It has been three weeks, and all we have heard from St. Paul’s letter to the Roman’s is what feels like an obsession with sin. To be honest, I am not sure an assessment of St, Paul being obsessed with sin would be too far off the mark. Now in a second chapter of this letter, Paul is still talking about sin and its control over him and the world.
Knowing Paul however, an obsession with sin is not surprising. From his perspective, it is sin, or better yet evil which has brought humanity to the state it is in, and it is because of our sinfulness that Jesus came into the world to redeem us. This my friends is the crux of the “why” for Paul. The “why” as in why we need Jesus. In this morning’s passage, Paul define’s the cosmic battle between good an evil as the battle between the flesh and the Spirit.
Before we go further, it is important to note when Paul uses the term “flesh” he is not referring to the body. Instead he is referring to the forces of this world which distract us or draw us away from God. Or more bluntly, he is referring to those things we worship or at least try to worship along side God, I.e. money, beauty, power etc. All of which Paul has come to realize are worldly things which last but a short time. The powers of the Spirit, are all contained in the receiving and valuing the gift of grace as provided through the cross. From Paul’s perspective, we have entered a zero sum game. Either we are all in with Christ and therefore slaves to God, or we are slaves to the world. We cannot serve both.
Paul’s sense of all or nothing is not new to the Judeo-Christian world. In Deuteronomy 30:19, after God delivers the Law through Moses, God ends the dictation with the words, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Then in both Matthew and Luke Jesus states, ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.*
In Romans, Paul accepts that we live in the world and are therefore immersed in an ocean of evil. The good news, however, is thanks be to Christ, we now have a focal point upon which to discern between what is of the spirit and what is of the flesh
Of course we don’t always get this right. We often opt for the flesh over the spirit. This of course is what led to last week’s passage in which Paul laments, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
As I said last week, this is where Paul always wants to bring his listener. To the point of humility, to the point where we accept that we are powerless to the forces of the flesh because until we connect with our own sinful reality, we have no room for the gift of divine grace and the opportunity the cross affords us. It could be said, Paul was the first adherent of the twelve step process, accepting that until we reach rock bottom and accept we are powerless over sin and therefore need the cross in order to find a right relationship with God, we will never experience salvation. It is at this point that Paul offers us hope, “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Even though we have not lived perfect lives. Even though we will continue to fall short of living perfect lives. If we choose to live in the context of the spirit, through the cross there is forgiveness and grace. This is what Paul experienced at his conversion on the road to Damascus, this is the peace we can expect when we choose the Spirit over the flesh.
In my letter to the congregation this week, I shared part of the experience I had when touring our state prisons. I am not sure there is anything more overwhelming than having the opportunity to observe prison life for even the short period we did. The two things I felt when entering the prison yards were one, the loss of personal identity.
Those who are incarcerated are simply inmates. It does not matter who or what they were in a former life, once incarcerated you are simply known to the rest of the world as an inmate. I suspect I was more sensitive to this knowing that the former suffragan Bishop of Maryland, an acquaintance of mine is now incarcerated because of a hit and run accident that occurred while she was driving intoxicated. I couldn’t imagine what humiliation she must have endured as she was stripped of her robes, her collar and her vocation as she abruptly became an inmate in a Maryland prison.
The second thing I was overwhelmed by while we walked through the yard was the sense of boredom. Doing time is doing time. Twenty-four hours a day of nothing but eating, sleeping and hanging out. It is up to every inmate to find to find purpose and meaning while behind bars. For those in prisoned for a short period of time, I imagine this can be easily done. But for those serving twenty years or more, this would take a great amount of resilience and hope.
In the medium security prison we were introduced to one inmate who had found such purpose through the k-9 training program. In partnership with Guiding Eyes, deserving inmates are matched with puppies which are bred as service dogs. Their job is to train these dogs. The inmate who spoke with us, shared with us how being part of the program had taught him patience, what it means to give back, and a sense of being able to give back to society.
Later that day the group reflected on this conversation, I shared how I felt I had experienced a man who understood what Paul celebrates in his letter to the Romans. That he had been redeemed, not through his own power, but through his encounter with divine grace as found through the unconditional love of the dogs he trained.
At the end of our conversation, our guide asked the question, “what is the mission of the prison system, to protect society, to offer rehabilitation, or to offer redemption?” I believe all three, for this is what God offers each of us every day.