July 10, 2011

Doing What Comes (Un)Naturally

A Sermon for Proper 10a

SJF • Proper 10a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Some of the philosophers of the romantic era and in the 17th to 19th century came up with the idea that people living in simplicity in the time before civilization were somehow more innocent, more “natural” and hence unspoiled. The notion is sometimes referred to as that of the “noble savage.” The concept became attached to Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but it isn’t exactly his idea. Still, he shared the tendency somehow to idealize human beings in their uncivilized condition. He saw civilization itself as a kind of introduction of morality and consequent decline.

The idea as Rousseau espoused it is that people in their primitive state were morally neutral, and that it was only with later civilization that evil entered the world as society began to corrupt the natural innocence of primitive existence. As Rousseau put it, the problems began “when the first man staked out a bit of land and said, ‘This is mine,’ and convinced others foolishly to agree.”

The Christian tradition is said by some to see things rather differently, but a closer reading may reveal that it is not quite so different. People sometimes look to the story of Adam and Eve and think of the innocent perfection of life that they enjoyed in paradise. But surely the point of the story is precisely that they were not innocent. They sinned — disobeying what at that point was just about the only thing God had commanded them — while they were in paradise. They may have been created innocent, but they were also created capable of committing sin, and it took them almost no time to do so.

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Theologians have wrestled with the question of human nature for thousands of years — whether people are good by nature or bad by nature, or started good and became bad, or whatever.

It seems to me that Saint Paul had it right, and made the most sense both out of that ancient story of the Garden and the Fall, and the practical reality of his own human experience. Human flesh — with its cravings, devices and desires — is weak. Human beings also have a natural tendency towards self-preservation, like most living things. And human beings develop very quickly the sense of property: at least when it comes to their own property. Much as Rousseau observed, children don’t take long to get to the point at which they have learned the first person possessive: Mine! It’s just that he saw this as part of a decline rather than natural, in contrast to another earlier philosopher, John Locke, who took the view that property was a natural right. Whether a right or a tendency, though, as a child, I had to be taught that not everything was mine — I had to learn how to share with other children.

For Saint Paul, this natural tendency is a part of the “mind set on the flesh.” It derives from our creaturely existence — our neediness. We need things; we need air to breathe, we need to eat. All of that is natural, natural to us. And that neediness has to be governed and ordered and civilized by some kind of regulation. Thus far Paul would be in agreement with Rousseau and the English philosopher Hobbes, with the exception that Rousseau was a bit more optimistic about the short-lived innocence of primitive humanity.

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But Saint Paul stands apart from all of these secular philosophers, in that, while they saw from rather different angles that law was society’s answer to the problem of human weakness, Paul saw that law was an insufficient solution to the problem. It is like a drug that comforts but does not heal. He saw law as an insufficient means of bringing peace to the warring hearts of fallible human beings. Even the law given by God could not bring compliance: in fact, God’s law only laid down the penalty: “Of the tree in the midst of the garden you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die.” That was the law that God gave to Adam and Eve, and it was the law they broke, before the proverbial ink was dry.

So what is the answer? What does Saint Paul offer us as an answer? Paul looks to God again — for something different this time; not for the law, but something different — after all, God is the source of all good — the fountain of all goodness, as we sang in our hymns today: it is from him that everything comes, the source of all good — but Paul did not look to God for the same old kind of law that God had given in the past, the law that was weakened by the flesh and so could not bring true righteousness.

Instead God sent his Son, but not, as the evangelist John would say, to condemn the world. God sent his Son precisely to relieve the world of that endless cycle of law-giving and law-breaking that was getting us nowhere, as we spun our wheels in the dry soil or the mud of our own failings.

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For Paul had observed something in that old, old story: you may recognize it too — let me ask you, when was it that Adam and Eve sinned? While God was away from them, while they were on their own. (Of course God was not really “away” but that is how the story goes — and we had best pay attention to the details of that story.) And Eve was off on her own — away from Adam — when the Serpent whispered sweet nothings in her ear and tempted her to violate the only law on the books at that time. And her weak flesh — the desire to live forever and become like God (even though, as the text shows, she and Adam already were like God, being made in God’s image) — as I say, her weak flesh gave in, and then she persuaded Adam’s equally weak flesh to join her: all of this while God was “away.”

So the answer to all of this, Paul says, is to be always “with” God — such that God is never “away.” And this is made possible both through the fact that Jesus Christ came “in the flesh” — that is to say, in and through and by means of the very human flesh that was the problem in the first place. And further to know that God is always with us, always present to us through the Spirit. If the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, God is with you, and even though the flesh might still seek to drag you down to death because of sin, the Spirit — God’s presence — is life because of the righteousness of Christ.

This is the hopeful message that Saint Paul brings: Christ came in the flesh and remains with us in the Spirit, and his spirit is at work in us and there it can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: even though we have no power in ourselves to become righteous, his spirit working in us is life because of his righteousness.

And it is a life that contains within it the promise of new life, the resurrection life. The Son of God, the Word of God, is at work within the soil of our human flesh. Remember how the story tells, what God made us from, at the beginning. Our soil, our flesh, comes from the earth. It is like the seed of the word received and nurtured, which grows in the soil to bear fruit for righteousness, “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” We are not good by nature, but by grace: our soil cannot bear fruit on its own, unless the seed of God be planted in it.

And so we do not trust in what is merely natural to make us good, but in the supernatural goodness of God to make us his. That is the message of salvation and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

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