"The War Within" - Pentecost 5A
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
July 9, 2017 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Romans 7:15-25a

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: Pentecost 5A, July 9, 2017

Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


The War Within


            When I started seminary, I just knew that I was going to be a superstar. I was going to get top grades in all of my classes. I was going to write brilliant papers. I was going to have an amazing, powerful, and consistent prayer practice. I was going to impress the right kind of people; make connections; go on to great things.


            That first year of seminary was a humbling experience, to say the least. While my academic performance was fine, I struggled just about everywhere else. My young marriage suffered as our expectations for living at the seminary and with each other did not match reality. As self-absorbed (and fearful) as I was, I had difficulty making friends and tended to be intensely critical of others. I especially had difficulty accepting the reality of other peoples’ sinfulness, especially that of current and future leaders of the church. It all culminated in an incident in the last month of classes in my first year. I had been keeping a weblog for a while, writing about whatever came to mind, from my time as a car salesman, to living in Rogers Park, from theological reflections, to rather critical evaluations of my academic adviser. As it turned out, an alumna of the seminary found a number of weblogs connected with LSTC and reported them to the Field Education office. My own adviser sent me an email quoting a number of the most damning passages from my blog and, after rhetorically asking if it was mine, ordered me to remove the blog and to see him in his office.


            I blew up. The frustrations of that first year coupled with what I saw as a betrayal caused me to write the nastiest post I ever wrote, with all the Biblical ammunition I could muster.


            Well, that didn’t help matters any. My adviser responded to that post directly on the blog, ordering me into his office. I had to have meetings with him, the field education director, and the dean of community. I had to write an apology, and was ordered to find a therapist. My marriage suffered even more, as my then-wife’s opinion of the seminary and my future career plummeted. My first year at seminary ended, not on the road to glory, but knocked down, shocked, and confused.


            In our reading from Romans, Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” These words ought to resonate with each one of us. We all do things, and wonder how in the world we could have done them at all. We don’t always understand what possessed us to do something at the time. And our only explanation might be, “Mistakes were made,” or “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” I did not understand what prompted me to write such a scathing, rage-filled response at the time, but Paul’s words shed light on it. It was sin. Sin, not simply something that one does, but an alien power, an invading force, that takes up residence within each one of us, using all our good intentions against us.

The life of the Christian is not an easy, uncomplicated one. It, in fact, adds new complications. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote in his book, Being Christian, “…you don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!” Being a Christian means accepting and understanding that despite our best efforts to live well and in accordance with God’s will, we will sin. In fact, sin can often make use of our best efforts and turn them against us. We can have an outstanding prayer life or give generously to those in need; attend worship regularly and serve on committees; serve at the food pantry or in other community organizations. All these are good and proper things for a Christian to do. And yet, because we do them, we can easily, oh so easily, fall victim to what the church fathers called the chief of sins – pride. We can take inordinate pride in how well we are living, how much we are giving, how effectively we are serving. We can so easily forget God’s role in our ability to do well in the first place. And we can easily end up in a place like Paul’s, in which he was zealous for God’s law, and yet found himself in opposition to God by persecuting the church.


            So what do we do then? Do we just give up and hope that grace will abound for us?


            Paul emphatically answers, “No,” in previous chapters of Romans. God has set us free from sin in the death and resurrection of Christ, so Christians have died to sin and are joined to Christ. However, we still experience fallenness on this side of heaven. This is like what Paul experiences in 2nd Corinthians, when he says that he suffers from “a thorn in the flesh”. Being redeemed, we still need reminders from time to time who is God and who is not. We cannot justify ourselves or make ourselves right with God, no matter what we do. We cannot earn our way into heaven. No amount of self-improvement, no amount of living our “best life now” will do us a whit of good in eternity. The only thing that matters is God’s grace, which saved us at our baptism and continually works in us to make us fit for God’s kingdom.


            And that grace, which is bad news for our pride, is good news for our destiny with God. That grace is what makes the yoke of Christ light. Our own self-pride, our own dreams of glory and honor and power and might, are the heavy burdens that Christ invites us to lay down, in order to pick up his. There is, and will always be a war within us in this realm. There is always the good we want to do, and the evil we end up doing despite our best intentions. And yet, as Lutheran Christians, we know that it is God’s grace through Jesus Christ that saves us from “this body of death”. God knows the war within us. And even though we so often find ourselves doing the wrong thing despite ourselves, God offers us forgiveness and a fresh start. God invites us, once again, to lay down those heavy burdens of self-righteousness, and to pick up Jesus’ light burden of humble discipleship. Over and over, God understands, forgives, and invites – all through grace, and grace alone.


            Let us pray.


            Father, we so often want to do the right thing, and yet find ourselves ensnared by pride and self-righteousness into doing what we don’t want to do. In our weakness, remind us that your grace alone saves. Help us to lay down the heavy burden of self-justification and pick up the light burden of following your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.


© 2017, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.