'I see and approve the better things, but I pursue the worse.'
Ovid in Metamorphoses vii, 19
'I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?'
St Paul to the Romans vii. 15, 24
‘If you listen to one preacher you’ll end up mimicking them and suppress the voice God has given you to use’.
I can’t say that’s a direct quote, but that’s what I heard my professor say in class at my preaching course in seminary. And in the years since I’ve been in preaching class, this has rung true to me many times. So I’ve done my best to keep a quiver full of preachers that I turn to for their teaching, to be challenged and encouraged by their words, and to grow in my faith.
But if I’m honest, the one voice that has had the most impact on me has been Tim Keller’s. In fact, of all his excellent sermons, the one I’ve returned to most over the years was one he delivered on The Beatitudes in March 1990 titled “War and Peace” linked here and I hope you check it out, it’s worth your time and attention.
In his sermon Keller points out that the peace Jesus talks about isn’t the peace that is contrasted to anxiety, it’s peace that is contrasted with hostility. The problem Jesus came to solve wasn’t primarily an emotional deficit, he came to invite us to put down our arms we wield against God and submit to Jesus as our Creator, our God, our Friend, and our King.
And it’s this message that triggers us because often we just don’t like it.
We don't like the narrative of Jesus coming to reconcile us rebels to God. We prefer a different narrative, the one about ‘good deeds.’
“Seth (or Keller or whoever), I do my bit of good at home and in the community. I’m a good person. If there’s a heaven, I’ll be there because I’m basically a good person. Yeah, I’ve made mistakes but I’m not a Hitler or anything. I’m a normal decent person and I don’t feel like I’m hostile to God at all - I even go to church sometimes! - so I don’t need to ‘submit to Jesus’ whatever that actually means. I’m a good person and that’s all that matters.”
This could be better written but I hope you get the point. The narrative is we’re basically good and at best Jesus is here to give us a boost on our ability to do good and that’s so nice right?
Yeah in a way that’s what St Paul thought too before he became St Paul, when his name was still Saul of Tarsus. Remember that story?
Saul was all about good deeds. He studied the law of God, what we Christians call ‘The Old Testament’ and he knew it backwards and forwards.
He lived his life for it. He got the equivalent of an Oxford education on it.
He was passionate about it and went as far as travelling from city to city rounding up these so-called ‘christians’ who were blaspheming God and doing evil by perverting God’s teachings.
Saul was about ‘good deeds’ and the wider community couldn’t have agreed more.
And then he met Jesus.
And Saul became Paul.
And Paul did a 180 and started travelling from city to city starting up churches and supporting churches that other christians had already started up.
In fact, he wound up writing most of what Christians call, ‘The New Testament’ that we hear every Sunday at church. For example, his letter to the church in Rome which we’ll be hearing this weekend, and in it he wrestles with the narrative of ‘good deeds’. Because Jesus came to free us from this narrative, but we are always in danger of slipping right back into that trap.
Because the narrative of ‘good deeds’ is a trap. in two ways. First, if you live up to your standards, doing your bit of good, then you easily slide into a self-righteousness that low key demands God should bless you and let you into heaven.
You form a basis from which you think you can assert your rights, you don’t have to mess with all that bible and piety mumbo jumbo. You do your bit of God and God should bless you or God isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. This also leads to looking down on your neighbour who you notice isn’t doing as much good and they should shape up, etc. It’s a toxic trap.
Or secondly, the trap activates when you don’t live up to your standards, you don’t do your bit of good. Then you inwardly collapse. You will feel judged by others, or more coldly, you’ll judge yourself. You will feel you don’t have the basis to call out the wrong around you because ‘who are you to judge?’ and you’ll be silent in the face of injustice, you’ll give passes to people for their wrong actions as a way of cultivating a future immunity for yourself. Again, it’s a trap.
And then there’s St Paul in our Sunday readings audibly wrestling with the present reality. He says: I want to do what is good but I do what isn’t. And then he says,
Paul notices there is a war in himself. He wants to do his bit of good, but try as he might he also ends up doing what’s wrong. He recognizes that there is a deep brokenness in himself and who will make things right for him?
I want us to notice that not once does he try the narrative of ‘good deeds’ to set this right. He doesn’t because it’s precisely that narrative that gets us in this problem to begin with. That’s what ‘the law’ is, the narrative of good deeds, and it’s never enough to connect us with God.
See, you have to think it through. Who are we trying to impress? Well, if it’s other folks then ‘a bit of good’ is enough. But what if you’re to please the living God who is Perfect Goodness and Perfect Love?
I mean, do the thought experiment: If I play a few guitar chords, then my playing could impress you if you don’t play much or any guitar.
But if I had to sit down with a classical guitar master like John Williams, would my playing a few chords impress him? Would it move him to include me in the pantheon of guitar masters like himself?
What if I insisted I belong with him and Tarrega and Andres Segovia on the basis of how I play ‘Come Thou Fount’ on guitar on Sunday?
Kinda silly right?
And yet that’s us.
That’s us when we bring our resume of good deeds to the living God who is Perfect Goodness and Perfect Love. Compared to God’s love, our love is worse than hate. Our care for our neighbours is like a sword swipe from an enemy. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
One of my favourite quotes by Tim Keller is his elevator pitch of the gospel - the good news found in Jesus. He put it this way:
“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
The answer to the war that rages in us, the desire to do good while at the same time doing that which we hate, is the grace offered to us by Jesus.
When Paul asks,
The answer is always Jesus.
Not my list of good deeds.
Because, if I’m honest, it might be good down here but it doesn’t make me even a tid bit better when compared to God. And that’s the only comparison that matters.
But we don’t lose hope, because the promise is if I let go of the narrative of good deeds and cling to Jesus, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus becomes the defining narrative of my life.
Not my mistakes,
not the paltry nature of my ‘bit of good’,
but Jesus becomes my life. And through Jesus I am able to stand in before the living God and be unafraid.
We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.
And St Paul,
Thanks be to God is right.