Sermon from Palm Sunday: The Rescue

The Rescue
Palm Sunday; March 28, 2021
Romans 7:14-25a

I remember how startled I was when I discovered I’m not the only person in the world with a conversation going on in the head all the time. I assume that I’m weird – alright, you don’t have to say it; I’m frequently reminded that I am indeed weird – and so that anything I experience is different from everybody else. But when I shared once about the conversation in my head, the others in the room all knew what I was talking about.

That’s not enough evidence to say that everyone has such a conversation; perhaps you don’t. But I suspect that it is normal. And if I had paid closer attention the first time I read Romans 7, decades ago, I would have realized that Paul lived it too.

It is frankly too simplistic to reduce Paul’s words to a dualistic “mind good; body bad.” That isn’t what he is saying. I used to think that way; I used to think the goal of life was to die and be set free from the body, to be a disembodied spirit, floating free in the universe. Or the whole purpose of life is to die and go to heaven. That’s not what the Bible says in general, and it’s certainly not what Paul says in particular right here. I misunderstood.

The beautiful thing about this short passage is that in the middle of Paul’s carefully worked out essay on the relationship between the Law and the promise, between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, between Jew and Gentile, is an emotional outburst. My friend the lawyer read through Romans, not piecemeal but all at once, and he said to me that it was so carefully constructed, so well-designed that it read like a legal brief. That is so, but it is a legal brief with occasional outbursts of deep feeling. There are a couple of them here.

Those who have been reading Romans know that Paul is carefully building a case for the inclusion of both Jew and Gentile in the work of God, that there is a purpose for the Law of Moses and there is a relationship between the Law and the power of sin in us. As he carefully thinks through all this, he suddenly bursts out, “I don’t understand why I do what I do!” There are all these competing forces in me, urges pulling me one way and hopes pulling me another. I want to serve God and do the right thing, but the forces of temptation or laziness or habit drag me to doing something else. Why is that?

Paul attributes it to something called “sin,” but that is not really an explanation. More powerful is his thought that there is a war within him, a war between his intentions and his human nature. Biology has helped us understand a lot about our human nature and why we have the urges we do. I struggle with emotional eating and the tendency to binge-eat. When I’m feeling happy or sad I may dive into a plate of cookies or a jar of nuts and overdo it; the next morning I will say, “Why did I do that? I don’t understand my own actions.” Well, biologically, I do that for a variety of reasons. Ingesting sugar leads to the release of dopamine in the brain, and leads to the same sort of feelings of pleasure as opioids. It really does make us feel better. And even though our society has changed enormously, we still have essentially the same bodies we had when we were hunter-gatherers. Sugar is one way of taking in loads of calories when calories may be in short supply.

But that doesn’t really answer the question, “Why did I do that?” which is the question Paul is asking. Because I know that it isn’t good for me; I know that I will regret it. And the sorts of actions Paul has in mind – which he doesn’t, by the way, tell us about – he would also say are against the will of God. “Why did I do that?” I know God disapproves, I will disapprove, and I do it anyway. Why?

He tries to work it out by blaming it on the power of sin at work in me, a power that is activated by the presence of the Law. But that simply pushes the question back one step to “What is sin?” a question that he does not answer. I worked on it in my doctoral thesis, but I’m not fully satisfied with any answer. Suffice it to say that Paul acknowledges that we have this conflict going on inside us, a conflict of desires and a conflict of voices. Ultimately he doesn’t answer the question, “Why?” but instead describes what he does about it. I’ll come back to that before I finish.

A couple of thoughts along the margin before I go back to Paul’s resolution. Research has concluded that will-power is fairly weak. Whether we’re talking about food or booze or violence or social media or sex, simply exerting will-power to control ourselves is usually insufficient. Will-power is not a muscle; it does not get stronger the more you use it. In fact, it gets weaker the more you use it. Thus it gets worse as the day goes on. The best way to prevent giving in to impulses you don’t want to give into is to take away the availability. I’ve learned a lot about that with respect to food, of course, but this week I wish we could calm down and have a reasonable discussion about guns in this country, since it’s a perfect example of several dimensions of this problem. When someone says the phrase, “gun control,” it usually sets off a firestorm of uncontrolled emotions. Rather than discussing the issue, we shout at each other out of our preconceptions about each other.

But I listened to a reasonable man reflect on his own situation. He is a gun owner, he knows how to use them and enjoys knowing about the history and variety of various firearms. And he also understands himself emotionally, and so he doesn’t carry a gun. He knows that if he has a gun on him then when he gets angry he is likely to shoot someone. He thinks people should be able to own guns, as he does, but that they should not ordinarily carry them, as he doesn’t. In the wake of another mass shooting – by the way, I was dismayed that mass shootings have become so commonplace in this country that the Omaha World-Herald carried the news on page six, rather than page one – can we ask the question, “Is it too easy to get certain types of guns in the United States?” There are so many people who should be able to get the guns they need for the things they do, including but not limited to hunting and recreational shooting, but what about the rest of us? Will-power is weak; people who study such things know that; we need to work on availability.

My other marginal thought has to do with the competing voices in my head. Cartoons usually represent them as two voices, a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. I have found that too simplistic, because I have more than two voices competing with each other. Each one has a particular role in the Committee that meets in my head and I’ve given each one a name. If you are interested, I’ll tell you more, but it would get tedious for you if I went into detail here. Suffice it to say that the voices that wish to hurt me or wish for me to hurt others are defanged by having names and roles and by having voices that answer them. It’s actually rather comical.

Paul resolves his inner conflict with another emotional outburst. “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” I dug into the word “rescue” and learned that it doesn’t mean rescue in the sense, “Who will take my soul out of this body?” It means, “Who will protect me from this constant war within me?” Or, in my case, the unending committee meeting in my head. I can’t resolve the problem. I can’t make those voices shut up. Even if I limit availability, there will still be temptations and situations that are beyond my will-power to deal with. And Paul asks the right question: not “what?” will solve it for me, but “who?”

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. You don’t always need to understand the causes of things; you need someone to help you deal with them. More than an explanation, we need a Savior. The more I have studied theology, the more I realize that there is a lot that defies explanation but that is resolved by turning to the Savior. If you don’t ever get a satisfying answer to the question, “Why did I do that?” you may find it enough to have someone who cares about you and loves you regardless. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Today is the beginning of Holy Week, when we go with Jesus Christ to the Upper Room, to the Cross, and to the Garden of Resurrection. I don’t understand fully the meaning of all that he did this week; what I do know is that it helps my life in God to go through it with him. That is, to know Jesus Christ, it is more important to experience this with him than it is to understand it.

One evening when I was feeling down and was thinking of turning to sugary food for comfort, I wrote something I come back to again and again. “Food is not comfort; food is fuel. My faith is comfort. My wife is comfort. My friends are comfort.” The committee that meets in my head has a chairperson, of course. He also has a name and a role. The name is unimportant, except to me, but his role is to repeat in the midst of every debate and conflict: God is in charge.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska