Readings: Zechariah 9. 9-12; Rms. 7. 15-25a; Mt. 11. 16-19, 25-end
Theme The Good, the Bad and the true Self
St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, written around 57-58 AD, probably in Corinth, Greece, is one of the earliest statements of just how it is that Christ saves us. It is, in other words, our first ‘soteriology’ or ‘theology of salvation’. And, what a great opening line we have from it for our reflection today: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What a mystery we are to ourselves! Why is it that we seem to go against what we know to be good? Paul summarizes the answer to this question with one word, ‘sin’. Sin is the reason that we tend to be destructive both of ourselves and of others and it is why we need saving, and consequently, why we need a saviour.
But what exactly is sin and how is that Jesus saves us from it? These are big questions and we can only scratch the surface of them this morning, but here are some pointers.
First of all, it is important to say that in answering these sorts of questions, we have to get in touch with our own personal experience. There is no point in coming up with simply a theoretical answer to these sorts of questions, because fundamentally, they are existential questions which involve our whole being. So, in order for us to come up with useful answers our own personal experience needs to be engaged in order for the answers to ring true to us. That means that there are probably as many answers to these questions as there are people in church this morning. Our experience of sin is baked into our life stories and so personal to each and every one of us. However, one of the key elements that is common to most of us is our experience of feeling driven to do something, which part of us at least, knows to be wrong. St Paul speaks of this tendency to drive us into doing bad things as ‘sin’: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” This drive towards destruction overlaps, but is not simply reducible to what Freudian psychology will later term the ‘thanatos’ drive, or the ‘death instinct’. This destructive tendency is an uncomfortable and indeed rather disturbing fact of life that I am sure each and every one of us has our own experience of. It can be extremely dangerous in people out of control and having worked in prisons, I know from personal experience that such a tendency can create a ‘hell on earth’ for the perpetrators and for those affected by their actions.
But for St Paul there is more to this destructive impulse than simply a drive towards death and destruction that seems to be embedded in our human nature. There is also the fact that this tendency is not who we really are. We are not by nature sin, as St Paul puts it, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members”. Our true selves, our “inmost self” as St Paul calls it, is not to be found in our physical members, the category of “flesh” for St Paul, but rather in our minds or what we might call the rational dimension of our souls (nous). Our capacity to see things clearly, to make good judgments and to avoid bad ones, is rooted in the true nature of ourselves. So, what for St Paul is this true nature of the self?
For St Paul it is none other than Christ himself, our saviour. As St Paul puts it in another of his letters, The Letter to the Galatians, 2. 20, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Our true self, our “inmost self” for St Paul is Christ. This is who we really are. We do not exist apart from him and this is the fundamental answer to the question; what is salvation? Salvation is being saved from death by living in Christ. Sin, in other words, is death, and Christ is life.
So, what does this tell us about how we should live? Well, as our Gospel teaches us, it tells us that we should live as children of God, as “infants” and not as “the wise and the intelligent”, who believe themselves to be independent of God. That is the key to a grounded understanding of sin and our salvation. Once we grasp the fact that sin is all that has a tendency to separate us from our true selves in Christ, then we can understand that living for ourselves is a pointless exercise. It leads only to destruction and ultimately to death. If we are to live well, and surely that is what each of us truly desires, we should orientate our whole life towards God, then we shall live, and live abundantly.
This is, of course, easier said than done. By nature, most of us live for ourselves and by extension for those whom we love. We do not live by nature for God and in a society, which lives primarily for egotistical desires, we should not be surprised if the call to live our whole lives oriented towards God is not something which seems realistic. Spending time in Islamic countries is instructive in this regard. The call to prayer is an often haunting reminder that all time is to be orchestrated according to our submission to God and not simply portions of it. The Angelus bell in Catholic countries has a similar purpose to the call to prayer in Islamic ones. It is a reminder built into the day that our lives should turn to God in prayer, so that our true selves may rise and the sinful self may be subdued. I can still remember starting the day as a child with the prayer of daily offering in school. It was a helpful practice that built a habit that persists for me.
So, perhaps during this week, in the light of St Paul’s admonishment to us, we might review our day and its habits to consider how our days are structured. Do I set time aside to be with God, to allow my inmost self to breathe and to experience the love of God? If not, then perhaps we should ask ourselves, why not? The gravitational pull of sin is strong, sometimes very strong, and it can prevent our true selves from coming to the fore. This is why it can be important to take time out, to take a time of retreat, so that we can get back in touch with our spiritual selves and allow them to surface. And I hope, that as a chaplaincy, we can build in some times of retreat into our yearly calendar. These times can help us to reconnect with what we really want to do, which is always: to do the good, to avoid the bad and to live more fully in Christ as our true self.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.