as our non-Christian neighbors do, and yet, if you talk to faithful Christians, they will tell you about experiences of grace and healing that make it clear something is really at work in their lives. Someone, I should say: The Holy Spirit, who is guiding them each day closer to the Father. The graces given by the Spirit strengthen us and make us new creatures.
Although I am a sinner still, and do the things I do not want to do from time to time, I am not the same person I was before my baptism, confirmation, or religious profession. I may not be able to articulate it fully, but I believe from what I have experienced in my own life, that Jesus did conquer sin and death, and that his victory is the final word on the subject. And sinners, though we Christians all may be, we are joined to Christ, and so participate in his victory. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom 7:25a).
Br. Paul, OP