“I Am What I Am and Not What I Am” by Pastor Will Nelson

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

Humanity has a real problem in our scientific, technological, information-saturated society, because we want to know the specifics of how something, anything, happens. We want an explanation—something we can understand intellectually. How does this thing work? We want the definitive answer—the truth!

There is only one truth, one explanation, one answer applicable to all situations? Is Christ the same for each one of us in every possible situation? Does always God respond to each of us in the same way ? With all our modern technology, is it possible to quantify God’s response to humanity so we can put all the variables into a fancy equation and solve the problem—predict exactly what God’s going to do in every situation?

I do not know about you, but in my experience, God is certainly not predictable—at least in the specifics! God is, however, very predicable in the sense that God loves and cares for us and will always be with us. As in our reading, we do not have a good answer as to how that happens. Even with our 21st century science, we cannot quantify how God’s Spirit works in this world. First, let us look at law as mentioned by Paul. If we look at verses just prior to Romans 7:15-25, Paul emphasizes Law as being spiritual.

Paul shows that God’s Law is “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12). In verse 14, Paul makes an incredibly significant statement: “The Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” Paul seems to be saying this: “The Law is not the problem, I am.” We might paraphrase it this way: “The Law is spiritual. I am carnal.” Both statements catch us somewhat off guard. Both need explanation and clarification.

The Law has already been shown to be “holy, righteous, and good.” Now Paul tells us something more, “The Law is spiritual.” Just how is the Law “spiritual”? How does being “spiritual” differ from being “holy, righteous, and good”? To understand and agree with Paul’s words, we must take several important matters into account:

  1. Paul is speaking specifically of the Law of Moses and not just “law” in general.
  2. As such, the Law of Moses was given by God. God was the Author of the Law.
  3. The Law of Moses is Scripture, “… inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; see also Romans 15:4).
  4. The Law defines and reveals sin, showing men to be sinners, under divine condemnation and in need of a righteousness not their own.
  5. The Law reveals the character of God to men. It also anticipates and bears witness to the righteousness of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
  6. It defines sins and determines their penalties so that those who break the Law can be punished (see 1 Timothy 1:7-11).
  7. Far more than being a mere set of rules, the Law is suggestive, giving those who seek God much fuel for meditation, prayer, and praise.
  8. The Law cannot be understood apart from divine illumination (see Psalm 119, especially verses 8, 26-27, 32, 33-34); 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:3). No man can understand God’s revelation apart from the Spirit of God. The Law is spiritual; it therefore requires the Spirit to interpret it to unspiritual men.
  9. The Law is not concerned merely with externals but with man’s heart and spirit.

Basically, Paul is saying we are flesh and the source of our problem is not me, but sin. Have you ever said to yourself or to someone else, “I don’t know why I do this? I should know better.” When we make a stupid mistake , we say, “I could kick myself for that.” Or “I had it coming. I should have known better.”

That is what Paul is talking about here. He wanted to do what was right; yet somehow, he could never get it quite right. He knew it was wrong, and the last thing he wanted to do was to do the wrong thing. Yet somehow, he did it. And the good that he knew he should do; he could not get himself to do.

Do you ever feel yourself pulled in two directions? As if two powerful forces were tearing you apart. The one force pulls you toward doing God’s will and the other force pulls you towards sin and darkness. Most of the time its two forces pulling in opposite directions, and both claiming to be the will of God. In the life of every Christian there is struggle with sin. And it can get to be a frustrating experience.

We are to be the physical presence of Jesus with one another. We are the ones to whom others are looking to see God. We are the ones to whom others turn to bring some calm into their lives. We are the ones who will show how much God cares about them. We are the ones to show our sisters and brothers that God is not asleep but is wide awake to aid them in their time of need.

That is true for the members here at Union Congregational UCC. It is also true for others in the community of, let us say, Amarillo. And it is just as true for refugees and their families along the Mexican border. Jesus is present within each of us and we are expected to share that love with others, for the good of God’s creation.

So, how do we Christians reflect the love of the God who created us in God’s own imagine? How are we Christians—disciples of Jesus—showing our loving God to others in our lives?

As we contemplate this passage, we must place it in the context of Paul’s discussion about Law and Grace. Jews, during Paul’s time, would probably say that God gave them the law to keep a person from falling prey to the evil impulses; observe Sabbath and you will be fine and should prove your dedication to God.” A contemporary interpretation of that view might be, “go to church on Sunday, and you’ve done your part.”

Paul says that every attempt to follow the letter of the law is bound to fail at some point. We can try as hard as we want to, but there comes a time when our own good intentions fail us. We cave into temptation. We say, “I can’t help it.” “It’s just a part of who I am.” In our own strength we are powerless against sin.

The world has tried to offer us many solutions that explain our inability to say “no” to sin. We have tried to psychologize sin. We have become a society of victims. “I can’t help that I have an attitude problem – my grandfather had an attitude problem too.” or, “I can’t help being dishonest – my whole family has a history of stretching the truth.” Or, “I was abused as a child.”

Yes, the sins of our fathers and mothers influence our lives. However, there comes a time when every individual must take responsibility for his or her actions.

Our society has also done a good job at downplaying sin. “It’s not sin what we’re doing, after all it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Or this one, “I didn’t get caught shoplifting, and besides a few bucks won’t hurt the company.”

It still comes down to Paul’s basic confusion: even though we try to do the good, often we find ourselves face to face with sin. The Holy Spirit reveals to us in that moment that this was not right and pleasing to God. It may have felt good and satisfying to the ego, but it does not necessarily imply God blessing on our actions. Our conscience then keeps raising red flags and flashing pictures in our minds that remind us of our wrong actions.

In one way it almost sounds as if Paul is trying to escape responsibility when he says, “it is no longer I who do it, but the sin which resides within me.” But what he is really saying is that in his own power he is bound to be a looser. “I can’t do it myself. Sin is much more powerful than all my good intentions.”

And then comes his proclamation of victory: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus has fulfilled the law of God. He is the perfect Lamb that was given as a guilt-offering for your and my sins. All our pride, our jealousy, and our need for acceptance can be brought to Christ. Everything that hinders our relationship with God can be dealt with through the forgiveness and love of Christ. Everything that motivates us to choose sin over the will of God can be submitted to the will of Christ at the cross.

As Paul speaks about his own struggle with sin, he identifies an area in our lives that we need to bring under God’s control. We too struggle with dishonesty, impure thoughts, wrong actions, carelessness towards others, and lack of accountability in our walk of faith.

Paul invites us to bring our inner turmoil to the cross of Calvary. Confess your sin! Renew your life with God! Renew your life with your husband, wife, children, parents, your brother, and sister in the Church. Christ’s grace is sufficient for us!

Paul challenges us to die to sin and become alive to God. He calls us to more intentional living of the life in Christ. “If we are in Christ, we are a new creation.” The old is past. The new life is just beginning.

Let us break free and become alive in Christ. Let us grow in our relationship to Christ. Also let our relationship with this body, the body of Christ, spring forth to new life. Let our hearts burn for the Kingdom of God. Then the world will know that we are His disciples.