A Sermon Preached on July 6 2104, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden
Zechariah 9:9-12, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, Psalm 145
Last week we heard all about St. Paul’s view of freedom as the choice between slavery to Sin and slavery to God. But this week it sounds as if even that choice for good is impossible: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19) Apart from offering a tongue twister almost as difficult as “Peter Piper picks a peck of pickled pepper” or “Fischers Fritz fischt frische Fische,” what is Paul going on about?
The conflict between reason and will on the one hand, and actual performance on the other was a big topic of discussion for Greco-Roman philosophers and poets. They were convinced that people were reasonable and rational, that it was possible to identify the best moral and ethical course of action in any case: both for the individual and society. And today secular humanists think the same. In his book The God Delusion the atheist writer Richard Dawkins identifies what he calls “moral universals,” that is a consensus about what is considered right and wrong, which is of course in his opinion entirely independent of any deity: “The manifest phenomenon of moral (Zeitgeist) progression is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good.”
But if this is the case, philosophers asked both in Paul’s day and today, why do people still go on doing what is wrong and what is bad for themselves and for others? Where does this moral incapability come from? A lot of progress seems simply to have extended both the range and ability of humans to do evil to one another and to God’s creation!
For Paul the reason is sin: “It is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (7:17) This is the source of all that is opposed to God, the sin that in the Genesis story of the fall of humanity caused Adam and Eve to rebel and to put themselves and their interests over God’s. This doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that we are all broken and have an inner tendency to sin, to do wrong, has by the way been described as the only Christian doctrine that can be proven empirically, that is by observation and experience! Looking at history there is definitely some truth in that statement.
But if sin is the cause, though obviously not one Professor Dawkins would agree with, what is the solution? In what sounds like the agonizing cry of one weighed down by the burden of sin, yet still passionately desiring a right relationship with God, Paul asks: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death” or better doomed body? (7:24) “God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25) is his answer. Only God can and wants to rescue us from sin and death. God has always been trying to restore the broken relationship between God and humanity, first through God’s Covenant with Israel and their calling to act as a visible witness to the whole world to God’s love and faithfulness and now, in the fullness of time, through the gift of God’s Son. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, (Matthew 11:28) and there is no heavier burden than sin and its effects. God is salvation is what the name Jesus literally means.
It is because Hannah’s parents trust in this promise, as we or our parents did
at our Baptism, that we are celebrating her Christening here today. On her behlaf her parents and godparents will promise to renounce Satan and all that rebels against God, to renounce the sin that draws us from God, and instead to turn to, to trust in and to follow Jesus Christ.
But wait, you say, or I do for you. Surely what Paul says, that we can will
what is right, but cannot do it, applies here too. We can’t just desire to do what is right and assume that we will be able to keep all these promises. No we can’t. Nor are Christians necessarily always better persons. Over the past months I have come to know you all as good Christians, and yet there will be things you have done and said over the last 18 months that you regret and wish you hadn’t done.
The difference is that Christians know about sin and sinfulness and we know
that we cannot save ourselves. We know that we need God’s help: That’s why the response to all the key promises in the service of Baptism is not just “I will,” but “I will, with God’s help.” God’s help is always available if we ask for it, in prayer, when we study God’s word in Scripture, or through the strength and guidance of God’s Spirit within us.
What also helps us do the good that we know we should do, and that we want to do, is one another. All our vows and promises as Christians are public vows, whether the promises of Baptism and Confirmation, Ordination, or marriage vows. We are supposed to support one another, to advise and even to criticize one another, but gently and in love, if it is needed. That’s what is meant when I ask you all later whether you who witness these vows will do all in your power to support Hannah in her life in Christ. Christianity is a collective religion: we worship, learn, and grow together, not alone.
Finally we are called to grow through practice in a virtuous cycle. One of the first questions asked of the parents and godparents is: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ? In Jesus’ words, when we become Christians we agree to take his yoke upon us and to learn from him. Though when he says that his yoke is easy, and his burden light, that is only true in one sense. It is quantitatively easier than the long list of extra commands and rules of the Pharisees of his day, because his command is short and centered on the essentials: Love God and love your neighbor. But qualitatively it is much more difficult, as the demands of love are virtually inexhaustible.
The Baptismal Covenant we will recite together in a moment gives us a list of
practical ways in which we take Christ’s yoke upon us and by which we can practice doing the good that we want to do, with God’s help:
- Proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
- Seeking and serving Christ in all persons.
- Striving for justice and peace among all people.
And in the project to help finance the bicycle ambulances for Malawi that we are presenting today you have a very practical opportunity to practice putting these covenant values into effect by helping to match the outreach budget funding with a personal donation.
As we now dedicate Hannah to her new life in Christ let us rededicate
ourselves to that same new life. It offers God’s help in overcoming sin and following Christ’s example, as well as God’s forgiveness when we fall short and do not manage to live up to that example. For which we say, in Paul’s words, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”