A Potpourri From Paul
It has been quite a while since I have done expository preaching from the New Testament, so last Sunday I announced that for a few weeks we would consider some themes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. The verses I have chosen for this morning have no particular link with one another, so the sermon is entitled simply, “A Potpourri from Paul.” I remind you that there are always two parts to any successful sermon. The first belongs to the speaker, who must have given thought to whether what he plans to say will have relevance for his audience, and the second belongs to the listeners, who give up the pleasures of daydreaming and focus sharply on what is said. In other words, I cannot hope to be helpful unless your minds are now so fully engaged that you will make sense of Paul’s words even when I fail to do him justice.
Let’s begin with his remark about people who are, as the Phillips translation puts it, “one mass of envy.” We don’t rate envy as a particularly serious personality disorder, but the medieval church called it one of the Seven Deadly Sins — always fatal to the happiness of the one who is sick with it. Envy: that gut-wrenching resentment we feel when someone else has what we want. It has a double sting: not only does it make us miserable over what we don’t have, but it destroys our happiness with what we do have. If I admit that this ugly virus has infected my life in certain moments I would like to forget, can you join me in a similar confession — and listen for a moment?
If I could pick the course content of seminary training for ministers, every one of them would be deeply exposed to two great literary masterpieces: Milton’s English poem Paradise Lost, with its incredible treasury of religious information, and Dante’s Italian poem called The Divine Comedy, with its incomparable description of an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. As he makes his spiraling way up the mountain of Purgatory, Dante encounters the spirits of people who sinned on earth and are now bowed beneath burdens appropriate to the sin of which they are being cleansed. When he meets the envious he sees again what our character failures would look like if they were given an actual physical form: their eyelids are sewn together to symbolize the fact that envy blinds us to mutality and brotherhood — locks us into the dark poverty of our own meager resources. The envious eyes that once found only food for bitterness in all sights of beauty and joy must now, in penance, refrain from drinking in the gladness of sea and sky and human love. Unwilling once to enjoy the good looks, the charm, the heroism or success of someone else, they now live in the actual darkness that once filled their hearts.
I know that such pronouncements are dangerous, but it does seem to me that more of us contract this disease than used to be the case. For one thing, we know so much more about what others have. We vacation where we could never afford to live, gazing in disbelief at beach mansions and splendid yachts and $l0 million dollar homes in Aspen, and suddenly we feel cheated by life. Modern advertising is dedicated much of the time to reminding us that we should covet what we do not have. Your ‘86 Chevy looks like a loser beside the sleek Lexis with the extravagantly beautiful woman smiling expectantly from the passenger side. Want to make other women’s eyes turn green with envy, the ad asks? Then buy a fur coat from…..somewhere! Watch an evening of television and keep a running tally of the ads that appeal overtly to envy, to dissatisfaction, and you begin to understand some of the malaise we create in American life. Once the bug bites, a cure is not easy. A wise gentleman by the name of Francis Bacon wrote once, long ago, that “Envy has no holidays.” Think about it for a moment. Temper, lust, lies, slander — these all tend to be occasional things. Envy has a way of settling in.
I said that a cure was not easy, but I think a cure is possible. Each morning before the business of your day begins, you pause for a moment of what some will call reflection and others a prayer (I consider them close kin), and you say something like this: “Today I shall be among people who are less capable than I am. Help me not to take advantage of them, or to exult in my superiority. But I shall also be among people who in certain ways are stronger and better than I am. Help me not to envy them, to poison myself with resentment, but to be content and to do what I can, as well as I can, at peace with myself.” That may be hard to remember, and harder yet to say, but it would save us from envy — and believe me, there’s more of that in most of us than we like to admit. If you want to know that’s true, ask yourself, when you’re putting someone down, crudely or cleverly, “Am I doing this simply because I’m jealous?” It will be surprising how often the honest answer is, Yes.
Now, since we’re hurting, let’s give ourselves a little more pain. Warning us against hasty judgments, Paul says, “In judging another, you condemn yourselves.” It’s a generalization, of course; it’s not always true, but it’s true so often that we have to think about it for a moment. The most common judgments we make are about other people’s moral failures, and we condemn ourselves when we conveniently forget our own. Judgments are invariably tempered when you pause first to ask, “And how about me? What are my faults, and how do I excuse them?” When we face how kindly we treat our own failures, our criticisms become less harsh. We make other kinds of judgments, out of arrogance or ignorance, which leave us looking foolish. Like the critic in Blackwood’s Magazine who wrote a scathing review of the poetry of John Keats, who had been a doctor’s assistant, a kind of pharmacist. “Go back to the shop, Mr. John Keats, back to the ‘plasters, pills and ointment boxes….” The critic saw no hint of genius; he passed judgment upon himself. I read the other day a judgment made in 1840 before the U. S. Senate by our own Daniel Webster about the insanity of expecting anything good to come from the wild, desert west coast of America: “What do we want with this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus, and prairie dogs?….What could we do with [this 3000 miles of Pacific coast] — rockbound, cheerless and uninviting?” California, Oregon, Washington — all lumped together as useless in the future of the United States. Paul’s advice about judgment is homely stuff, but still true: proceed with caution.
