27 October 2013

Who Will Save Me from this Body of Death?

I received a question yesterday regarding someone (a Catholic) who felt he was such a terrible sinner that he could not be forgiven by God. He felt abandoned by God and by Mary. The person who sent me this email had suggested the person offer up his sufferings and this person replied that they were the result of his sin; he could not offer them to God. He is entirely correct in this --- at least if this offering was meant to make the situation better in some propitiatory way. Such an offering could only make things worse. The ONLY solution to such a situation, and indeed to any of our situations of sinfulness is the mercy of God freely given and humbly received as wholly undeserved. I had already been writing a reflection on the first reading from Friday (Paul's letter to the Romans) so I decided to combine the two here.  Bearing in mind Paul's anguished and jubilant cry from Friday: "Who can save me from this body of death? Praise be to Jesus Christ!" my own response was as follows:

 If there is anything the Scriptures tell us again and again it is that God does not abandon ANYONE. (Even his abandonment of Christ was unique and more complex than simple much less absolute abandonment. Still, it was an expression of the abandonment we each deserve but which God in Christ also redeems.) In Christ, and especially in Christ's passion, God embraced the complete scope of sin and death so that we might be redeemed from these; in Christ he journeyed to the depths of hell to rescue those who were there. Israel failed again and again, committed idolatry, apostasy, etc etc, and NEVER did God abandon her.

It is prideful to believe the sins we commit are too big for God to forgive or the state of sin from which these come is too great for God to reconcile and heal. The only thing more dangerous is to refuse that forgiveness when it is offered; THAT is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the sin against the power of the Spirit working in us that says, "Let me forgive you and change your life." Your correspondent has not committed that sin, nor does he need to. The Holy Spirit will continue to prompt him to repent and to allow God to heal him. Even at the moment of death he will be asked to make a decision for or against God. In part this is what death is, the moment when we make a final choice which ratifies or denies the choices of our life.
This person need not offer his sufferings but he does need to trust in Christ's, especially in his obedience in his suffering and the sufficiency of these things together. There, Paul tells us, is nothing he can do on his own but get farther and farther from God. That was the point of Friday's first reading from Romans. If you recall Paul calls out, "Who will save me from this body of death (meaning this whole self under the sway of sin). Law can't do it, good works cannot do it, offering up our own puny sufferings cannot do it (even those which are not the fruit of our own sin!). Only God in Christ can do it. While you say you pray that God might act on this person's behalf, there is no might about Jesus or God doing so or acting to free him from his sin.He has already done so in Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. The Church mediates that to us in innumerable ways. But this person must allow that to be true in his own life. Again, as the reading from Friday and today make clear, there is simply NOTHING we can do on our own. We are enslaved by sin Unless and Until we allow grace to work in us. Grace is unmerited always and everywhere. God offers us the grace of the victory already achieved by Christ time after time every day of our lives. We have to admit, with Paul, that the only answer to our enslavement is to accept that forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, etc on God's own terms, that is, without ANY sense that we have merited or earned it.

 The temptation to do something religious (including offering up our sufferings) to earn God's forgiveness is the most pernicious and dangerous temptation people face. I would argue it is far more dangerous than the temptation to sexual sins, etc precisely because we mistakenly believe it is unequivocally good at all times. Paul knew this well. He knew that the Law acted as temptation in peoples' lives and so, he came to see it as a school master --- not to teach us what was good, but to instruct us about our weakness and incapacity to do anything salvific -- or even anything good --- on our own. In fact, Paul actually says that God gave us the Law for this very purpose and even so that our own state of sin might be intensified in such a way as to make us ready to cry out for a redeemer. That redeemer has been given to us. His death, resurrection and ascension have accomplished that redemption. We simply have to receive him and the new life he offers us as Paul himself did --- with cries of both abject helplessness and gratitude. 

Paul teaches emphatically: [[You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.]] While we were entirely powerless, while we were godless sinners estranged from God, from our deepest selves, and from the whole of creation, while, that is, we were wholly incapable of acting in a way which would resolve the situation but instead made things ever worse, God acted out of an unfathomable love to reconcile us to our truest selves, to Godself, others and to creation.  This is the GOOD NEWS from which we live and which we proclaim --- nothing other and nothing less.

I hope this is helpful.

A note on translations. Some versions of last Friday's first lection read "Who will save me from this mortal body?" I prefer, "Who will save me from this body of death?" because it more clearly connotes a self enslaved by the powers of sin and death. "Mortal body" is too easy to hear as simply referring to a material body which is finite and will die. Body of death refers more powerfully to a self in whom death is actively at work, not only in ourselves but in the world around us, a body (self) which makes death present as a sort of awful and active "contagion". In Paul's theology human beings find themselves to be either a whole self under the sway (enslavement) of sin (for which Paul uses the terms, "flesh body", "flesh" or "body of death") or under the sway (enslavement) of grace (for which he uses the term "Spiritual body", etc.).