The Challenge of St. Paul

HOMILY—9 JULY 2017—The Challenge of St. Paul

In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.

“I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. (…) I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”

In seminary, we all had to take a class on preaching.  Part of the tutorial method required that we preach a sermon and have it critiqued by our fellow students and by the instructor.  It wasn’t always an easy or a painless exercise.  I remember I once preached a sermon on a passage from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, where I challenged him for being unduly harsh and quite puritanical about some of the supposed immoral behaviour of his day.  My fellow students certainly didn’t refrain from being unduly harsh with me.  I got the rather distinct impression that I was out of line in challenging the great St. Paul.

Some years ago, in one of my books, I included a chapter on St. Paul and St. Augustine, where I wrote the following about them: “They find themselves in this book, not because I especially like them, or they me, but rather because I have several bones to pick with them.  They are inescapable, if only because they have been such a source of oppression for queer people.  I have absorbed, consciously and unconsciously, more of the thinking and writings of these two theological bastions than I have any other religious thinkers.  One simply cannot get away from them.  And yet, I wish I could.  We all do.”  If you were to say that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Paul, you would most probably be right.

Yet there are times when I find his words so insightful, so moving and so incredibly true, that I am willingly seduced by what he writes, such as the amazing passage from Romans that we have just heard.  It is, without doubt, a difficult and troublesome passage, but one that is especially rich in its implications for us.  It warrants serious theological engagement, because I think it speaks quite eloquently and forcefully to our fundamental state as human creatures.

The first thing one needs to understand about St. Paul is that he was very much a man of his times.  He was both a devout Jew and a Roman citizen who lived in a Hellenistic culture—that is, a culture inspired by the philosophical and ethical values of ancient Greece.  One of the characteristics of that culture was a starkly dualistic view of the world: between matter and spirit, between body and soul, between good and evil, between humans and the gods.  This means that the language we encounter in today’s reading from Romans may strike us as being overwhelmingly dark and negative, perhaps even self-loathing.  It’s not the sort of language that we use.  But I ask you to think about it.  Are we perhaps being too dismissive, too facile in imposing our 21st-century values on Paul?  For I sense that there may be a grain of truth in what he says about this fundamental and often unconscious tension that we experience in our lives between “wanting” to do something and then doing its exact opposite, between good intentions and good actions.  One could even ask whether this is not, in fact, a fundamental trait of the human condition.  Most theologians and philosophers have been telling us that down through the centuries.  The question then becomes: what is the Christian response to this core human dilemma, to this inescapable tension between right and wrong that continues to haunt us?  How can we overcome it, if at all?  Or should we even try to?

The other question that this passage may raise for us—if only out of morbid curiosity—is what was it that Paul had such a difficult time keeping under control?  What was it in Paul’s body, his “members”—that is the expression he uses—which caused him such anxiety and so much trouble?  It’s another variation of that famous “thorn in my flesh” that Paul alludes to elsewhere.  As one might expect, biblical scholars differ in their interpretation, but the most common understanding is that this was something sexual.  Some have even suggested that it may have been same-sex attraction, if Paul’s limited writings on same-sex desire are anything to go by.  All this makes sense, given Paul’s culture.  These are not, of course, the same values and beliefs that we necessarily share—we would argue that we have a more nuanced and balanced view of such questions—but they make sense to Paul, and they raise for him a far more fundamental question, one that is still very relevant for us: why is it so difficult for me at times to do the good that I really and truly want to do?  Why can’t I control myself?

I know some who would say that this is a silly and irrelevant question, that it smacks of the traditionally negative religious view of a “weak and sinful” human nature, and that it denigrates human autonomy and self-determination.  It’s the sort of critique you hear a lot these days.  Just listen to some of the political language and discourse coming out of certain quarters: “we are great; we are exceptional; we are above reproach; my reality is not your reality: yours is fake, while mine is the genuine thing.”  What does this entire baggage of verbal assault have in common?  Very simply, an arrogant refusal to accept responsibility for how one behaves in the world, a sense that morality doesn’t apply to you, and a deliberate dismissiveness and firm denial of the experiential truth embodied in another person.

Yet the real starting point for any properly ethical—and, yes, Christian—presence and behaviour in the world is precisely this ability and willingness to claim imperfection and weakness (and dare I say it? sinfulness) for oneself.  It’s a question of Christian responsibility.  And that is exactly what St. Paul is doing in his letter to the Romans.  He is calling us to a renewed sense of responsibility.  In fact, he is reminding us that we can never act perfectly in an imperfect world, regardless of our genuinely good intentions.  We will always be torn between the good that we want to do and the contradictions of our human condition, even though that does not mean that we should not keep trying.  In fact, it’s this sharp and very real sense of imperfection that ultimately keeps us honest in God’s eyes.

Perhaps we should bring in St. Augustine, my other nemesis, at this point.  If you are familiar with his classic autobiography Confessions, you will know that there’s a childhood experience in there that he recounts, and that has often been dismissed and even ridiculed for being an example of misplaced and excessive guilt.  Augustine talks about how he and some of his childhood buddies stole some pears from an orchard (in some translations, the reference is to apples)—not to eat, but simply for the pleasure of stealing and destroying.  Now, we might dismiss such a prank as being a typically childish thing to do; kids will be kids, and all that.  But for Augustine, this apparently mundane incident becomes the starting point for a deeply perceptive reflection on sin, evil and the grace of God; on how we so often fall short of the good that we are all called upon to seek and to embody.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and tell you about something similar from my own childhood.  When I was in first grade, I remember very distinctly taking a nickel—yes, five cents—from a classmate.  I don’t even remember why, but I was caught and my parents, believe me, did not let it go unpunished.  This was my first real lesson in ethical behaviour, and it must have worked because, well, I’m still a free man today.  Now, I don’t think I’m a bad person, and neither was Augustine, but, regardless of our age, we both did things that we undoubtedly knew we should not have done.  We both were unable to do “what is right,” much like St. Paul.  And like him, we wondered why we did it.  That’s the beginning, I would think, of a sense of grace in our souls.  It comes at that moment when we recognize that we will always fall short—not out of a sense of self-denigration, but out of an honest encounter with who and what we are.  And once we arrive there, we cannot claim exceptionalism for ourselves.  We cannot stand above and beyond the tug and pull of human contingency and, ultimately, of human forgiveness.

There’s a wonderful line from today’s gospel, where Jesus says: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”  This is not meant to suggest, of course, that only children can understand or even appreciate the truth of the Good News.  But Jesus does remind us here that perspective is everything, and that we sometimes very much need to let go of some of our preconceived and ingrained notions about ourselves—and even of God—before fully understanding what it is we are called to do.  Perhaps we think St. Paul is beating himself up a bit too much, or that St. Augustine is really being, well, a bit of a killjoy about those stolen fruit.  Or perhaps I shouldn’t keep coming back to that nickel that wasn’t mine.  Yes, perhaps, but I’m not sure our respective lives would have been the same had we not gone there to confront our innate contradictions as human beings.  The good news of the Gospel is not found in running from truth, or discomfort, or disquiet.  The Good News is not fake news, designed to make us feel good, holy and secure about ourselves.  If anything, the Good News has always been meant to annoy us.

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