Living with Sin.
5 July 2020.
“The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”(Romans 7.19. AV)
The tearing down of statues in the wake of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement betrays a very human tension within each of us: the tension between good and bad motives.
I can understand some of the pent-up rage which emanates from those who have been down-trodden for generations. It is an embarrassment which most of us share and these violent scenes have forced us to look carefully at ourselves and our inheritance. Certainly the Church of England has gained much in the past from the slave-trade. All the bishops in the House of Lords voted against the Wilberforce anti-slavery Bill in 1804. But something else, more intimate is also being revealed.
Coulston was obviously a very rich man who, for some reason, gave much of his ill-gotten gains to his home city. This has left the city fathers wringing their hands in the wake of the riots. Bristol Cathedral were quick to respond, planning a purge of memorials. They issued this statement:
“For us it is the right moment to take the action we have been
considering for some time. A cathedral or a church should be
a place of sanctuary, justice and peace: a place where God’s glory
is worshipped and God’s love felt.”
This knee-jerk action worries me for inside Coulston and inside all of us lurks this mixture of good and bad motives which we find difficult to control. Life is not just black and white, Jekyll or Hyde. It is a mixture of both; shades of grey. The inference from Bristol Cathedral suggests that only those who are innocent, good – perfect even – should find sanctuary there and that cannot be right. I would not be welcomed there.
We live in a binary age. It works our computers, so we are told, but it does not help us in perceiving character or doing justice to God’s saving action in Christ. We are all mixtures of good and bad, shades of grey. St. Paul understood that and he explores it in our reading today. He talks here and elsewhere in his work about these opposites of flesh and spirit, law and grace, physical and spiritual yet he knew the reality is more nuanced than that.
Flesh is good; Christ was born in the flesh but flesh can be abused. Our rapacious appetites get the better of us sometimes.
Law is good. It protects the vulnerable but it can also act as a temptation to go beyond it as any schoolboy scrumper will know.
The physical world is very beautiful but can be hoarded by greedy humanity.
So for Paul, these internal motives of ours are evenly balanced but he sees the answer ‘in Christ’. It is into Christ that we are baptized; we take on his standards in the life of the Church which is there to keep us and the whole world up to the mark. It recognizes the deceptive nature of sin. Its antidote is clear: turn to Christ.
Living with Sin.
The Jews were given the Law of Moses as a yardstick and Paul lived with that yardstick but he realized that it often failed him. It was a binary world. You either kept the law or failed completely. Paul was once engrossed in it but seeing the violence meted out by Jews to Stephen (Acts 7) he began to change his mind. His conversation soon followed.
From then on, Paul worked furiously to understand God’s work of salvation through Christ. In this passage, he realizes that baptism doesn’t abolish sin but it does make the path to holiness clearer.
The Jewish law was harsh, heartless. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ Shakespeare in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ illustrates that as Shylock the Jew goes to court to retrieve his pound of flesh. In the court scene, Portia, the disguised lawyer, ridicules Shylock. He can’t get his pound of flesh without spilling blood so is led to recognize that mercy would be the best outcome for all.
Mercy: neither black nor white but the best shade of grey. We so often fail to live up to the standards which Christ lays before us and even our own standards but rewarding the effort, encouraging us when we stumble, picking us up when we fall is what the Christian life is all about.
Acts of mercy, leniency, forgiveness, tolerance lead to grace, where both parties are rewarded, the giver and the receiver. That is how God deals with us. The author of our hymn today, John Newton, knew that only too well. He started his career as a slave trader but he also knew life as a slave himself. During a storm at sea he was converted and mercy for him became a reality. ‘He came to himself’ and spent the rest of his life supporting Wilberforce and the abolitionists.
God’s Amazing Grace! It saved a wretch like Newton. How many others does it save? Will Edward Colston be among them? I hope so. Amen.