SJF • Proper 9a • Tobias Haller BSG+In a film of a few years back, The Statement, Michael Caine plays an aging French Nazi. As a young man he had participated in the massacre of fellow villagers who were Jewish. He himself is a devout Roman Catholic who has been shielded by the church — moved from monastery to monastery around the country — because he belongs to a mysterious organization, a “church within the church,” similar to if not identical with Opus Dei — the group given a rather fantastic interpretation in another more recent film, The Da Vinci Code. He is constantly on the run and lives between the terror of being assassinated or abducted to Israel to stand trial, and wallowing in emotional outbursts of repentance.
For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but 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.
In one particularly telling scene, he is kneeling in his tiny apartment, resting his arms on a small table adorned with various devotional objects, weeping and wailing his heart out in a paroxysm of repentant anguish. At the end of this emotional display he seems a bit calmer and relieved; but as he stands he almost trips over his old dog, lying on the floor all this while behind him. Suddenly possessed with a savage rage, he begins kicking the dog mercilessly, cursing at the top of his lungs. And whatever sympathy the audience might have had for him, it disappears in a flash.
More importantly, the problem with this Nazi isn’t just that he can’t escape his past, it is that he can’t escape himself. He is not just a good man who did a bad thing once years before and has yet to pay the price — he is a bad man who thinks his bouts of repentance will make up for the fact that his heart has not changed in all those years: the heart that led him to betray his fellow villagers in order to preserve himself. In fact, he isn’t even really repentant — he just doesn’t want to get caught; self-preservation is still the rule. The irony is that he is already caught: he is free only in the sense that he is not in a prison made of stone and iron — his real prison is his own self - the very self he so earnestly wants to preserve.
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Saint Paul has a similar problem, but finds a better solution. He too has done something awful when he was younger, as a persecutor of the church who arrested Christians up and down the country, and even saw to it that some of them were put to death. But even after his conversion he realizes that not only can he not escape his past — even though he has really repented of it — but that he cannot escape himself. He keeps on sinning: he knows what he ought to do, but he doesn’t do it; he knows what he shouldn’t do, but he still does it. As he says, “When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but 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.”
Now, Saint Paul is not unique in this: in fact, this is pretty much the human condition when it comes to good behavior. None of us is perfect, and all of us fall off the wagon from time to time — and even if we are able to avoid the sins of intention, the ones that we have to work at (such as pride, envy, and hatred) it is difficult if not impossible to avoid the sins that derive from the emotions, such as anger — the sins that arise unbidden and almost irresistibly.
The boundary between who we are and what we do is open and easily crossed — you don’t need a passport to go from one country to the next: and it is sometimes hard to tell the difference or make the distinction between being and doing. The late science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “Socrates said, ‘To be is to do.’ Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘To do is to be.’ And Frank Sinatra said, ‘Do be do be do.’” Our being and our doing are intimately connected, however you sing the song. As I noted in my sermon a few weeks ago, the sum of who we are is largely determined by the choices we make and the things we do in our lives — and we do not always choose rightly even if we want to, and we have to deal with the consequences of our wrong choices as much as we enjoy the rewards of our right ones.
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But to get back to Saint Paul: even as he complains about his situation, he doesn’t stop there wallowing in his own inability to be perfect, his own inability to escape himself, his own flesh and members, which seem to be a law unto themselves and lead him to do the very things he doesn’t want to do. He knows that there is someone to rescue him from what he calls “this body of death” — and isn’t that a powerful phrase to describe the prison of oneself, the Death Row of ones own body?
Paul knows that as bad as he is, as harsh is the sentence he deserves, he has been saved — rescued, quite literally from death, delivered from solitary confinement in the prison of his own incapacitated self, a self that without Christ Jesus can look forward to nothing but condemnation and destruction and death. The rescuer has come.
No wonder daughter Zion rejoices greatly, no wonder daughter Jerusalem shouts aloud — the cavalry has come to the rescue! Or perhaps I should say “Calvary” in this case, for this isn’t about horses and chariots, but about the Son of God come in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with sin, by nailing it to the cross and sealing the new covenant in his own blood, and then to rise in glory.
It is this new covenant, the covenant of the Spirit in the blood of the Savior, ratified by God in his rising from the dead, that allows us to escape the prison of our selves. He put the power of the flesh to death in his own flesh, so that those who walk according to the Spirit can find both life and peace in him; rescued and reprieved, and pardoned, to rise with him.
And you will notice that Paul’s teaching on this is fully in keeping with Jesus Christ’s own assurance on the subject. He calls us from the weariness of carrying the heavy burden of our selves — our sinful flesh weighed down by the burden of the law, which cannot save but only makes us more conscious of how low and sinful and weary we are, as if, like villagers in some medieval town, we had our sentence carved on heavy wooden signs to carry around our necks.
He has taken that heavy, weary burden upon himself — borne the weight of the sins of the whole world, and in exchange has placed upon us only his easy yoke and light burden, easy and light enough that the weakest and weariest can bear it.
And what is that burden? Of what does the yoke of Christ consist? Not an endless quest after perfection; not a repetitious wallowing in emotional bouts of repentance that may bring momentary relief but can offer no permanent escape from the prison of self. No, what he asks of us is simple, so simple that the wise and intelligent sometimes miss it, and it is up to infants to proclaim it — what he asks is summed up in that one word, Love: to love our God and our neighbor.
Like any good yoke this one is balanced: it has two arms, and you cannot use it unless both sides are engaged — have you ever seen villagers carrying two pails of water with a yoke? It’s no good trying to carry one, or one full and one empty! So too with the yoke of the Spirit, the easy yoke that Jesus places upon us, so that we may walk in his way, bearing only the light double burden of love — a burden that steadies without wearying, for love never fails nor grows weary.
The double love of God and neighbor delivers us from the law of the flesh, from the prison of ourselves, because it turns us from ourselves towards others — towards God and our neighbor. We are no longer obsessed with seeking forgiveness for our sins in bouts of repentance — our sins have been forgiven, not because we earned their forgiveness, but because Christ died for us. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.” We remember and confess our sins here in church week by week not to earn God’s favor, but to remind ourselves of his love for us in having forgiven them already. In that knowledge we are strengthened in the Spirit to return that love to him and share it with our neighbors.
This is the means by which are liberated from the prison of ourselves — when we recognize that the door has been opened, the chains have been cut, the locks unlocked and the gates flung wide. The King of glory has entered in and done his work in rescuing us from sin and death: his incarnation has reversed our incarceration! All we need do now is walk through the door bearing his yoke of love, and walking in accordance with the Spirit. Let us take his yoke upon us and learn from him, the one gentle and humble in heart, yet strong to save: Jesus Christ our Lord.+