Friday, July 7, 2017

Running Out the Clock

First Lutheran Church, Battle Lake, MN
July 9, 2017/Pentecost 5
Romans 7:15-25a

A few weeks ago I heard one of the weirdest stories ever on public radio[1]

It was about this woman from New Jersey who suffered from epilepsy so severe that she was having seizures nearly all the time. 

Her physicians proposed a radical surgery—severing the cable of nerves that connected the left half of her brain with the right half of her brain.

For the most part the surgery was successful.  The woman’s near-constant seizures ceased.

But then she noticed something strange happening to her.   Sitting in her doctor’s office, her left hand started to unbutton her blouse—and the woman wasn’t making it happen. 

Other weird stuff happened:  the woman would light up a cigarette with her right hand—only to have it snubbed out by her left hand.   If the woman did something her left hand didn’t approve of, the hand would slap her face—sometimes leaving her black and blue.

The woman’s doctors diagnosed her with  Alien Hand Syndrome (I’m not making this up!)

That name of this diagnosis is a little misleading, though, because the problem was in her head, not her hand.

Alien Hand Syndrome comes from each hemisphere of the brain “having a mind of its own”—one hemisphere no longer in dialogue with the other hemisphere.

This strange, strange story helps us understand what the apostle Paul is saying here our text:  “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. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  (Romans 7:15, 18-19)

For centuries readers have been puzzled by and even fought over this section of Romans 7, for at least two reasons:

First, Paul’s words fly in the face of conventional worldly wisdom that says we can change for the better if we just put our minds to it.  

Paul contends, instead, that “mind over matter” isn’t always necessarily so!

And we’re not just talking about addictions or bad habits, either.   In all the choices that matter most in life, we are not as free as we imagine ourselves to be.   We can often see the right path, but our feet fail to get us there.  

It’s as if we have our own version of alien hand syndrome—or alien tongue syndrome, alien feet syndrome, alien body syndrome.   

It’s as if a battle is going on inside us, threatening to undo us….
….which leads us to the second reason why we struggle so much with this 7th Chapter of Romans.

For Paul’s words here also seem to contradict conventional Christian wisdom, which tells us that this is not what our life in Christ should look like.  

Sure, Paul’s internal struggle could be part of our sorry, sinful past….but when Christ burst into our lives, when we’re baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, when Christ moves into our neighborhood and takes charge of our lives—all our hemming and hawing and wrestling with sin should be over, shouldn't it?!

Decades ago when I was serving a congregation in St James, MN, a young man came to my office one morning.   He wasn’t a member of my congregation, but he knew many of my members….and the young man was worried about them.   He had been praying fervently for them, and he told me that the Holy Spirit had laid a burden on him:  a question that he needed to ask me--Was I preaching enough about holiness?  

Based on this young man’s observations of my parishioners, most were still sinners.  They were not yet living the transformed, victorious, “better-every-day” lives of true believers!

This young man apparently assumed that here in Romans 7 the apostle Paul was having an historical flashback, a painful memory of how it used to be in his pre-Christian days…even though all indications in the text are that Paul was testifying to his present, here-and-now experience!

Here we are:  baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, dead to sin and alive to God, freed from everything that might hold us back—sin, death and the power of the devil—that “unholy trinity” Martin Luther spoke of so often.

But why don’t we always look that way, sound that way, act that way?   Why are we still thinking, speaking and acting contrary to whom God has recreated us to be in Christ?

The more we mull it over, the crazier it drives us!   With Paul here in Romans 7 we cry out:  “O wretch that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

And then, as Paul hears himself asking that very question…it’s as if the answer just comes to him:   “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

There is a struggle within us, a battle of wills inside of us—but with Paul, we know who’s going to prevail:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

But shouldn’t it be more cut-and-dried than that?  Shouldn’t God’s victory over sin, death and power of the devil be plainer to see?  Why does life seem to be not an “either/or” proposition, but rather a “both/and” situation?

What if… what if….this isn’t a falsification of the Christian life?   

What if, rather, this is the very nature of the Christian life?

What if instead of imagining that in Christ we are now steadily progressing toward eternity, “onward and upward, always better, day by day?”  

What if, rather, we’re caught up in an “already-but-not-yet” life, at least for the time being?

What if this very paradox is, until God’s New Day finally arrives--what if this is exactly what the Christian life looks like?  

What if (as Luther liked to say) we are during our time on earth always simul justus et peccator—at the same time saint and sinner?  What if our Lord Jesus has decisively defeated all the forces of darkness—even though that victory is still playing itself out in us and in our world?

Let me offer a way to think about that.

When I was a teenager I loved basketball but was perfectly awful at playing basketball.

So, to stay connected with the game, I managed our high school’s basketball team, took care of the practice balls and other equipment, kept track of the statistics.

Once a year, though, even I got to play the game, in our high school’s annual intramural class tournament.  

It was our junior year, and my classmates were some of the best basketball players in Minnesota, so we wiped out all our opponents and then found ourselves in the championship game—us juniors against the seniors.

The game was a runaway victory for our junior class, the starting five, some of my best friends, running up a 40 point lead.
…we were so far ahead that when the fourth quarter started, all of us bench-warmers got to play.  We could do no wrong, after all, because victory was already in the bag… we poor miserable scrubs got out there on the basketball floor and played our hearts out.   Even I scored some points and received a standing ovation!

The game had already been won—decisively—but the final buzzer had yet to sound!

My dear friends in Christ, this offers a glimpse of what it’s like to live out our days in God’s “already but not yet” time.

At the Cross and the Empty Tomb our Lord Jesus won the victory—no doubt about it!   When our Lord Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” history effectively ended.  Jesus’saving work marked the turning point of the ages.

But there was still time left on the clock—there was a fourth quarter, in which you and I are still playing.   Sin, death and the power of the devil all have been trounced….but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still feebly trying to re-assert themselves, in the vain hope that they might still come out on top.

St Paul here in Romans chapter 7 sees all of that clearly.  He recognizes in his own bodily life, the futile attempts sin makes to try to win a battle it has actually already lost.

Where does that leave us?   Here’s the last word:  not “O wretch that I am!” but rather:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And where does that leave us?

It leaves us free--free to live out the time remaining on the clock, free to trust God, love all our neighbors and care for this good earth.

It leaves us free to play our hearts out, just for the joy of simply to be the people God has made us to be.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.