The other day I got into a discussion on twitter with a person who claimed that liberals are attempting to redefine sin, especially when it comes to the evolving response in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere with matters of personal and sexual ethics. I believe that our response is evolving because revelation continues and that God continues to speak to us through the Holy Spirit. Too often our discussion of sin in these matters is predicated upon finger-pointing outside ourselves at other people whom we believe are “sinful,” but whom we believe are different from us. So it has been a blessing that this last Sunday we were offered this reading from St. Paul, expressing frustration at the inner conflict that sin creates, and reminding us, that when it comes to sin, we are all in this together.
This section of chapter 7 of the Epistle to the Romans is subtitled “The Inner Conflict” in my NRSV translation. This section actually begins at verse 14, which is omitted here, but makes clear the dichotomy within humans that causes this conflict: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” Then Paul continues with our reading we have before us today, and he starts with a personal confession beginning with verse 15. There is a shift from first person plural (“we”) to first person singular (“I”). Paul places himself squarely alongside the rest of us in all of our struggles. Modern interpreters protest that Paul is using a common rhetorical device known as prosopopoeia, which means “speech-in-character,” which allowed an author to speak in the character of someone else in order to make a point. Yet, Paul also elsewhere claimed that we are all subject to the same struggles. I find this passage one of the most humble and most relatable within Paul’s body of work.
The inner conflict is between our intentions and our actions. The basis of most sin is deranged and imbalanced relationships: with God, with each other, with creation, and within ourselves. Nearly every sin one can think of occurs on at least one of these axes. When we turn away from the commandments; when we seek revenge, or take advantage of those who have fallen under our power; when we treat God’s creation as something we can dominate and suck the value out of rather than care for; when we believe we are better than or holier than others; when we indulge our appetites today to the detriment of our health tomorrow—all these are examples of the ways in which we can beguile ourselves into doing wrong. We cause pain and imbalance in relationships that we should instead cherish when we rebel against “the more excellent way” that Paul spoke of so movingly in 1 Corinthians 13. No one wants to sin, but avoiding sin requires discipline and self-denial in so many cases, and most of all penetrating self-examination and honesty about what we are really trying to do—especially when we sit in judgment or take the opportunity to correct others while ignoring or justifying our own faults.
Paul almost sounds like a member of a twelve-step group here, admitting his powerlessness over his addiction to sin. And that may be a really good analogy to make to describe the power that sin can wield in our lives, especially when we lull ourselves into taking our eyes off the horizon of love that we have to work toward in our lives as children of God. Real love, and true holiness, do not come naturally. Yet there is hope. In verse 24, Paul cries out: “Who will rescue me?” and immediately, he gives the answer in verse 25: God, through the Incarnate One, our Savior Jesus Christ. He then continues to point out that our intellectual assent (“with my mind…”) to be disciples is often at war with our own weaknesses (“with my flesh…”).
According to Professor Paula Eisenbaum, St. Augustine and Martin Luther both considered Romans 7 to be pivotal in understanding not just Paul and his mindset, but in understanding how justification works even as we continue to be sinful as our default position. How can we be both justified by faith, and yet still continue to sin? Only by understanding how we are continually recipients of God’s grace, and to recognize the struggle within us and to be alive to the consequences of not questioning our true motives when we claim we are acting on the behalf of something outside ourselves. The Pharisees put their trust in the letter of the Law while forgetting the intention of the Law. We moderns tend to put our trust in our own rights and freedom to act as we want. In both cases, the consequences of one’s own actions are ignored, especially as they affect others. Sin has to do with hurting others—or even ourselves. That’s not a redefinition.
Each time we choose to elevate ourselves over the Other, we harm ourselves. Each time we choose the easy way rather than the right way, we break a little piece off of our own hearts, and make ourselves more indecipherable to not just others, but to ourselves, as Paul points out in verse 15. Yet here is the miracle: no matter how many times we turn our backs on the One who loves us beyond all understanding; no matter how unfaithful, pigheaded, and hard-hearted we choose to be; no matter how much our minds and our wills are at war with the vows of our hearts, we are forgiven and welcomed back again and again and again. Where we would throw up our hands and lock up our hearts and divorce people from our lives, God is always seeking us and calling us back to forgiveness and love. By being more true to our authentic selves, we can exercise more care about that Love which surpasses all human understanding.
Leslie Scoopmire is a newly retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She will attend Eden Theological Seminary beginning in the fall of 2014. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.