A couple of months ago Lutherans with whom we are partners in ministry put up a provocative sentence on the sign in the front yard of our church. It said, “This week a sinner is preaching here.”
“That’s Lutherans for you,” I thought to myself. We Episcopalians tend to soft-pedal being sinners, focusing instead on our inherent blessedness. Granted, we know we are mixed blessings, and we do pray collectively for forgiveness each week. But that yoke-being-easy part of today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30) sticks with us way more than focusing, like Paul does (Romans 7:15-25a) , on our utter inability to keep the law of God.
The sign in the church’s front yard was meant to refer to the Lutheran pastor, who would be preaching during the worship service that follows ours in the shared sanctuary space. Only, it happened to be the Sunday that our bishop was coming to confirm one of our members, and she was the preacher at our service. I imagine she saw the sign, but I don’t know how she took it. I am hoping she had her picture taken next to it.
To really appreciate Paul’s lament in today’s passage from Romans, I have to first talk myself out of the early teaching that links sin with sex and sexuality. Once I have done that, I love what he says: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 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. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
With my inmost being I love Christ’s Way. I long to practice generosity, forgiveness, and compassion. I long to set aside my ego concerns and follow the Way of Love. But my ego is not so easily cowed.
Carl Jung names the law of sin that Paul is talking about, the “Shadow.” The Shadow is always with us, subverting our good intentions, taking us over with mean-spirited thoughts and emotions, causing us to do things we do not want to have done. And the more we work on Shadow material, integrating it and transforming it, the more it pops up in new, more insidious forms, finding ever more subtle ways to express itself through us. Wretched humans that we are, who will rescue us?
It’s never a good idea to believe that we have conquered sin. As the Twelve Step programs advise, keeping our eyes on how close we are at every moment to falling into the patterns that destroy us is really important. It helps to talk with others about our motives. It helps to dwell together with our friends who aren’t afraid to say, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea at all, do you – really?” It helps to admit that we are on the edge and in need of support.
But what really helps is acknowledging that we’re powerless over the Shadow and over our egos. It is only with God’s help that we can follow that law of God that is written on our inmost beings. Who will rescue us from this body of death that we fall into all the time so easily? Only Christ. It is Christ who has conquered sin. It is Christ who will guide us true.