Sunday 15 • 16 Jul 2017

Isaiah 2:1-4
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Rev. Chris Udy

“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.”
It’s a powerful statement;
one that fits all kinds of behaviour
from gambling and drinking
to digging up fossil fuels.
It’s a statement that’s focussed and expressed
the frustration and anguish of people of faith
for nearly 2000 years –
and it comes from what could easily be described
as the most influential letter ever written.

In his letter to the Romans
Paul describes himself
as a battleground of moral and spiritual conflict.
‘I know what the good is’ he says -
‘but I don’t do it.
‘I understand what I
should do,
but I keep choosing actions
that not only cause me shame,
but cause others harm.’
“I delight in the law of God
in my inmost self,’ Paul writes
“but I see in my members - (in my body) - another law
at war with the law of my mind,
making me captive to the law of sin
that dwells in my members.
Wretched man that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God
through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Paul’s a complex and conflicted man.
He’s a figure of enormous significance
in the early Church
and in the development of Christian faith -
but he was from the beginning -
and he has been ever since -
a focus of dispute
and a difficult person to understand.
And it’s not surprising
that his inner life was vivid and explosive -
because his public life was full
of bitter fights and contradictions,
and almost everything he did was controversial.

Paul was ambiguous right from the start.
He was born in Tarsus,
which was in Cilicia - modern Turkey - to Jewish parents,
but he was also a Roman citizen -
a very highly prized and valuable status
that his parents probably paid for when he was born
and which almost certainly saved his life later.
He was trained as a tent-maker -
and he often used his trade
to earn a living during his journeys -
and he was schooled as a Pharisee -
so he had a thorough grounding
in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Law -
and he first appears in the Bible
as the young man who held the cloaks
of the mob who were stoning Steven.

He was probably much the same age as Jesus,
and after Jesus was crucified
he was part of an official attempt
to stamp out the Christian movement in Jerusalem.
Some time between 30 and 35AD,
as part of that official crackdown,
he was sent north to the city of Damascus
with letters of authority to arrest
any who belonged to ‘the Way’ -
as Christians were first known.
On his journey there,
Paul himself was dramatically converted,
and his life of conflict and contradiction deepened.

He always maintained that he received the Gospel,
not second-hand from the disciples,
but directly from Jesus -
and although he wasn’t one of the 12,
he always called himself an Apostle -
which means ‘one who is sent’.
Paul anointed himself ‘the Apostle to the Gentiles’
and in that self-appointed role
he argued and battled with the other Apostles
throughout his life -
especially with Peter,
whom he accused of buckling under pressure
from Jewish Christians
who wanted to insist that Gentile converts
had to be circumcised and follow Jewish law.
But Paul also had problems with James,
the brother of Jesus
and the leader of the Church in Jerusalem -
and with the people who travelled with him
on his missionary journeys -
people like Barnabas and Silas and John Mark.

Paul’s missionary method also led him into conflict.
Apparently his practice,
when he came to a new city,
was to take himself along to the Synagogue,
where he used his knowledge of scripture
and his legally trained mind
to argue those who were there into conversion.
That almost always led to a division
in the Jewish communities he visited,
and he was often run out of town
by Synagogue officials
angry at the discord Paul had caused
in what was already
a dangerous and difficult time for Jewish people.

Even when a Christian community
broke away from the local Synagogue
under Paul’s influence,
and started welcoming Gentiles
into their worship and community life,
Paul’s continuing advice and intervention
wasn’t always peace-making or calming.
Some of us are probably quite grateful that he won,
but the battle against requiring circumcision
for adult Gentile men who wanted to be baptised
took nearly 20 years,
and only ended with the first Council of the Church
in Jerusalem in AD 50.

Wherever he travelled, and he travelled extensively,
Paul also wrote letters -
most of them intended,
not as personal notes,
but as circular epistles,
sometimes called ‘diatribes’ -
which were written in the form of an argument -
almost like responding to hecklers
and questions from a crowd.
Fourteen of the letters in the New Testament
are attributed to Paul -
but most scholars think only seven
almost certainly came from him -
and the most important -
the most comprehensive, the most thoughtful,
arguably the most brilliant,
and certainly the most complex -
is the letter to the Romans.

Paul wrote the letter -
or dictated it really, to a scribe named Tertius -
in Corinth, probably around 57 AD -
so that’s 30 years after the Resurrection,
and about the same time Mark’s Gospel was written.
For the 10 years before
he wrote the letter to the Romans
Paul had been travelling around the Aegean Sea,
visiting synagogues and churches,
preaching and raising money
that he was about to take with him
on his final trip to Jerusalem.
There had been a famine in Judea
and there were other significant problems
Paul wanted to address -
so he was taking relief funds
for the community there.