Paul gets better as he goes in this letter, and by the middle of it he writes out of deep personal anguish about another perennial problem. “I often find,” he says, “that I have the will to do good, but not the power. I fail to do the good things I really want to do, and the bad things I don’t want to do I find I am forever doing.” Is there anyone in this room who hasn’t felt that way at times? H. G. Wells said of one of his characters, Mr. Polly, that “he was a walking civil war.” In some ways, aren’t we all? We know from parents, school, church, books how to live well with ourselves and with others — and we’d like to do it. Except that, with Paul, we have the will to do good but not the power. I used to have students in a Victorian Literature class read the essays of an extraordinarily brilliant man named John Stuart Mill. It is fascinating to hear him describe the superbly disciplined education his demanding father gave him, and how as a young man he lacked the power to do anything with it. “I had a rudder,” he says, “but no sail.” All the knowledge he needed, but not enough motivation. He knew more about directions than almost any young man alive, he had been given a fabulous map to a useful life, but he lacked the willpower to take the trip. Here is a lighthearted description of that lack of willpower in minor matters:
I should be better, brighter, thinner,
And more intelligent at dinner.
I should reform and take some pains,
Improve my person, use my brains.
There’s lots that I could do about it,
But will I?…..Honestly, I doubt it!
If knowing what to do, and doing it, were always linked, the world would be a radically different place. I remember an eager young college boy who used to go out into the country on weekends peddling a book called How to be a Better Farmer. He did surprisingly well until one Saturday evening when he came across an old gentleman sitting in the shade of his front porch, chewing tobacco and enjoying the scenery of the hills around his farm. The college boy described his book to the relaxed farmer, and then waved his hand toward the barren fields, the broken fences, the badly rundown outbuildings. “Wouldn’t you like to buy one of these books? It will tell you how to improve your land, preserve your buildings, and increase your income. I guarantee that reading it will make you a better farmer.” The old man took a long breath, shifted a little in his rocker, launched a missile accurately toward the spittoon, and brought the conversation to an abrupt end: “Wal now,” he said, “I reckon I already know how to be a lot better farmer than I am.” You can make the application to church life and sermons without my help!
And finally, the verse from Romans which one student of Paul calls “the great forgotten text.” I can think of several others, like: When you do good, be quiet about it — or, Paying back an insult gets you nowhere — or, Love your enemies……advice that prompts a quick case of amnesia in most of us. But this one is especially intriguing because it sets forth a test for orthodoxy. Many of us who now worship here grew up with various tests for orthodoxy. You were OK if you used the right name for the church, or washed feet, or took communion weekly, or kept women in their place, or sang without a piano — you know how long that list can be! — but this verse defines the essence of the Christian religion: “If you do not have the spirit of Christ you do not belong to him.”
My own childhood church was more legalistic than most, I will admit, but this verse was not our test for who was, and who was not, a Christian. Our most honored preacher for several years was a mean-spirited man who treated his wife as if she were a beggar, but we called him great because he argued like a skilfull lawyer each Sunday that we were right in our doctrine and all others were wrong. Several young boys under his tutelage, I being one of them, decided to became ministers for the wrong reasons. Not because the spirit of Christ filled and warmed his life, but because dogmatic certainty has a powerful appeal during the uncertainties of adolescence, and because we all wanted to go out, as he had done, and engage in fierce debates with those who preached false doctrine — which, I must tell you, included Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists…..everybody but us.
Now, imagine for a moment what would have happened if we had remembered this verse from Paul and made the test of faith depend on how we showed the spirit of Christ in our treatment of others. We chose some mean people at times to be our leaders simply because they read the story of Jonah literally, upheld immersion as the only mode of baptism, found no contradictions in the Holy Bible. If ethics had been the test, some of them could never have been chosen. If goodness had been the test, some quiet folk who were never noticed would have become deacons, elders and preachers. This is a terrifying text, really, because it means nothing counts with God except having a Christlike spirit. Nothing else counts: the boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, the wearing of a robe or a headdress, all the salutes for success in the market place — all add up to zero when it comes to knowing those who belong to Christ. We have that judgment, in fact, in the exact words of Jesus himself:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you….” (Matt. 7:21-23) Let’s translate these claims for a modern audience. That repetition of “Lord, Lord” stands for worship, for ritual and readings in unison and kneeling which, if done to the constant saying of the name of Christ, must surely mean one is accepted — right? Even if one does cheat pretty steadily through the week, and neglect all sorts of people who desperately need love and compassion. And the business about prophesying — it means preaching, so if you preach powerful sermons you must be in the kingdom, right? And casting out demons, surely that’s what the skilled counselor does, naming and getting rid of the demons that blight personality, so that qualifies one to be a true citizen of the kingdom, right? Wrong. Useful as all those skills may be, they are not enough and the sad verdict may be — as in this verse — “I never knew you.”
What it means, thank God, is that the test of orthodoxy is not obscure or difficult or hidden to all but the wise. It is set out in a list of perfectly understandable personality traits in another of Paul’s epistles (Gal. 5:22). You can test yourself even as you hear them: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”