Those Things I Do
The other day I was thinking about the movies and some of my favourite works of fiction. I realized that at their very center they all had something in common. Most of them depicted a struggle between good and evil.
Take one of my favourite movie franchises, Star Wars. We have the Rebel Alliance versus the Empire. Those who use the Light Side of the Force against those who use the Dark Side. An epic struggle of good versus evil, where ultimately good triumphs. Not only that, but the main antagonist is redeemed and brought back to the side of good. It’s a wonderful story.
So too is the Lord of the Rings. A story about the people of light versus the armies of the dark lord Sauron. The side of good faces an uphill battle in their quest to overthrow the coming darkness. They struggle, suffer, experience loss and grow in ways they would not have anticipated. Much of what we read in the Lord of the Rings comes out of Tolkien’s own experience during WWII.
I could go one with countless more examples: Narnia, Harry Potter and so forth.
Those Things I Do – Audio Sermon
What we are presented with is the struggle between good and evil and the choices that both make. Of course these examples present to us the aspects of good versus evil in a depersonalized way. One side is clearly good and the other is clearly bad. There may be a little bit of grey here and there, but for the most part we know who is on each side.
It’s when we localize things in a character such as Dr. Jekyll and his split personality Mr. Hyde that we start to see this dynamic of good and evil born out on a personal level. When we are confronted with the parts of ourselves that we do not like very much. For the kids today Bruce Banner and the Hulk would represent a similar dynamic. Not so much good and evil, but physically weak and smart versus violent undirected rage.
It is when we examine good and evil on a personal level that things start to get uncomfortable for us, because deep down we all know that we do things that perhaps we shouldn’t. Things we are ashamed of, things we would rather not be seen in the light of day.
Fortunately, Paul sums things up rather nicely for us. He says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What Paul is saying is that rather than following God’s law, God’s plan for his life, sometimes Paul does just the opposite. He goes and fulfills his own desires.
Now, before we go further I want to quickly flesh out a theological stumbling block for some with this passage. Namely, who is the ‘I’ that Paul is referring to. There are two thoughts on this. First is the understanding that the person the ‘I’ is referring to is Adam. That is Paul is referring to Adam as representative of all of humanity and our fallen state. So Paul is not saying that he, Paul, gives into his own desires but rather it’s something that we all do.
The other perspective says, no, Paul is referring to himself. The ‘I’ is self-referencing. Which perspective you feel is more appropriate is up to you and it will undoubtedly shape your understanding of this passage.
For myself, I fall in the second camp. I believe that Paul is referencing himself. He is after all writing a pastoral letter to the church in Rome. That being the case there is a certain amount of humility about the letter that is generated when we read it as Paul who struggles with his actions. Who struggles with sin and trying to do what is right and just.
So Paul is writing about his own struggles with the sin that dwells within him. How he does not do the good he wants to, but instead he does the evil that he does not want to. Call it human nature.
As Presbyterians, in Living Faith, we describe sin as a power present. Present within the world and within ourselves. It is something we struggle against, it is something that keeps us from a full and loving relationship with one another and with God.
Paul is talking to us about the way that sin flourishes within ourselves. I believe one of the key ways that happens to us today is pride. Now most of might consider ourselves proud, we are proud of our accomplishments, our family, our work, our hobbies. However, it is that same pride that keeps us from naming those things which are a result of that struggle within us. We don’t confess our sins as we feel that we are the worst offender in the group. We don’t want our true colours to show through. We are ashamed, and that shame leads to guilt.
Our society does not help us much. In the suburbs we are groomed for perfection or at least the illusion of perfection. We need to keep our gardens and lawns neat, less the neighbours think poorly of us. We only yell at our kids behind closed doors. We are ashamed of the struggle within ourselves, we are ashamed when we take the lesser choice. I’m not going to call it evil, but we could call it the selfish choice or perhaps even the easy choice.
Some days we do better than others.
Freud proposed that science, rather than religion, might save us from ourselves. The voice of intellect, he said, would he heard and, he hoped, obeyed. I think we as Christians see a different path through things. Paul names it at the end of our passage today. Though we are sinners we are saved by God, through Jesus Christ
We follow a God of Grace and we are called to be obedient to God. To follow God’s law. Don’t worry, I’m not going to beat you up for not being perfect. None of us is, which is why we have Jesus. Not just why we have Jesus, but why we need. Need with a capital N, NEED Jesus.
Jesus sees the struggle within us and says it’s alright. Keep fighting the good fight, keep doing good. But on those occasions where your falter, I’ve got you covered. Paul names the cure to our illness, to our inner struggle. That name is Jesus Christ.
“I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t. All is lost.”
Those are the opening words, almost the only words, in a 2013 survival movie entitled “All is Lost.” They are the words of Robert Redford who gives a tour de force acting performance as a man lost at sea. Sailing solo across the Indian Ocean, Redford experiences the sailor’s ultimate nightmare. As he is sleeping, his boat is rammed by a large shipping container drifting aimlessly on the high seas. His boat is severely damaged, but Redford copes admirably. A seasoned sailor with a well equipped boat, he works to patch the hole in the hull. In spite of all his heroic efforts to keep his sailboat afloat, it sinks in a fierce tropical storm.
All is lost, but he climbs into his life raft with everything he could rescue from his sunken boat. He continues to drift for days with no sign of land, using all his skill and strength to survive. He sees two container ships and tries to catch their attention with signal flares, to no avail. As his water and food run out, he gives up all hope of rescue. He writes the words I spoke above and puts the message in a jar, hoping someone someday will find it and share it with his loved ones. Then, he sees another freighter in the distance. Using the remaining pages of his journal, he starts a fire to signal the ship, but his raft catches fire. Now all is lost.
But as he sinks into the ocean, a single giant hand reaches down and grabs him. After all his efforts to save himself, this wretched man is finally rescued by the hand of an unseen person, obviously from the ship, but not identified in the movie.
That’s how it is with Jesus. We follow Christ, we follow his teaching, his way. We live out his commandments as best as we are able. Along the way we falter, we turn away from the straight and narrow path. We become self-indulgent, selfish, arrogant in our own superiority. We try to be strong, but so often we get it wrong. Often we are strong when we should be weak. We can always look back and say I could have been better. I think that it true for all of us.
And we might say that all is lost. That we are lost to the sin within us, that the conflict of good versus evil that resides within each of us is too much for us to contend with. And perhaps we sink in despair. But Jesus is the hand that pulls us back up, that lets us know we are not alone in our struggle. That we should not be ashamed for where we have faltered. Jesus is our assurance, our guide and ever present helper.
As Paul writes, Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.
Text: Romans 7: 15-25