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The Law – gift or curse? – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

 Sunday 3rd June 2018 Evensong

Jeremiah 5.1-19 & Romans 7.7-end

There are some who doubt the truth of the bible and there are others who believe every word of the bible is divinely inspired truth. As I have read and re-read the verses from Romans 7, set for our second reading, I have resolved to show this passage to anyone I speak to who doubt the truth of any of the bible and to those who think every word is true!

What we have in Romans 7 is an insight into the inner workings of Paul’s mind as he struggles to understand where God is in all that he is experiencing. As I have reflected on Romans 7 I have found it impossible to imagine why anyone would fabricate such writings or why anyone would ever think it is adequate to simply say that every word of scripture is true because it was divinely inspired.

Paul was a complicated man. He became a passionate disciple of Jesus after spending his adult life as a Pharisee, steeped in the Jewish law, which directly led him to persecute the early followers of Jesus vigorously and violently because, in accordance with his reading of the Law, he thought they were blasphemers. In the midst of all of this, as we all know, he encountered Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus, was generously enfolded in the community of the followers of Jesus and became the passionate and articulate disciple of Jesus we all who know. Paul wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else.

In Romans 7 Paul acknowledges that though the Law is good it can lead to sin. The Law is good because it seeks to ensure justice and order. If there was no Law then there would be anarchy and chaos. The Law exists so that people can flourish. But there is a problem, because once you have the Law you will have people who forget that keeping the Law is a means to an end, not and end in itself. The Law is there not to contain, control, test or trick people, it is there to liberate people so that they can flourish as individuals and as communities. Paul could see that some people in authority were using the Law to frighten and manipulate others, in fact he had been one of those people himself. The Law is a gift from God to bring life but it can be misinterpreted and abused to bring death. It feels strange to say it, and this is what Paul is struggling with, but a life giving gift from God can lead to sin and spiritual death.

There is another problem with the Law and it is what I will call ‘The beans up the nose’ problem. Let me explain, we had some friends who also had three sons, like us. Most of us know that small children can be very imaginative in the ways that they can misbehave. Once our friends gave their sons their tea, beans on toast, and inspired by other recent bouts of mischief, issued the instruction, ‘do not put these beans up your nose’! Choral evensong at York Minster is not the place to go into the details of what happened next, suffice it to say, there is something in human nature, not only for mischievous children, but also for adults, that when you are told not to do something, that is the thing you want to do. As Paul says in verses 18 & 19 ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’ It is no coincidence that when we talk about this tendency in human nature to explore what is against the Law we talk about the attraction of ‘forbidden fruit’. The first sin came about because the first Law God gave was this, ‘of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat’ Genesis 2.17. Would Eve had been attracted to the forbidden fruit if it had not been forbidden …..? There’s a thought to ponder. With the carnage of the beans on toast debacle in mind, at least she only ate it!

I rejoice that we are able to read about Paul’s his turmoil in struggling to see where God is in the Law and all that surrounds it and I rejoice that when our forebears sat down to decide what writings should be included in what we now call The Bible, they included passages like this, passages in which the complexity and contradictions of our relationship with God are so plainly recorded, passages like this, which reveal that simply saying something is true because God said it, is simply not good enough.

I have often said that I believe Spirit filled divine inspiration helped Paul and others to be brutally honest when they wrote the books that now make up the bible, we should pray for the same Spirit filled divine inspiration to be with us as we read the bible so that we can find a way through the complexities and contradictions.

But let’s get back to this passage in particular. Laws are there to set a framework within which everyone can live and thrive. Paul reminds us that living by the Law is a constant battle to do what is good, not just for our own sake but also for the sake of our community. There is a selfish element within all human beings that seeks the fulfilment of personal ambitions and greed and all of us are willing to risk chaos, or at least disorder, to satisfy those ambitions and that greed. Speaking from his own experience and his own inner battles, Paul is telling us that we need strength and commitment to embrace and love the Law God gives us because the Law was given not to frighten and control but to enable people, all people, to thrive and to love.

Blessed Alcuin of York (c. 730-804)

Eternal Light, shine into our hearts;

Eternal Goodness, delivers us from evil;

Eternal Power, be our support;

Eternal Wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance;

Eternal Pity, have mercy on us—

So that with all our heart and mind and soul and strength we may seek your face,

And be brought by your infinite mercy into your holy presence through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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