In my final semester of seminary, I took a seminar on the Letter of Paul to Romans. I had tried to take a similar class years before, when I was first dipping my toe in by taking classes at Bangor Seminary, but it was too much for me then. It’s not an easy book. And I have to say that even after spending an entire semester studying it with one of the finest Paul scholars in the northeast, I don’t think I did more than scratch the surface. There is a lot there. Understandably—it is the final letter Paul wrote (or at least the final one we have), and it contains within it an articulation of his understanding of the Gospel that he spent years developing and refining. It is a complex document that needs to be taken pretty much as a whole to be understood.
And we chop it up into bits to fit the lectionary, or take one or two verses to support whatever argument we’re trying to make.
A perfect example of this is at the very beginning. People have used the first chapter of Romans to “prove” that Paul condemns all sorts of behavior—not realizing that it’s a set up. Paul is following the pattern of the prophets, drawing in his self-righteous listeners by naming as sinful all the things they hate—and then, BOOM!, at the beginning of chapter two, says, “And you, you people who condemn all those other people, you’re the worst sinners of the lot because you pass judgment on all of them!”
Be careful about quoting St. Paul out of context—more often than not, it won’t end well!
Over the past few weeks, the lectionary has been carrying us through portions of this letter to the Romans. I have resisted preaching on any of it until we had come to today’s passage, in which he reaches the real point of the argument he’s been making for six and a half chapters.
Paul has been building an argument about how the religious law of Judaism is, in itself, a gift from God, but sin has distorted our ability to live into it in the way God intended for us, and can only be overcome through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In the course of those chapters, Paul has taken on various arguments he’s heard about this theology of grace he’s been developing. Along the way he’s talked about justification and sanctification—the ways in which God re-establishes the relationship with us, how the Holy Spirit removes the distortions sin has caused and works at reshaping us into the people God intends us to be.
When Paul speaks of sin, he is talking about something more than just particular actions or behaviors.
One of the commentaries I read this week gave a wonderful analogy to understand what he means. They compared sin to the shingles virus. Leftover from a previous infection of chicken pox, the shingles virus lays dormant in your nerve cells until something causes it to flare up. In Paul’s understanding, sin is similar in that it is still around, threatening to flare up, keeping us under its power, even if we seem to be doing everything perfectly—and we have no way to eradicate it from our system on our own. It is not just in the individual’s spiritual “nervous system” but has a foothold in all of creation, and Christ’s death and resurrection is like the vaccine that breaks its power over us. (It’s not a perfect analogy, so I’m not going to stretch it any further than that.)
In today’s passage, Paul draws to a conclusion the argument he’s been building. He steps away from the more ‘heady’ rhetoric and uses a different image—that struggle between wanting to do what’s right and actually accomplishing it. I suspect most of us can relate. We want to do the right thing, but for any number of reasons don’t actually do it. We want to be free of the spiritual virus of sin, but it’s always there, hanging over our heads, threatening to take control. In this worldview, even when we think we have it all together and are doing fine, we are acting out of fear—fear that we’ll lose control, that we’ll fall back into sin. We are still living in the distortion, because we are letting fear of the consequences of sin rule our actions.
And just as we despair of ever being free, as we have our own moment of crying out in despair, “Wretched creature that I am! Who will rescue me?” Paul reminds us that none of us is left to fend for ourselves. To use language borrowed from Twelve Steps Recovery, we realize we are powerless over this thing and only a higher power can help us out of the mess.
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
It is a great temptation to rush forward into that glorious EIGHTH chapter of Romans, and I think St. Paul might be a little troubled at the way the lectionary has broken these readings out, leaving us hanging with our own wretchedness for a week before assuring us of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
But instead of pushing forward to Paul’s next sentence (and oh, it is a wonderful one!) I’m going to switch to Jesus’ own words from the Gospel of Matthew which we heard this morning.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Notice Jesus is not offering us a yoke-free existence.
Two things to know about yokes…Well, three—we’re not talking about yolks, the center of eggs; we’re talking about the farming equipment that allows the farmer to harness the animal’s power to do the work of farming.
A yoke is not one-size-fits-all. Each one has to be fitted to the animal that will use it, so that it will maximize the animal’s strength and not rub its skin raw in the process.
And yokes were made for two. In this image, Jesus is not the farmer standing behind the plow. Jesus is in the other half of the yoke, working and pulling alongside you, leading you back into the right direction when you are prone to wander off.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but that moves me to tears every time I think about it. We are not left to deal with our own wretchedness by ourselves. We are not expected to carry the weight of the world’s sorrows all by ourselves. Jesus is offering to walk there with us.
And then inviting us to continue walking alongside him, in his yoke, as he carries the good news of God’s grace to the whole world.
And for more on that, you’ll just have to come back for the next few weeks, as we work our way through the eighth chapter of Romans!