Last Monday was the third anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood alongside two of my good friends, held on what the Church celebrates as the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. I have to admit I was not thrilled with that choice of an ordination date—not only because it was when some of my family of choice could not be there with me, but also because there are times when both Peter and Paul give me the pip—at least, as we encounter them in scripture.
Read the Book of Acts, and you see two apostles who are obviously locked in a struggle for dominance in the early Church. Read the gospels, and you see Peter as wildly impulsive and also utterly prone to getting it all wrong in spectacular fashion. Read Acts and most of the epistles, and over and over you are confronted with “Paul” as a self-righteous claimer of a pure inheritance, not to mention the Pauline passages that are used to clobber women, slaves and other oppressed people, and our LGBTQIA kindred. If I had a dollar for every eyeroll I have performed when Paul states he is not going to boast and then goes ahead and does it anyway, or says something weird about married people, I’d be rich.
However, since this feast is also a day now personally very meaningful in my life, I have spent some time looking for avenues of connection with these two apostles. One of the things I have always wondered at in placing these two saints together on one feast day is the way that they often seem to be the yin and the yang of discipleship—where Peter is emotional and impulsive, Paul is analytical and holds himself rigidly in check. Peter is all heart and passion, whereas, much of the time, Paul is all mind and rhetorical prowess.
Surprisingly, though, in the 7th chapter of Romans from which we will read this Sunday, we see one of the places in Paul’s writings where Paul humbly places himself squarely alongside the rest of us in all of our struggles. Modern interpreters protest that here, in the Epistle to the Church in Rome, Paul is using a very 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 Paul describes in this Sunday’s reading is between our intentions and our actions—between our minds and our hearts, in a way. The basis of most sin is deranged 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 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…”).
And yet, people who have read verses like these as condemnations of the material world and of earthly existence forget that Jesus as the Word made flesh also shares and at the same time hallows our embodied existence, this earth that teems with everything from fungus to bluebirds to blue whales.
How can we be both justified by faith, and yet still continue to sin? Only by understanding how we are 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. Jesus’s religious opponents, then and right now, 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.
Here is where Paul speaks to us right now, as coronavirus cases don’t just spike but surge even while some among us petulantly act as if wearing a mask for the sake of others is akin to clapping themselves in irons. 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: that 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. A love that we can exercise more, care about by being more true to our authentic selves, both heart and mind.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.