Message for July 5, 2020-“Practically Perfect”
(Based on Lesson: Romans 7: 14-25a)
For we know that the Law is spiritual: but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
It was one of those warm and rainy summer mornings. I was having a glass of iced tea and visiting with my cousin Laura in her kitchen while her three year old daughter, Susan, sat coloring a picture in her new coloring book. The kitchen door was open, but an inner screen door separated us from the steady rain that was falling just outside. Little Susan was becoming bored with her coloring. She went over to the screen door and quietly and gently began to unlatch it and push it open. Laura caught Susan in mid-push. “Honey, it is still raining,” she said, “you can’t play in the yard today.” “But, I want to go outside,” Susan protested. “I know you do, but not today while it is raining,” Laura said. “But Mommy,” Laura insisted, this time in her outside voice… “I still WANT to!”
This scene is one that every parent has experienced with our children more times than we care to admit—the dreaded “but, I said I-WANT-to” discussion. Try as we might, we cannot convince them not to want what they want; nor, often to even offer up an acceptable alternative activity. Our young ones know what it is they desire, and they are often unwavering in their pursuit of achieving it, regardless of its appropriateness for them. This innate singular concern with self-gratification, that we often see displayed by young children, is the heart of our human nature. And, as Paul shares with his readers in our scripture lesson today, it is that human nature, our flesh, that often leads us away from the kingdom and into situations of sin.
As we previously discussed, Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome was his theological opus. Biblical scholars place its composition in about the year A.D. 57—some 21 years after Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, beginning his sharing the message of salvation by grace through faith to the gentile nations. So, 21 years into his ministry, Paul still acknowledged that his human, fleshly, nature was often at odds with his will to live his new spiritual and Christ-like life. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul asserts. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things I hate.” Paul continues, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Even after our own personal salvation experience, we, like Paul, may occasionally experience our own inner “baby Susan” emerging within us. We continue to wrestle with our human nature, one that can lead us back into sinful territory. We will to do good, but our sinful humanness may keep us from actually doing it. Like Paul, we too may be driven to cry out, “Wretched me, who will rescue me?” Well Church, fear not, for Paul’s letter to the Roman Church today also shares good news for us! Thanks be to God, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus—for believers. Christ died once for us, that we, too may die to our fleshly nature and walk in new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works with our spirit as we set our minds on spiritual things. Believers can overcome our fleshly human nature and its selfish wants by God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to work with us and in us. This “overcoming” is the spiritual process of our faith journey that is known as sanctification.
John Wesley, the founding father of our Methodist Denomination, had a similar understanding of the journey of our faith, or “way of salvation.” Based on his study and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, combined with his own personal conversion experience at a Moravian service at Aldersgate Street in 1738, Wesley firmly believed in salvation by faith in God’s provision of grace through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. But, like Paul, John Wesley affirmed that our faith journey does not end here. John Wesley also understood that the saved sinner experiences occasions in which his/her new inner spirit of faith comes into conflict with their human nature and its “fleshly” desires. And so, sanctification, also called Christian Perfection, is a process whereby we work together with the Holy Spirit in order to grow more and more Christ-like in the thoughts and actions of our daily lives.
So, Church, what does today’s heartfelt message have to say to us, and to these times in which we are living? I believe Paul’s words to the Roman Church are especially appropriate for Christians today. During this time of persevering through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living under stressful circumstances. Our former lives, and many of our former creature comforts, have been uprooted without notice. We are now being asked to display our love and concern for others by refraining from close physical contact and practicing appropriate social distancing. We have been asked to refrain from exercising our personal freedom of choice by wearing masks in public to protect against the transmission of the virus through the very air we all breathe. We may feel an inner want to go back to the way things were before COVID-19 interrupted our lives. In our inner spirit, however, we know that this is not in the best interests of either ourselves or of the others we are commanded by our faith to love. We know the truth about COVID-19 and its methods of transmission. Our faith commands us to love others by not only willing what is good, but by actually doing it. So, as we celebrate our nation’s freedom this weekend, let us resolve to best exercise our freedom by making wise and unselfish choices for these times in which we are living. Loving others as Christ loved us calls us to make sacrifices of our own personal freedom and comforts on behalf of the needs of others. This manner of love will also display our growth, through the Holy Spirit’s work within us, along the road and the process of our Christian Perfection. Jesus embodied perfection for us while he dwelt among us. Let us now follow his example…and grow ever closer to becoming… practically perfect! Amen.