E is for Evil; F is for Forgiveness

July 9, 2017

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Proper 9 Year A
Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Listen here, or read below:

A couple of months ago I preached a sermon about the importance of not avoiding things that are complex just because they are complex. Jesus certainly didn’t avoid difficult topics or situations – he faced them head-on.

In Matthew’s gospel we see many occasions of Jesus challenging the scribes and Pharisees. He points out that although they followed the letter of the Hebrew law, they were missing the underlying intention of the law. Love of God and love of one’s neighbor were the most important things. Jesus demonstrated that love by healing the blind man, even though it was done on the Sabbath. By doing this, he was showing that it’s more important to have compassion than to follow the rigid rules of the religious tradition.

There are lots of examples of Jesus confronting things that would have been more easily avoided. And today I’m faced with a similar dilemma. Not that I’m comparing myself to Jesus – on that I’d fall well-short – yet, his is the example we’re called to emulate as his followers.

Now, when I preached that sermon in May, I should’ve guessed it wouldn’t be long before I was faced with a lectionary text that would make me literally practice what I preached! Today I’ve found that in Paul’s letter to the Romans. 

While this epistle is placed first among the letters in the New Testament, immediately following the Acts of the Apostles, it’s actually one of the last letters written by Paul as he was on his way to Rome. You see, for whatever reason, when the early church leaders decided what would be included in the New Testament, they decided to place the letters in order of length, not chronologically.

I only mention this because it’s helpful to realize that by the time Paul wrote this letter, early Christian communities had been established in Thessalonica, Corinth, Philippi, and many other towns. He had provided counsel to fledgling communities and used tough love to coach them into strong relationship and shared ministry with one another. By this time, Paul had already been imprisoned for sharing Jesus’ teachings, and was now en route to Rome, knowing that, in all likelihood, it held for him his execution.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at what he’s saying in today’s passage from that letter. He wrote:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Then he says that it isn’t really him doing it, but sin that dwells in him. He says it is sin of the flesh, those human impulses, that pull him into behavior that’s counter to what God, and Jesus, call him to do.

And in case you’re waiting for the shoe to drop, wondering what I was hoping to avoid, here it comes. Paul goes on to say:

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… So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.

That last phrase: “when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand” brings to mind the image of an Angel on one shoulder and the Devil on the other. So here’s my confession: I tend to avoid the topic of evil. It’s a tough one for me – maybe it is for you, too. Even the idea of the devil is hard to grapple with.

As a matter of fact, a couple of weeks ago the topic of the devil popped up in the gospel text. For some reason, I noticed that if you take the word “devil” and put an apostrophe between the d and the e, you get d’evil. The evil.

This observation, along with the recent purchase of biblical scholar, N.T. Wright’s book, “Evil and the Justice of God” became foreshadowing events of what was to come. I would be confronted by this topic of evil, despite my desire to avoid it. Seeing the reading from Romans brought that to fruition, so this week I dove into Wright’s book.

Published in 2006, the dedication frames his context –

In memory of those who died

in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001,        

around the Indian Ocean in December 2004,                     

in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005,    

and in Pakistan and Kashmir in October 2005 [i]            

His dedication points to acts of both man-made and natural disasters in recent history. In naming all of these as acts of evil, he is acknowledging that God is the God of creation. He is also saying that it isn’t the event alone, but how we – individually and corporately – respond to each, that reveals aspects of evil.

To be clear, Wright’s work doesn’t try to tackle the question of “Where did evil come from,” but instead, the importance of acknowledging its perpetual presence and God’s ongoing efforts to provide a path for overcoming it.

He depicts the journey of Abraham and his descendants in the Old Testament as one with flawed people called to do God’s work, yet it is an unfinished story. The incarnation of God in Jesus, found in the New Testament, provides, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.” Wright shares that:

“according to early Christians, what was accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the foundation, the model and the guarantee for God’s ultimate purpose, which is to rid the world of evil altogether and to establish (God’s) new creation of justice, beauty and peace.” [ii]

Even so, here we are two thousand years later, and in spite of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, evil still persists. Yet, Wright contends, and I agree, that it is precisely Jesus’ self-sacrifice and ever-present forgiveness that demonstrates the way to ultimately overcome evil. This is the way to the new creation of heaven and earth that comes by following Christ’s example.

Forgiveness is a center-point of The Lord’s Prayer. Alongside it, though, is the acknowledgement of evil. In this prayer, the one Jesus taught his disciples to pray, is the same one we have in every liturgy found in our Prayer Book. Morning, Noon, and Evening Prayer. Baptism and Eucharist. Weddings, Confirmations, and Burials. You can’t open the book without tripping over these words:  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

So as much as I may want to avoid evil, it’s there at every turn.

These words point to what Paul’s letter is saying. We can be tempted by many things to avoid the call that God has for us. When we succumb to those temptations, we are allowing ourselves to move into evil ways, not spirit-filled ways. But in spite of that temptation, we have the promise of God’s love to overcome it.

Even Paul, at first a brutal persecutor of Christians, was caught by the love and grace of God through an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. From there he became one of the boldest evangelists, while still knowing the risk of falling short. Yet we see the strength of his resolve in the final part of today’s reading:

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

With that in mind, let me return to forgiveness as the path to living into the new creation of God, where evil is no more. We find this call to forgive in that same daily prayer as we ask God:  And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

In this phrase we see the obligation for us to forgive others, and to forgive ourselves. When we do this, we open the portal that allows God’s love and forgiveness to flow to us. Some think that forgiveness lets others off the hook, but that isn’t the case at all. Wright makes it clear that:

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean “I didn’t really mind” or “it didn’t really matter.” It’s also not the same as saying “Let’s pretend it didn’t really happen.” It did happen, I did mind and it did matter, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to forgive at all…”[iii]

In order to truly forgive, there must be an acknowledgement – non-avoidance – that something happened that was wrong. When we can do that work, then the act of forgiveness has the power to restore relationships. Restoring relationship with others is what God calls us to do. It is at the heart of loving our neighbor. Anyone who has been on the receiving side of true forgiveness, as I have after hurting someone deeply, knows that this is the greatest gift one can ever receive.

We won’t always get it right, and neither will the other people and institutions in our life. Even so, we’re called to pay attention, to be open to things we’ve done that break relationship, and to ask for forgiveness. And when we’re the one who’s been hurt, we must be willing to express that to the one who hurt us – as vulnerable as that may make us – because in doing this, we invite the possibility of healing and reconciliation.

There are messages in our daily lives that reveal how divided we are on many levels. God’s new creation is one of unity, not division. It is a hoped-for future for all of us. Making a path toward that new creation depends on us to follow Jesus’ example of one who doesn’t avoid the complex things, but instead, confronts them, with compassion, care and God’s love as the foundation. He shares this message in his plea from today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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.”

In truth, living in the midst of evil is a heavy yoke. With Jesus at my side, the burden is lightened.

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Scripture Reading:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. 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. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

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? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rm 7:15-25a)

 

 

 

[i] N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

[ii] Wright, 102.

[iii] Wright, 152.

2 Responses to “E is for Evil; F is for Forgiveness”

  1. A message I need to heed! I Thank God for every remembrance of you.

  2. jg3potomac said

    Tough subject, well addressed.

    Delighted with your new challenge and that Cody and I will be seeing you soon.

    Love, Dad

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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