Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
5th July 2020
Whenever I get exasperated with St Paul - which I do quite often - I turn to the passage from his letter to the Romans which we have heard today. When I read it, it is as though all the barriers of time and place and language between Paul’s world and ours simply fall away. ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.’ I know exactly what that feels like - it is my experience too.
Paul is talking about sin. Sin has become a debased word in our culture - we use it to mean something naughty but nice, as in the diet plans that allow you so many ‘sins’ each day in the form of ice cream and chocolate truffles. But our Gospel reading shows us a Jesus who loved eating and drinking and good company, much to the horror of the puritans of his day. The reality of sin is both less exotic and much more serious.
A few years ago, the novelist Francis Spufford wrote a splendid book called ‘Unapologetic’ in which he explains why he returned to his Christian faith after twenty years away. His starting point is just this experience of sin that Paul talks about. Spufford defines it as the human potential to mess things up. Sometimes we manage to mess things up on a truly catastrophic scale, as the news headlines remind us. But, more often than not, it is the day to day conflict between the person we are and the person we know we were created to be that gets us down.
You don’t need a theology degree to understand this - indeed, as Jesus hints in our Gospel, a theology degree might actually be a disadvantage, because it suggests that we can solve the problem of sin by thinking about it. And we cannot. In fact, the New Testament is clear that there is nothing at all we can do in our own strength to rescue ourselves - not rules and regulations or moral judgements designed to keep us uncontaminated. The demands that Jesus makes are thrillingly impractical: give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there’s no tomorrow - ‘be ye perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. The consequence is that everyone fails. As Paul writes earlier in Romans, ‘all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God’.
So where can we turn? ‘Wretched man that I am!’ cries Paul. ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ Because Jesus shows us a God who offers us judgement, yes, but beyond judgement mercy and grace, free and undeserved. This is the Jesus who asked his Father to forgive his persecutors as he hung on the cross, who came to the disciples who had deserted him and said, ‘Peace be with you’, who still says to all of us ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’.
As we experience God’s forgiveness for ourselves, it changes us. There is a lovely example of this in the story of John Newton, who wrote the words of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. Newton was a slave trader and the hymn describes his dramatic conversion in 1748, when his ship was caught in a violent storm off County Donegal and he called on God to rescue him in his helplessness. That experience of mercy caused him to rethink his whole way of life, not instantly but gradually, until by 1755 he had given up the slave trade and become an active campaigner against it.
I hope that we will soon meet in church once again to share the Eucharist, so perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves how our worship reflects the grace and mercy that have been shown to us by our wonderful God.
‘This is what the church is for’, writes Francis Spufford. ‘We eat the bread, we drink the wine, to be joined to the act from which forgiveness came. We eat grace. We feel ourselves forgiven. And feeling that, we turn from the table to try to love the world, and ourselves, and each other.’ May God bless us in that endeavour, today, this week and always. Amen.