I wonder if you remember this song from your childhood? I always thought it was Winnie the Pooh’s all too frequent lament – Alison remembers it as Noddy, an equally naughty sprite – when I Googled last week the Internet told me it was Peter Rabbit.
‘Why did I do it?
What can it be?
There’s naughtiness in everyone
but twice as much in me!’
Alison also remembers her brother Mark believing firmly, as a little boy, that the song had been written just for him. I guess it could be any one of us, it’s a song about human nature, and St Paul tells us this morning that it’s definitely about him.
St Paul is skating on thin ice, he is arguing that the gospel he proclaims, the gospel of Jesus, can do what the Jewish religion based on the Law of Moses could never do, and that is to actually change people, inside and out. But it’s a subtle and easy to misunderstand point he’s making, he is trying to show the difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Law but at the same time he needs his listeners to understand that he isn’t criticising the Law, and he sure as heck isn’t criticising them – so he does what any good preacher does to avoid a mass walk-out – he lays it on as thick as he can, criticising himself!
It’s an argument that still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable, because it’s not quite as simple as claiming that the old religion was a religion of do’s and dont’s, and the new religion, Christianity, is a religion of freedom and love. Because Jesus himself insists on the Law, he even summarises the Law in a particularly uncompromising way when he gives his version of the two greatest commandment – love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. How do you do that? Or when he says blessed are you when you claim nothing, when you weep with these who mourn, when you are humble in spirit; blessed are you when you show mercy, when your innermost thoughts are pure, when you live the way of peace. These are commandments, aren’t they? How are you going with living the way of the beatitudes? And we’ve still got the Ten Commandments. How are you going with the one about not coveting?
I don’t think St Paul is doing anything quite as simple as recommending the new religion over the old religion; in fact, he probably didn’t even think of his gospel as a new religion and he thought of it as fulfilling rather than replacing the Law of Moses. On the other hand I do think he is trying to shoot down a particular sort of spirituality or a particular approach to religion that says you can change or you can become acceptable to God by following the rules. And the trouble is, that sort of approach to religion is just as prevalent in Christianity as in Judaism, just as common in the 21st as in the 1st century. St Paul laments what happens to him when he sets out to live like that – I remember when I studied the Epistle to the Romans during my priestly formation a big debate over whether Paul is talking here about himself before his conversion on the road to Damascus or is he saying this is his present reality? but of course the real question is about us and our own spirituality. Does this portrait of best intentions versus ingrained habits ring true for us, and if so, what are we supposed to do about it?
St Paul’s point is simple and insightful. If we approach religion – the Way of Jesus which is the practical outworking of the Jewish Torah – as a set of rules to be followed then inevitably the effort to follow the rules turns into its own contradiction. As generations of schoolboys have discovered, rules are there to be broken. Human nature which is invariably focused on its own self-fulfilment always discovers that rules end up prompting rather than preventing what they try to prohibit. You can’t ban marijuana, for example, without making it a symbol of individualistic self-determination, dark and devious and infinitely desirable. Which is why for example I think the approach to tobacco consumption taken by health authorities over the last 20 or so years is dead right. It’s not banned, you can smoke if you want, but it’s not sexy now that the association between smoking and bad breath, yellow teeth and the ugly consequences of mouth, oesophageal or lung cancer have been graphically and indelibly drawn. So smoking has dropped from just over 80% immediately after World War II to just over 20% of the adult population now, because it no longer fits with the idea most of us have of a good time. On the other hand, many a drug education program has inadvertently provided the exact opposite of what it intended – a good introduction to the illicit excitement of the drug scene. Real transformation comes not by listing all the things we have to do differently, but by experiencing ourselves as set free from the things that limit us.
Paul has no argument with the goodness of the commandments of the Law of Torah. His point is that when we focus on religion as a fence set up between a whole bunch of shoulds and a whole other – more exciting – bunch of should nots – then we are setting ourselves up to fail. We want to do good, we want to be the sort of people who we all recognise easily enough, men and women who exude a quiet and apparently effortless goodness. But it seems to me our difficulty results from mistaking the effect from the cause, focusing on the behaviour and failing to see that discipline cannot be acquired without love, transformed lives can’t happen without a transformed understanding of who we ourselves are in relationship with God and with each other.
As human beings we are disfigured by sin, which is to say that we have an internal struggle between the leadings of our own best selves and the powerful impulse to look out for number one. To be human is to be torn between our desire for reconnection with what gives us life, which is God – and our impulse to control and dominate, which ultimately is related to our fear of death. Which is to say that human nature twisted by sin has the tendency to be divided against itself, to be morally impotent. We subvert our own best efforts to live in accordance with God’s law, and no amount of encouragement to live in the way we know we should live is going to do any good – until we can recognise and bridge the inner contradiction of our own selves.
There is a temptation to read this and think, ‘well, that’s it then! If it’s built into us, what hope is there? Why bother?’ And many Christians, sadly, settle for lives that are disfigured by guilt and shame.
But here Paul’s argument finds its true ground, because he says that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, God has offered us a new ending to the story of what it means to be human. The conundrum is still the conundrum. But there’s a new narrative, a new trajectory for human life from death to life and from sin and guilt to forgiveness and freedom. And what makes the difference is relationship, forgiveness that cancels out guilt and frees us to know ourselves as loved and begin to live in a loving way towards others. The way to change human behaviour – we actually already know this – is not by telling people how they should change but by loving them until they have the strength and the freedom to change. People change when they know for sure that they are loved beyond their experiences of inadequacy, or their guilt or perhaps their false guilt that prevents them from seeing any good in themselves. Unconditional love gives people the strength to imagine and work towards a future that is no longer dominated by the failures and fears of the past.
The best sort of argument is the one that reminds us of what we already know – isn’t it? That points us towards a conclusion we recognise and that makes it possible for us to change direction. That leads to what the New Testament calls metanoia – the change of heart and change of direction. And this is what St Paul is offering us, because we are born knowing this, and knowing that our lives are cradled in a network of human relationships that sustain us and enable us to live and grow toward new possibilities, knowing that the universe itself is sustained by life-giving love. Somewhere along the way in our lives we forget, and we take the burden of our own limitations and disappointments on our own shoulders, and we forget that the love that creates and sustains us also orients us towards others in love, and so we learn to live competitively and defensively. And it’s a vicious circle, because deep down we yearn for wholeness and we long to live in relationships of trust and openness - but what prevents us is that we’ve grown a hard shell of compounded shame and guilt and self-protectiveness.
And so St Paul reminds us of what in fact we already know. That the one who can break through that shell is the one who made us in love and who knows us more fully than we know ourselves, the one who demonstrates his intention for our lives in the pattern of Jesus’ life – and who in the miracle of forgiving love that we call resurrection makes possible our own response.
All we ourselves need to do is recognise that this love is personal, that it is the ground and the context of our own lives, and to understand that if we agree to accept it, the first thing to be changed by it – is us.