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A tug of war

When I was out on my bike last week, around mid-day, I saw a child, maybe about 3 years old, walking by himself on the footpath. The temperature was about 11deg, I was freezing on my bike, and he was just in a t-shirt. But he had his arms up in the air, enjoying the cold breeze, in a pose that said to the whole world, ‘I am free, life is wonderful!’

Maybe that is where you might like to be this morning, free. Free again like a child. Free from responsibilities, free from burdens, free to start life over again. Because maybe you feel you are in a constant battle in life, both in your interior life and in what is going on around you.

Faith itself does not always give us the comfort we long for; belief does not always set us free. Sometimes it leads us into a wrestling, with ourselves and even with God. It is a struggle that many would choose to ignore or avoid.

This is what St Paul writes about in our New Testament reading. He is struggling to understand and share a common inner experience, which comes from a desire to please God and live according to God’s will. Paul observed that as much as he wanted to do the right thing, he kept doing the wrong thing. He says,

I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. Romans 7.18

St Paul is of course talking about us as individuals. But as I reflected on this verse over the past week, it occurred to me that it applies equally on a global scale: humanity may want to do what is right about many of the world’s problems - but the daily news shows we don't as nations and peoples seem able to carry it out.

I have that feeling about DIY projects. I recently bought one of those stick vacuum cleaners that you hang on the wall. It took me about a month after I bought it to get up enough courage to try to hang it on the wall, although the instructions were quite simple. Measure for the holes, insert the screws, mount the bracket, hang the vacuum. As I was preparing the hole for one of the screws, the drill skidded to the side of my pencil mark. So the vacuum finished up with a distinct lean to it. My lack of handyman skills were confirmed. And there it hangs, crooked, a permanent reminder to me of my failure. I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

Our desire to please God can be just as frustrating, as Paul noticed. As a Jew he was part of a belief system that enabled the people of Israel to know and do what is right in God’s eyes, and so show their love for God. The Law of Moses was the will of God made known to his people. But it wasn’t satisfying, because human beings just could not be perfect. The law of goodness had become a rule of burden.

Have you heard of Martin Luther? The Lutheran church is named after him. He lived about 500 years ago. He felt God calling him, and he wanted to please God with every part of his life. He decided he would do whatever was necessary in order to desire only God’s will. So he became a monk, and deprived himself of all earthly pleasures.

When this didn’t work to remove all of his selfish desires, he fasted. He fasted a whole lot. So much so that he made himself ill with permanent digestion problems. He also beat himself to distract his sinful thoughts, and had his fellow monks whip him. But he still didn’t have peace in his heart. He continued to sin against God in his desires.

Then in his monk’s cell he began reading St Paul’s letters, especially Romans. Up to that point in his life he had been a Romans chapter 7 christian:

I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. Romans 7.18

But finally Martin read to the end of the chapter and the beginning of the next:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7.25

Martin at last saw that Christ had come to set him free, free from what he could not do in trying to keep the Law of God. Jesus had done the work of saving him. He didn’t need to beat himself up in order to please God. He only needed to say ‘yes’ to the completed work of Jesus. Martin became a Romans chapter 8 christian:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. Romans 8.1-2

Martin was so excited about being set free that he nailed his discoveries on the door of his local church; the word spread far and wide, including across the channel to London. The Archbishop of Canterbury heard about it, and so did King Henry VIII; and we all became Anglicans. How is that for a short history lesson?

I expect that some of us, some of the time, are still Romans 7 christians. I know I slid backwards at the time when my marriage broke down. I felt like St Paul: who can save me from this body of death? I had certainly done things that I did not want to do. What was I to do? I went to see a Christian friend, an Anglican vicar. He had to preach the gospel to me afresh, because I felt as if it no longer applied to me. My friend used Romans 8 to restore me.

In Christ we have been set free - free from all kinds of fear, especially fear of not being able to satisfy ourselves or God; we have been set free from fear of death; and we have been set free to enjoy a relationship with God as our Father, without shame or fear. Paul answers the question ‘how is this possible’: he says it is because there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Paul is so excited about this that he uses a triple introduction to tell us about it.

Our pew bible puts it this way:

If you belong to Christ Jesus, you won’t be punished. Romans 8.1

This is fairly straight forward. But it doesn’t really grasp the excitement of Paul. What he actually says in Greek is this:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8.1

Paul is so excited that he is thumping his fist on the table: ‘There is therefore now…no condemnation.’ It’s not just that we won’t be punished. There is no one condemning us! No one is pointing the finger at us! We have been set free in Christ.

The next logical question is: who is this for? Who is eligible for this amazing freedom in Christ? I am. You are. We can walk down the street with our hands in the air enjoying the beautiful wind of God’s breath, even when it’s just 11 degrees outside.

This has an even greater benefit in the life of a believer. Being no longer condemned, we have freedom to know the beautiful work of God within us. We see it in this eucharist. We usually think of communion as though we are taking God into us as we eat the bread and drink the wine. But this actually makes God very small and dependent on us. One of the earliest Christians, Irenaeus, said it’s really the other way around: God is taking our life into his. To be free in Christ is to be immersed in him in our baptism; to be partakers with him in his dying and rising as we eat the bread and drink the wine; and to grow in him. With St Paul we can exclaim: thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.