Paul wrote his letter
as a kind of introduction to himself,
hoping he would be travelling to Rome
after his trip to Jerusalem.
He was interested in the community in Rome
because his mother was living there (16:13),
and also because he was hoping
to base himself in Rome for a while
before he moved on to Spain
to begin a new phase of his work.
But it’s probably fortunate
that Paul wrote the letter when he did,
because it was while he was in Jerusalem,
and visiting the Temple
that Paul was arrested -
some think betrayed
by leaders in the Christian community -
and he spent the next two years
in prison in Caesarea.
It was only after he’d spent
those two years in prison
that he appealed to the new Governor in Caesarea
for a trial in Rome,
on the grounds that he was a Roman citizen.
Then he was finally taken to Rome via Malta.

The Christians in Rome
were also an embattled and conflicted community.
The Church in Rome had been established very early -
tradition says by Peter -
and it had grown strongly,
attracting both Jewish and Gentile converts.
But the controversy over circumcision
and observance of the Jewish Law
had stirred up controversy and argument there too,
and in AD 49 the Emperor Claudius
banned all Jewish people -
including the Jewish Christians - from the city
because their public disputes were disturbing the peace.
That left Gentile Christians
leading the Christian communities in Rome -
and it was only when Claudius died
and Nero became Emperor in AD 54
that Jewish people were permitted to return to Rome.

Paul’s letter arrived just a few years later,
and it specifically argues, all the way through,
against the idea that observing Jewish Law -
including circumcision -
was necessary for God’s approval and salvation,
and also
for the unique and important place
of Jewish people in God’s plan.
Paul wanted Jewish people -
maybe especially those
who’d been expelled and returned to Rome -
to be welcomed and valued in Christian communities,
but he said that law - Jewish Law especially,
but any and all law -
all rules and regulations
and contracts and orders -
everything written down
to record the rights and limits
and obligations people have -
whether they be with each other or with God -
all law fails to bring us to salvation.
Only Spirit can bring life.

Law, Paul argues, is good
and needed as a teacher;
rules and regulations define the limits to life
they tell us what we must not do,
and they set out sanctions
and punishments for failure -
but that’s all they can do.
No-one can be ordered
to be loving, or hopeful, or good -
no-one can legislate us into compassion,
or kindness, or courage, or trust -
those things come from God,
through the Spirit, as a gift -
and they all depend and begin, Paul says,
with trusting faith.

The earliest model for our relationship with God,
according to Paul in Romans - is Abraham -
and Abraham lived as a friend of God
long before the Law was given to Moses.
So it’s Abraham who shows us
how to live with God -
and Abraham’s relationship with God
was based, not on Law, but on faith.
“Abraham believed God”, quotes Paul,
“and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

So Abraham and his faith provides our model
for a life-giving relationship with God.
Next we receive the Law
to teach us what’s right and wrong;
and by the Law we understand
that we are guilty of wrongdoing -
but the penalty - the punishment -
the Law also sets down for our wrongdoing, Paul says,
has been fully and completely carried by Jesus.

So - as we read today -
“there is now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus.
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus
has set you free
from the law of sin and of death.”
We can’t legislate for goodness;
no-one can force us to do what’s right -
but we can be inspired,
and led, and loved
into living with compassion, and courage,
and kindness, and faith -
and that’s the work of the Spirit.
“If the Spirit of him
who raised Jesus from the dead
dwells in you,
he who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also
through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

For Paul it’s the Spirit who rescues us
and sets us free -
and the Spirit comes to anyone who asks -
Jewish or Gentile.
The Spirit even comes to someone like Paul,
whose inner and outer life
is full of conflict and complexity and confusion -
and it’s the Spirit who guides and leads us -
not by laws and orders
and rules and commandments,
but by example, and by encouragement,
and by creative inspiration
as we reflect on the life of Jesus
and live and work and worship
with our sisters and brothers in faith.

For many people today
the way Paul writes about the Law
seems difficult and strange.
He seems to be using language
and answering questions
alien to many of our neighbours.
Not many people think of the law
as coming directly from God.
They look at the way our laws are made
in Canberra and in the courts
and wonder how that process
could ever be thought of as holy -
so Paul’s apparent obsession
with the law and circumcision, and sacrifice,
seems to be scratching
where most people don’t itch.

But the way Paul writes about Spirit
still strikes a chord and rings true.
We know that it’s all too easy
for people to do the wrong thing;
we know that regulations and rules
can’t make people good -
and we also know that our families
and communities, and society
desperately need guidance and direction.
We need a moral compass;
we need leadership that’s positive and creative;
we need examples in life
that can motivate and inspire -
and Paul would urge us
not to forget the Spirit.
It’s the Spirit, Paul would say,
who can re-connect and heal us;
it’s the Spirit who helps us when we pray;
it’s the Spirit who reminds us
of the life and teaching of Jesus,
and it’s the Spirit who calls and binds us
into communities of love and forgiveness and grace.