• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Free-ish Will

Summer in Rome, week 3 of 4 Four-week series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Preached July 19, 2020 for the 9:30am Virtual Worship


Context

For July, Caitlan and I are preaching from Paul’s letter to the Romans, specifically chapters five through eight. These four chapters are where Paul reveals his own wrestling with the implications of Christ on us all, and where Paul has to confront some of his own former beliefs and practices that he continues to see in others.


Today, we go into Chapter 7. It’s a longer reading, over 20 verses, because I want to let you hear how Paul wrestled, how Paul challenged himself, and how Paul came to believe and preach where he did.


Before we read scripture and preach, let’s pray…


Prayer


Scripture/Sermon Romans 7:1-25

7:1 Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? 2 For example, by law, a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive. But when her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. 3 So then, if she has a marriage relationship with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law, and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.


4 So, my brothers and sisters, your binding to the law also died through the (dead) body of Christ, so that you could belong to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, in order that we might all bear fruit for God.


5 See, when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.


7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Goodness no! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”[b] 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the law, produced in me every kind of coveting.


Apart from the law, sin was non-existent. 9 Once upon a time, I was alive apart from the law; but when the law came (to life), sin also sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very law that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 Because sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the law, deceived me, and through the law put me to death. 12 That’s why I can say, the law is holy, and the scriptures are holy, righteous and good.


13 Then, did that which is good, become death to me? Gosh, no! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the lin sin might become fully sinful.


14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. And what I want to do, I do not do, but instead I do what I hate. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I am agreeing that the law is good. 17 And, in that way, it is no longer I myself who is doing it, but it is sin living in myself. 18 I know that pure perfect goodness does not dwell in me, that is, my nature is stained with sin, because I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot fully do it. 19 and I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I don’t want to do—I just keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, is it no longer I who is doing it, and is it sin living in me that is doing it?


21 Here’s the law I find to be at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there beside me. 22 Somewhere in my innermost being, I delight in God’s law; 23 but I also see another law working in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.


24 What a wretched man I would be, unless someone would rescue me from this (sinful way of living) that leads only to death?


25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!


(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)


Sermon

I stopped going to church when I was about six, not long after the death of my father. But I remember enough about it to know there were two words I didn’t like to hear. One was righteousness… said with all four syllables. The other was sin. When the preacher said either of those words, they dripped with venom. I wasn’t old enough to understand them, as concepts, but I was old enough to feel the intention of the preacher using them. Righteousness was the thing we got if we were good, if we believed the right things and acted the right ways. Sin was other stuff, and it seemed to be lurking everywhere.


Today, there are churches that continue these trends, and some people find comfort in those churches. In some Christian churches, Sin is the stuff those other people are doing, and righteousness is the stuff the people at church have chosen, a gift the people in church have received and get to enjoy.


Notice, that’s not how Paul talks about it. Paul does talk about the dichotomies between human beings and God, between good and evil, between righteous and sinful. He does so using scripture, what he called Torah and which we translate as Law.


The scripture, Torah, law was written by people with God’s help to protect and preserve righteous, healthy relationships between us and God, between us and one another. Anyone who broke the law damaged those relationships, so their actions were considered sinful. Over time, the Law got more and more complicated and detailed, and the assumption of human beings became if everyone would just obey the Law, everything would be good and righteous.


Paul believed that too for a long time. He was a student of the Law. He became a lawyer, a preacher-slash-police officer for the Law, and went around judging others, arresting others, persecuting others for their disobedience to the Law. That was when we he was Saul, before he became Paul. The Paul we read here in Romans, has changed. He is older, wiser, and repentant of those days. He no longer talks about Law and order like he used to, as something he is already good at, and something he should impose on everyone else. Saul met Jesus, and his perspective changed and he became a new person, Paul.


See, the ones who preach the Law, the literal words of Scripture, and proclaim it the loudest were the very ones Jesus resisted the most. Why would Jesus, the embodiment of God and God’s will among us, the true teacher of right relationship with God, with one another, and with all creation… why would God in the flesh live a life that resisted or even rebelled against God’s law and the teachers of it?


The youth are reading Matthew front to back this summer, and I invite you to join them. Just a chapter a night and you’ll be finished in four weeks. Take note how many times the most religious, most righteous, most lawful people challenge Jesus with the scriptures, with the Law. Even the tempter himself, ha satan, uses Scripture against Jesus in the wilderness. Why are the scriptures, why is the Law used against Jesus so much?


Because Jesus wasn’t obeying their Law. In Matthew, Jesus is often accused of being against God or against God’s community because Jesus isn’t obeying their law. But what if the problem isn’t with Jesus, but with those trapped under the law? Saul learned that lesson the hard way. One day, he saw himself through God’s eyes, and it blinded him, and broke him, and changed him forever.


For years, Paul had stomached the cognitive dissonance. Do you know that term? It when we think or believe two totally different things about ourselves, two truths that cannot both be true, but we hold onto both of them and try to ignore the inconsistency. Saul was like that, aggressively defending the law in order to stomp out sin, but in so doing became a slave to sin through the law itself. The good law became a tool of sin and temptation in Saul’s hand.


Jesus was never breaking the Law, never abolishing Scripture. Jesus was always embodying it. So those who chose to defend Scripture, and used it to attack Jesus, felt they were right in doing so. In the end, they were terribly wrong. In the name of Law and order, they killed the very one who embodied their law, their God, their religion, and their nation.


Paul wants us to know, that’s what the Law does. Law will fail us. We cannot depend on Law alone. Its purpose is to show us how to live. Its purpose, when first written down, is to warn us, teach us, and correct us. But the Law itself, while pure and holy in itself, will tempt us to love it more than one another, more than God, and in so doing becomes a tool for evil to use through us.


Paul wants Christians to know, we are free from following the Law like that. Have you ever seen a Christian hate with scripture? Well, that was supposed to die when Jesus died. Those who truly love and follow Jesus know obeying the Law will lead to death. But laying down a strict adherence to the Law, the same Law they used to kill Jesus, frees us to obey a new law, the one born of Spirit, to one that leads to new life, new reconciled relationships, to love.


Its not easy. We will still find the old habits daring us to obey the law, and even to use the law against other children of God. But that would be against our truest nature. Inside, we want to love as God loves. We want to build holy community. Yet, we continue to build something else.


If that were the end, it would be such a sad story, and there would be no hope for humanity. But Paul reminds us, thanks to Jesus the Christ, we can have hope. We can imagine love. We can overcome the sin that haunts us, and leaks out of us despite our good intentions. We can live full and beautiful lives, that will one day die, but that in Christ, will never die.


To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.


Benediction

Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.


Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown

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In 2002, I left my corporate career, and went to seminary. Since 2005, I've been serving churches, and trying to follow Jesus, and lead others in doing the same...

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